The defence landscape for the UK has changed markedly over the last two years. This is reflected in the government publishing two reviews, alongside two defence command papers, since March 2021. The ‘Integrated review’ (IR2021) was published in March 2021 alongside the defence command paper ‘Defence in a competitive age’ (DCP21). In March 2023, the government then published the ‘Integrated review refresh’ (IR2023) and in July 2023 it published a refreshed defence command paper, ‘Defence’s response to a more contested and volatile world’ (DCP23).

On the webpage for DCP23, the government noted that IR2023 had identified that “the transition to a multipolar, fragmented and contested world had happened more quickly and definitively than anticipated in IR2021”. In the foreword to IR2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak detailed the factors since 2021 that had led to the government undertaking a refresh:

[…] What could not be fully foreseen in 2021 was the pace of the geopolitical change and the extent of its impact on the UK and our people. We learned from Covid-19 just how much impact events that begin overseas can have on our lives and livelihoods at home. Since then, Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, weaponisation of energy and food supplies and irresponsible nuclear rhetoric, combined with China’s more aggressive stance in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, are threatening to create a world defined by danger, disorder and division—and an international order more favourable to authoritarianism.

The change in the international environment was also reflected in the foreword to DCP23, in which the secretary of state for defence and the minister for the armed forces said they had not planned on producing a new command paper “just two years since the last”, but “we have gone from a competitive age to a contested and volatile world”.

1. What is the role of defence?

The government has stated that the purpose of defence is to “protect the nation and help it prosper”. In DCP23 the government set out how defence contributes to the four pillars of the IR2023 strategic framework as follows (see section 3.3 and 3.4 of this briefing for further detail on these documents):

  • Shape the international environment. Defence contributes through: global approach to campaigning and competition; alliances and partnerships; bilateral relationships and multilateral and minilateral groupings; engagement with middle ground powers; supporting others to deliver their security; an integrated global network of people and bases.
  • Deter, defend and compete across all domains. Defence contributes through: credible capabilities, nuclear and conventional, cyber and space; our role in NATO; our support to Ukraine; a resilient underpinning of stockpiles, enablers, and intelligence.
  • Address vulnerabilities through resilience. Defence contributes through: defence of the homeland; protection of airspace and critical national infrastructure, including subsurface; support to the civil authorities; economic security; use of our reserves.
  • Generate strategic advantage. Defence contributes through: our people; a strong relationship between Defence and industry; slicker acquisition processes; modernisation through innovation; digital and data, science and technology; our role in supporting economic growth and national prosperity, including defence exports.

The Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) 2023 annual report and accounts states that its role is “to protect the people of the United Kingdom, prevent conflict, and be ready to fight our enemies”. It stated that its “priority outcomes” for the past year have been to:

  • protect the UK and its overseas territories
  • enhance global security through persistent engagement and response to crises
  • understand and counter state and nonstate threats
  • contribute to NATO collective deterrence and Defence
  • modernise and integrate Defence capabilities by taking a whole force approach to our people and increasing the use of technology and innovation

The MoD identified several risks to its successful running and the achievement of its objectives. These included:

  • the affordability of the vision for Defence
  • the capacity and capability of our workforce
  • the delivery of operational capability and readiness
  • the delivery of the defence and security industrial strategy and resilience of the supply chain

The annual report also set out its key achievements in 2022­–23, including the following:

  • AUKUS deal [between Australia, the UK, and the US] delivers a trilaterally developed submarine based on the United Kingdom’s next generation design that will be built and operated by the UK and Australia.
  • We have committed £2.3bn to support Ukraine including over 10,000 anti-tank weapons, a squadron of 14 Challenger tanks and over 200,000 rounds of artillery ammunition.
  • We have exceeded our NATO pledge to spend 2% of GDP [gross domestic product] on Defence spending.
  • The Typhoon programme continues to support more than 20,000 jobs throughout the UK.

2. Strength of the UK armed forces

The UK’s regular armed forces consist of the army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force and strategic command. In its ‘Quarterly service personnel statistics 1 April 2023’ (22 June 2023), the MoD said the main factors that affect decisions about the size of the armed forces to achieve success in its military tasks include:

  • an assessment of current and future threats to UK national security
  • the need for contingent/reactive capability—the requirement to be able to respond immediately to domestic or international crisis
  • current operational and international obligations (for example, NATO, UN)
  • changes in technology, the introduction of new equipment and restructuring that leads to equipment becoming obsolete or surplus to requirements
  • the need to deliver against the military tasks as efficiently as possible, maintaining a balanced, affordable defence budget

In DCP21 the government announced that the army would be reduced to a full-time trained strength of 72,500 by 2025. This replaced a previous target set in the 2015 strategic defence and security review of 82,000:

The army of the future will be leaner, more lethal, nimbler, and more effectively matched to current and future threats. The new structure will reorganise the army into more self-sufficient brigade combat teams (BCT) able to meet demand by drawing on their own dedicated logistics and combat support units. A new Deep Recce Strike BCT will combine the Ajax’s formidable sensors with enhanced fires systems to provide long-range persistent surveillance for the coordination of deep fires. Overall, this restructuring will see a reduction from the current full time trade trained strength of 76,000 to 72,500 by 2025.

In November 2021, the government published ‘Future soldier: Transforming the British army’, which stated that the regular army would reduce in size to 73,000 (this is 500 higher than the figure set in DCP21) and the strength of the army reserve would grow to 30,100.

DCP23 stated that the government would maintain the UK’s force levels broadly at the levels announced in DCP21.

Table 1 presents data on full-time trained strength (Royal Navy/Royal Marines) and full-time trade trained strength (army), drawn from the MoD’s ‘Quarterly service personnel statistics 1 April 2023’ (22 June 2023).

Table 1. UK forces full-time trained strength, 1 April 2023
Service Number % change since 1 April 2022
Royal Navy/Royal Marines 29,350 -1.4%
Army 74,830 -3.1%
Royal Air Force 29,380 -1.6%
Total 133,570 -2.4%

For a more detailed discussion of the size of the army see the Lords Library’s briefing ‘Size of the army: Numbers, tech and the latest on the integrated review’ (16 May 2023). The House of Commons Library has also published a briefing which examines the strength of the UK armed forces in more detail: ‘UK defence personnel statistics’ (18 July 2023).

2.1 Responses to the reduction in the size of the army

In January 2023, the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee published a report entitled ‘UK defence policy: From aspiration to reality?’. As part of its inquiry, the committee considered the issue of the size of the army.

The report noted that some witnesses had expressed concern about plans to reduce the number of army personnel. This included the former chief of the defence staff, General Sir Nick Carter, who argued the size of the army should be “in the order of 80,000” to ensure that the UK could field a full division of troops as part of a combined NATO force. Professor Jamie Gaskarth, professor of foreign policy and international relations at the Open University, queried what the army was for, and said “it is rather confusing about what it is supposed to do”. Citing nine examples including disaster relief, expeditionary warfare and counterterrorism, he argued “there is no way you can do that with 72,500 full-time troops”.

However, the committee noted that some of its other witnesses did not see the size of the army as the best measure of the army’s capabilities. For example, the committee quoted Professor Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), as saying “it is unfortunate in today’s world that the main metric we use for army capability is the number of people … If you are saying that you want a bigger army but you want them less well equipped, I would say no”. The committee also heard evidence from Professor Michael Clarke, a former director-general of RUSI, who said that the appropriate size for the army would depend upon its purpose. He agreed that the government’s target may be sufficient if it was to “provide one really good combat division”. However, he argued that it could not possibly be large enough if it also wanted “to do other things and operate from global hubs”.

During his evidence session with the committee, Ben Wallace, the secretary of state for defence, said the size of the army alone was not a good measure of its capabilities. He said the government was focused on the modernisation of the army, including utilising new technological advances. He said this would compensate for reductions in personnel.

The committee agreed with the government that “headline troop numbers are not the most appropriate metric by which to judge the army’s capabilities”. Instead, it argued:

The more important question is whether the army has the resources and capabilities it needs to deliver on the government’s ambitions. This depends not only on the number of troops, but also on how well-equipped and trained they are.

3. UK Defence policy: Key documents

This section provides a summary of recent key government defence policy documents.

3.1 Integrated review, March 2021

The then Prime Minister Boris Johnson established an integrated review (IR2021) of foreign policy, defence, security and international development in February 2020. The government said the IR2021 would cover all aspects of the UK’s place in the world, going “beyond the parameters of a traditional review by considering the totality of global opportunities and challenges the UK faces and determining how the whole of government can be structured, equipped and mobilised to meet them”.

The government published the main conclusions of the IR2021 in a command paper, ‘Global Britain in a competitive age: The integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy’, on 16 March 2021.

The IR2021 identified four overarching trends facing the UK out to 2030:

  • Geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts: such as China’s increasing power and assertiveness internationally, the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific to global prosperity and security, and the emergence of new markets and growth of the global middle class.
  • Systemic competition: the intensification of competition between states and with non-state actors, manifested in a growing contest over international rules and norms; the formation of competing geopolitical and economic blocks of influence and values that cut across our security, economy and the institutions that underpin our way of life; the deliberate targeting of the vulnerabilities within democratic systems by authoritarian states and malign actors; and the testing of the boundary between war and peace, as states use a growing range of instruments to undermine and coerce others.
  • Rapid technological change: technological developments and digitisation will reshape our societies and economies, and change relationships—both between states, and between the citizen, the private sector and the state. Science and technology (S&T) will bring enormous benefits but will also be an arena of intensifying systemic competition.
  • Transnational challenges: such as climate change, global health risks, illicit finance, serious and organised crime (SOC) and terrorism. These threaten our shared security and prosperity, requiring collective action and multilateral cooperation to address them. Of these transnational challenges, climate change and biodiversity loss present the most severe tests to global resilience and will require particularly urgent action.

The IR2021 included a framework for an ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ in UK policy, describing the region as a “crucible for many of the most pressing global challenges” in the coming decades. This included climate and biodiversity, maritime security and “geopolitical competition linked to rules and norms”. The IR2021 assessed that the four trends would overlap and interact with each other.

In response to these prevailing trends, the IR2021 set out a strategic framework to run to 2025. This consisted of four overarching national security and international policy objectives. Each objective was underpinned by several goals, and the strategic framework set out a series of priority actions the government intended to take to achieve the goals and objectives. The overarching objectives the government set itself were:

  • sustaining strategic advantage through S&T
  • shaping the open international order of the future
  • strengthening security and defence at home and overseas
  • building resilience at home and overseas

The defence command paper published alongside IR2021 set out how Defence would contribute to each of these four objectives (see section 3.2 below).

3.2 Defence command paper: ‘Defence in a competitive age’, March 2021

‘Defence in a competitive age’ (DCP21) was published on 22 March 2021. This outlined the contribution of the MoD and the armed forces to the overarching objectives set out in the IR2021. It also set out how they intended to deliver the multi-year settlement received in 2020 and transform the armed forces to meet the threats of the future. This included announcements on reducing the size of the army.

In its foreword, the secretary of state for defence, Ben Wallace, described the command paper as the government’s “honest assessment of what we can do and we will do”. He said:

We will ensure Defence is threat-focused, modernised, and financially sustainable, ready to confront future challenges, seize new opportunities for global Britain and lay the foundations of a more secure and prosperous union. We will, for the first time in decades, match genuine money to credible ambitions. We will retire platforms to make way for new systems and approaches. And we will invest in that most precious commodity of all—the people of our armed forces.

Mr Wallace said that the armed forces, working with the rest of government, “must think and act differently”. He said they would no longer be “held as a force of last resort” but would “become more present and active around the world”, operating below the threshold of open conflict, to uphold the UK’s values and secure its interests. This included partnering with the UK’s friends and enabling its allies.

The command paper set out how defence would contribute to the four overarching objects in IR2021 as follows:

  • Sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology—which we will support through: our contribution to UK cyber power through the National Cyber Force; investment of at least £6.6bn in Research and Development (R&D) over the next four years, guided in part by the ‘Defence science and technology strategy 2020’; a network of innovation hubs and defence and security accelerator challenges; supported by the defence and security industrial strategy in creating a more certain environment for industry.
  • Shaping the open international order of the future—which we will support through: our adherence to international humanitarian law in our own operations; freedom of navigation operations in support of international maritime law efforts to shape responsible behaviour in cyberspace and space, and the ethical development and deployment of technology based on democratic values; and by embedding international laws, rules and norms in partners’ approach to security through capacity building.
  • Strengthening security and defence at home and overseas—which we will support through: defence of the UK, the overseas territories and crown dependencies, our ability to conduct non-combatant evacuation operations when needed, and our CBRN [chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear] expertise, which was called upon in response to the 2018 Salisbury attack; our contribution to deterrence through collective security with our allies in NATO, and building the capacity and resilience of like-minded partners to evolving security threats; support for UN peacekeeping operations as part of the government’s effort to reduce the frequency and incidence of conflict; and by providing high-end PURSUE counter-terrorism capabilities, maintaining our contribution to the global coalition against Daesh in Iraq and Syria, to coalition efforts in Afghanistan and to French operations in the Sahel, as well as further integrating our counter-terrorism activity through the new Counter Terrorism Operations Centre (CTOC).
  • Building resilience at home and overseas—which we will support through: military aid to the civilian authorities, most recently in support of the Covid-19 response; support to local authorities in responding to extreme weather events, and to law enforcement following terror attacks, as in 2017; our readiness to provide humanitarian relief overseas at speed; and our ability to provide specialist and rapid support in responding to global health risks, such as during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

A ‘Defence and security industrial strategy’ was published on 23 March 2021. This provided a framework for government to work with industry to achieve the ambitions set out in the IR2021 and defence command papers.

3.3 Integrated review refresh, March 2023

In March 2023, the government published an update to the integrated review, ‘Integrated review refresh 2023: Responding to a more contested and volatile world’ (IR2023).

In the update, the government stated that its previous overarching assessment remained broadly correct but that it recognised that further investment and a greater proportion of national resources would be needed in defence and national security “now and in the future” to deliver its objectives.

In terms of priorities, the review said that the security of the Euro-Atlantic region remained the UK’s primary concern, and the government emphasised the need to strengthen European relationships to support this aim. It stated that the threat posed by Russia to European security was the most urgent national security and foreign policy concern in the short to medium term, and that the region’s “collective security” was “intrinsically linked to the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine”.

The government also detailed the UK’s approach to China, which it described as an “evolving and epoch-defining challenge”. The approach would involve three main elements: strengthening national security measures in areas where actions by the Chinese Communist Party posed a threat; expanding cooperation and alignment with “core allies” and other partners; and engaging with China directly through bilateral and international channels whilst promoting “open, constructive and predictable relations”.

The IR2023 set out 15 strategic conclusions and associated commitments. These included the following:

  • Addressing the threat posed by Russia to European security as the most pressing national security and foreign policy priority in the short-to-medium term. The government stated a key part of this was supporting Ukraine “to reassert its sovereignty and denying Russia any strategic benefit from its invasion”.
  • Whilst IR2023 was not part of a spending review, the government stated that there were urgent and immediate pressures presented by a “deteriorating” security situation. IR2023 included a commitment to give defence an extra £5bn over the next two years. This was in addition to £560mn of new investment made in autumn 2022. The funding would be focused on replenishing stockpiles and improving the UK’s munitions infrastructure, as well as “the continued modernisation of the nuclear enterprise”. The government stated this increased funding was expected to raise UK spending on defence to 2.2% of GDP in 2023 (2.29% including support to Ukraine). For further information on the UK’s defence expenditure see the House of Commons Library’s briefing ‘UK defence expenditure’ (20 April 2023).
  • The UK was committed to a leading role in “upholding the stability, security and prosperity of our continent and the Euro-Atlantic as a whole”.
  • The UK would continue to develop its relationships in the Indo-Pacific. The IR2023 stated that IR2021 had delivered on its ambition for a tilt to the region. It said the government’s target was now to make this engagement stronger and a permanent element of the UK’s international policy. The government would ensure that it “was respectful to and guided by regional perspectives”, achieving this through a “combination of bilateral, minilateral and institutional relationships across the region and our support for the concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific”. IR2023 also said that the UK had strengthened its cooperation with France in the region and had established the basis of a permanent European maritime presence through coordinated carrier deployments.

The conclusions and commitments in the IR2023 are reflected in the 2023 integrated review strategic framework “which expands on—and in some of the areas set out [in the 15 headline strategic conclusions of the IR2023] supersedes—the goals set out in the IR2021 strategic framework”.

The four pillars of the updated strategic framework would “guide all relevant areas of national security, international and domestic policy and resource decisions until the next general election”. The pillars of the strategic framework are set out in the IR2023 as follows:

  • Shape the international environment. This pillar commits the UK to shaping, balancing, competing and cooperating across the main arenas of systemic competition, working with all who support an open and stable international order and the protection of global public goods.
  • Deter, defend and compete across all domains. This pillar reinforces the ongoing shift to an integrated approach to deterrence and defence, to counter both state threats and transnational security challenges. It reaffirms that NATO is at the core of this effort, but is clear that—given the changing threat picture—effective deterrence will mean working through other groupings and beyond the Euro-Atlantic theatre. It also introduces a renewed emphasis on the concept of strategic stability—establishing new frameworks and building a new international security architecture to manage systemic competition and escalation in a multipolar environment.
  • Address vulnerabilities through resilience. This pillar develops the UK’s approach to resilience, shifting to a long-term campaign to address the vulnerabilities that leave the UK exposed to crises and hostile actors. This will strengthen the UK’s deterrence by denial, and ensure that operational activity under pillar two can be focused where it has the greatest impact.
  • Generate strategic advantage. This pillar reinforces and extends IR2021’s focus on strategic advantage—the UK’s relative ability to achieve our objectives compared to our competitors. In a more contested environment, this is indispensable to maintaining the UK’s freedom of action, freedom from coercion and our ability to cooperate with others, and is the underpinning for the other pillars of the strategic framework.

3.4 Defence command paper: ‘Defence’s response to a more contested and volatile world’, July 2023

On 18 July 2023, the government published a refresh of the 2021 defence command paper. The government said that this was “in recognition of the increasingly challenging security context, lessons learned from Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and Defence’s contribution to all four pillars of the [IR2023]”.

The government said the refreshed command paper (DCP23) was about Defence responding to the changing context and delivering on the IR2023 “within its resource envelope, increasing its productivity, and focusing on areas that would achieve real-world impact”.

Announcing the refreshed command paper to the House of Commons on 18 July 2023, the secretary of state for defence, Ben Wallace, stated that the government stood by DCP21, but it needed to “get there faster”:

Our defence plans, and the armed forces to deliver them, must be robust and credible—not fantasy force designs, unfunded gimmicks or top trump numbers. As Russia has so effectively proven, there is no point having parade ground armies and massed ranks of men and machines if they cannot be integrated as a single, full spectrum force, sustained in the field under all the demands of modern warfighting. That takes professional forces, well equipped and rapidly adaptable, supported by critical enablers and vast stockpiles of munitions. That is why in this document, hon. members will not find shiny new announcements, comms-led policies driving unsustainable force designs or any major new platforms for military enthusiasts to put up on their charts on their bedroom wall. We stand by the command paper we published in 2021 but we must get there faster, doing defence differently and getting ourselves on to a campaign footing to protect the nation and help it prosper.

This is reflected on the webpage for DCP23, where the government has stated that the majority of DCP21’s content on how the government would design and equip the armed forces was unchanged in DCP23. However, some areas were identified where the government argued it needed to “evolve or accelerate” its approach “in order to respond to the changing environment and become more productive with the resources we already have”. These were:

  • our approach to our people
  • how we put science and technology at the heart of our force design and capability development
  • how we kickstart a new relationship with industry
  • how we become more productive

DCP23 also outlined threats and challenges to the UK. It stated Russia had sharply increased the immediate threat to the Euro-Atlantic region and the UK. Whilst the conflict in Ukraine had “significantly weakened” Russia’s land and guided weapons capabilities, DCP23 noted that it retained its “capable nuclear and strategic forces”. It stated that Russia also had the ability and intent to rebuild and regenerate. China was identified as “an enduring and epoch-defining global challenge” to British interests. DCP23 said that China was trying to rewrite the international order through assertive and coercive behaviour. Whilst the government has identified China as a challenge to the UK, it stated that it did not believe this course was inevitable and the UK would work to convince China to “play a responsible global role”:

Escalating tensions in the Indo-Pacific, driven by China’s actions, present a direct challenge to a region that we believe should remain free and open for the prosperity of all. However, as the [IR2023] set out, the UK does not accept that China’s relationship with the UK, or its impact on the international system, are set on a predetermined course. While we will always be clear-eyed about the risks of engagement, we will work to convince China of the need for it to play a responsible global role in keeping with its status as a P5 power [one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council] and a major security player.

DCP23 stated that Iran and North Korea remained “volatile threats” to security in their regions and more widely. It also said that the threat from non-state actors had not diminished and that terrorist organisations still aspired to attack the UK. DCP23 said that instability in different regions, including the Sahel, Lake Chad Basin and parts of the Middle East, provided the space for such groups to expand. It argued that increasing access to information and technology also increased the threat “posed by hacktivists, single issue terrorists and more amorphous online criminal movements”.

DCP23 said the increasing interconnectedness between regions and actors was one of the most important trends in the past two years:

In the wake of the illegal invasion of Ukraine, we have witnessed a deepening of Russia’s partnership with China, its growing cooperation with Iran, as well as the provision of weapons by North Korea to Russia in contravention of UN Security Council Resolutions. This leads to a world where the threats we face from actors manifest and proliferate across multiple regions, creating a more adversarial form of geopolitics. The irresponsible use of cyber capabilities, and of dis- and misinformation promulgated through social media, transcends geographic boundaries. This will shape how citizens and governments understand and respond to global events. Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has had consequences across the world, precipitating a refugee and energy crisis in Europe, as well as threatening food supplies in some of the most fragile parts of the globe.

The government has stated that events since DCP21 had demonstrated that “we were right to make the commitments we did, and that our efforts have been on the right track”.

On the size of the armed forces, DCP23 argued that size was not a “proxy for outcomes”. Fewer people would be required to run military hardware in the future meaning fewer people would be required on the front line. DCP23 stated that the UK would maintain its force levels in line with announcements in DCP21:

For too long, headcount has wrongly been seen as a proxy for outcomes with the size of the regular forces taken as a totem of our national military prowess. Over the decades ahead, the ships, tanks and planes in our strike groups, armoured brigades and combat air squadrons will require ever fewer people but that will not necessarily mean our workforce will be smaller. We may have fewer people on the front line but a much larger community of specialists supporting them. As we learn more from Ukraine about the changing nature of modern battle and explore the opportunities in AI and automation, we will maintain our force levels broadly at the levels announced in DCP21.

DCP23 said that to support the four pillars of IR2023 the government had set a new, clear purpose for defence. This was “to protect the nation, and help it prosper”. To deliver this the MoD would focus on four priorities:

Table 2. Defence priorities to deliver the purpose of defence
What? How?
Protect the UK, its Crown dependencies, and its overseas territories, and contribute to the collective deterrence and defence of the Euro-Atlantic area: able to deter and, if necessary, defend against and defeat, attacks on the UK homeland (including our overseas territories) and our NATO allies. By modernising our strategic nuclear deterrent, delivering a credible warfighting force, enhancing our contribution to NATO, accelerating modernisation of the force, continuing to support Ukraine, and increasing our investment in homeland defence and national resilience.
Pursue a campaigning approach to counter the threats from state and non-state actors, wherever they manifest in the world, working in an integrated way with allies and partners to achieve focused and impactful results. By embedding campaigning as the way Defence delivers its effect, integrating all the levers of defence power in a targeted approach, with allies and partners, and across government, enabling forward deployment and persistent presence, and developing exportable expertise.
Promote our national interests globally, building influential relationships, and maintaining engagement and access. By collaborating with our core network of democratic allies and partners, building deeper relationships with influential ‘middle‑ground powers’, investing in and exploiting our existing permanent presence, and maximising the benefit from pulsed deployments, defence diplomacy, capability collaboration and defence exports.
Secure strategic advantage, achieve greater economic and industrial resilience, and contribute to national prosperity. By investing in our people, exploiting innovation in digital, data and science & technology, forging a closer relationship with industry, improving our acquisition processes, adopting an activist approach to defence exports, and maximising our productivity, enhancing readiness and lethality.

3.4.1 Responses to DCP23

The House of Commons Defence Committee has published comments on DCP23 made by its chair, Tobias Ellwood. Mr Ellwood expressed concern that cuts to troop numbers would leave the UK with the smallest army since the 1700s. He argued that the UK needed more personnel, and that “relying on veterans and reserve forces is no substitute for a regular, professional force”.

However, Mr Ellwood said the government had shown “commendable ambition” elsewhere and welcomed references to technological advancements and the replenishing of the UK’s stockpiles:

Making the most of technological advancements will be critical to our future success, helping us to maintain an edge over our adversaries. The extra money pledged for stockpiles will increase our readiness and improve the strength of our deterrence overall. These are welcome investments.

Responding to the announcement of DCP23 in the House of Commons, John Healey, shadow secretary of state for defence, said that the command paper “is not a good enough response to war in Europe”. He also implied that the government had been slow to update its defence policy:

It is 510 days since Putin shattered European security. Since then, 26 other NATO nations have rebooted defence plans and budgets. In the time it has taken the defence secretary to produce this long-trailed new defence strategy, Finland has carried out its own review, overturned decades of non-alignment, increased defence spending by 36%, applied to join NATO, and seen its application approved by 30 parliaments before last week’s NATO summit in Vilnius. That successful NATO summit has made the alliance stronger and support for Ukraine greater.

However, he said that Labour fully backed NATO’s new regional plan and the G7’s long-term security commitments to Ukraine. Mr Healey also said that Labour would support accelerating military aid to Ukraine.

Mr Healey welcomed what he described as the “back to basics” element of the plan, including its focus on stockpiles, training, service conditions and combat-readiness. However, he expressed concern that the command paper was “driven by costs, not by threats” and “by the real cut in day-to-day resource departmental expenditure limits spending that the defence secretary agreed in November 2020, and by the failure to secure the £8bn extra that he said was needed in the spring budget just to cover inflation”.

Responding to Labour’s comments, Mr Wallace said that the command paper was a refresh “not a complete redrawing of a strategic defence and security review”. The command paper was about ensuring that the UK had reforms in place to address threats:

[…] This is a report to make us match-fit: to ensure that, whether we have 3%, 2.5%, 2% of GDP, we have the reforms that […] will help us to deal with the growing threats that we face in the decade ahead, and will also reflect the lessons that we have seen in Ukraine.

Mr Wallace also argued that the case of Finland was different to the UK because it was part of a regular review cycle, not triggered by a specific event.

RUSI’s director of military sciences, Paul O’Neill, has argued that DCP23 represents an effort to organise the armed forces and get them ready for the future. He said that because of issues around a lack of new funding (beyond that announced in the spring budget), increased costs, and a lack of time in the political cycle, DCP23 had focused on areas that could be acted on quickly and “relatively cheaply” by the MoD and armed forces. Paul O’Neill believed that the command paper was therefore more of a message about how Defence needed to prepare for the next Defence review, which he believed could take place in 2025. It could then align with a comprehensive spending review and, he argued, decisions about force structure had been put off until then.

Paul O’Neill argued that by endorsing DCP21’s force structure, DCP23 had inherited its flaws. For instance, continuing the debate about the size of the armed forces (see section 2.1 of this briefing), he highlighted:

[…] a focus on modernisation and an over-reliance on technology at the expense of conventional mass, on the assumption that once modernised, there will be enough time to regrow the force.

He described the assumption as “questionable” given the war in Ukraine and said that “continuing a strictly sequential path of modernisation and then mass seems similarly flawed”. He argued that if the threat was accelerating then the UK needed more spending on defence. He said this needed to not just be on stockpiles and on nuclear capability as announced in the spring budget, but also on “conventional mass”.

Paul O’Neill said that the authors of the command paper had “done well to find something meaningful to say” and not to say things that were impossible. He saw it as an “admirable attempt” by the MoD “to satisfy the demand for a refresh to the command paper and get organisationally ready for the future”. However, he said that the constraints of time and money undermined its value as a national defence response.

Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, argued that DCP23’s message “echoes themes of the almost 20-year-old UK defence industrial strategy, underscoring that identifying needed changes is far simpler than implementing them”. He expressed concern that a future defence review could be impacted by the UK’s electoral cycle:

The [defence command paper] reflects critical issues that the fighting in Ukraine has raised for the UK defence establishment. But much of the required implementation will require future assessment, likely through an integrated review of national security ambitions. However, with the current government facing an election no later than January 2025, this ‘refresh’ may be out of date before much change can happen.

4. Read more

House of Lords material and comment

House of Commons Library briefings

Further news articles and comment

Cover image by Dominic King, UK MOD © Crown copyright 2014 on Flickr.