With UK operations in Afghanistan scheduled to draw to a close by the end of 2014, and with reduced budgets going forward, the Ministry of Defence is facing a number of tough challenges. Speaking yesterday here at Farnborough at the ADS Defence Conference, UK Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond defined those challenges into three broad areas.
Referring to the ramifications of the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, Hammond noted that, “We have to deal with reconfiguring our forces to face the challenges of the future as we come to the end of a period of relative certainty and predictability.
“Continuing to support operations in Afghanistan to the end will be our first priority,” he continued, “but, in intellectual terms, we have to move on and start to think about how we need our forces to be configured for the contingent posture of the future.”
Although the MoD has balanced its budget, the ministry is striving for further savings. Over the coming year, attention will be focused on equipment support, where significant efficiencies are possible. Greater contracting out is desired, and greater contractor involvement at all levels. “We want to see contractors more integrated into our military operations, both at home and deployed abroad,” added the minister.
A second challenge outlined by Hammond was the changing nature of external threats and factors, one of which is the shift in strategic focus by the U.S. towards the Asia Pacific region. Hammond described this move as “welcome,” but warned, “It does mean that the European part of the NATO alliance is going to have to do more in its own backyard. We will certainly be expected to take part in stabilization and containment operations in North Africa and the Middle East.”
Anglo-French collaboration has been a cornerstone of recent defense development policy. The recent change in administration in France has inevitably cast some doubt on the breadth and scale of the alliance, but Hammond remained sanguine that for both the UK and France such an agreement was the most realistic way forward for defense procurement. “We’ve both looked at a resource-constrained future, and not liked what we’ve seen.” On the question of greater European participation, Hammond remarked that, “Our clear preference, and I think that of the French too, is that we take it forward on a bilateral basis, but we don’t rule out widening at a later stage.”
To meet new threats the UK defense minister stressed the need for better ISTAR [intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance]. “We saw in Libya probably the greatest demonstration of the use of precision in the delivery of kinetic effects. To be able to use much smaller, more precise weapons we need a very comprehensive ISTAR picture. We are going to have spend much more of our defense budgets in the future on maintaining a picture of the battlespace.”
This, in turn, creates a third challenge that is of a domestic political nature. “The public tends to think in terms of numbers of platforms, numbers of troops and numbers of ships, commented the minister. “In the future much of what we do to build a good picture of the battlespace and to combat the new asymmetric threats, particularly in cyber [warfare], will be invisible. Much of it we will not be able to tell people about. We will have to explain to them that what we are investing in is really vital in the delivery of modern military effects.”