The Government published a Defence Command Paper, Defence in a Competitive Age, on 22 March 2021. It follows the publication of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy: Global Britain in a Competitive Age on 16 March 2021.
The Integrated Review lays out the UK’s vision for the UK for the remainder of the decade, provides a strategic threat assessment and identifies the UK’s foreign policy priorities. The Defence Command Paper focuses on the defence aspect and outlines plans to modernise armed forces.
The Defence Secretary describes the Command Paper as “an honest assessment of what we can do and what we will do.” Defence will be “threat-focused, modernised and financial sustainable.”
He indicates a more pro-active use of the armed forces “no longer held as a force of last resort” but persistently engaged globally. Many of the themes in the foreword reflect those laid out in the Integrated Review.
The Command Paper begins with a discussion of the changing strategic context, echoing the observations made in the Integrated Review. It then moves on to describing the future battlefield. This is defined less by the physical environment and more by the technological advances being made by the UK’s adversaries.
Our approach to warfare has evolved relatively slowly in recent years, while our adversaries have invested in equipment and forces that expose our vulnerabilities.
Discussing the Integrated Operating Concept, first laid out in autumn 2020, the paper discusses how the UK armed forces will be rebalanced to provide a more “pro-active, forward deployed, persistent presence around the world.”
The Defence Attaché network will be expanded and investment in facilities in Cyprus, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, Kenya and Oman. Naval vessels will be forward deployed.
The UK reaffirms its commitment to NATO and Euro-Atlantic security. Other significant bilateral relationships are discussed, including with the US, France and Germany. The tilt to the Indo-Pacific includes a renewed focus on partnerships with Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The paper announces a raft of new reviews and strategies relating to people, including:
- A review of professional accreditation of career courses (within 12 months)
- A comprehensive review of pay and reward (within two years)
- A Digital People Strategy will focus on “putting career management” in the palm of people’s hands through digital applications
- A Defence Accommodation Strategy in 2021
- A revised Families Strategy
£1.5 billion will be spent on improving new single living accommodation and £1.4 billion over the next decade on providing wraparound childcare.
Capability in the future will be less defined by numbers of people and platforms than by information-centric technologies, automation and a culture of innovation and experimentation.
There is much talk of new capabilities, including artificial intelligence and autonomous systems, and a shift to a more agile, lethal and integrated force.
The review commits to more than 48 Lightning aircraft, though does not give exact numbers, and further investment in the Future Combat Air System (Tempest). It recommits to the Type 26 and Type 31 frigates and fleet solid support ships. It mentions a new Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance capability to safeguard critical national infrastructure (undersea cables) and a new Type 83 destroyer, to replace the Type 45 destroyers when they retire in the late 2030s.
Some capabilities are to be retired, including two Type 23 frigates, the current Mine Counter Measure fleets, the warrior infantry fighting vehicles (whose upgrade programme will no longer go ahead), Typhoon tranche 1, Hawk T1, C130 Hercules and E-3D Sentry aircraft, plus the oldest Chinook helicopters. In addition, whilst 148 Challenger tanks will be upgraded to Challenger III, the rest will be retired.
The army is to be reduced to 72,500 personnel, scrapping the previous headline figure of 82,000 set in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. The army is to be restructured, with the Infantry reorganised into four divisions, a new Ranger Regiment and five new Brigade Combat Teams. No redundancies will result in these changes, though 1st Mercian will be merged with 2nd Mercian. Full details of the army’s new structure will be announced “before the summer”.
Further analysis of the Defence Command Paper and the Integrated Review will be available from the House of Commons Library.