Squaring the Triangle: Four Big Ideas from the Latest British Defense Review

The British government has a penchant for defense reviews. It has published four of them since 2015—the same number it conducted throughout the entire Cold War. The latest review, the Defence Command Paper 2023, was published last week. It sets out the Ministry of Defense’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and intensifying U.S.-China competition. It also follows new national security guidance published in March, which taken together update the previous security and defense reviews released in 2021.

Two years is a long time in international politics—long enough for the “competitive age” described in the previous review to have become a “contested and volatile world,” as the full title of the new document describes. Russia’s war of conquest in Ukraine most dramatically demonstrates the transition from competition to conflict and confrontation. As the House of Commons Defence Committee puts it, “For the first time since the end of the Cold War, we have to face the prospect that we could become involved in a peer conflict with Russia, with little further strategic warning or opportunity to scale up our industrial, as well as military capabilities.” This tectonic shift in the United Kingdom’s security landscape justifies a wholesale rethink.

Some will be disappointed the latest defense review does not go that far: it contains no new announcements, no changes to force structure and doubles down on the basic judgements made two years ago. It also offers little new spending, beyond £2.5 billion ($3.2 billion) on munitions stockpiles and £400 million ($500 million) on service accommodation. Such continuity is understandable given the department is led by the same people (although Defense Secretary Ben Wallace will leave his post in September) and a general election is only a year away.

However, what the review lacks in new deliverables, it makes up for in new ideas. Four key ideas in the review—about people, science and technology, productivity, and lessons from Ukraine—show how the United Kingdom is pursuing bold new ideas to solve an old problem in defense strategy: squaring the triangle of trade-offs between readiness, modernization, and force structure.

Putting People First

The first big idea in the Defence Command Paper 2023 is to put people first—literally, in Chapter One: “Our people come first, both in this paper and in all of our thinking.” The main focus is how the Armed Forces will secure the next generation of talent to fight and win in the twenty-first century. In doing so the review builds on the recent Haythornthwaite Review of service personnel, in two ways. First, through reforms designed to give young people flexibility and agency over their own careers and grow the “Strategic Reserve” to maximize resilience and warfighting credibility. Second, through a more flexible “Single Armed Forces’ Act” to remove structural barriers to managing talent across the whole force (rather than in single service or public-private stovepipes).

Most national defense strategy documents say they put people first, but few follow through. If the United Kingdom makes good on these commitments (alongside others on digitization, skills, education, youth and veterans) this would be the most significant effort in a generation to reform how UK defense manages it most important asset—and may offer lessons for other nations eager to do the same.

Science and Tech Superpower

The second big idea is to convert the United Kingdom’s world-class science, technology, and industrial base into strategic advantage on the future battlefield. The previous review set the ambition to become a “Science and Tech Superpower” by 2030, maintaining top three global rankings in relevant science, academia, technology, and innovation indexes. This review aims to exploit this strength by turning “the most relevant technologies into operational capability.” Examples include a new prototype counter-drone laser system, novel materials which helped Ukraine achieve cost-efficient “battle-winning effects”, and hypersonic missile collaboration to help close the “gap between R&D and capability.” Five priorities are identified to help field future tech: artificial intelligence, engineering biology, telecommunications, semiconductors, and quantum technologies.

The review also seeks to use strategic defense investments to boost national technology and industry. As it states: “our national prosperity, a resilient technological and industrial base, a sustained supply chain, and our military capability, are all mutually reinforcing.” While modern innovation is often led by the private sector—such as artificial intelligence, where the United Kingdom has a dedicated strategy for public-private collaboration—the review commits to “nurture and invest in those sectors where military requirements likely exceed near-term civil demand, like quantum sensing, or where there is an imperative for Defence to be at the forefront, such as advanced materials, cutting-edge space technologies or cyber research.” This ambition is supported by a commitment to “a new alliance” between defense and industry: a timely ambition given the House of Commons Defence Committee described this relationship as “broken” two days before the review was released.

A Campaigning Department

The third big idea is to increase the productivity of UK defense. This imperative comes from a government initiative to solve the British economy’s long-standing productivity problem. The defense review’s solution for increasing productivity is to create a “campaigning department.” When presenting the review to Parliament on July 18, Wallace said, “I want MOD to be a campaigning department—adopting a more proactive posture, our forces more forward and present in the world, with a return to campaigning assertively and constantly.” This ambiguous phrase appears to have two meanings: a campaigning department with a new mindset and relentless focus on marginal productivity gains; and a campaigning department with a dedicated budget, program, and teams to implement a “global campaigning approach.”

A “campaigning department” comes with opportunities and risks. The opportunity is to get more out of the Armed Forces around the world. As the review argues: “Putting more ships to sea, planes in air and people around the globe to operate in contested areas imposes costs on our adversaries, and ultimately—and crucially—reduce costs to ourselves.” It even aims to use this new approach to “double the effect that we seek to achieve in the world” by 2030.

The risk is that a misleading definition of productivity could be counterproductive. This is because productivity is about maximizing value or output for a given input—but the value of government investment in defense is notoriously difficult to measure. While most experts agree on the value of deterrence—deterring wars is far cheaper than fighting them—this is also fiendish to evaluate. The review deals with this by hedging, proposing two theories of deterrence success: one is that “hard power matters,” and the other is that “being in more places at once” can deter adversaries below the threshold of war. The review prioritizes the former, through a force “optimized to war-fight in the Euro-Atlantic.” However, the productivity imperative also demands a campaigning force that can “compete, challenge and contest threats globally” to deliver the latter. Finite resources may well require the United Kingdom to make trade-offs between these two goals in the years ahead.

The Future Is Here

The fourth big idea is to adapt to the future of warfare—which is arriving quicker than was expected two years ago. The review takes inspiration from Ukraine, identifying several early lessons from its experiences over the past year (and from its own efforts equipping and training the Ukrainian armed forces). It reveals two broad lessons.

The first is the “back to basics” focus on sustainment which includes munitions stockpiles, training, service conditions, combat readiness, infrastructure, logistics, supply chains and resilience. As Wallace explains, all this is designed to “recover the warfighting resilience needed to generate credible conventional deterrence.”

The second lesson is about capabilities and concepts. The review identifies several capability upgrades to implement “at pace,” including more intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR), electronic warfare, signals intelligence, space and growing the National Cyber Force. One important lesson is the critical role of precision firepower, where rapid procurements in recent months will quickly deliver new missiles for the Royal Navy and artillery systems for the British Army. Meanwhile the RAF is rapidly developing counter-drone capabilities and drone swarms.

These lessons appear to confirm many priorities identified two years ago in the United Kingdom's novel Integrated Operating Concept, including the value of agility, mobility, autonomy, information advantage, precision, networks, resilience and the importance of joint, integrated, and all-domain operations. However, the risk of confirmation bias is real: the review cannot afford to cherry-pick these lessons and ignore others. A case in point is the role of combat mass in future war—a feature barely acknowledged in the Integrated Operating Concept. Here the review also hedges, simply stating: “There is a requirement for sufficient mass and game-changing technology, with the two often combined.” In places it goes further, seeking to redefine the concept: “Our mass comes not just from the ships, tanks and planes in our inventory but from the innovative systems we wrap around them and the cunning of those that operate them.” But other recent analyses see things differently. As The Economist concludes: “Armies without the size and depth to absorb losses and remain viable on the battlefield may find that no amount of digital wizardry or tactical nous can save them.”

Squaring the Iron Triangle

Strategy is about making choices. The United Kingdom’s emerging choices about defense strategy can be understood through the “iron triangle” described by Kathleen Hicks, U.S. deputy secretary of defense. The triangle reveals how defense strategy is always a painful trade-off between readiness, modernization, and force structure. Much like Carl von Clausewitz’s famous trinity which describes the nature of war, the “iron triangle” is timeless and dynamic. In its latest defense review the United Kingdom has put readiness and modernization ahead of the shape and size of its forces, in effect prioritizing quality over quantity. It has proposed novel ideas to justify this choice by putting people first, doubling down on science and technology, focusing on productivity, establishing a campaigning department, and expanding the notion of combat mass. Only time will tell whether the United Kingdom can square the iron triangle.

Sean Monaghan is a visiting fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Sean Monaghan
Visiting Fellow, Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program