Since 2010, UK defence policy and the armed forces have undergone significant change. A massive programme of reform and restructuring has been implemented to allow the MOD to make savings, as well as achieve a leaner and more agile force that meets the UK’s needs by 2020. Much of that reform process is still ongoing amidst constantly changing global challenges.

A smaller military

The armed forces remain on a long-term downward trajectory in terms of raw numbers of personnel.

The Coalition Government initiated a significant reduction in the size of the armed forces, to be completed by 2020. Since then the Army has gone from 102,000 regular soldiers to under 80,000 – below its 2020 target. The full-time trained strength targets for all three services are:

Trained Full-time UK Armed Forces

Trained and Trade Trained

1 March 2017

2020 Target

Army Service



Naval Service



RAF Service






The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review also committed to reduce the civilian headcount by almost 30%, to 41,000 by 2020, and reduce the defence estate by 30% by 2040. Some of the 91 sites across the UK earmarked for disposal will be sold off in the next five years.

UK Total Regular Forces

Recruitment and retention

Recruitment and retention remains a key issue for all three services. The armed forces are in the midst of reforming the terms and conditions of service to be more attractive to potential recruits and help to keep those already serving. New measures include: a new pay model, a new payment system for service accommodation, and support for those wishing to buy their own property. The MOD is also aiming to provide better support to help spouses gain employment, and greater stability for children to reduce the impact of service on family and personal life.

Housing is likely to remain a big issue in the new Parliament. The maintenance of service family accommodation has already come under intense scrutiny; while the Service Families Federations reported “increasing nervousness” about the Future Accommodation Model under development by the MOD.

The 2% defence spending target

The 2015 Comprehensive Spending Review committed to increase defence spending by 0.5% above inflation every year until 2021.

Ministry of Defence planned defence budget

As set at the 2015 Spending Review £ billion






Resource DELa






Capital DEL






Total DEL






a. Resource DEL excludes depreciation. DEL = departmental expenditure limits

Source: MOD, Defence budget increases for the first time in six years, 1 April 2016

In doing so, the UK will meet the NATO target of spending 2% of GDP on defence, until the end of the decade. Will the new Government fulfil its manifesto commitment to spend 2% until the end of the Parliament? And will the 23 members of NATO who don’t meet that target bow to US pressure to come up with clear plans of how they intend to do so?

£178 billion equipment spend over the next decade

£178 billion will be spent on equipment and support over the next ten years, according to the Defence Equipment Plan 2016. Spending is based on the assumption of an ongoing commitment to a 1% above inflation fund for equipment for the entire decade.

The National Audit Office has cautioned: “the affordability of the Equipment Plan is at greater risk than at any time since its inception”.

One of the first major equipment decisions of the new Parliament concerns the Navy’s new fleet of frigates. A National Shipbuilding Strategy is expected to outline the MOD’s build plans for the new Type 26 and the new Type 31, which has yet to be designed.

Defence expenditure as % of GDP UK, NATO - Europe, USA

Military deployments

British Forces are currently involved in more than 30 operations in over 20 countries, protecting the UK and its interests and promoting security in key regions of the world. Significantly:

Operation Shader – the UK’s military contribution to the global coalition response to ISIS/Daesh advances in Iraq and Syria (1,350 personnel).

The RAF is conducting airstrikes in support of local forces on the ground and providing intelligence and surveillance to coalition operations. The UK is the second largest contributor to the air campaign, behind the US. The RAF is conducting operations at a tempo not seen since 1990-1991.

Non-combat personnel are providing training to Iraqi forces, many of whom are now conducting operations in Mosul. The UK is the lead nation for counter-IED (Improvised Explosive Device) training. In October 2016, the UK also resumed training for vetted moderate Syrian opposition groups. The UK has also provided non-lethal military equipment to the Kurdish Peshmerga.

Coalition leaders stressed at the outset of the campaign that it would be one of “patience and persistence, not shock and awe”.

Eastern Europe – NATO has significantly boosted its military deployments and exercises in direct response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The UK is making a significant contribution in 2017:

  • Leading the new multinational battlegroup in Estonia (800 troops)
  • Contributing 150 troops to the US-led battlegroup in Poland
  • Typhoon aircraft in Romania to support policing of NATO’s
    southern airspace
  • Leading the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, with 3,000 personnel on standby to deploy rapidly if required

Afghanistan – The UK has 500 personnel deployed in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s train, advise and assist mission for Afghan security forces, and leads the Afghan National Army Officer Academy in Kabul. Recently the NATO Secretary General called for a re-evaluation of NATO’s commitment to Afghanistan, which is increasingly under threat from a resurgent Taliban.

Parliamentary approval for deploying the Armed Forces

The deployment of the armed forces remains a prerogative power – exercised by the Queen on the advice of her ministers – and Parliament has no legally established role. In 2011, however, the Coalition Government acknowledged the emergence of a convention giving the House of Commons an opportunity to debate the deployment of military forces, prior to deployment, except in the event of an emergency.

The defeat of the Government in a vote on military action in Syria in August 2013 was widely viewed as an assertion of Parliamentary sovereignty on such matters. This was compounded by subsequent votes on military action in Iraq and Syria in September 2014 and December 2015 respectively.

Following the US military response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Government against its own civilians, a parliamentary vote extending UK military operations in Syria, beyond their current remit, is possible early in the new Parliament.

Concerns remain that the convention continues to lack clarity and is open to interpretation and exploitation, so calls for the convention to be backed by legislation may also resurface. The 2015 Government had committed to legislate on this issue, but that commitment was dropped in 2016 because of concerns over freedom of action for the Government, and over giving the courts the power to rule on the lawfulness of a deployment decision.

The debate over defining ‘combat’ may re-emerge if the new Government pushes ahead with previous proposals to enshrine the principle of combat immunity in law.

Trident: Replacing the UK’s nuclear deterrent

In July 2016, the House of Commons approved the decision to maintain the UK’s nuclear deterrent beyond the early 2030s. Having already been in place for almost a decade, the 2016 vote enabled the programme to move into its manufacturing phase, which will see the construction of four new Dreadnought class ballistic missile submarines over the next 10-15 years. The first submarine will enter service in the early 2030s.

The programme will be intensely scrutinised, not least because at £31 billion (with a £10 billion contingency) it will be one of the most expensive in the MOD’s equipment plan. A new body focused solely on delivering the programme is currently being set up.

As the programme moves forward the prime contractor, BAE Systems, has estimated that 85% of its supply chain will be based in the UK, potentially involving around 850 British companies. The programme as a whole is expected to support up to 6,000 jobs. Questions have already been raised, however, over the use of foreign steel in the construction of the Dreadnought class and whether more can be done to promote the British steel industry within MOD programmes.

The decision to replace the UK’s nuclear deterrent has drawn intense criticism from disarmament advocates who argue that it contravenes the UK’s obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Successive governments have denied this, but these arguments are likely to return to the fore as a decision on replacing the UK’s nuclear warhead is currently earmarked for 2019-2020.

A new Strategic Defence and Security Review?

The 2010 SDSR committed to a full defence and security review at least every five years, so the 2015 SDSR provided a five-year outlook, based on a 2020 General Election.

However, that five-year cycle is not set in stone and the new Government may decide the General Election provides grounds for a new or refreshed review. Alternatively, it may argue that sticking to the 2020 timetable would enable the Government to set out its approach to national security post-Brexit.

This article is part of Key Issues 2017 – a series of briefings on the topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament.

Image: RAF Helicopters Leaving for a Mission in Afghanistan by Defence Images. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)