House of Lords Library

Future Capability of the UK’s Armed Forces

Published Wednesday, December 21, 2016

This House of Lords Library briefing has been prepared in advance of a debate on 12 January about the future capability of the UK’s Armed Forces in the current international situation.

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The Government (under David Cameron’s premiership) set out its plans for the Armed Forces’ future capabilities in the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR 2015) published in November 2015. This outlined plans for a Joint Force 2025 capable of deploying an expeditionary force of around 50,000, including a maritime task group, a land division, an air group and a Special Forces task group. The Government stated that it would meet the NATO guideline of spending at least 2 percent of GDP on defence each year, and would also raise the defence budget by 0.5 percent a year in real terms, and invest £178 billion in defence equipment over the next decade (an additional £12 billion compared to previous plans). The SDSR 2015 made headline commitments to slightly increase the overall size of the regular Armed Forces, maintaining an Army of 82,000 and increasing the Royal Navy and RAF by 400 and 300 respectively, but pledged to reduce the Ministry of Defence’s civilian staff by around 30 percent.

The UK had the fifth largest defence budget worldwide in 2015, and is one of only five of NATO’s 28 members forecast to meet the 2 percent defence spending guideline in 2016. However, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy expressed concerns in July 2016 that the Armed Forces would not be able to fulfil the wide-ranging tasks assigned to them with the capabilities, manpower and funding allocated in the SDSR 2015. There have been calls for the level of defence spending to be raised to 2.5 or 3 percent of GDP. The Ministry of Defence's equipment spending plans depend on meeting challenging efficiency savings targets, and its spending power could also be affected by the weakening of the pound and fluctuations in GDP. Although the Government has already begun acquiring some of the equipment outlined in the SDSR, concerns have been raised that the long lead time required for the development of new capabilities could leave the UK exposed in the short-term.

While the Government has acknowledged that much has changed in the international situation since the SDSR was published in November of last year, not least the vote in the referendum in June in favour of leaving the European Union, it has taken the view that the principal threats to the UK’s interests have not changed significantly, and that the capabilities outlined in the SDSR remain the right choice for the current strategic context. Others have suggested that the Armed Forces’ future capabilities need to be re-examined in light of the EU referendum, which could change the way the UK cooperates militarily with its EU partners; the victory in the US presidential election of Donald Trump, who has indicated he may not be as committed to the NATO alliance as his predecessors; and signs of increasing aggression on the part of Russia.

Lords Library notes LLN-2016-0071

Author: Nicola Newson

Topics: Armed forces, Defence equipment and procurement, Defence expenditure, Eastern Europe, EU defence policy, NATO, North America, Russia

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House of Lords Library

The House of Lords Library delivers research and information services to Members and staff of the House in support of parliamentary business.