Whither the British Military in the Post-Brexit World?

Further to this post (we’ll see about those oodles of funding),

BoJo’s Incredible Expanding British Military Budget

Sir Humphrey takes a look at the year ahead for Her Majesty’s (British) Armed Forces at Thin Pinstriped Line–excerpts from his post:

2021 – The Reasons For Optimism. [And the Canadian Armed Forces?]

…The Integrated Review is currently likely to report back at some point in early 2021. This will be the formal unveiling of the long awaited defence and international security review, and will set out the UK’s security policy, the aspiration and ambition of how it will be conducted, and the forces required to deliver this.

Without doubt this will herald a year of change, both positive and negative for large parts of the armed forces. Already it has been strongly hinted that some capabilities will be stood down to provide funding for different approaches…

The wider outcome of the Review is likely to be much more focus on the Integrated Operating Concept that will redefine how Defence feeds into wider national security objectives. Both the Secretary of State and CDS gave speeches on this late last year, but it perhaps has attracted less attention than it should.

This is a shame because at its heart, the IOC is, if properly bedded in and delivered, going to fundamentally reshape how Defence works within Government. The new focus of working to deter some potentially peer threats, across multiple operating spaces, both physical and digital and beyond, and applying different levels of effect at different times is potentially very exciting [emphasis added].

For example, the concept calls for delivery of deterrence by different channels, and applying different pressures. It could see stepping up of cyber pressure, while reducing military effects, but all co-ordinated as part of a wider messaging operation…

… it is perhaps not yet fully clear yet what the role is that a post Brexit Britain can play on the global stage.

There is likely to be a shift throughout 2021 into areas neglected in the past, for instance the Asia Pacific region as the UK attempts to focus on wider engagement. This will almost certainly see a shift in military presence as the armed forces deploy more frequently into the region, and work closely with other nations [emphasis added].

This may make itself felt through the strengthening of alliances with old friends like Australia and New Zealand, or by demonstrating to the US that the UK is prepared to pull its weight in the region too.

But any increase in engagement is going to draw on the same resources as would otherwise likely be targeted at NATO. Here is a key challenge – what matters more, is it sending troops to the Far East on exercises to build up a defence relationship that will take years, possibly decades to mature, or to use them to train to defend against the threat of Russia to the Baltic States? The days of having large resources to do both are gone – and so tough decisions are needed about what matters more.

Is NATO going to need to be the priority to ensure the UK continues to retain a leading role in European security matters, or is focusing a credible commitment to the Asia Pacific a better investment for long term UK interests [emphasis added]?

[If the British military cannot seriously handle both NATO and Asia Pacific, I would assert that it would be absurd to think the much smaller and less capable Canadian Armed Forces could–an earlier post: “Canada and the Indo-Pacific Century: A Military/Naval Role?“]

This is without considering the potential for challenge in the relationship with countries like China, which appears to be pursuing an extremely aggressive campaign of expansionism at present. The likely price of playing a higher more public role in the region will be an expectation by regional partners that the UK helps to counter the Chinese threat.

Is the UK strategic interest best served by deploying forces to the Asia Pacific to counter China, possibly working with the US and others to help deter expansionism, or is UK leadership needed elsewhere – for example the Gulf or Africa? Understanding the length to which the UK wants to pursue a ‘counter-China’ campaign in order to help thicken other relationships is key here…


2021 is going to be a very different year to normal. It is a stepping stone on the return to normal living, but it is going to place real demands on the armed forces that will impact on them and their work.

It has the potential though to be a very exciting year, and one where we can see the genesis for long term structural change begin as a result of the Integrated Review decisions being taken. It will be a year in which the UK tries to change and flex its foreign policy tools and bed in new ways of working operationally and helps to begin to re-engage in a variety of areas.

While predictions are often dangerous, Humphrey will finish with these suggestions about what is likely to emerge by December 2021.

*The Armed Forces will play a vital role in rolling out the COVID vaccine, and be seen as critical to its successful delivery.

*There will be a growing challenge in managing public expectations about the limits of what MACA [Military aid to the civil authorities] can do, and balancing the desire to ‘do MACA’ with the desire to operate the military as normal.

*The armed forces will increasingly be seen on the streets to support the COVID roll out, raising public awareness of the people, but not necessarily their real roles [emphasis added, see the end of this post for my cynical view of the Canadian angle to the topic: “COVID-19 may well be the End of the Canadian Armed Forces as we have Known them…and of our Effective Sovereignty“] .

*There will be at least one unexpected, unplanned and unpredicted crisis which will see UK forces deployed at short notice somewhere in the world.

*The Integrated Review will publish a very positive approach to UK defence and security that will, if fully delivered, fundamentally change for the better how the British Armed Forces are structured and equipped.

*The year will end with plans in place / underway to reduce the size, force structure and equipment levels of all three services to deliver the IR, leading to accusations of defence cuts [emphasis added].

*The Royal Navy will deploy to the Far East, with a large airwing of F35s embarked on HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH, and yet there will still be comment about ‘carriers without planes’…

Related post:

What are the British Military for in the coming World (Dis?)Order? What do They Need to do it? And the Canadian Armed Forces?

And, of course, at some point there may well be the fallout from this:

COVID-19, BoJo’s Brexit…and the Breakup of Britain?

Mark Collins

Twitter: @mark3ds

Theme song down the road?

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