Specialisation: An Active Risk Mitigation

This month, I was lucky enough to spend a little quality time with the new Chairman of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, Sir Jeremy Quin, and his senior House staff. The take away from the experience was that, in a thoughtful and research-led corner of our UK defence architecture, serious people are starting to consider notions of military specialisation rather than chiming a commitment to a “full-spectrum” national defence capability. For the uninitiated, the latter phrase refers to a national military that can perform, supposedly, every military role across the domains of Land, Sea and Air, with a country generating large, standing forces to enable it to do so.

It is a concept that has been contested in recent years. When I first moved to the defence think tank, RUSI, in 2011, analysts were unpacking the Cameron and Osborne spending cuts to ensure that British Defence could “still” offer a full-spectrum capability posture. Come 2015, British officials were openly discussing the country’s ability to field a full-spectrum force only in partnership with allies. For example, the new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier would deploy principally as part of an international task force as, put simply, the UK would be stretched to protect her with its own maritime assets. Specialisation had crept up on us by stealth – we’ll provide the aircraft carrier, our friends will provide the frigates, destroyers, corvettes and other assets – but this has not ended the narrative of the UK requiring significant Land, Sea and Air forces as national, rather than alliance assets.

There is another challenge to a full-spectrum defence posture to consider. Traditionally, the operating domains were land, sea and air, as we have briefly mentioned. Today, contested domains also include Space and the on-line world of Cyber, not to mention the ever-important arenas of information operations and influence management. The potential battle-space is growing, perhaps exponentially, yet we stick to the military tools and techniques rooted in historical significance but challenged by high-modernity relevance.

Which means that the conversations around specialisation between allies could be a hugely important risk mitigation to a world of unaffordable defence commitments and unsated demands for future expenditure. The UK industrial capacity could continue to provide significant resources for the land systems of allies and consumables for soldiers, such as small arms ammunition. But, maybe, at a strategic level, we reinforce the configuration of our military to specialise in maritime operations focussed on the European mainland and the maintenance of trade routes between home and the indo-pacific. Large land forces in Europe become the business of somebody else whilst our specialist contribution to a new concept of alliance full-spectrum is a maritime capability supported by specialist air power. For some, such thinking would be heresy. For others, I suspect the conversation has begun.

John Louth

Professor John Louth is senior strategic adviser to Redstone Risk. He serves on a number of UK defence boards as either a non-executive director or strategic adviser and sits on the panel of advisers to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. His latest book on UK exports was published this year by Routledge. He is a collaborating professor with the University of South Australia in Adelaide.