MS&T Europe Editor Dim Jones dissects the UK’s Defence Strategy and the likely effects of the impending (?) divorce from the European Union.

On 23 June 2016, the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. On 29 March 2017, the UK Government triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which provides for the unilateral withdrawal of a member state; this was due to take effect on 29 March 2019, and now extended to 12 April, at which point – under current plans – the UK will cease to be a member of the EU.

The UK’s Defence & Security Policy, most recently articulated in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) of 2015, has three National Security Objectives:

1. Protect Our People - at home, in our Overseas Territories and abroad, and protect our territory, economic security, infrastructure and way of life.

2. Project our Global Influence – by reducing the likelihood of threats materialising and affecting the UK, our interests, and those of our allies and partners.

3. Promote our Prosperity – by seizing opportunities, working innovatively and supporting UK industry.

In a military context, the government intends to achieve these objectives by the continuation of the strategic nuclear deterrent, and the establishment and maintenance of effective conventional armed forces. The nuclear deterrent is currently invested in the Trident ballistic missile submarine fleet; the ageing Vanguard submarines are due to leave service in the early 2030s, to be replaced by four successor boats, thus maintaining the Continuous At-Sea Deterrent patrol. Conventional forces are divided into five elements: Joint Forces Command, Special Forces, the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force.

Future Force Structure

The future Royal Navy will centre on the two new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, the first of which, HMS Queen Elizabeth, entered service in 2018, and is due to be fully operational in 2023. The second, HMS Prince of Wales, is still in build, and is expected to enter service in 2020. The carriers will be supported by Type 45 Destroyers, Type 23 frigates, Astute Class attack submarines and Mine Countermeasures vessels. The Type 23s will be replaced by the Type 26 Global Combat Ships and the Type 31 light general-purpose frigate. 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines, will provide specialist amphibious and arctic warfare capabilities, and it appears that the future of the RN’s two amphibious assault ships, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, which underpin these capabilities, is secure – for the time being. The QE Class carriers will be fitted to support fixed wing, rotary wing and amphibious operations. The Fleet Air Arm will be equipped with Merlin and Wildcat helicopters, and the RM with Wildcat, and will jointly man the F35B Lightning II fleet.

The core of the Army will be a war-fighting division, capable of conducting high-intensity operations and comprising: two Armoured Infantry Brigades and two Strike Brigades, plus 16 Air Assault Brigade; ‘two innovative brigades comprising a mix of Regulars and specialist capabilities from the Reserves able to contribute to our strategic communications, tackle hybrid warfare and deliver better battlefield intelligence’; and ‘a number of infantry battalions, reconfigured to provide an increased contribution to countering terrorism and building stability overseas’. It is planned that the life of the Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank (MBT) will be extended, and the Ajax family of armoured vehicles will come into service in new roles, and as a replacement for the Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) (CVR(T)). The Warrior Armoured Infantry Fighting Vehicle (AIFV) is being significantly upgraded as part of a Capability Sustainment Programme. Infantry and armour will be supported by artillery, logistics and ISTAR. The Army Air Corps will be equipped with a mix of Wildcat and Apache. Under the terms of SDSR2010, units of the UK Army hitherto based in Germany would return to the UK by 2020.

With the retirement of the Tornado GR4, the offensive and defensive capability of the Royal Air Force will centre on the Typhoon and F35 Lightning II, both of these multi-role capable. There will be a new long-range Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), and helicopter support to the Army will be provided by Chinook and Puma. ISTAR capability will be vested in the E3D Sentry, Rivet Joint, Shadow and, for the time being anyway, Sentinel. Reaper UAVs, to be replaced by Protector, will deliver both ISTAR and offensive air support capabilities. Strategic and tactical airlift and air refuelling will be provided by C17, Voyager, A400M Atlas and C130J Hercules.

Future Training Requirements

So much for the structure, equipment and roles of the UK Armed Forces envisioned by SDSR2015 and its ‘Joint Force 2025’. What will be its future training requirements, and how will they be affected by Brexit? Although Joint Force 2015 is intended to give the UK the capability to operate independently and the QE Class carriers are specifically designed to deliver ‘Carrier-Enabled Power Projection’ (CEPP), there is grave doubt that autonomous operations would be feasible, except in the most limited circumstances; in particular, the inability to conduct a future ‘Falklands’ intervention is oft-quoted. The core of UK defence policy, therefore, remains Alliance and Coalition operations, most specifically NATO, and the principal threat, even more now than when SDSR 2015 was drafted, is a resurgent and increasingly provocative and aggressive Russia. That being the case, the principal theatre of interest remains Europe, although recent events in the Black Sea and Syria demonstrate that this is not exclusively the case.

There are 29 nations in NATO and 28 (shortly to be 27) in the EU. Of the 29, only seven are not members of both organisations, and two of those – the USA and Canada – are not in Europe. The remaining five include Norway and Iceland, both of whom are members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the Schengen Area, and Turkey, whose ongoing endeavours to attain EU membership are well-documented. Of the six EU members not in NATO, four – Austria, Ireland, Finland and Sweden – are officially neutral, and the other two – Malta and Cyprus – not in mainland Europe. The structure and aims of NATO, both political and military, are well known; less clear are the ambitions of the EU. The Common Security and Defence Policy (CDSP) was founded in 1999, and provides for ‘the deployment of military or civilian missions for peace-keeping, conflict prevention and strengthening international security. Military missions are carried out by EU forces, established with contributions from the member states' armed forces.’ There have notionally been four ‘multi-national battlegroups’ since 2007, but these have never been deployed due to ‘political differences’. It has long been clear that those elements of the EU campaigning for increased federalisation – a ‘United States of Europe’ – see foreign policy alignment, in addition to fiscal and monetary union, as enabling objectives. Since defence is an instrument of foreign policy, it follows that some sort of an EU defence force would also be on the wish-list. Unsurprisingly, one of its more vocal proponents has been the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, who believes that the EU should now have a Defence and Security Commissioner.

The UK has always steered clear of direct involvement in these plans, believing that an EU Defence Force would undermine NATO, and this would appear to be supported by the Global Strategy paper authored by Mogherini’s department, which opines that the EU cannot rely on NATO to protect its member states from external threats, and must develop a policy of collective defence that allows it to “act autonomously if and when necessary”.

In November 2017, 23 nations signed up to a defence pact, which provides for cooperation on a number of defence projects; it is unclear whether the UK would be able to participate in these after Brexit. In June 2018, nine nations – led by France – agreed to formalise an EU defence force plan, under the title ‘European Intervention Initiative (EII)’. Earlier, the UK – one of the few European nations capable of providing a suitable headquarters – had withdrawn its offer to lead an EU ‘battlegroup’, while supporting the EII in principle, and reiterating that the UK’s commitment to European security is ‘unconditional’. The framework of the EII apparently allows for participation by non-EU nations, so the UK could theoretically join at some future date. However, warnings have recently been sounded by senior military and security services figures about the potential for the UK to become tied into future EU initiatives as part of the Brexit process, the consequent threat to the autonomy of UK Armed Forces, and the potential compromise of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance; predictably, the Security Minister has said that it will all be all right. The UK will no longer be a full member of the European Defence Agency (EDA) post-Brexit, but the precise future relationship is as yet unclear.

HMS Montrose

The Brexit Effect on Forces

The effect which Brexit might have on future UK military training can probably be split into three broad areas: the ability of Joint Force 2025 to train in and around the UK; the accessibility of overseas training areas for terrain and/or climate-specific training; and the opportunities to participate in alliance, coalition and multinational exercises. Training in and around the UK can, itself, be subdivided into basing and local area training provision, and collective training facilities. It should also be noted that the force levels we are now dealing with are a fraction of what they were in the Cold War era. In 1989, the RN had a uniformed strength of 65,500, the Army 152,800 and the RAF 93,300. Today’s planned strengths are 30,000, 82,000 (plus 27,000 reservists), and 33,000 respectively, although all three services are significantly under strength, particularly in key areas, trades and specialisations.

Alongside this progressive and prodigious drawdown in manpower, all three services have undergone concomitant major reductions in equipment. In 1982, the RN had 12 destroyers and 38 frigates from which to support the Falklands task force. There are now six destroyers and 13 frigates; furthermore, the MoD reports that, due to manpower shortages, four of the frigates did not spend a single day at sea during 2018 and, at the end of 2017, all six Type 45s were tied up in Portsmouth, due to a combination of technical faults, manpower shortages and routine maintenance.

The UK is just introducing the F35 Lightning II to service. When I joined the previous Lightning force at the height of the Cold War in 1970, the RAF had nine operational Lightning squadrons, plus an OCU comprising two large squadrons. This was in addition to the last Javelin squadron, plus Hunters, Phantoms, Buccaneers and Harriers, to say nothing of Canberras and Vulcans. When the Tornado GR4 retires, we will have nine fast-jet squadrons total (seven Typhoon and two F35) plus an OCU squadron for each type; moreover, the F35 force will be jointly manned by the RAF and the RN.

Notwithstanding the progressive repatriation over the years of Army and RAF units from Cyprus, Malta, Gibraltar, the Middle and Far East and Germany, and the planned redeployment of the last Army units from Germany by 2020, there will be far less equipment and fewer personnel in UK than there were at the end of the Cold War. Since that time, there has been a progressive ‘rationalisation’ of the defence estate in the UK, involving major expansion of main garrisons, but also the closure of many bases, and the reallocation of several ex-RAF stations to Army units returning from overseas. RAF Scampton and RAF Linton-on-Ouse, the closures of which were recently announced under the MoD’s ‘Better Defence Estate Strategy’, are apparently to be sold off as surplus to requirements. Therefore, if we are not left with sufficient domestic and technical accommodation for Joint Force 2025 (plus, dare I say, the capacity for some modest expansion) we have got it seriously wrong.

The Brexit Effect on Training Facilities

Collective live training facilities may present a bit more of a problem for two of our services. The Royal Navy has long been concentrated around the main bases of Portsmouth, Devonport and Clyde, and the only potential threat to that situation comes from the possibility of another Scottish Independence referendum, not Brexit. The training areas around our coasts should certainly be sufficient for the numbers of ships we now have, the principal limitation perhaps being the increased distances required for employment of advanced weapons systems. A similar problem affects the RAF; modern tactics and weapons require more training airspace, and, with the ever-increasing demands of civil air traffic, airspace is at a premium. For this reason, and for security and environmental considerations, much advanced airwork will, in future, be conducted in simulators.

Due to developments in stand-off weapons and self-defence capability, the need for overland low flying areas is much reduced from Cold War days; moreover, the UK low-flying system is superior to that in other European countries. The Army, according to the Defence Training Estate website, has the use of 16 ‘major’ training areas in UK, and 104 ‘minor’ ones. However, of the 16, only seven are of the order of 10,000 hectares or greater, and only Salisbury Plain, at 38,000 hectares, is large enough to accommodate live exercises at brigade level.

The withdrawal from Germany would seem to have forfeited the routine use of Bergen-Hohne (28,400 hectares) and Sennelager (11,600 hectares). However, notwithstanding the provisions of SDSR 2010, Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Defence, announced in September 2018 that the UK “would not be closing facilities in Germany, but instead using them to forward-base the Army”, and that “around 185 British Army personnel and 60 Ministry of Defence (MOD) civilians would remain in the country at the Sennelager Training Area”.

The UK also has access to overseas training facilities in Belize, Brunei, Kenya and Canada. CFB Suffield, in Alberta, at 270,000 hectares, is the largest training area in the Commonwealth, and includes the permanent British Army Training Unit, Suffield (BATUS).

Meanwhile, the blue-water Navy has the run of the world’s oceans and, once the QEC carriers are fully operational, this should solve some airspace problems for the F35 fleet.

The RAF has overseas units at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, RAF Gibraltar, Ascension Island, Mount Pleasant in the Falkland Islands, and CFB Goose Bay in Labrador, and access to the associated training airspace. Furthermore, Gavin Williamson announced in December 2018 that the UK could enhance its credentials as a “global player” by opening new military bases in the Caribbean and Far East after Brexit; Singapore, Brunei, Montserrat and Guyana have been suggested as possibilities.

HH60G at RAF Lakenheath, Exercise Joint Warrior

The Brexit Effect on Collective Training

The most valuable collective training, however, is associated with large bilateral, multinational and alliance exercises, such as the Flag series of air exercises, centred on Nellis AFB, Nevada, and the Joint Warrior bi-annual series of naval exercises, which also involve the Royal Marines. 3 Commando Brigade has also resumed cold-weather warfare training in North Norway, and Exercise Saif Sareea (Swift Sword) 3, a bilateral UK-Omani exercise involving Joint Forces Command and all three UK services, took place last autumn. Nor are EU exercises necessary off-limits after Brexit; for instance, Norway, not in the EU, is a member of the EDA’s Helicopter Exercise programme. Lastly, and while in no way classified as training, valuable experience is to be gained on operations such as Op SHADER (Syria/Iraq), air policing in the Baltic and Eastern Europe, Army peace-keeping and support operations in Africa, and the recently terminated anti-piracy operations on the Horn of Africa.

In sum, the opportunities and facilities for the training of British Armed Forces after Brexit, both in the UK and overseas, should prove more than adequate for our now-depleted forces. The cost of major overseas exercises is high, but should be offset by the drawdown in operations in Afghanistan. I believe that the cornerstone of our policy will, and should, be NATO. EU military ambitions are not underpinned by commitment to expenditure on effective armed forces; paradoxically, it is this very lack of commitment which also threatens NATO through an increasing, and understandable, reluctance in the USA to continue bankrolling the defence of Europe while its constituent governments fail to pull their weight.

There is no reason why UK-EU defence co-operation should not continue after Brexit – it will largely depend on how much mutual goodwill remains. However, for the EU to spurn the contribution of arguably the most effective armed forces in Europe (and certainly one of the top two) would be a considerable act of self-harm – but sadly, recent evidence suggests, not one of which it is incapable. Watch this space.