The Year Ahead For Defence And The Armed Forces

As we enter 2020, it is a good opportunity to take stock on what may happen in the next 12 months for the British Armed Forces and where they may be called to deploy to. Will this be a quiet year globally, or does it, like so many previous years have the potential for a range of unplanned operations and deployments? Surveying the global scene, it is clear that there are three key trends in international affairs which will directly impact the UK.

US Decline

The first is the increasing decline of the United States as a credible and reliable international partner in NATO and beyond.

The second is the rise of a resurgent Russia and the challenges this poses to European security.

The final is the rise of China as a global power, able to influence events both in its own region and increasingly far beyond. All of this has the potential to impact on UK security interests, but the specific manner in which it could is perhaps less clear at the moment.

In Europe, NATO has managed to survive its 70th anniversary and remains focused on trying to define itself again as an alliance to deter against external aggression.

The UK is likely to continue to play a central role in persuading nations to burden share and fund more on defence to ensure the security of the continent.

In practical terms, this will probably mean the continued deployment of British troops, both on a permanent and rotational basis into Eastern Europe to protect the Baltic States against Russian aggression. It is likely that European security will be of increasing interest to the UK and allies, trying to strike the right balance of engagement, commitment and presence to both reassure and deter. This commitment is an increasingly important symbol of NATOs’ determination to protect its members, but Russia is not going to be above testing and putting pressure on the alliance to cause disruption.

Russian Tensions

Expect to see increased Russian efforts to try and increase tensions, and also conducting of extensive information campaigns to try and shape public opinion. Russia is increasingly paranoid about NATO intent and will take any opportunity that it can to try and prevent the Alliance from posing a threat. The year will almost certainly see a combination of Russian threats, in the form of large-scale mobilisation exercises to test their own forces and measure NATO responses, coupled with statements from senior officials and military officers about the threat posed by NATO itself.

This will be designed to try and cause cracks in the cohesion of the alliance and prevent it from being a credible deterrent.

There is likely to be some form of Russian military deployment that sees the UK forced to respond with a military countermeasure.

It is all but certain that Russian Air Force flights will continue to probe NATO airspace, forcing the RAF to scramble its Typhoon interceptors to meet and escort unwelcome guests.

Similarly, the Russian Navy is likely to continue to sail through UK waters, forcing the deployment of a Royal Navy escort, as seen over Christmas when HMS Tyne had to spend the day at sea in the Channel with a Russian warship. It is also notable that one of the Royal Navy’s specialist anti-submarine warfare frigates, HMS Westminster, was deployed to Scotland and was at sea over some of the Christmas period, well away from her usual home in Plymouth.

This points to some potentially unwelcome submarine visitors over the Christmas period.

The Russian Navy is likely to continue to face significant operational challenges in its efforts to get an increasingly elderly fleet to remain seaworthy.

The veteran aircraft carrier ‘Admiral Kuznetzov’, already undergoing emergency repairs following an incident in dry dock, has now been internally gutted by fire and it looks increasingly unlikely that she will ever sail again. The remaining major surface ships of the fleet are mostly Cold War construction, while the submarine force, although introducing some new vessels, is also reliant still on Cold War designs like the Akula class. While on paper the Russian forces look potent, 2020 and the decade beyond is likely to prove the point when the force passes the point of block obsolescence, with the Russian Navy ceasing to be a credible blue water force.

Withdraw

In the USA, the 2020 election may see promises and commitments made to withdraw troops from deployments, or even potentially withdraw from alliances like NATO. It is perhaps a damning indictment on the decline of American credibility on the global stage, that at present it is possible to see the US withdrawing from NATO and other commitments like deployments to Korea or the Middle East over the next year or two. For the UK, the challenge for the next 12 months will be to continue to present itself as a credible partner to the US, but also try to make the compelling case for continued US leadership and engagement globally.

The risk is that if America withdraws from the world stage, focusing too much on a ‘fortress America’ mentality, then this leaves a void that would be willingly filled by countries like China.

The year 2020 and the years beyond are likely to be a period when China rises to the top of the world stage and increasingly replaces America as the globally dominant power.

The combination of a powerful domestic economy that powers the global one, coupled with a more assertive foreign and security presence abroad – for instance using both soft power like the ‘Belt & Road Initiative’ coupled with the rise in military capability in the form of advanced military equipment like aircraft carriers, hypersonic missiles and aircraft means China will be a credible competitor to challenge American dominance. This rise in power poses challenges for the UK which will need to work out how best to engage with, and influence, Chinese thinking.

Challenging Balance

This will require deft diplomatic skills and an ability to bring together all the instruments of power including economic, political and military force to work with allies to both tackle the malign elements of Chinese power, while also seizing the economic opportunities that could be on offer. This will be a challenging balance to strike.

In terms of practical challenges facing the British Armed forces in 2020, it is likely to be very much a case of ‘business as usual’. At home, the military will play a key role in a variety of tasks from preparing for counter-terrorist work through to state ceremonial duties and keeping the military in the public eye. At sea, the Royal Navy will continue to deliver the nuclear deterrent mission, as it has now done for more than 50 years, ably supported by the other two services.

In Europe, the UK will continue to play a leading role in NATO operations, although Brexit and the withdrawal from the EU will potentially cause challenges as remaining EU nations work out how to strike a balance between European security initiatives and supporting NATO itself. It’s likely that the UK will continue to try and play a key part in European defence though, recognising that as the most capable European military power, it has significant opportunity to influence and shape events on the continent.

European Presence

Expect to see the continued presence of troops in Eastern Europe, RAF deployments and Royal Navy vessels committed to operations in both the Black Sea and the Baltic as part of this work. The UK will also likely continue to support operations in Africa where there has been significant growth in the number of training teams and advisory forces deployed to help everything from training counter-poaching teams through to peacekeeping operations and the deployment of RAF Chinooks in Mali to support French efforts there.

There is likely to be a ramping up of this presence as the UK deploys a battlegroup into Mali later in 2020 to help contribute to operations in the Sahel. This could potentially be a significant operational commitment for the British Army and reflects a real deepening of UK commitments to the continent.

In the Middle East, the Royal Navy is likely to continue playing a key role in protecting British shipping.

Following the events of the summer, when Iran seized a UK flagged merchant ship, there has been an increased number of RN ships in the region, helping reassure ship owners and helping to maintain security. This increased presence, which has seen two escorts operating in the region (currently HMS Montrose and HMS Defender), supported by wider MCMV vessels, will be a major effort for the RN in 2020. Wider UK military operations in the region are likely to continue, with Cyprus hosting aircraft involved in Op Shader, which will be entering its 6th year.

Significant

This significant commitment has involved a variety of land and air forces to take the fight to Daesh in Iraq and parts of Syria. This is likely to be the main overseas commitment for the RAF fast jet force, with the Typhoon fleet and others working hard to help deliver security through airpower. Meanwhile, the British Army is likely to continue to have troops embedded in Iraq helping provide training to the Iraqi Security Forces to help improve the overall security situation.

In the West Indies, the RFA Mounts Bay will return home after three years in the region, to be replaced probably by a River class OPV. This deployment has been particularly successful in enabling all three services to provide life-saving assistance in the aftermath of natural disasters in the region. While the River class vessel is likely to be a useful asset for many maritime constabulary roles, it remains to be seen whether it can effectively fill the humanitarian aid role in an emergency. Hopefully, this will not be found wanting if the ship is called upon to help. The River class more widely are becoming increasingly hard-worked ships, with HMS Forth now on her way to the Falkland Islands as the new guard ship, replacing HMS Clyde which has now been decommissioned.

While in recent years the Falklands has become something of a quiet backwater, the election of a new Government in Argentina may see the significant progress made in recent years put under pressure.

The hope must be that there will not be a return to the previously tense relationship of much of the last 10 years.

However, the presence of a substantial tri-service garrison continues to act as a credible deterrent against any potential foolish activity. It is to be hoped that the year passes peacefully in the Falkland Islands.

Shift of Interest

More widely the Royal Navy has now confirmed that it is looking to deploy two River class OPVs out to the Far East, probably using the existing UK facilities in Singapore as a permanent naval base. This will represent the first time that the UK has based warships in the Asia Pacific region since 1997 when the Hong Kong squadron was disbanded. This represents a wider shift of interest by the UK into the Asia Pacific region which has seen a significantly increased military presence in recent years, including multiple ship visits and more participation in events like the Five Power Defence Agreement (FPDA) exercises.

The year is likely to see continued UK presence in the region through both the Gurkha garrison in Brunei and the presence of HMS Enterprise, currently on duties in the vicinity of Korea and Japan. From an equipment perspective, 2020 will see the Royal Navy focused on the final phases of regenerating the Carrier Strike capability, with both HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales at sea, helping to test the ability to deploy F35 jets from the RN, RAF and also with US Marine Corps onboard. This comes ahead of the first planned major deployment in 2021, probably out to the Asia Pacific region.

The British Army will focus on continuing to renew its equipment with progress being made on Ajax vehicles and the Warrior upgrade programme, while new AH64 Apaches are also under construction. The RAF will bring in the P8 Poseidon aircraft, helping regenerate the maritime patrol aircraft capability lost in the 2010 defence review. Additional F35 aircraft are likely to enter service too, whilst the Tempest programme continues onwards to provide an eventual replacement for both Typhoon and the F35.

Progress

All of this good progress though on new equipment is likely to be focused on what will be the main event for the Armed Forces this year, namely the holding of a major Strategic Defence Review. The Government has made clear it intends to conduct a deep review of the UK’s national security priorities and the structures of the armed forces to ensure they remain fit for purpose.

The review will take a ‘whole of government’ approach, helping consider how the many different levers of influence available such as aid, diplomatic presence, the intelligence community and other assets can also help meet security goals.

For the Armed Forces, the challenges are likely to be significant.

They will need to confirm their worth to the review, showing why force structures need to be maintained as they are and if needs be enhanced, to acquire more equipment. But at the same time, there is roughly a £15 billion shortfall in the equipment programme that needs to be resolved – this can only be done by making substantial cuts to equipment. Already stories have been leaked to the media about the plethora of options that may be under consideration including merging units like the Parachute Regiment and Royal Marines or even selling off one of the new aircraft carriers.

While it is still very early in the process, it is likely that the Armed Forces will need to contemplate making some very painful cuts to their force structures and headcount to meet the difficult financial challenges they face. At the same time, there needs to be a deep look taken at what the priorities are – whether the military still has the right balance of equipment and capability, or if new areas need to take priority – for example, is it time to invest more heavily in Space and Cyber warfare, and if so, what needs to be scrapped to pay for it?

Fixing Things

It is likely that there will be a focus more on resilience, aimed at building up munition stockpiles and spares over acquiring new high-profile kit, but whether there is going to be enough cash for all of the forces is not clear. It is known that the Secretary of State for Defence has made clear to all three services that new money cannot be requested until more work is done to put their own houses in order. Each Service has reportedly been set a task to show it is serious about fixing things, with the Navy asked to get more ships to sea, the Army asked to fix recruitment and the RAF required to increase the speed at which pilots are getting to the front line.

For the three Armed Services,  2020 is likely to be extremely challenging, with a variety of busy operational commitments needing to be met, while being done against the backdrop of a potentially extremely wide-ranging and radical defence review that could completely reshape how the military is structured and organised.

Busy Year

However you choose to look at it though, 2020 is likely to be a very busy year, and the only two certainties about the year ahead is that, firstly, it will inevitably be busy, involving operational commitments on every continent, and that the people involved will be required to work extremely hard. The second certainty is that there will be at least one deployment or commitment emerge that has not been foreseen anywhere and which will come as a complete surprise.

Despite this, the Armed Forces will be able to meet it and ensure operational success, regardless of the task at hand, as they always do. More from forces.net

* All images MOD / Crown Copyright.