Big Question: what should our armed forces do?

Spending on defence is only one part of the issue

March 13, 2015
An RAF Chinook helicopter flies over London during a commemoration service for the Afghanistan conflict. ©  Carl Court/AP/Press Association Images
An RAF Chinook helicopter flies over London during a commemoration service for the Afghanistan conflict. © Carl Court/AP/Press Association Images
A debate has opened up in recent weeks about the amount Britain's government should spend on defence—Conservative MPs and members of the British and American armed forces have queued up to demand that David Cameron commit to keep Britain's military budget at 2 per cent of GDP, in line with Nato targets. Cameron has so far neither committed to the demands nor ruled them out. Others think Britain ought to spend less, freeing up valuable resources in a time of austerity. 

Look out for an in-depth "duel" on this topic in the next issue of Prospect.

But at the heart of this debate is another issue: we need to work out exactly what we want our armed forces to do. As the nature of warfare changes, with sabre-rattling from Russia and a plethora of new digital threats emerging, any conversation about spending on our armed forces needs to be informed by a clear sense of what their role, design and priorities are to be in years to come. 

Nurture mavericks

Deborah Haynes, Defence Editor of the Times

The first role of the armed forces is to deter any adversary from attacking Britain. They must also be suitably large and equipped to counter any challenge to British sovereignty.

But modern warfare has moved way beyond national boundaries. As a major power in Nato, Britain has a responsibility to maintain sufficient armed forces—including the nuclear deterrent—to keep alliance territory safe. Britain's position on the UN Security Council also comes with a responsibility to have the military credibility to be able to resort to force as the ultimate sanction.

It is no longer just about the number of divisions, brigades, warships and fighter jets, though credible mass, of course, still matters.

Britain's armed forces also need to be able to respond to the chaos of jihadist groups like Islamic State and exploit the irregular warfare techniques deployed by President Putin. The military needs to nurture the ability to be maverick while also retaining the ability to deploy conventional power.

Tech up

Paul Beaves, Senior Consultant at Chemring Technology Solutions

We want armed forces that have the resources to succeed. They will go abroad to do what we need them to do, and they will require a very capable real world presence. Our forces are already small—it is unlikely that they will ever get bigger unless we face a territorial threat.

To make up for lack of size they already rely on technology. That reliance will increase as technology continues to proliferate and their technological edge is eroded. We will also remain casualty averse, as we won’t be fighting for national survival. So when we deploy a force, it will be small, and high tech: it will be a partnership between humans, unmanned systems and autonomous automatic systems. Humans will pull the trigger—it can be no other way—but they will be assisted, protected, and given extra numbers by machines and machine code.

Tackle corruption

Katherine Dixon, Programme Director of the Transparency International UK Defence & Security Programme

The British Armed Forces and Ministry of Defence (MoD) are being called upon to operate in increasingly complex political and security environments, where understanding corruption is vital. Conflict erupts where there is systemic corruption—in Ukraine, Iraq, and Nigeria. Corruption not only hollows out militaries' ability to respond to threats, but in many cases it is a driving force behind the growth of instability and terrorism. It poses a potentially fatal threat to international missions, for example, in Afghanistan.

So corruption must be at the heart of the MoD's strategic planning. The MoD and Armed Forces should strengthen anti-corruption doctrine and guidance so defence personnel understand the problem, and know how to address and monitor it. They should build on existing mechanisms for whistleblowing and encourage and protect those who come forward.

The government also need to apply anti-corruption provisions in arms export controls, and draw a harder line on anti-corruption mechanisms and transparency in deals they negotiate with other governments. When deals are conducted without transparency, it sends the wrong message about the UK's commitment to tackling this global problem, and hurts the public's trust in the integrity of their government and armed forces.

Size doesn't matter

Malcolm Chalmers, Research Director at RUSI, the defence think tank

The UK needs armed forces that have learned from the failures of the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, that work closely with our Nato allies, and can respond to unforeseen challenges.

It is irrelevant whether our Army has more people than it had in 1900 or 1650—today's forces will not go to war with muskets. What matters is that our military has the capability (with allies) to help deter aggression and stabilise weak and conflict-ridden states. This means continuing to invest in new capabilities that take advantage of technological advances, even if this requires us to challenge the vested interests associated with current ways of doing things—for example, greatly enhanced cyber and intelligence capabilities, which are key to maintaining the technological edge that the West has had since the 1980s.