Boris Johnson has announced that extra defence cash will come with ambitions to radically overhaul the UK’s defence capability in the face of shifting global threats.
With the Ministry of Defence (MoD) due to receive an additional £16.5 billion, over and above the Government’s manifesto commitment to a 0.5% real terms increase for each year of Parliament, here is a look at what the fresh investment is set to be spent on.
– Drones and artificial intelligence – is this what the future of warfare will look like?
The Prime Minister certainly thinks so if his statement to MPs announcing the military cash injection is anything to go by.
Mr Johnson spoke about soldiers being “alerted to a distant ambush by sensors on satellites” and using artificial intelligence (AI) to work out how to respond.
In the future, replies to enemy action could involve “ordering a swarm attack by drones” or looking to paralyse aggressors “with cyberweapons”, he predicted.
– With all these robots on the battlefield, will less soldiers be required?
Defence chiefs have shirked the question of whether the British army could be scaled-down as part of increased investment in technology.
In his address to the Commons, the Prime Minister said only that his administration would “reshape our army”, allowing “better equipped soldiers to deploy more quickly”.
– Will some of the current crop of weapons become redundant?
Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, hinted changes could be afoot when he told broadcasters that he would “let go of certain defence capabilities” as part of the new investment, as he stressed that the UK needed to “move with the threat”.
The comments suggest the MoD is readying itself to make some radical decisions as part of the Integrated Review into security and foreign policy, which has been pushed back to next year.
Tanks, which helped turn the tide of the First World War, are reportedly at risk of the chop – although defence chiefs have recently argued that they have at least a decade’s more life in them to support close-contact engagement.
General Sir Nick Carter, the chief of the defence staff, said he “absolutely” knew what Mr Wallace was referring to in his interview comments, and spoke about the need to put a stop to “certain industrial-age capabilities”.
He told PA news agency: “I’ve coined the expression ‘sunset and sunrise’ and the point is if you want to get to an information age of systems from where you are today, in an industrial age of platforms, certain industrial age capabilities will have to meet their sunset in order for others to meet their sunrise.”
– Why the focus on cyberwarfare and AI?
The extra spending includes £1.5 billion for military research and development with the money being used to establish a new centre dedicated to AI.
Sir Nick argued AI would help speed up decision making on the battlefield, allowing British forces to outmanoeuvre their opponents.
A National Cyber Force, combining intelligence agencies and service personnel, is “already operating in cyberspace against terrorism, organised crime and hostile state activity”, Mr Johnson said.
Sir David Lidington, de facto deputy prime minister under Theresa May and now chairman of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank, said Britain would have to “beef-up” its technological capabilities while ensuring not to “run down” its existing protections during what he predicted could be a “difficult transition”.
He told Times Radio: “We face different challenges. The world is multipolar now, it is not an American hegemony – it is a more dangerous place.
“It is a difficult transitional phase where you don’t want to let your guard down, in terms of what you have already. Boris Johnson has given an extra £16.5 billion to the Ministry of Defence but you need more to develop the new technologies and the emphasis starts to change.”
– Why has there been a renewed focus on the Royal Navy if the UK is focusing on new technologies?
The Royal Navy was given a major boost by Mr Johnson as he vowed to use the extra defence spending to “restore Britain’s position as the foremost naval power in Europe”.
Sir Nick suggested the resource-boost for the Royal Navy would see the UK play an increased part in policing global trade routes.
“The global economy has to move through some narrow straits and we have seen over the last 15 to 20 years the challenge of piracy but what we don’t want to see is our ability to move on those global commons being limited,” he told PA.
“So it is entirely logical that we would, as a country that is problem solving and burden sharing, want to try and make that rules-based system work effectively.”