The House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following motion on 26 January 2023:

Lord Robathan (Conservative) to move that this House takes note of the level of resilience of the armed forces, given the reduction in personnel and equipment as set out in the ‘Defence in a competitive age’ command paper (CP 411), published on 22 March 2021.

1. What is resilience?

In its civil protection lexicon, the government defines resilience as the “ability of the community, services, area or infrastructure to detect, prevent, and, if necessary to withstand, handle and recover from disruptive challenges”.

The UK defence doctrine, meanwhile, defines resilience as a core characteristic of military flexibility, or the “ability to change readily to meet new circumstances”. This sits alongside other core characteristics including the mental and physical adaptability, versatility and responsiveness of military forces.

2. Government plans for the armed forces

2.1 Integrated review of foreign, defence, security and international development policy

The government established an integrated review of foreign, defence, security and international development policy in February 2020. At the time, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the review would be the biggest of its kind since the end of the cold war.

The review’s conclusions were initially expected to be published in autumn 2020, alongside a comprehensive spending review. However, in November 2020 the government announced it was pushing this target completion date back to early 2021. At the same time, the government said the integrated review’s first outcome would be an increase in defence spending so that expenditure on defence amounted to at least 2.2% of the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP). Mr Johnson explained the rationale for this decision as follows:

The Ministry of Defence has received a multi-year settlement because equipping our armed forces requires long-term investment, and our national security in 20 years’ time will depend on decisions we take today. I have done this in the teeth of the pandemic, amid every other demand on our resources, because the defence of the realm and the safety of the British people must come first […] Reviving our armed forces is one pillar of the government’s ambition to safeguard Britain’s interests and values by strengthening our global influence and reinforcing our ability to join the United States and our other allies to defend free and open societies.

The government published the integrated review’s main conclusions on 16 March 2021 in a command paper entitled ‘Global Britain in a competitive age: The integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy’. Billed as a “comprehensive articulation of the UK’s national security and international policy”, the review identified four overarching, overlapping trends that would be of particular importance to the UK in the period to 2030. These were listed as follows:

  • Geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts: such as China’s increasing power and assertiveness internationally, the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific to global prosperity and security, and the emergence of new markets and growth of the global middle class.
  • Systemic competition: the intensification of competition between states and with non-state actors, manifested in a growing contest over international rules and norms; the formation of competing geopolitical and economic blocs of influence and values that cut across our security, economy and the institutions that underpin our way of life; the deliberate targeting of the vulnerabilities within democratic systems by authoritarian states and malign actors; and the testing of the boundary between war and peace, as states use a growing range of instruments to undermine and coerce others.
  • Rapid technological change: technological developments and digitisation will reshape our societies, economies and change relationships—both between states, and between the citizen, the private sector and the state. Science and technology (S&T) will bring enormous benefits but will also be an arena of intensifying systemic competition.
  • Transnational challenges: such as climate change, global health risks, illicit finance, serious and organised crime (SOC) and terrorism. These threaten our shared security and prosperity, requiring collective action and multilateral cooperation to address them. Of these transnational challenges, climate change and biodiversity loss present the most severe tests to global resilience and will require particularly urgent action.

In response to these trends, the review set out a strategic framework comprising four overarching and mutually supporting national security and international policy objectives for the period to 2025:

  • sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology
  • shaping the open international order of the future
  • strengthening security and defence at home and overseas
  • building resilience at home and overseas

With particular regard to the third objective, strengthening security and defence at home and overseas, the government said the UK would “work with allies and partners to address challenges to our security in the physical world and online”. It said that NATO would remain the “foundation of collective security in our home region of the Euro-Atlantic, where Russia remains the most acute threat to our security”. It also said the UK would “place greater emphasis on building our capacity and that of like-minded nations around the world in responding to a growing range of transnational state threats, radicalisation and terrorism, SOC and weapons proliferation”.

On the subject of the armed forces specifically, the integrated review summarised the principal continuities and changes in approach represented by the review as follows:

Armed forces: we will create armed forces that are both prepared for warfighting and more persistently engaged worldwide through forward deployment, training, capacity-building and education. They will have full-spectrum capabilities—embracing the newer domains of cyberspace and space and developing high-tech capabilities in other domains, such as the future combat air system. They will also be able to keep pace with changing threats posed by adversaries, with greater investment in rapid technology development and adoption.

The House of Lords Library briefing ‘Integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy’ (16 April 2021) contains further information on the integrated review, together with initial reaction.

On 21 September 2022, the government under Prime Minister Liz Truss commissioned an update to the integrated review. As at early November 2022 this was expected to be completed by the end of 2022. However, the update was subsequently delayed.

On taking office, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that he too was committed to an update of the integrated review in a speech to the Lord Mayor’s banquet on 28 November 2022. The government now expects to complete the update ahead of the chancellor of the exchequer’s 2023 spring statement.

In December 2022, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee published a report entitled ‘Refreshing our approach? Updating the integrated review’. It concluded that many of the assumptions underpinning the review had been “found to hold true”. The committee also acknowledged that the Russian invasion of Ukraine and other geopolitical developments supported a case for an update. However, it cautioned that the government would “need to make some considerable changes or be prepared to fill in some of the gaps of the [review] in more detail to justify this use of resources”.

2.2 ‘Defence in a competitive age’

The government has published a range of documents to accompany the integrated review since its publication. Amongst others, these include an international development strategy, a national cyber strategy and a new resilience framework.

One of the first documents to follow the review was a defence command paper entitled ‘Defence in a competitive age’, published by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) on 22 March 2021. This document described the MoD’s contribution to realising the ambitions set out in the integrated review and how defence would deliver the multi-year financial settlement it received in 2020.

In a foreword, Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace outlined how the government intended to strike a balance between maintaining existing capabilities and pursuing innovation in the context of the review’s conclusions. He wrote:

In defence it is always tempting to use the shield of sentimentality to protect previously battle-winning but now outdated capabilities. Such sentimentality, when coupled with over-ambition and under resourcing, leads to even harder consequences down the line. It risks the lives of our people, who are truly our finest asset.

It would similarly endanger our people if we simply wielded a sword of cuts, slicing away the battle proven on the promise of novelty, without regard for what is left behind. Old capabilities are not necessarily redundant, just as new technologies are not always relevant. Those of us in government charged to protect and defend have a duty to enter new domains, as well as continuing investment in the traditional ones, but always adapting to the threat.

History shows us, time and time again, that failing to do so risks irrelevance and defeat. As the threat changes we must change with it, remaining clear-eyed about what capabilities we retire, why we are doing so, and how they will be replaced.

Mr Wallace added that the integrated review and funding settlement for defence offered an “exciting opportunity to turn hollow forces into credible ones, modernising for the threats of the 2020s and beyond”. He said the Royal Navy would have “new ships and missiles”, the Royal Air Force (RAF) “new fighters and sensors”, and the army would be “more deployed and better protected”. He continued:

Most importantly our armed forces will be integrated across all domains, joining up our people, equipment and information to increase their outputs and effectiveness. This marks a shift from mass mobilisation to information age speed, readiness and relevance for confronting the threats of the future.

These principles will guide our doctrine and force development. The ‘Integrated operating concept’ [see also this explanatory video], published last year, recognises that changes in the information and political environments now impact not just the context but conduct of military operations. The notion of war and peace as binary states has given way to a continuum of conflict, requiring us to prepare our forces for more persistent global engagement and constant campaigning, moving seamlessly from operating to war fighting.

The armed forces, working with the rest of government, must think and act differently. They will no longer be held as a force of last resort, but become more present and active around the world, operating below the threshold of open conflict to uphold our values and secure our interests, partner our friends and enable our allies, whether they are in the Euro-Atlantic, the Indo-Pacific, or beyond.

The command paper said that defence would contribute to the four overarching objectives set by the integrated review as follows:

  • Sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology—which we will support through our contribution to UK cyber power through the National Cyber Force; investment of at least £6.6bn in research and development (R&D) over the next four years, guided in part by the ‘Defence science and technology strategy 2020’; a network of innovation hubs and defence and security accelerator challenges; supported by the defence and security industrial strategy in creating a more certain environment for industry.
  • Shaping the open international order of the future—which we will support through our adherence to international humanitarian law in our own operations; freedom of navigation operations in support of international maritime law efforts to shape responsible behaviour in cyberspace and space, and the ethical development and deployment of technology based on democratic values; and by embedding international laws, rules and norms in partners’ approach to security through capacity building.
  • Strengthening security and defence at home and overseas—which we will support through defence of the UK, the overseas territories and crown dependencies, our ability to conduct non-combatant evacuation operations when needed, and our chemical biological radiological and nuclear (CBRN) expertise, which was called upon in response to the 2018 Salisbury attack; our contribution to deterrence through collective security with our allies in NATO, and building the capacity and resilience of like-minded partners to evolving security threats; support for UN peacekeeping operations as part of the government’s effort to reduce the frequency and incidence of conflict; and by providing high-end PURSUE counter-terrorism capabilities, maintaining our contribution to the global coalition against Daesh in Iraq and Syria, to coalition efforts in Afghanistan and to French operations in the Sahel, as well as further integrating our counter-terrorism activity through the new Counter Terrorism Operations Centre (CTOC).
  • Building resilience at home and overseas—which we will support through military aid to the civilian authorities (MACA), most recently in support of the Covid-19 response; support to local authorities in responding to extreme weather events, and to law enforcement following terror attacks, as in 2017; our readiness to provide humanitarian relief overseas at speed; and our ability to provide specialist and rapid support in responding to global health risks, such as during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

In support of this new approach, the command paper outlined a planned reduction in army regulars:

The army of the future will be leaner, more lethal, nimbler, and more effectively matched to current and future threats. The new structure will reorganise the army into more self-sufficient brigade combat teams (BCT) able to meet demand by drawing on their own dedicated logistics and combat support units […] Overall, this restructuring will see a reduction from the current full-time trade trained strength of 76,000 to 72,500 by 2025.

It added that a restructuring of the army around an expeditionary posture and the creation of combat service support battalions would require fewer separate units of logisticians, electrical and mechanical engineers and medics. It said “no cap badges will be deleted nor any redundancies required”.

A subsequent policy document published in November 2021, entitled ‘Future soldier: Transforming the British army’, updated the target for the full-time trade trained strength of the army to 73,000. The document added that the MoD intended to “grow the strength of the army reserve to 30,100”, giving a whole force strength of over 100,000. However, the revised 73,000 target for the regular army still represented a reduction from the 82,000 personnel target figure outlined in the earlier ‘National security strategy and strategic defence and security review’, published in November 2015.

The command paper also provided detail on expected equipment changes. It said:

  • The Royal Navy would develop fleet solid support ships, multi-role support ships and the concept and assessment phase for a new Type 83 destroyer; upgrade its Type 45 destroyers; bring Type 31 and Type 32 frigates into service; launch Type 26 anti-submarine warfare frigates; and retire two of its oldest Type 23 vessels.
  • The army would invest in new air defences and tactical surveillance drones; accelerate the in-service date of the Boxer armoured vehicle, due to replace Warrior vehicles; upgrade 148 of its over 220 Challenger 2 main battle tanks, while retiring the remainder; modernise long-range precision fire capability (including multiple launched rocket systems and Apache); and retire, upgrade and/or consolidate its helicopter inventory.
  • The Royal Air Force would grow its combat air capacity with the full establishment of all seven operational Typhoon squadrons and the (F-35) Lightning II Force, increasing the fleet size beyond the 48 aircraft already ordered; continue to invest in the future combat air system; increase the capacity and capability of the A400M Atlas force and operate C-17 Globemaster and Voyager transport aircraft and tankers, E-7A Wedgetails, P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and long-range Protector remotely piloted systems; and retire older fleets including the E-3D Sentry, the BAe146, the C130 Hercules, Typhoon Tranche 1 and Hawk T1.

See the House of Commons Library briefings ‘Integrated review 2021: Emerging defence technologies’ (25 March 2021) and ‘Defence command paper 2021: Equipment cuts’ (30 March 2021) for further information on planned capabilities and the military platforms due to be withdrawn from service.

The command paper was later followed by a defence and security industrial strategy and defence artificial intelligence strategy.

An updated defence command paper is expected alongside the integrated review update, with both due ahead of the 2023 spring statement. A review of the defence and security industrial strategy is taking place alongside this exercise.

In July 2022, the House of Commons Defence Committee published a report entitled ‘The integrated review, ‘Defence in a competitive age’ and the defence and security industrial strategy’. It concluded:

The MoD tells us that the integrated review anticipated the potential for the conflict in Ukraine. Despite this, capabilities are being cut in the short-term but not replaced until the long-term. The MoD states that mass is no longer of importance but the conflict in Ukraine seems to undermine this conclusion. The MoD is intent on adopting capabilities based on novel technologies but (as evidenced by the debacle around Ajax) is seemingly unable to procure and deploy the equipment which underpin the concept. We welcome the analysis and intent behind the integrated review and its associated defence command papers but are concerned about how effectively they are being implemented. Furthermore, it is clear that even if decisions are being proceeded with—in spite of the lessons from the Afghanistan withdrawal and those yet to be learned from the conflict in Ukraine—the timetable of those decisions ought to be subject to review.

In ‘Refreshing our approach? Updating the integrated review’, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said it was the “defence command paper and related defence industrial strategy that require the most updating in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine”.

3. Current personnel levels, accommodation and civil resilience activities

The MoD’s most recent quarterly service personnel statistics, published on 1 October 2022, included the following key points and trend information on strengths, intake and outflow for the regular armed forces and trained reserves:

  • 192,300: Strength of UK forces service personnel at 1 October 2022—a decrease of 6,640 (3.3%) since 1 October 2021
  • 134,940: Full-time trained strength (Royal Navy/Royal Marines and RAF) and full-time trade trained strength (army) at 1 October 2022—a decrease of 2,190 (1.6%) since 1 October 2021
  • 11,982: People joined the UK regular armed forces in the past 12 months (1 October 2021 to 30 September 2022)—a decrease of 5,090 (29.8%) compared with the previous 12‑month period
  • 16,250: People left the UK regular armed forces in the past 12 months (1 October 2021 to 30 September 2022)—an increase of 2,400 (17.4%) compared with the previous 12‑month period
  • 31,030: Strength of the trained Future Reserves 2020 at 1 October 2022—a decrease of 1,040 (3.2%) since 1 October 2021
  • 3,720: People joined the Future Reserves 2020 in the past 12 months (1 October 2021 to 30 September 2022)—a decrease of 1,980 (34.8%) compared with the previous 12‑month period
  • 5,990: People left the Future Reserves 2020 in the past 12 months (1 October 2021 to 30 September 2022)—an increase of 330 (5.9%) compared with the previous 12‑month period

The House of Commons Library briefing ‘UK defence personnel statistics’ (23 August 2022) noted the following for personnel levels as at 1 April 2022:

  • The total size of the full-time UK armed forces (trained and untrained) was just under 158,000. Most personnel were within the army (56%), with the remainder being equally split between the Royal Navy/Royal Marines and the RAF.
  • The army was 6% above its targeted size, while the Royal Navy/Royal Marines and the RAF were 2% and 6% below their targeted size respectively.
  • Most personnel in the UK regular forces were stationed in the United Kingdom (around 96%). Of the 5,890 personnel stationed overseas, around two thirds were in Europe (65%), while 15% were stationed in North America, 7% in North Africa and the Middle East, and 6% in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Between October 2013 and April 2022, the trained strength of the tri-service Future Reserves 2020 increased by 38% (from around 23,000 to 32,500). However, only the RAF Reserve has achieved its targeted size.

On 31 March 2022, the MoD’s Defence Infrastructure Organisation managed 47,900 UK properties used as service family accommodation. This represented a decrease of 1,000 compared with a year earlier. In addition, 78,440 service personnel occupied permanent single living accommodation on 29 November 2022.

On 9 January 2023, the government said that the armed forces had “received and supported a total of 783 military aid to the civil authorities (MACA) requests between the years of 2019 and 2022”. These were broken down as follows: 63 in 2019; 303 in 2020; 319 in 2021; and 98 in 2022. In June 2022, the government said the MACA system was “carefully calibrated to ensure there is no impact on the ability of the armed forces to defend the UK”. It added:

Defence of the UK is of course our highest priority. The nature, scale and volume of requests under MACA means that the majority are met by assigning latent capacity that can be reprioritised in the short term, and do not therefore impact upon core defence tasks. MACA tasks may occasionally have a modest impact on training schedules, though in some cases the task itself provides training opportunities (particularly in highly specialist areas such as explosive ordnance disposal, medical evacuation, diving, cyber or intelligence).

4. Comment on the size of the UK armed forces in Parliament

4.1 Selected chamber exchanges

During the statement on the integrated review in the House of Lords on 17 March 2021, the government stressed that increased investment in the armed forces would allow for “wholesale modernisation”. However, the Labour Party alleged the review had been published “against a backdrop whereby the two previous reviews […] have weakened the foundations”, with “an £8 billion [real terms] cut to the defence budget [since 2010] and a reduction of 45,000 in armed forces personnel”.

A week later, during the statement on the defence command paper in the House of Lords, the government explained the reasoning behind certain equipment reductions as follows:

While I know that some colleagues would rather play Top Trumps with our force numbers, there is no point boasting about numbers of regiments while sending them to war in Snatch Land Rovers or simply counting the number of tanks when our adversaries are developing new ways to defeat them. That is why we have put at the heart of the defence command paper the mission to seek out and understand future threats and to invest in the capabilities needed so that we can defeat them.

The government reiterated that the “armed forces, working with the rest of government, must think and act differently”. It added that the threats facing the UK demanded certain “investments in, and adjustments to, the services”. However, again the Labour Party criticised the planned “reductions in the strength of our forces and crucial military capabilities”. Lord Tunnicliffe, speaking for the party, asked:

How will the loss of 10,000 personnel affect our relationship with our key allies and NATO? In total, how many jobs in the defence industry will be lost as a result of axing Warrior vehicles and Challenger tanks? I fear that the “era of retreat”, as the prime minister called it, will not end but be extended.

During an opposition day debate in the House of Commons on 14 April 2021, the Labour Party invited the House to call on the government to “rethink its plan set out in the defence command paper, published in March 2021, to reduce key defence capabilities and reduce the strength of the armed forces, including a further reduction in the size of the army by 2025”. Shadow Secretary of State for Defence John Healey argued that the reduction to the size of the army would mean it being at its smallest in 300 years. He also criticised the government for a perceived lack of detail in its plan. He said:

There is no explanation of how we will sustain the forward-deployed, front-footed, persistently globally deployed and engaged armed forces with so few ships and transport aircraft. There are no evident contingency plans to replace the losses of key equipment in conflict. There is nothing about mothballing equipment retired from service, like so many other countries do, rather than disposing of it on the narrow grounds that it saves money.

Mr Healey also argued that “cutting army numbers reduces the UK’s national resilience by reducing our capacity to react to unforeseen circumstances at home and abroad”. He gave the following examples: “not just major wars, but insurgencies such as Afghanistan, international interventions such as Sierra Leone or Kosovo, and emergency support operations such as post terrorist attacks or during Covid”.

Tobias Ellwood, chair of the House of Commons Defence Committee, also criticised the planned reductions in personnel and certain equipment capabilities. He said:

During the cold war, defence spending was at 4% of GDP. Few would disagree that the threats today are different, but they are arguably more dangerous and more unpredictable, yet we remain on a peacetime budget of just 2.2%. It is simply impossible for the MoD to meet all the obligations spelled out in the integrated review, hence the sweeping cuts that are now taking place across our defence capabilities, something that has not gone unnoticed by either our allies or our adversaries.

In response, Johnny Mercer, then minister for defence people and veterans, argued the reforms set out in the integrated review and defence command paper would “enhance, rather than reduce, the strength of our military to meet future threats”. On planned reductions in the size of the army, Mr Mercer replied:

Yes, there are going to be fewer people in the military, but we can now deploy at a far faster rate and at a far greater global reach, and that is what matters today. So yes, mass has a force all of its own, and you will find no minister in the defence department who does not want more money for the defence budget and more people in the military, but the reality is, as the secretary of state has said a number of times, that we have to operate within the envelope of our ambition in this country when it comes to the military.

In the weeks following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the government continued to reiterate that it would “continue to review our capabilities and readiness levels”. However, during an oral question on the subject of the defence command paper in April 2022, several members of the House of Lords questioned whether it was appropriate to reduce equipment and personnel levels until future capabilities were operational.

In further exchanges, the government highlighted the integration plans set out in the defence command paper. For example, Baroness Goldie, a minister of state at the MoD, said in May 2022:

On the size of the military, I refer […] to the integrated review, the comprehensive spending review and, importantly, ‘Future soldier’, which detailed how we envisage the shape of the military in forthcoming years and was signed off at the highest levels in the MoD. It is interesting to reflect on how the conflict in Ukraine has unfolded. It has been clear that the might of Russia in terms of numbers of soldiers has actually been of questionable effect when, in Ukraine, an ably trained, very professional, well-equipped force, armed with intelligence, has been able to be very effective in its defence. These are complicated matters but it is perfectly clear that mere numbers are not sufficient.

During an oral question on British troop numbers asked in June 2022, the government repeated its view that “we must focus on defence capability rather than troop numbers in response to changing threats and priorities”. Deputy Leader of the House of Lords Earl Howe continued:

Through ‘Future soldier’, the army will have a whole force of over 100,000, comprised of 73,000 regular service personnel and 30,100 army reserve. It is reorganising and re-equipping to face future threats. This will deliver a modern force that is more integrated, agile, lethal and fit for the threats of the future, not the battles of the past. It will be better connected and faster, integrated across domains with allies in NATO and beyond.

4.2 International Relations and Defence Committee report

On 12 January 2023, the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee published a report entitled ‘UK defence policy: From aspiration to reality?’. On the subject of current and future defence capabilities, the committee concluded:

Each of the three services faces a different set of challenges. While we acknowledge the government’s investment plans for the Royal Navy, we are concerned that the current economic environment, and inflation in particular, may have an adverse impact on them. We consider that reforming the British army will be a particularly challenging task. Although the government has been criticised for its planned reduction in the number of military personnel, we recognise that there is no ‘intrinsically’ correct size of the armed forces. The appropriate number of personnel will depend on the tasks they are expected to perform, and on the ability to equip and train them adequately. The RAF faces its own set of challenges, particularly controlling the air in high-intensity conflict, and should be strengthened through closer cooperation with our NATO partners and allies. There is a scope for the RAF to take the lead on the European suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD)/destruction of enemy air defence (DEAD) airpower capabilities. In addition, the Ukraine war has exposed the inadequacy of both the weapon and ammunition stocks across all three services. Addressing this problem should be one of the highest priorities for the government.

The committee acknowledged the government’s intention to update both the integrated review and the defence command paper in early 2023. It said this would provide an opportunity for the government “not only to set out its views on what has changed in the last 21 months, but also to outline clearly how it plans to translate the aspirational language of the previous reviews into practice, and the consequences of the changed economic context”.

5. Read more

5.1 House of Lords Library briefings

5.2  House of Commons Library briefings

5.3  Parliamentary committees

5.4 Other material

Cover image by Sgt Ben Beale from Ministry of Defence.