UK Defence Analysis: Reduced capabilities amid growing threats

By Dan Zamansky & Hugh Pickering-Carter:

 An RAF Typhoon FGR4 refuels from a Voyager tanker aircraft. Photo: MoD, Cpl Neil Bryden RAF.
An RAF Typhoon FGR4 refuels from a Voyager tanker aircraft. Photo: MoD, Cpl Neil Bryden RAF.

This article summarises the changes in British military capabilities compared with their state in 1985, whilst also discussing their relevance to the current security context; focusing upon the threat of terrorism, Iran’s nuclear weapons programme and Russia’s military involvement in the Ukraine. The article makes two main arguments: first, British military capabilities have declined, in some cases very seriously; second, the world is in practice more dangerous now than it was in 1985, with the threat now confronting Britain much greater than it was thirty years ago. It is suggested that an urgent improvement in military capabilities is therefore required.

The 2015 Military Balance identified various capabilities as being in high demand: “strategic transport aircraft and fast-jet fleets, as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms”[1]. Given that these components of air power have been the first resort of the Government in numerous military operations, they are likely to remain a vital element of British force projection in the future. The relevant figures for these categories are summarised in the table below:

1985 2015
Transports 20 (converted airliners) 19 (10 converted airliners and 9 dedicated heavy-lift)[2]
Fast Jets 485 203 [3]
ISR Aircraft 30 (6 dedicated and 24 pod-equipped) 30 (12 dedicated ISR aircraft, 8 pod-equipped and 10 Reaper UAVs) [4]

Clearly, the RAF’s strategic transport fleet has increased compared with 1985, largely due to the adoption of heavy transport aircraft, especially the C-17. Nevertheless, airframe numbers remain constant, even as the need to transport forces long-distance has increased dramatically, both for ongoing operations in the Middle East and the deployment of British troops to Eastern Europe with NATO’s High Readiness Joint Task Force.

Furthermore, fast jets have fallen by more than half. This comes at a time when RAF aircraft are continually involved in operations abroad, unlike 1985. In ISR assets, which have been the focus of procurement since the beginning of the war on terrorism in 2001, the RAF is somewhat better served. Nevertheless, there remains a significant capability gap, since the three electronic intelligence Nimrods are being replaced only gradually, with just one Rivet Joint aircraft available at present. The pressure on this particular capability is demonstrated by the fact that the second airframe will be deployed operationally immediately following delivery. The overall picture for air capability is that of a limited improvement in the fields of transport and ISR, which has not kept pace with increased commitments, and a very sharp decline in strike capability. 

2015: An uncertain strategic environment

The deficiencies in capabilities are particularly significant in the context of a highly uncertain strategic environment, much changed from 1985. In that year, the Armed Forces had some 9,000 men deployed in Northern Ireland, supported by 6,500 men of the Ulster Defence Regiment.[5] This was the only deployment which involved an ongoing risk of casualties from hostile action, taking place at a time when the bulk of Britain’s forward-deployed military force was concentrated in Germany as part of NATO’s Cold War organisation.

The fall of the Berlin Wall witnessed the force number deployed in Germany reduce from 70,000 to just 12,300.[6] The 38-year Operation ‘Banner’ in Northern Ireland finally came to an end in July 2007, another way in which the old certainties are dissipating. The current operational deployments are much smaller, but take place in much more uncertain circumstances; 300 personnel remain in Afghanistan, where British forces have suffered 453 fatalities since 2001[7]. The casualty rates of the Afghan security services and civilian population rose to record levels in the year of 2014, signalling increased danger to British advisory forces.

The other active combat deployment, the Operation ‘Shader’ air campaign over Iraq, brings a different element of risk. The murder of Jordanian pilot Lt Moaz al-Kasasbeh by Islamic State (IS) shows that any loss of aircraft over terrorist-controlled territory could have serious political consequences, through its effect upon public perceptions and consequent demands for military retaliation.

Recently, the intensity of numerous conflicts has increased, which makes for a substantially more dangerous world. Since 2008, the number of conflict fatalities has increased from 56,000 to 180,000 annually[8]. War has also come geographically closer to Britain, with some 5,000 fatalities in the Eastern Ukraine conflict by the end of 2014[9]. The Ukrainian war poses a particular danger of a rapid increase in its scale and intensity, since the casualties in that conflict were increasing until the recent cease-fire, which is being repeatedly violated by Russian forces.[10] Increasing levels of Russian military posturing, as demonstrated by recent long-range air patrol activity, similarly indicates hostilities may spread to new areas such as the Baltic States, further increasing the danger posed to Britain.

The terrorist threat 

Moreover, terrorism as an enduring phenomenon has also risen on the security agenda since the 9/11 attacks and has become a major threat to the West. The UK has since experienced similar attacks in the form of the 7/7 London bombings (2005) and the recent shooting in Sousse, Tunisia. The growing threat of IS has brought with it numerous challenges for security officials, including the coordination of a timely and effective response to an attack; the identification of an appropriate level of proportionality in any given response; and the issue of fighting an enemy that does not respect borders. The International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) states ‘The actual and potential threat to international security posed by ISIS triggered a degree of military engagement and political alignment by regional and international states that had not been seen for some time’.[11] Nevertheless, this has not yet led to decisive success in tackling terrorism.

Decision-makers remain divided on the subject of how best to respond to IS. There have been extended debates regarding the use of air power as a means of disrupting terrorist activity in Iraq, with numerous MPs calling for further RAF air strike capabilities in Syria, in the hope of further reducing the IS threat. Support for the greater use of British air power has noticeably increased, while ‘the defence secretary [Michael Fallon] has long believed it is not logical to limit air strikes to Iraq when the terrorists do not respect, or even recognise, borders’. These additional air strike capabilities could be committed by September 2015 and would incorporate the use of both conventional aircraft, as well as Reaper and Predator drones.

The effectiveness of these potential strikes, however, is open to question, unless their employment is fully supported by intelligence on the ground and a firm commitment of resources by policy-makers. But the UK’s full engagement in Syria with conventional ground forces is the subject of an ongoing debate. RUSI’s Professor Michael Clarke has stated that ‘sooner or later someone has got to take IS on [in Syria] at the centre of their power’. Others may soon come round to his view, since IS continues to control a substantial area of territory in spite of an extended air strike campaign.

Iran’s nuclear programme  

Another current issue in the Middle East is Iran’s nuclear programme. The Iranian government was caught violating the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2002. The consequent 13 years of diplomatic stalemate was followed by the signing of an agreement this July. This deal has been called a ‘historic mistake’ by Benjamin Netanyahu, since, according to the Israeli president, it will allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons in 10-15 years, even if it abides by the terms of the accord.

It is noteworthy that Iran has made major policy changes in the past only under extreme pressure. At the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini declared the cease-fire “worse than drinking poison”. In 2003, the suspension of Iran’s nuclear programme was connected to regime fears of the US invasion of neighbouring Iraq. The latest statements made by Iran are very different, with Hassan Rouhani saying that the American commitment to keeping ‘all options are on the table’ has “broken legs”. Iran’s actions throughout the region suggest that it is unlikely to restrain its activities, since it is currently supporting both the Sunni terrorists of Hamas and the Shia terrorists of Hezbollah. Iran has also supplied weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen since at least 2009; contributing to the civil war there. It is likely that the confrontation between Iran and other Middle Eastern countries will intensify, as Iran’s budget grows following the lifting of sanctions.

Force readiness and willingness to use force 

The UK’s force readiness remains in doubt, in terms of both conventional capabilities and newly emerging cyber technology. Admiral Sir Nigel Essenhigh stated that if UK spending does not increase, ‘the Government will be neglecting its prime and overriding duty … by failing to halt the progressive decline of British military capability into penny packet numbers.’ Concern has also arisen relating to the UK’s willingness to use force against both state and non-state actors. Britain has taken a leading role in the deployment of the High Readiness Joint Task Force to Eastern Europe, in response to Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine. Nonetheless, concerns have been fuelled by the fact that, on a Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) basis, Russia’s defence spending is now 5.4% of the world total, while the UK’s is just 2.4%.[12] Since 2011, Russian defence spending has grown from 2.7 to 3.4% of national GDP[13]. Russia may also be an example of the broadening threat of offensive cyber and psychological operations, which has been highlighted by the recent defection of Edward Snowden.[14]

Conversely, the British willingness to use air strikes in Syria has repeatedly come up against political opposition, which cited a deficit of hard intelligence and possible retaliatory domestic terrorist attacks. The SNP foreign affairs spokesperson, Alex Salmond, claimed that extending strikes to Syria would be ‘very hard to justify’, with a number of other MPs expressing similar sentiments. On the other hand, it is clear that the threat of IS will endure for a prolonged period given that ‘UK officials think some 600 Britons have fought in Syria, with 300 having returned.’

In summary, an image emerges of uncertain British capability in a time of increasing threat. Lord Dannatt has provided an important reminder that political commitment is vital for the success of military operations. Since such commitment, both in terms of capability and the desire to deploy available forces, has been weak or absent in several recent cases, the UK’s security position has deteriorated. In consequence, an urgent rethink of defence policy is required to meet a growing level of threat. The hour is late and the absence of policy change is likely to have extremely serious consequences as threats continue to appear.

Dan Zamansky & Hugh Pickering-Carter are KCL undergraduates in the Department of War Studies with an interest in current and foreign affairs.


[1] IISS Military Balance 2015, p.68

[2] IISS Military Balance, 1985 and 2015.

[3] IISS Military Balance, 1985 and 2015.

[4] IISS Military Balance, 1985 and 2015.

[5] IISS Military Balance 1985, p. 41

[6] Ibid, p.43; IISS Military Balance 2015, p.152

[7] IISS Military Balance 2015, p.152

[8] IISS Armed Conflict Survey 2015, p. 78

[9] Ibid, p. 76

[10] Ibid, p. 326;

[11] IISS Military Balance 2015, p. 7

[12] IISS Military Balance 2015, p.22

[13] Ibid, p.164

[14] Ibid, p. 17

1 thought on “UK Defence Analysis: Reduced capabilities amid growing threats”

  1. While this article correctly identifies the decline in numbers of certain British military capabilities, notably fast jets, it fails to take account of what an enormous change the end of the Cold War has made to the availability of those assets for use. The same argument of reduced capability is regularly made about the army when the reduction in its size comes up. As you stated some 70,000 Soldiers (and much of the best equipment) were positioned in Germany to meet a Soviet incursion and a further 12,000 were tied to Northern Ireland. While these forces existed they were tied to the European theatre in such a way that their utility for “out of area operations” was nearly zero. I wasn’t able to find the specific numbers but I should imagine that a substantial proportion of those 485 fast jets, and specifically the bulk of the modern strike aircraft, were similarly tied to RAF Germany in ways that would make their redeployment to meet threats elsewhere politically difficult. The same can be said of the ISTAR fleet of 1985, with the Nimrod MR.3 and AEW fleet largely tied to NATO’s North Atlantic ASW mission.
    In fact I would argue that the UK’s expeditionary force projection capabilities have remained broadly constant since 1985. The platforms that underpin the force projection mission: ISTAR, deployable strike aircraft, strategic lift, amphibious forces, carriers and long-range nuclear powered submarines have all received substantial investment over the last 30 years in order to modernise or replace existing equipment or regenerate capability in these areas.
    The UK faces different threats now to those of 1985, so the armed forces are structured differently – with a greater focus on modern and deployable assets rather than very expensive manpower-intensive static forces to hold down large standing commitments. Political malaise aside, once you dig below the raw numbers you’ll find that UK military capability is actually not in too shabby a state. What the UK armed forces really need is a reorganisation of the army’s available manpower to get the most out what we’ve got (succinctly: too many under strength infantry formations and too few supporting troops) and modest increases for the RAF and RN to the tune of about 5,000 men each to close the manpower gaps left by the 2011 SDSR. Whatever problems the UK will face this century the solution isn’t going to be overburdening the defence establishment with the dream of recreating the large, capable and deployable cold war forces (that never existed in reality).

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