UK hard power: Strategic ambivalence


The British Royal Fleet Auxiliary amphibious assault vessel RFA Cardigan Bay (L3009), (L), the mine countermeasures ship USS Sentry (MCM 3), the British Royal navy destroyer HMS Diamond (D 34), and the mine countermeasures ship USS Devastator (MCM 6) transit in formation in the Gulf of Oman in this September 20, 2012 released on September 24.

Article Highlights

  • Comparatively, the UK remains a significant military power with significant operational experience.

    Tweet This

  • Since the Cold War, UK military power has been more concerned with addressing strategic challenges to the UK than defending its territory.

    Tweet This

  • Although national strategy is concerned with the future, a nation's strategic posture cannot develop quickly and must evolve over time.

    Tweet This

Subscribe to
The Rundown
A weekly digest of news and analysis from AEI's Foreign and Defense Studies team

First Name:
Last Name:
Zip Code:

Key points in this Outlook:

  • On a comparative scale, the United Kingdom remains a significant military power with significant operational experience.
  • Since the Cold War's end, Britain has attempted to adapt to a more complex set of security problems while simultaneously cutting force structure.
  • As a result, the United Kingdom's strategic field of vision has shrunk: it has increasingly adopted a preference for military operations that are far away, fairly small, or relatively brief.


The following National Security Outlook is the 12th in AEI's Hard Power series, a project of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies. In it, Paul Cornish, a leading British defense and security analyst and former British Army officer, outlines the state of UK hard power. As he makes clear, while the British military has seen significant reductions in military platforms and force structure, it still meets NATO's agreed-upon floor for defense spending-2 percent of GDP-and, as such, remains ahead of other allied powers in both capabilities and operational experience. But as Cornish also emphasizes, the trend line for sustaining British military capabilities is, at best, problematic and, when combined with successive UK governments' wavering vision of Britain's strategic role in the world, Washington must wonder: just how special will the "special relationship" between the United States and United Kingdom be in the years ahead? 

—Gary Schmitt, Director, Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at AEI

Over the past two decades, the relatively settled animosity of the Cold War has been replaced by a range of diverse, complex, and often very urgent security threats and challenges, albeit of a lesser scale. The 21st century is not proving to be as dangerous as some had feared, but neither is it as stable as many would wish.

And as well as uncertainty, diversity, complexity, and urgency, there are scarcity and austerity: national strategy must compete for scarce resources and must take its share of continuing retrenchment in public spending. Pity the strategist expected to make durable and coherent decisions under such circumstances.

Yet national strategy is not a fair-weather activity; decisions must be made and cannot be postponed until more favorable circumstances arise. Among the most complicated of these decisions are those that concern a country's military force structure-the material basis of its so-called hard power. These decisions require a reasonably settled "threat picture" around which to construct a military architecture; sufficient flexibility to deal with unanticipated threats and challenges; political, public, and media support if the decisions are to be maintained over time; advanced technological knowledge; and, finally, a very high level of political and institutional confidence in spending vast amounts of public money on platforms and equipment that might well be in service for decades.

The purpose of this Outlook is to gauge the strategic quality and vitality of UK hard power. I argue that it is not currently in the best of health, and for reasons that are often misunderstood. There is widespread concern that the United Kingdom's armed forces have recently been reduced too far and, furthermore, that these reductions are symptomatic of a deep malaise in the British national psyche: a form of strategic "declinism," perhaps.

I do not believe that a narrow assessment of the size, shape, and capability of a country's armed forces reveals all that is to be said about its strategic ambition and, indeed, its hard power. The United Kingdom's armed forces are certainly smaller in 2014 than they were in 1945 (at the end of World War II), in 1982 (at the beginning of the Falklands War), and in 1989 (at the beginning of the end of the Cold War), but these comparisons tell us little. As well as assessing size and capability, a complete analysis of a nation's hard power requires an answer to one further question: what will it be for?

Since the end of the Cold War, UK military power has become less concerned with the defense of the country's territory (including its overseas possessions), its airspace, and its territorial waters and much more concerned with addressing strategic challenges to the United Kingdom at those challenges' point of origin. In his introduction to the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR), then-secretary of state for defense George Robertson argued that "[i]n the post-Cold War world, we must be prepared to go to the crisis, rather than have the crisis come to us."[1] This notion of self defense at arm's length subsequently became a leitmotif in UK national strategy, attracting bipartisan consensus.

The first and most obvious indicator of the strength and scope of UK hard power is the amount Her Majesty's Government spends on the country's military force posture. The next indicator is capabilities: the platforms, equipment, weaponry, and personnel necessary for military commitments and for what are now described as expeditionary operations. Hard power is also reputational, concerned with the nation's experience with military operations and those operations' effectiveness. Finally, hard power is the expression of foreign policy outlook and strategic intent.

Although national strategy is concerned with the future, a nation's strategic posture-particularly its hard power-cannot develop in an instant and must evolve over time. This Outlook covers the 15-year period from July 1998 to December 2013, beginning with the publication of the newly elected Labour Party government's SDR, which marked the beginning of a new, genuinely post-Cold War era in strategic thinking in the United Kingdom.

UK Military Expenditure

Military expenditure can be surprisingly difficult to track, as accounting procedures change from time to time. Nevertheless, it offers some indication of a country's intentions and seriousness.

The data in figure 1 do not paint a picture of radical decline in UK military expenditure since 1998, nor even gradual decline, for that matter. On the contrary, annual spending has been held at a healthy level, allowing the United Kingdom to maintain its position as one of the world's top military spenders, even in the straitened economic circumstances following the 2008 financial crisis. Military expenditure as a percentage of GDP has likewise remained above the NATO benchmark: together with the United States and Greece, the United Kingdom is one of only three NATO allies to have held to the 2006 commitment to spend a minimum of 2 percent of GDP on defense.

This is not to suggest that discussion of UK military expenditure has been entirely free from contention. Since the transfer of power from the Labour to Coalition government in 2010, the UK defense debate has been dominated by the discovery of a so-called black hole

in the defense budget: an unfunded liability of committed expenditure (largely on new equipment) between 2010 and 2020. A figure of £38 billion (roughly equivalent to the UK annual defense budget) is most often cited, although there are uncertainties as to how that sum was calculated.

Nevertheless, in September 2011, Defense Secretary Liam Fox announced that the shortfall had almost been eliminated, and just months later, Philip Hammond, Fox's successor, was reportedly confident that the black hole had been entirely eliminated and that the government would indeed be able to fund the Future Force 2020 (FF2020) modernization program that was announced in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).[2]

In January 2013, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that it was now in a position to commit as much as £160 billion over 10 years to a defense equipment plan "that will enable the MoD to deliver Future Force 2020." In Hammond's words: "This £160 billion equipment plan will ensure the UK's Armed Forces remain among the most capable and best equipped in the world, providing the military with the confidence that the equipment they need is fully funded."[3]

Hammond's confidence is open to question, however. In the first place, some defense industrialists and acquisition analysts are concerned that the MoD has simply replaced the irresponsibility of overspending with the neurosis of underspending. By one account, successive "reform," "transformation," and "efficiency" programs have eroded the skills, morale, and strength of the MoD's civilian staff, resulting in "a department of state which, rather unusually, is both short of money and, with reduced personnel, lacking the capacity to spend the budget allocated to it."[4]

Furthermore, certain budgetary assumptions upon which the FF2020 construct was based were challenged by a series of cuts and adjustments made in the 2013 UK government spending review. Not the least of these was the decision to depart from past practice in the funding of operational military deployments. Whereas in the past such costs had come from the treasury's contingency reserve, henceforth, the MoD's main budget will be liable for as much as 50 percent of operational costs.

With a recent assessment suggesting that the overall cost of UK involvement in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq could be close to £30 billion, operational costs might represent a very significant new charge on the defense budget.[5] As Andrew Dorman and I have argued, "for these financial reasons alone it is difficult to see how the structure and goal of FF2020, as published in SDSR 2010, can be considered affordable and therefore achievable-unless, as some world-weary commentators suggest, 2025 is to become ‘the new 2020.'"[6]

UK Military Capabilities

The picture is less encouraging when military capabilities are considered. Figures 2, 3, and 4 show trends in land, naval, and air capabilities, respectively. Each figure shows the regular (full-time professional) personnel strength of its featured force and the key hard-power expeditionary capabilities in each case.[7]

The principal land force capability is the battalion-sized unit that could form the basis of a deployable battlegroup: the army's armored regiments and infantry battalions, together with Royal Marine commandos. Artillery tactical fire support would also be essential to any operational deployment.

Figure 2 shows a reduction of land-force personnel by approximately 14 percent between 1998 and 2013, while the number of deployable battalion-sized combat units (including Royal Marine commandos) decreased by some 10 percent.[8] Although these reductions could scarcely be described as radical, they are certainly significant, particularly when lengthy operational commitments are undertaken: the fewer the units, the greater the frequency of deployment, with attendant effects on morale, family life, and retention. Projections to FF2020 show a further 11 percent reduction in both personnel and deployable units from 2013.

As well as the strength of regular naval personnel, figure 3 shows the number of warships in three categories: attack submarines (SSN); aircraft carriers, destroyers, and frigates (principal surface combatants, or PSC); and principal amphibious ships (PAS).[9]

The personnel trend in figure 3 shows a reduction of  approximately one-third in regular naval personnel between 1998 and 2013, with further reductions to be implemented under the FF2020 plan. Although the number of PAS has been held constant over this period, the number of SSN has been reduced by more than 40 percent, and the number of PSC by almost 50 percent. The PSC trend line includes the United Kingdom's temporary abandonment of its aircraft carrier capability, but with at least one of the two Elizabeth-class carriers expected to be in commission by 2020.

Figure 4 shows the regular-personnel strength of the Royal Air Force and the number of aircraft in six key categories. Many UK combat aircraft (both fixed wing and rotary) are manned by personnel from both the Royal Navy and the British Army; these numbers are not represented in the shown personnel strengths.

Between 1998 and 2013, the personnel strength of the Royal Air Force shrunk by roughly 37 percent. In the same period, the number of fighter and fighter/ground attack aircraft-arguably the most vivid and potent symbol of modern air power-had reduced by more than 40 percent. Yet the deployable strength of UK command, control, and communication aircraft (C4ISTAR) and attack helicopters and transport aircraft (fixed wing and rotary)-collectively essential for the projection of hard power in an expeditionary setting-were held more or less stable.

Taken together, figures 2-4 clearly indicate major reductions in the military capability and personnel strength of UK armed forces since 1998. But the deeper significance of these changes is harder to gauge. Reductions in UK military power cannot be said to have been negligible, but neither do they seem to have been irreversible and fundamental.

Where national military posture is concerned, balance should be measured both quantitatively and qualitatively. Quantitatively, balance means consistency and equilibrium in political and budgetary commitment to land, sea, and air forces, respectively. By this definition, an unbalanced force would be one that sacrificed, say, air power to fund a naval construction program.

Qualitative balance is achieved by setting the size of a force, on the one hand, against its technological proficiency and military effectiveness, on the other. Thus, if a smaller force with better equipment can achieve as much or more than a larger force with inferior equipment, then the smaller force might still be said to be balanced.

There are, of course, important gaps in this overview-most notably in aircraft carriers, carrier-borne fixed-wing air power, and C4ISTAR (including maritime patrol). Nonetheless, equipment programs are underway to help remedy these acknowledged deficiencies.

What should also be borne in mind in this survey of UK military capability is military equipment quality (MEQ).[10] For example, the MEQ of obsolescent aircraft such as the Jaguar cannot usefully be set against that of the Typhoon and the F-35 Lightning II; the Astute class of submarines is more capable than its predecessor, as is the Type 45 destroyer; and the A330 Voyager tanker aircraft will be more reliable than its predecessors. Old equipment is scarcely, if ever, replaced on a one-for-one basis; where military force is concerned, numbers and size are emphatically not everything.

It should also be borne in mind that "capability" has long since ceased to be synonymous with "weapon" or "weapon platform": modern military capability is best understood as a highly sophisticated, integrated C4ISTAR system. This is the case even at the level of the individual combatant. The modern infantry soldier, for example, should deploy on operations with a variety of high-quality personal, crew-served, and indirect-fire weaponry at his or her disposal. Body armor and vehicle protection have seen considerable improvements, while advanced communications, reconnaissance, and surveillance equipment have ensured unprecedented levels of battlefield situational awareness.

UK Military Operations

The United Kingdom's armed forces approached the end of the 1990s having acquired considerable and varied operational experience. With the bulk of an armored division supported by air and sea power, the United Kingdom's was the largest European contribution to the US-led coalition operations in the 1991 Gulf War.

From 1992 to 1996, UK armed forces were closely involved in conflicts resulting from the breakup of Yugoslavia, contributing armed troops with air support to the "robust peacekeeping" mission of the United Nations Protection Force and the NATO-led Implementation Force. During the same period, the Royal Air Force contributed to NATO air campaigns in former Yugoslavia. And it was not until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 that the United Kingdom could begin to make substantial reductions in its considerable military commitment to Northern Ireland, where UK army, marine, and air force units had all acquired experience over decades in urban counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations.

In December 1998, the UK and US air forces undertook Operation Desert Fox, a four-day bombing campaign against targets in Iraq, in which Royal Air Force aircraft flew some 15 percent of the sorties. The following year, the UK air force participated in two NATO campaigns: Operation Allied Force against targets in the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and, later, Kosovo Force. That same year, one Royal Navy warship (HMS Glasgow) and a small contingent of British Army troops (with transport aircraft and helicopter support) participated in Operation Warden, the multinational peacekeeping force deployed to East Timor under Australian command.

In 2000, the United Kingdom mounted two joint operations involving land, sea, and air forces in Sierra Leone: Operation Palliser to evacuate noncombatants from Freetown and Operation Barras to rescue captured British troops. For some months during summer 2003, a small contingent of British land and air forces took part in Operation Artemis, the EU-led crisis-management operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

 UK military involvement in Afghanistan began in late 2001 with a series of joint operations, including Operations Veritas and Fingal. In June of the following year, Operation Herrick, the United Kingdom's contribution to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, was launched. Operation Herrick has involved UK land, air, and sea forces in a series of 19 deployments. In 2009-10, at the height of the campaign, some 9,500 UK military personnel were deployed to Afghanistan, including infantry, light armour, artillery, and support troops, with fixed-wing and helicopter attack aircraft and transport and surveillance aircraft.[11]

In terms of scale, the United Kingdom's most demanding military operation of the past decade was Operation Telic, the British contribution to US-led operations in Iraq in March 2003 and the subsequent civil-military occupation and counterinsurgency campaign that lasted until 2011. The United Kingdom deployed no fewer than 46,000 personnel at the start of the commitment, and the force comprised 30 navy warships and support ships, an armored division with three combat brigades and a logistics brigade, and the full range of fixed-wing and helicopter attack aircraft and transport aircraft.[12] As with Operation Herrick, Operation Telic made use of the roulement system, with 13 deployments between 2003 and 2011, each lasting about five to six months.

Finally, the United Kingdom also contributed to the military intervention in Libya from March to October 2011. Operation Ellamy was principally a joint naval-air commitment: naval forces included principal surface combatants, cruise missile-firing submarines, mine countermeasure vessels, and a helicopter carrier (HMS Ocean); air forces included fighter, strike, C4ISTAR, and tanker aircraft, as well as attack and transport helicopters.

The United Kingdom's armed forces have acquired a very high level of operational experience in the past decade and a half. British land, sea, and air forces have been involved in a wide variety of operations: from the very brief (four days) to the very lengthy (13 years), from the relatively small (Operation Warden) to the very large (Operation Telic), and in several different regions of the world (Africa, Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia). Although the roulement system used in Afghanistan and Iraq imposed significant strain on units and individuals, these long-term military operations in particular have spread the direct experience of warfare across the United Kingdom's armed forces.

UK Strategic Intent

The United Kingdom's national strategic outlook and intent are revealed in four sets of documents that punctuated its aforementioned operational experience: the SDR (1998), the SDR: New Chapter (2002), the Defence White Paper 2003, and the National Security Strategy and SDSR (2010).

1998: SDR. The July 1998 SDR marked a fundamental transition in the United Kingdom's strategic outlook. The confusion and lack of direction brought about by the collapse of the 20th-century Cold War strategic order gave way to a mood of cautious engagement with an emergent 21st-century strategic order characterized by insecurity, diversity, and urgency.

The SDR had six significant themes, each of which has resonated powerfully in the UK national strategic debate ever since. The first of these was the Labour government's determination to conduct a "foreign-policy led strategic defence review"-an acknowledgement that in all the complexity of the emerging international security order, it made little sense for foreign policy and national defense to be considered separate domains.[13]

The second theme was risk management. The tone of the SDR was cautious: "there is today no direct military threat to the United Kingdom or Western Europe. Nor do we foresee the re-emergence of such a threat. But we cannot take this for granted." Importantly, the argument advanced here was not that a defense posture of the Cold War style should therefore be maintained "just in case," but that it was a "vital British interest" that these benign trends should be encouraged by UK foreign policy. The implication for UK national strategy and defense was that they should move from "stability based on fear to stability based on the active management of these risks."[14]

The third theme of the SDR was affordability. The stated aim of the review was to "provide the country with modern, effective and affordable Armed Forces which meet today's challenges but are also flexible enough to adapt to change."[15] In an era where no "existential" threat to the United Kingdom could be identified, the defense budget would have to compete with other demands on public expenditure. And in the uncertain times of the 21st century, spending on security and defense would be expected to provide a certain level of "future-proofing" in equipment acquisition.

Savings would also be achieved through technology, the fourth key theme, with the SDR calling for "much more precise application of force as a result of improvements in intelligence gathering, command and control and precision weapons." The fifth theme was alliance building: "For the foreseeable future we envisage that the largest operation we might have to undertake would be involvement in a major regional conflict, whether as part of NATO or a wider international coalition."[16]

The sixth and final theme of the SDR is captured in the term "expeditionary." The SDR promised "a fundamental reshaping of our armed forces" resulting in a "modernised, rapidly deployable and better supported front line."[17] Emphasis was laid on the effectiveness and efficiency of joint forces. The SDR confirmed the decision to build two new aircraft carriers with which UK maritime power would shift from "large-scale maritime warfare and open ocean operations in the North Atlantic" to "littoral operations and force projection."[18]

The SDR furthermore stressed the need to be able to deploy land forces, making use of improved battlefield reconnaissance and intelligence capabilities and new platforms such as the Apache attack helicopter. Air power, too, would be geared to expeditionary operations: the need for both air superiority and air defense would remain, but air defense of the United Kingdom would be at a lower priority.[19]

The United Kingdom's expeditionary force posture also shaped the SDR's defense planning assumptions (DPAs), according to which the United Kingdom would either "respond to a major international crisis" (such as a full-scale, tri-service commitment along the lines of the 1991 Gulf War) or "undertake a more extended overseas deployment on a lesser scale (as over the last few years in Bosnia) while retaining the ability to mount a second substantial deployment." In the event of the latter, dual commitment, the SDR would not expect "both deployments to involve warfighting or to maintain them simultaneously for longer than six months."[20]

2002: SDR: New Chapter. No further, more formal account of the UK strategic outlook was published before the July 2002 appearance of the New Chapter to the SDR.[21] The New Chapter was an acknowledgement both of the events of 9/11 and of the government's determination not to hold a formal national strategy and defense review so soon after the 1998 SDR. The new focus on terrorism as a strategic threat did, however, prompt an important change of emphasis in the DPAs: "our analysis suggests that [...] several smaller scale operations are potentially more demanding than one or two more substantial operations. And there are now signs that frequent, smaller operations are becoming the pattern."[22]

2003: Defence White Paper. The expeditionary theme, coupled more closely with the idea of long-distance counterterrorism and stabilization missions, was taken up again in the 2003 white paper, which was intended to build on both the SDR and the New Chapter "to provide a comprehensive statement of Defence Policy and an assessment of the strategic environment in which our Armed Forces operate." The Defence White Paper would be the "security and policy baseline against which future decisions will be made to enable the UK's Armed Forces to meet the full range of tasks they can expect to undertake in future."[23] The document remained true to the expeditionary idea, albeit with a more pronounced counterterrorist flavor than the SDR:

We must extend our ability to project force further afield than the SDR envisaged. In particular, the potential for instability and crises occurring across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and the wider threat from international terrorism, will require us both to engage proactively in conflict prevention and be ready to contribute to short notice peace support and counter-terrorist operations.[24]

The Defence White Paper thus favored more, lighter, and smaller missions for the armed forces. This position was encapsulated in a subtle yet important shift in DPAs. Although the document insisted that "our forces must retain the capacity to undertake Large Scale operations at longer notice in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Gulf Region," the United Kingdom's underlying strategic intention was clear enough: "Multiple concurrent Small to Medium Scale operations will be the most significant factor in our force planning."

The Defence White Paper continued, "We must therefore plan to support the three concurrent operations, of which one is an enduring peace support operation, that have become the norm in recent years."[25] This was no minor reorganization of existing military means: the 2003 Defence White Paper confirmed a significant change in strategic outlook as the United Kingdom began to focus more closely, and more explicitly, on "small wars."

2010: National Security Strategy and SDSR. The United Kingdom's most recent formal strategic review
was published in 2010 in two parts: the National Security Strategy (NSS), published on October 18, and the SDSR, published the following day.[26]

The NSS was clear in one important respect: "we face no major state threat at present and no existential threat to our security, freedom or prosperity." Rather than thinking in terms of large-scale, traditional threats, the authors of the NSS thought in terms of risk: "The risk picture is likely to become increasingly diverse. No single risk will dominate." In a three-tiered list of "priority risks," the NSS set out a familiar mix of substrategic threats, in response to which UK conventional armed forces would most likely be used at long distance and at a relatively low scale. The four Tier One risks were international terrorism, cyber-attacks and cyber crime, a major accident or natural hazard, and an "international military crisis between states" involving the United Kingdom and its allies.[27]

Other than in the case of the "international military crisis between states" (Tier One) and the case of the increased risk of terrorism resulting from "major instability, insurgency or civil war overseas" (Tier Two), the deployment of UK armed forces in the conventional role does not feature prominently in the first two tiers of the NSS priority risks table. Significantly, the possibility of a "major accident or natural hazard" appears as the third of four Tier One risks (a higher priority, therefore, than the "international military crisis"), while the prospect of a "large-scale conventional military attack
on the UK by another state" appears only as a Tier Three risk.

To meet the wide and varied range of security risks and challenges set out in the NSS, the SDSR offered a new strategic policy framework that in turn generated eight national security tasks:

1. Identify and monitor national security risks and opportunities;

2. Tackle the root causes of instability;

3. Exert influence to exploit opportunities and manage risks;

4. Enforce domestic law and strengthen international norms to help tackle those who threaten the United Kingdom and its interests, including maintenance of underpinning technical expertise in key areas;

5. Protect the United Kingdom and its interests at home, at its border, and internationally to address physical and electronic threats from state and nonstate sources;

6. Help resolve conflicts and contribute to stability by, where necessary, intervening overseas, including legally using coercive force in support of the United Kingdom's vital interests, and protecting overseas territories and people;

7. Provide resilience for the United Kingdom by being prepared for all kinds of emergencies, being able to recover from shocks, and being able to maintain essential services; and

8. Work in alliances and partnerships wherever possible to generate stronger responses.[28]

These eight tasks capture the wide-ranging and generally sober tone of both the NSS and SDSR. Yet they are not too narrowly concerned with hard power. Similarly, of the SDSR's 35 planning guidelines, only 8 are directly concerned with the traditional, conventional use of military power. And in keeping with the mood of caution and constraint, the SDSR's DPAs held to the pattern of the previous decade, expressing a preference for military deployments that would be either far away, fairly small, or relatively brief. The DPAs gave the following alternatives:

1. Conducting an enduring stabilization operation at around brigade level (up to 6,500 personnel) with maritime and air support as required, while also conducting one nonenduring complex intervention (up to 2,000 personnel) and one nonenduring simple intervention (up to 1,000 personnel);

2. Conducting three nonenduring operations if the United Kingdom is not already engaged in an enduring operation; or

3. Committing, for a limited time and with sufficient warning, all UK military effort to a one-off intervention of up to three brigades, with maritime and air support (around 30,000, or two-thirds of the force deployed to Iraq in 2003).[29]

Judging by the 2010 NSS and SDSR, the United Kingdom's strategic outlook is one in which the country will encounter a wide variety of security risks and challenges, ranging from natural hazards such as flooding to cyber crime to humanitarian crises to more traditional defense tasks, yet stopping short of an "existential" threat to the United Kingdom and its interests. Consequently, the armed forces are expected to undertake a wide variety of tasks, including early warning and intelligence gathering, aid to emergency organizations, the provision of a defense contribution to UK influence, and the projection of military power within the parameters of the 2010 DPAs.


This Outlook has charted the recent evolution of UK hard power in terms of four performance indicators. The first, military expenditure, has been relatively constant, while the second, military capabilities, shows downward trends, at least in quantitative terms. A qualitative assessment of UK hard power would certainly be more useful than a simple exercise in counting numbers. But because assessment methodologies are relatively underdeveloped, a qualitative assessment is beyond the scope of this essay.

Operational experience, the third indicator of hard power, is the only one to show a firm upward trend: over the period covered by this paper, and for several years previously, the United Kingdom acquired and consolidated a very strong reputation in the effective use of military force. The final indicator is strategic intent. Here, the United Kingdom's strategic rhetoric has very clearly shrunk.

I suggest three competing explanations for this mixed set of results. The first contender is that the evolution of UK hard power since 1998 has been driven largely by austerity, and remains so. By this view, the priority of successive governments has been to reduce the proportion of public expenditure devoted to defense as quickly as possible, accepting increased strategic risk in what is assumed to be a more benign world, to concentrate on restoring the health of the national economy.

The "peace dividend" of the early post-Cold War period, the argument might continue, was therefore no passing craze: it outlasted the 1990s and endured until it could be reincarnated in the post-2007 mood of austerity. There is a convincing aspect to this argument; UK defense is in the grip of austerity budgeting and will remain so for years to come, but it also somewhat exaggerated. Since the 1990s, the UK government has, after all, spent a great deal of public money on defense: UK defense spending has consistently exceeded the NATO commitment to spend a minimum of 2 percent of GDP on defense, and the United Kingdom remains in the top ranks globally when it comes to defense spending.

The second possible explanation is that in recent years there has been a quiet campaign within government to design out the United Kingdom's capacity to act militarily. The purpose of this "antistrategic" effort has allegedly been to dismantle UK hard power on the grounds that the capacity to intervene gave rise to the temptation to intervene, resulting in the deaths, injuries, expense, and reputational damage to the UK caused by Tony Blair-era wars, most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Certainly, there are persistent, muttered allegations of government ministers and senior officials who have taken it upon themselves to exclude hard power from the United Kingdom's strategic toolbox in preference for an emphasis on the so-called soft power of diplomacy, trading relations, and cultural interaction. By removing the capacity to act, the high-minded, internationalist, interventionist rhetoric of the government's declared strategic intent would thus become relatively free of risk and cost, since little could ever be done about it. And although national defense would still consume a large share of public spending, that sum would be far less than the cost of going to war.

This explanation is also unconvincing, however. Where defense, security, and military matters are concerned, soft power is valid and valuable, but it is best seen as a proxy for hard power rather than a sufficient alternative to it. It requires very little understanding of strategy to see that the result of a self-emasculation program would be for UK hard power to be replaced not by soft power but by bluff, and there might be nothing more expensive than the insecurity that is exposed when a bluff is called. Fortunately, it is barely conceivable that senior people charged with the national security of the United Kingdom could have adopted such a strategically irresponsible, politically dishonest, and intellectually weak position.

If neither austerity nor antistrategy offers a convincing explanation for the evolution of UK hard power, there is a third alternative. The only clear positive trend in the story of UK hard power over the past 15 or so years is the very high level of operational experience gained by UK armed forces. If the forces have remained so effective even under conditions of austerity, then it is at least possible that their success might have worked against them by providing a perverse disincentive for sustained investment in hard power, whether financial, intellectual, or political.

Operational experience might also mask the most convincing yet least attractive explanation for the current condition of UK hard power: strategic ambivalence. It cannot be said that the United Kingdom has altogether lost interest in hard power. But neither can it be said with much confidence what that interest is: Why should the UK remain interested in hard power? How important is hard power to the United Kingdom's national strategic outlook? And is military expenditure seen as a government obligation or as a burden to be offloaded whenever and wherever possible?

Strategic ambivalence is a national strategic outlook that barely qualifies as such, where the aspiration is to commit as little as possible (politically and financially) while retaining the widest possible range of strategic options. Ambivalence can be seen at the political, strategic, financial, technological, and moral levels. Politically, the United Kingdom's diminishing capacity for major operational deployments chimes with public antipathy toward large-scale military interventions, yet does not remove that option altogether.

Therefore, the expeditionary rhetoric found in the NSS and SDSR of 2010, as in earlier statements of strategic intent, need never be tested. Something of this sentiment can be found in a comment made by Secretary Hammond in oral evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee in October 2013: "It would be realistic of me to say that I would not expect-except in the most extreme circumstances-to see a manifestation of great appetite for plunging into another prolonged period of expeditionary engagement any time soon."[30]

Strategically, any adjustments in the United Kingdom's expeditionary hard power are offset by competence in other matters, such as counterterrorism and rescue operations, which are still perceived by the public and media
to be serious national security tasks. Financially, the impressive reputation of the United Kingdom's armed forces holds out the alluring possibility that further cuts might be made (especially in personnel) without any obvious loss of competence, particularly if the scale and duration of operations are reduced.

Technologically, reductions in bulk hard power might rationalize a shift to a more technologically oriented posture involving intelligence, surveillance, precision strike, unmanned combat air vehicles, and similar features. These equipment and platforms are of interest not only because they are often less costly to operate than their conventional equivalents, but also because they offer a degree of political deniability that is not so readily available when there are boots on the ground. Technological warfare might even be considered morally preferable in that it should mean fewer troops being exposed to the risks of combat.

In some respects, strategic ambivalence is to be welcomed. At its most constructive, ambivalence could be the basis of a national strategy based on risk analysis and management-an approach that is most appropriate when national strategy must respond not only to a diverse range of security threats and challenges but also to scarcity and austerity.

Yet where matters of hard power are concerned, a national strategy based on ambivalence and risk must be deliberate rather than accidental and must involve careful and difficult decisions rather than expect to avoid them altogether. For a risk-based national strategy to be effective it will require serious thought and investment in capabilities such as intelligence gathering, early warning, and communications.[31] It remains to be seen whether the UK government will remain meaningfully committed to a risk-based national strategy.

In his first speech as chief of the defense staff in December 2013, General Sir Nick Houghton observed that "[UK] Defence has for many years, certainly since the end of the Cold War, and in strong international company within Europe, been managing the decline of military hard power."[32] But managed decline is not the same as decline; there must be strategic capacity and purpose in whatever remains of the process-however inevitable-of retrenchment.

As the basis for national strategy, ambivalence is no substitute for analysis and decision, and it cannot offer a reassuring glimpse of the future; national strategy will continue to require complex judgements that are periodically revised as circumstances change. And, finally, it is unwise to expect to be ambivalent about everything in national strategy, particularly hard power: national hard power either exists on a militarily meaningful scale or it does not; it either has purpose or it does not.

1. UK Ministry of Defence, Strategic Defence Review (July 1998), 5,
2. James Blitz, “Fox Claims ‘Black Hole’ of Defence Costs Eliminated,” Financial Times, September 26, 2011, /cms/s/0/22559c66-e847-11e0-9fc7-00144feab49a.html# axzz3325j39Yh; and James Blitz, “MoD Plugs £38bn Budget ‘Black Hole,’” Financial Times, May 14, 2012, /cms/s/0/efed7ef2-9de9-11e1-9a9e-00144feabdc0 .html#axzz3325j39Yh.
3. UK Ministry of Defence, MoD Reveals £160 Billion Plan to Equip Armed Forces (January 31, 2013),
4. Paul Cornish and Andrew Dorman, “Fifty Shades of Purple? A Risk-Sharing Approach to the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review,” International Affairs 89, no. 5 (September 2013): 1183–1202, /public/International%20Affairs/2013/89_5/89_5_06_CornishDorman.pdf.
5. Ben Farmer, “Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan Were a ‘Failure’ Costing £29bn,” Telegraph, May 28, 2014,
6. Cornish and Dorman, “Fifty Shades of Purple,” 1187.
7. All personnel data in figures 2–4 have been drawn from official UK publications. See UK Ministry of Defence, UK Defence Statistics Compendium (1998–2002); and UK Ministry of Defence, UK Defence Statistics Factsheets (2003–13), www.dasa Since a single, consistent data series on UK armed forces personnel strength is not readily available, personnel data entries are best read as trend indicators rather than real values.
8. For the purposes of this essay, land-force personnel include the regular, full-time strength of the British Army (as published) plus 6,000 to cover the nominal strength of the Royal Marines.
9. For the purposes of this essay, naval personnel include the regular, full-time strength of the Royal Navy (as published) minus 6,000, representing the nominal strength of the Royal Marines counted in figure 2.
10. For leading analysis on this subject, see Steven Bowns and Scott Gebicke, “From R&D Investment to Fighting Power, 25 Years Later,” McKinsey on Government, no.5 (Spring 2010): 70–75, _VF.pdf.
11. International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Chapter Four: Europe,” The Military Balance 2011 111, no. 1 (2011): 160; and International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Chapter Four: Europe,” The Military Balance 2012 112, no. 1 (2012): 172.
12. BBC News Middle East, “Iraq War in Figures,” December 14, 2011,
13. UK Ministry of Defence, Strategic Defence Review, 8.
14. Ibid., 8.
15. Ibid., 9.
16. Ibid., 13; 16.
17. Ibid., 5 (emphasis added).
18. Ibid, 30.
19. Ibid., 25.
20. Ibid., 26.
21. See UK Ministry of Defence, The Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter (July 2002),
22. Ibid., 14.
23. Policy Director, UK Ministry of Defence, The Defence White Paper & Operations in Iraq—Lessons for the Future (London: December 11, 2003),
24. UK Ministry of Defence, Delivering Security in a Changing World: White Paper (December 2003), 7, .cz/images/Bilakniha/ZSD/UK%20Defence%20White%20Paper%202003.pdf.
25. Ibid., 7.
26. Her Majesty’s Government, Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review (October 2010),
27. Her Majesty’s Government, A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The National Security Strategy, 15; 18; 27,
28. Her Majesty’s Government, The Strategic Defence and Security Review, 10–12.
29. Ibid., 19.
30. House of Commons Defence Committee, Towards the Next Defence and Security Review: Part One (January 7, 2014),
31. Paul Cornish, Strategy in Austerity: The Security and Defence of the United Kingdom (Chatham House, 2010), 23–24,
32. General Sir Nick Houghton, “Annual Chief of the Defence Staff Lecture 2013” (lecture, RUSI, London, December 18, 2013),

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine

What's new on AEI

Defeating ISIS: AEI experts weigh-in before the president’s address on Wednesday
image Degrading, defeating, and destroying the Islamic State
image Wealth Building Home Loan: Building wealth through homeownership and retirement savings
image The $3 iPhone
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 15
  • 16
  • 17
  • 18
  • 19
Tuesday, September 16, 2014 | 5:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.
The Constitution as political theory

Please join us for the third-annual Walter Berns Constitution Day Lecture as James Ceasar, Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, explores some of the Constitution’s most significant contributions to political theory, focusing on themes that have been largely unexamined in current scholarship.

Event Registration is Closed
Wednesday, September 17, 2014 | 8:10 a.m. – Thursday, September 18, 2014 | 1:30 p.m.
Third international conference on housing risk: New risk measures and their applications

We invite you to join us for this year’s international conference on housing risk — cosponsored by the Collateral Risk Network and AEI International Center on Housing Risk — which will focus on new mortgage and collateral risk measures and their applications.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, September 18, 2014 | 2:15 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Speaker of the House John Boehner on resetting America’s economic foundation

Please join us as Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) delivers his five-point policy vision to reset America’s economy.

Event Registration is Closed
Friday, September 19, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Reforming Medicare: What does the public think?

Please join us as a panel of distinguished experts explore the implications of the report and the consumer role in shaping the future of Medicare.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.