Regardless, there have long been questions about whether the Royal Navy will have sufficient escorts for its Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers in the coming years based on the total number of Type 26s and Type 31s it presently plans to acquire and with the expected steady retirements of its exiting Type 23 frigates. This is an issue that The War Zone
has highlighted on numerous occasions. These additional ships could potentially help address this potential shortfall in the country’s surface fleets. It’s also worth noting that the U.K. parliament released a report just last week raising concerns about how a lack of funding could hobble the Royal Navy’s new carrier strike capabilities.
It’s perhaps less surprising that there is a desire to provide additional money for FCAS and drone swarm developments. The U.K. government has laid out an ambitious plan for the Tempest stealth fighter, in particular, which you can read about in this previous War Zone feature, but questions have remained about where the necessary funding for that project might come from. It’s also not clear yet how this defense spending increase may impact how many F-35 Joint Strike Fighters the U.K. Royal Air Force ultimately receives.
The creation of a U.K. Space Command is also well in line with what the country’s allies, especially the United States, which has created an entirely new branch to oversee space operations, are doing in this regard. Still, it does underscore how vital, and contested, space is for military operations already for the United Kingdom and its allies and partners. This domain is only set to become more important as time goes on.
The same goes for the announcements relating to cyber warfare and artificial intelligence. The U.S. military first established its Cyber Command in 2010, which is commanded by the same individual who serves as the director of the NSA, the exact same kind of structure the United Kingdom now says it is looking to adopt with regards to operations in cyberspace. The Pentagon also established a Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) in 2018 to serve as a focal point for work in this increasingly critical arena across the U.S. military.
It’s also worth pointing out that there is virtually no mention of funding for capabilities focused primarily on the British Army. Experts have already raised concerns about whether this might, despite Prime Minister Johnson’s pronouncements, point to cuts in planned modernization efforts for the country’s land forces, including new tanks or other armored vehicles. It’s worth noting that the British Army, as well as the the Royal Marines, have been steadily shrinking in size for years now.
“We shall reshape our army for the age of networked warfare, allowing better equipped soldiers to deploy more quickly, and strengthening the ability of our Special Forces to operate covertly against our most sophisticated adversaries,” Prime Minister Johnson told Members of Parliament.
Of course, no matter what the U.K. government’s current defense spending plans are, it remains very much to be seen whether they will be able to implement them in full, or even in part, over the next four years. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the United Kingdom and has already had a highly negative impact on its economy, amid a global economic downturn. At the same time, the U.K. government is still pursuing its departure from the European Union, possibly without formal agreements on trade and other issues with that bloc in place, which threatens to cause further economic uncertainty, at least in the near term.
There is political uncertainty, too. Johnson is the third U.K. Prime Minister to take office since the country’s 2015 general election and assumed the role after his predecessor, Theresa May, stepped down in 2019 after Parliament rejected her proposed withdrawal agreement with the European Union three times. May had been leading a minority government since 2017, but had managed to survive two votes of no confidence.
“Next year represents a huge opportunity for this country, and Defense will be at the forefront of creating the jobs and business opportunities that will help us build back from the pandemic,” U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said of the increased defense spending plan. “Over the next few months, I will set out in more detail our ambitious agenda for Defense.”
It will be very interesting to learn more about what the United Kingdom expects to do with this defense spending increase and how the country plans to implement those initiatives. Though definitely ambitious, the plan, as we understand it now, certainly focuses on a number of key areas that reflect broader military trends around the world.
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