European Union

Women warriors and war games

Future forces will be high-tech and much more compact, although Brexit may curb their deployment, writes James de Waal

Soldiers practise combat techniques on a virtual reality battlefield simulator

Britain’s armed forces in 2030 will probably look much as they have for the past 50 years, at least in their overall shape and structure. They will be a small prof-|essional force with separate naval, ground and air arms, using a mixture of high technology and well-trained manpower to achieve their goals. They will be able to be deployed both at home, to deal with domestic security or natural hazards, and abroad, to support the UK’s international alliances or intervene in foreign conflicts. They will normally work as part of an alliance or coalition, with the United States by far their most important partner. They are also likely to possess nuclear weapons.

We know this in part because much of this future is already planned. Defence planners must always look years or decades ahead because of the time it takes to develop and field modern weapons. Last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review set out plans for a ‘Future Force 2025’, a mere ten years ahead, while also announcing plans to buy equipment to come into service in the 2030s. The designers of the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers have an even more distant horizon in mind, envisaging a service life running into the 2060s and beyond.

Moreover, the weight of the past is hard to shrug off. Tradition and entrenched institutional interests can make it difficult to achieve radical changes to the armed forces, especially given the part they play in Britain’s national life and sense of identity. Often these less tangible pressures are more important in shaping the armed forces than any change in the international situation or in the way that wars are fought.

This helps explain why Britain’s forces in 2030 will still be structured much as they were in the 1960s, despite the dramatic changes since then in Britain’s interests and its international role. In particular it will be very difficult to cut or merge one or more of the separate armed services. Any defence secretary who tried to do so would have to struggle not only with the forces’ political lobbies but also the national memory of Dunkirk, the Somme or the Battle of Britain.

Other pressures will, however, demand more radical changes. The most important of these is money. Although the armed forces of 2030 may still retain the shape of 1960 they will be much smaller, largely because they will be more expensive. In real terms, Britain now spends much the same on its defence as it did at the height of the Cold War, yet in terms of manpower and combat units it is roughly half the size.

Military equipment is increasingly expensive, if also increasingly capable. And, just as in the civilian sector, military personnel costs are constantly rising.

At the moment personnel costs absorb roughly half the defence budget, up from a third in the 1980s. The need to keep this cost growth under control will drive many of the most important changes in Britain’s future forces.

In 2030, Britain will have a much more automated military, with autonomous systems becoming an increasingly important part of the force. This is not principally about combat systems – robot soldiers are still some way off – although the use of drones will proliferate on the ground and at sea as well as in the air. The key impact of automation will be to save on expensive human labour in the military’s support functions. Automated systems will help load bombs on aircraft, repair machinery, supply fuel and ammunition and process information.

In this, the armed forces are moving in the same direction as the civilian economy. US forces have already trialled supply delivery by drone helicopter, beating Amazon by several years. The Royal Navy’s new carrier aircraft will receive their bombs and fuel from a system designed by the same company that makes automated airport baggage handling. Data-mining and processing software will be used for military intelligence, just as it is in internet sales.

Automation will also save money by allowing future armed forces to do much of their training virtually, in so-called synthetic environments. Although Britain’s future forces will still need to conduct demanding training in the real world, increasingly this will be done in conjunction with larger but less expensive exercises on a virtual Salisbury Plain.

Air forces have used simulators for decades to hone the flying and fighting skills of individual aircrews. Now the forces are developing and using military versions of games such as World of Warcraft, the online role-playing phenomenon played by millions of civilians worldwide. These games allow soldiers not only to develop basic skills such as marksmanship but practise tactics and cooperation with thousands of real or artificially-generated allies, enemies and non-combatants, jointly and simultaneously with their navy and air force counterparts.

Personnel issues will drive some other major changes in the make up of Britain’s armed forces. The future British soldier is more likely to be a woman or come from a minority background, may well be a part-timer, and will work as part of a multi-national rather than a purely British unit.

In general, the UK armed forces have a poor record on the diversity of their personnel and ethnic minorities and women are strongly under-represented at the senior level. In July David Cameron opened up new careers for women in the combat arms, announcing that they would be allowed to enter the cavalry, infantry and armoured corps.

Recently the forces have begun to appreciate that lack of diversity is not only bad news from the point of view of fairness and representation, but also has a significant cost to their operational effectiveness. Most importantly for forces that depend on voluntary enlistment it makes no sense to exclude the majority of the population from the potential recruitment pool.

‘Greater diversity is essential if the armed forces are to survive as operationally effective services’

All three services are already having difficulty competing for specialists with the civilian employment market, particularly in fields where there is a national skills deficit such as engineering. The forces also have problems recruiting for the more junior non-specialist ranks, especially when the civilian economy is doing well. Less tangibly, the forces will be less able to think and work as flexibly and adaptably as they wish if their personnel largely think and view the world in the same way.

Greater diversity is therefore essential if the armed forces are to survive as operationally effective services until 2030. Without it their skills and effectiveness will wither away.

This need for diversity will also help blur the line between military and civilian professions. In the past Britain’s professional forces were a breed apart, separate from the civilian economy, offering to some a 20 or 30-year career with the colours.

In the future the small professional forces will be increasingly integrated with reservists – volunteers who spend a few weeks or months each year in uniform and often bring with them skills they use in their civilian jobs. The full-time personnel will also increasingly be encouraged to have career breaks, work flexible hours or, if they choose to leave the forces, to consider returning later in life with broader civilian experience under their belts.

In making these changes the forces aim to become more women and family-friendly by offering more support to those who wish to have children. They see that as working lives get longer there is a chance to exploit the experience of an older pool of talent. They want to send military personnel out into academia to get the benefit of civilian qualifications and education. They need to get access to talented people, particularly in the IT sector, who might be attracted by the adventure and opportunities of military life but who may not want a full-time military career. And they want to save money, by easing out the senior personnel who currently occupy positions for which they are expensively over-qualified, simply because they are guaranteed employment until retirement.

Perhaps most importantly, by making the military career less separate from civilian society, the armed forces hope to broaden popular understanding of who they are and what they do, and avoid the danger that, as their professional numbers shrink, they become isolated and alienated from the country at large.

Similar pressures will also make the British armed forces more integrated with foreign militaries. Britain almost always uses its forces as part of an international coalition, so building cooperation in peacetime makes increasing sense. But the increasing cost of equipment and people will force Britain and its partners to seek economies of scale and give up their ambition to do everything for themselves.

Britain is already part of joint military forces alongside France, the Netherlands, some of the Nordic states, and of course the United States, organized bilaterally or through NATO. This trend will intensify, with an increasing number of Britain’s military units including sizeable foreign contingents, and vice versa. Purely British units may become the exception rather than the rule.

This presents something of a problem for future British governments, as increased military integration with allied forces will of course limit Britain’s ability to act on its own. While a future prime minister might hope in principle to protect British sovereignty and freedom of action, the cost of full military independence would be far beyond what British taxpayers are likely to tolerate. Whatever party makes up the British government in 2030, they will find that there is no alternative to wider military integration with other countries.

Party politics will however count for more when it comes to deciding how, where and why Britain’s future forces are actually used. This is where forecasting becomes more difficult.

For the past 20 years or so Britain’s governments of all parties have followed a consistent policy of international military activism, committing Britain’s forces to distant conflicts for reasons of security, humanitarianism and prestige. They have normally enjoyed cross-party support for this approach in Parliament.

And British governments also used military spending as a political tool, to allow them to position themselves in the political middle ground. In the 1990s, Tony Blair’s New Labour increased defence spending (and revised its position on nuclear weapons) as part of its rebranding as a moderate centrist party. David Cameron boosted the military budget in 2015 in an attempt to woo critics in the Eurosceptic right of his party, who had long complained about defence cuts.

Britain’s disturbed political situation now makes the picture much more confused. The political centre is in disarray, and neither of the main parties seems eager to re-establish themselves there. The Labour leadership and grassroots are strongly anti-interventionist, while the Conservative Party contains a wide array of liberal interventionists, isolationists and those who like some sorts of international activism (such as military intervention) but not other sorts (such as development assistance). For their part, the Scottish Nationalists cannot map out a future security policy when they don’t know what is likely to happen south of the border.

Britain’s present government is taking the position that, despite Brexit, defence policy will continue along the same track as before. This seems complacent.

The Brexit vote has implications far beyond Britain’s relations with the European Union, as it seems to show a country very deeply divided in its view of Britain’s interests, and on how Britain ought to manage its relations with the rest of the world. This will inevitably have consequences for defence policy.

It may be that normal service will be resumed, and the traditional centrist view of Britain as an internationally active, militarily engaged country will prevail. But it may be that we are now seeing a fundamental shift in British policy, towards a period of confusion, introspection and isolation. Britain’s armed forces in 2030 may well look like more automated, more diverse and more international versions of today’s military. But will they actually have anything to do?