The Transformation of British Defense and The Growing Threat Perception in Europe

11.06.2024

The first notable development following the UK government’s decision to go to early elections in July was Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak’s promise to bring back compulsory military service if re-elected. The Prime Minister announced a plan whereby 18-year-old citizens would have the choice of joining the army full-time for 12 months or doing voluntary community service for a weekend every month. This would see 30,000 young people join the armed forces full-time each year, at a cost of around £2.5 billion a year. Mr. Sunak said he believed that bringing back conscription and community service across the UK would help foster a sense of common purpose among young people and restore national pride. The need for this is underpinned by the Prime Minister’s assertion that “Britain today faces a more dangerous and divided future” and that “democratic values are under threat”. These are seen as steps to unite British society in an “increasingly uncertain world”.

London’s new defense reality

In a speech in January, the commander of the British army, General Sir Patrick Sanders, likened the situation in Ukraine to the crises of 1914 and 1937, saying that only “citizen armies” could defeat the impending attack on the Western way of life. He underlined the need for the UK’s “pre-war generation” to prepare for the possibility of future conflict, adding that the “whole nation’s involvement” was necessary. The general also called for an almost doubling of the size of the British army. There are two reasons why the Sunak government, which rejected this at the time, later presented it as an election promise. The first is the political choice to emphasize the war and security issues that were on the public agenda during the election campaign period, which is where it seems to differ from other parties. The other and more fundamental reason is the possibility that London may have shifted to a new defense reality with the increasing pressure on the UK in the rapidly changing perception of defense needs in Europe.

This transformation actually started with the British Prime Minister’s announcement of 3 defense priorities. First, the government will mobilize the UK defense industrial base by investing at least 10 billion pounds in ammunition production within 10 years. Second, it will modernize the Armed Forces by allocating at least %5 of the defense budget to R&D. The third priority is different and much more specific. It will equate Ukraine’s security with the UK’s security, and will see major increases in the budget allocated for the military support Ukraine needs. “If we are to continue to defend our values, freedoms and prosperity against the growing threats we face, we must invest in defense,” the plan says, marking the biggest strengthening of British defense since the Cold War, and London is embarking on a sweeping and detailed defense reform. Some of the parts of this reform include new investments and strategies for new allocations or funds to promote progress and growth, a redesigned headquarters management, a breakthrough in weapons technology and an expansion in production capacity.

In addition, Sunak announced that the UK will increase its defense spending to %2.5 by 2030. Thus, spending, which is currently around %2.3, will increase by around 9 billion to £87 billion in 2030. In announcing the plan, Mr. Sunak noted that an axis of states – Russia, Iran and China – are increasingly working together to undermine democracies and reshape the world order, while also investing heavily in their own militaries, cyber capabilities and low-cost technologies. To counter this, he emphasized the importance of this increase in UK spending for European security.

European repercussions of increased threat perception

All these developments in the UK stem from the growing perception of the threat to Europe, which has been emphasized in many statements. For Europe to be resilient on its own, it needs to build the capacity with partners in all areas to stop the Russian advance they envision. Dutch Admiral Rob Bauer, Chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, stated directly after the committee’s meeting in March that Europeans must prepare for war. The doctrine that if we want peace, we must be ready for war has long been unheard of on the continent, but it is now appearing in official documents and statements of European states and the European Union (EU). “We know that Putin’s ambitions do not end in Ukraine,” said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, adding that Europe must be prepared. Leyen pointed to Brussels as the place to work on building capacity against hybrid threats. For this, the British need to be in the system with more conviction and capacity. Germany, on the other hand, is approaching the issue as “If the United Kingdom still wants to play a leading role in European security, it needs to increase its spending and update its army”.

Against this backdrop, the European Council approved a report on EU security and defense in May. This report emphasizes continued support for Ukraine. It underlines the need to increase the EU’s ability to act by ensuring the availability of defense products and strengthening the EU’s Defense Technological and Industrial Base (EDTIB) to meet the needs of Member States’ armed forces and, if necessary, those of their partners. It highlights the importance of preparing for any hybrid threat by strengthening the EU’s resilience and securing access to strategic areas. Finally, it pledges that the EU will continue to further strengthen, deepen and broaden tailor-made and mutually beneficial partnerships with partners based on shared values and interests.

Preparation for war in European armies

The current and potential steps in the UK cannot be considered different from those in Europe as a whole. In addition to all the EU’s cooperation tools, funds, commonization of policies and steps such as increasing production in the defense industry and strategic sharing, there are also national developments. We have been following the strengthening of armies across the continent in general.

In March, Denmark announced plans to extend compulsory military service to women for the first time and increase the standard length of service. Scheduled to take effect in 2026, this would make Denmark the third European country, alongside Norway and Sweden, to require women to serve in the armed forces. It was also stated that compulsory military service will be extended from 4 to 11 months for both men and women. The country has also announced a series of reforms that will increase military spending from the current %1.4 of GDP to %2.

Sweden abolished conscription in 2010, but reintroduced it in 2017. At the end of 2023, it was decided to reintroduce the social service obligation. In Norway, it has been compulsory for women as well as men to apply for military service since 2016.

In Austria, compulsory military service has not been abolished despite intense debates in recent years. Men between the ages of 18-35 undergo 6 months of basic military training. Latvia introduced 11-month compulsory military service for men aged 18-27 starting this year. Lithuania reintroduced compulsory military service in 2015 after abolishing it in 2008. In Greece, military service is compulsory for men aged 18-45. In Switzerland and Finland, military service is compulsory for men after the age of 18.

In Germany, the government is evaluating conscription by examining conscription models in various countries. The main opposition CDU party has included a plan for a gradual return to conscription in its party program. In most of these countries, application for military service and initial procedures are compulsory, but some men are drafted according to need and availability. There is a tendency in European governments to increase these numbers in the near future due to the current circumstances. In general, however, the reconsideration of compulsory military service in all these countries is linked to the perceived threat, which began with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and increased with the war in Ukraine in 2022.

For Europe, which has identified its deficiencies in terms of ammunition, vehicles and equipment, and has started to implement different strategies to complete this, we see that work on the human factor, which is the second stage, has been accelerated. Despite all their technological equipment, in line with the emphasis on the tendency that “the soldier wins the war”, we can see that the armies’ efforts to improve the number of personnel and their equipment is one more step taken against the impending threat of war. It is also intended to rebuild values that have been forgotten for some time in European welfare societies and to remind citizens of their responsibility for both social cohesion and the defense of the nation. This signals a transformation not only in the barracks but also in the political sphere.

 

This article has been published by Anadolu Agency (in Turkish) on June 04, 2024.

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