Transformation and the United Kingdom

By Dorman, Andrew | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Transformation and the United Kingdom


Dorman, Andrew, Joint Force Quarterly


The last decade has witnessed an academic and professional debate about the revolution in military affairs with a corresponding burst of doctrinal activity. A central theme is how an organization like the armed forces should undertake and manage change.

Prior to World War II, Heinz Guderian wrote of the problems of promoting change even as vested interests within the German army sought to maintain the status quo" "It is a love of comfort, not to say sluggishness, that characterizes those who protest against revolutionary innovations that happen to demand fresh efforts in the way of intellect, physical striving, and revolution." (1) In contrast, Douglas Bader was highly critical of the various "fighter attacks" developed by the British Fighter Command between the world wars because they ignored many lessons of World War I. (2) Both examples highlight the problems of applying new technology. More recently, Tony Mason warned against the military's tendency to favor all things technological: "Concentration on high technology should not lead to the disparagement of the simpler or even obsolescent weapons. The ultimate measure of a weapon's effectiveness is its value as a political instrument, which may not equate to its operational impact." (3) These observations highlight some of the dilemmas surrounding defense transformation and recognize that managing transformation is challenging and risky.

This article examines how London is approaching transformation. The United Kingdom probably ranks second to the United States in projecting military power. As a result, it has retained a broad range of capabilities. Secondly, like the Pentagon, Whitehall has retained a technological focus within its armed forces. Thirdly, its defense budget has been in steady decline since the Cold War, an ongoing financial pressure confronting the majority of forces in the process of transition. Moreover, the United Kingdom leads the way in innovative acquisition. Fourthly, it is ahead of other countries transforming their armed forces, with the exception of the United States. Additionally, it has had ongoing experience with terrorism because of the paramilitary groups operating in Northern Ireland. Finally, as the recent war with Iraq has shown, London remains one of Washington's closest allies.

This article is divided into four parts. The first considers how the defense context has changed for the U.K.--in essence why there is a requirement for change and what the government is trying to achieve. The second examines how the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the armed forces have changed their approach to the new requirements and technologies. The third examines changes to the acquisition process, such as the extent to which new and existing capabilities are changing. Finally, there are conclusions about the nature of change.

Defense Context

During the latter Cold War, defense policy centered on the perceived Soviet threat and domestic terrorism. That led successive governments to focus on four elements: membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), close relations with the United States, an independent nuclear deterrent, and supporting civil authority in Northern Ireland. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a diminishing military commitment to Ulster as a result of the Good Friday Accord have allowed the policy to be redefined, culminating in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR), which was officially based on the requirement:

... to move from stability based on fear to stability based on the active management of these risks, seeking to prevent conflicts rather than suppress them. This requires an integrated external policy through which we can pursue our interests using all the instruments at our disposal, including diplomatic, developmental, and military. We must make sure that the Armed Forces can play as full and effective a part in dealing with these new risks as the old. …

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