What are the UK’s Armed Forces for?

It may seem an obvious question, but I have never heard a frank and honest public discussion that fully defines the purpose of our Armed Forces. The current crisis in Ukraine has highlighted the stark contrast between our elected politicians wanting to talk tough and appear as a big player on the world stage versus the reality of what we have equipped and resourced our Armed Forces to actually do.

It would be easy to find a broad consensus that they should defend the UK, and it’s Overseas Territories and Dependencies. Most would agree that we have treaty obligations under NATO that we are obliged to meet, and few would argue against using their equipment and expertise to support disaster relief and respond to emergencies.

Beyond that however, should the UK maintain an expeditionary capability, able to conduct operations far away and intervene in conflicts that don’t directly affect UK territory or NATO allies?

It’s an important question in many ways, not least because the Armed Forces needed to do that look quite different to what is needed just to conduct defensive operations close to home. As a nation, we need to collectively decide what is our place in the world, then we have a duty and obligation to resource and equip our Forces accordingly. I suggest that we are currently failing.  Numbers of troops, tanks, warships and combat aircraft are at historic lows, having been cut again recently by the Conservative Government (while boasting of increased defence spending).

Without proper debate, the UK is attempting to cling to world power status without being prepared to pay for it and the result is that our Armed Forces are unbalanced, ill-equipped and under-resourced.  That does our Forces personnel a disservice.

The disparity between our aspirations and resources is highlighted by the Royal Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers. These two ships are the largest ever built for the Royal Navy, costing over £6bn for the pair and each capable of carrying 40 aircraft. Their purpose is to project power and conduct military operations far away from Europe – they are not needed to defend the UK or it’s European allies. The cost of these ships has strangled spending elsewhere and numbers of the smaller frigates and destroyers needed to patrol our coastline and keep shipping lanes open has been cut to accommodate them.  Meanwhile, decisions taken years ago mean that the only combat aircraft capable of operating from these carriers is the eye-wateringly expensive F-35B that are reported to cost $115m each.

The lead ship HMS Queen Elizabeth recently returned from a much heralded deployment “East of Suez”.  Yet it carried only eight British F-35s, whilst also providing a floating home for ten US Marine Corps aircraft, as funding constraints slowed delivery of British aircraft and limited the number available.  It also depended on allies along the way for surface escorts, after one of the Royal Navy’s destroyers broke down in the Mediterranean.  Meanwhile, it was reported earlier this month that while tensions were rising in Ukraine and British politicians wagged their fingers at Putin, the Royal Navy’s entire fleet (of just 6) Destroyers were all in port in the UK undergoing repair, maintenance or upgrade.  It has just been announced that one of those Destroyers will shortly be deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean, where it will join HMS Trent – a small and very lightly armed patrol vessel built for low intensity operations like fisheries protection. The Russian Navy is unlikely to be worried.

So what do we want from our Armed Forces as a society? Should we be a world power, with the credible ability to patrol shipping lanes in the South China Sea or deter Russian aggression in the Ukraine?  If so, we have to accept the need to pay for it otherwise we will once again send British Forces into situations without the resources and equipment necessary to do the job properly, which will needlessly cost lives. Or do we accept we are now a regional power only, with the ability to defend ourselves and our near allies, and rebalance our Forces and equipment procurement to do that efficiently? What isn’t acceptable is to pretend to be the former, while spending the budget of the latter.

The Lib Dem 2019 manifesto contained a commitment to meeting the NATO minimum defence spending of 2% of GDP, and it’s worth noting that taken as a target this represents a cut in spending when compared the Conservative’s actual and planned defence spending.  Unless that number is raised in the next manifesto, we will be campaigning in the next General Election on a platform of defence cuts, and we need to be prepared to be honest with the electorate as to what that means.

To be clear, this article relates to the UK’s conventional forces only.  The nuclear deterrent can be debated (again) another time.


* Nick Baird is a Lib Dem activist in Cheltenham, and member of the Policy Working Group on International Security. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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  • Brad Barrows 20th Feb '22 - 11:00am

    I get the point of the article but it impossible to consider questions around the purposes of our armed forces and the level of defence spending without considering the issue of nuclear weapons as part of the debate. The days of British Empire are gone and the UK needs to adjust to being a state of 70 million people covering a land area of 93,000 square miles – for comparison, Ukraine has an area of 233,000 square miles.

  • Jenny Barnes 20th Feb '22 - 3:31pm

    To start with we should sell HMS HighValueTarget & HMS DelusionsOfGrandeur. India would probably be interested.

  • Laurence Cox 20th Feb '22 - 4:37pm

    We should start by making clear that we only meet the NATO 2% target by including military pensions and so our target should be to spend at least 2% on defence, excluding pensions.

    The decision, made by Labour, to build two aircraft carriers without catapults and arrester wires was the worst military procurement decision this century as it means that they are interoperable only with the US Marine Corps and no-one else. The F-35B has a rather shorter range and lower munition-carrying capacity than the F-35C, used by the US Navy and sadly for Jenny Barnes no-one else would want the carriers. Far too much has been sacrificed for the benefits that short take-off and vertical landing bring.

  • George Thomas 20th Feb '22 - 4:50pm

    One pundit put on twitter how often the armed forces are now brought into domestic emergencies where lack of investment and or personal means that there is real concern about i) hospital services, ii) being able to respond to natural disasters, iii) driver shortages for goods such as petrol.

    It appears that armed forces are the one public service Tories are properly interested in funding and have become a catch-all for whatever near disasters that lack of funding elsewhere is causing.

  • Nonconformistradical 20th Feb '22 - 5:32pm

    I wonder how armed forces medics get adequate practice when their part of the forces isn’t engaged in combat. On the grounds that most armed forces personnel are relatively young and reasonably fit else presumably they wouldn’t pass military medical checks – mightn’t it be reaonable for the medics to help out the civilian services when available and needed such as pandemics and natural disasters?

    Similarly military personnel involved in logistics – they could get some real practice in an emergency situation but without being shot at.

  • Tristan Ward 20th Feb '22 - 6:11pm

    In a world with an unreliable USA, and an assertive Russia and China where we are outside the EU we probably need as much as we can afford.

  • Matt Wardman 20th Feb '22 - 7:27pm


    The VSTOL carriers are interoperable with all the countries who have ordered the F-35B aircraft, which is *currently* the US marines and Italy, where it has been demonstrated.

    Other countries who have orders placed for V-35b also include Japan and South Korea. Potentially there are others.

    The only country to have ordered the Catapult/Arrester (C) version is the USA, and the only countries with Cat/Arrester carriers are USA / France / China.

    So I’m inclined to think, that the Short Take Off version is the better option, especially as the Cat/Arrestor was going to add 2-3 billion to the cost.

  • Matt Wardman 20th Feb '22 - 7:36pm


    China have not built their carrier completely yet, so are still on ski-jumps carriers.

  • James Fowler 20th Feb '22 - 9:16pm

    I’m going to have stab at envisaging what sort of armed forces the UK would have if policy and procurement were constructed from first principles with no path dependency.

    The core assumption is that British physical security is all about sea power. Consequently, there’s no need for three services, just an navy and a small army, with the navy dominating the upper echelons.

    A significantly larger navy would be built around three naval carrier groups, one permanently at sea. Ditto the nuclear submarines.

    The army would be a small expeditionary force, about half its current size. Equipment for both army and navy would be all US interoperable, and much of it purchased ‘off the shelf’.

    Britain’s goal in a war would be to keep our sea supply lines open, and close those of an adversary.

  • I think too many are being taken in by the highly biased media reporting, whilst HMS QE was in the South China seas, it was there as a (small) part of a US led operation involving warships from other nations such as Japan. ie. It wasn’t the Royal Navy visiting in the style it visited such places in circa 1920.

    Also, we shouldn’t forget that modern China does not respect the nation boundaries the rest of the world accepted at the end of WWII, hence why it is still in Tibet and is trying to claim a large part of the south china seas and attempting further land grabs, citing invented history to support their claims.

  • >So what do we want from our Armed Forces as a society? Should we be a world power
    Part of the problem is how to protect the scattering of overseas territories across the global that are still part of GB, like the Falkland Islands.
    Another aspect is the policing of international shipping lanes; people get upset about RN presence in the South China seas, but I don’t remember people complaining about patrols off the Somali coast etc.

  • Trevor Andrews 21st Feb '22 - 8:30am

    I served in the RAF and also spent 15 years 2001-2016 tutoring Military Personal.

    The primary role is to defend the UK and, I disagree with the suggestion this does not involve an Air Force. It was critical in WW2 and is today.

    Certainly in this century the services has combined in many ways, and work a lot closer together than they used to. I would even suggest that we could have one overall force, although I know those serving may not like it, particularly the Officers.

    I am afraid “ Nonconformistradical” you may be unaware that the services have been working in civilian hospitals for many years. My cancer operation in 2004, in a civilian hospital was performed by a Lieutenant Colonel.

    Bearing in mind the shortages that the services have when it comes to purely defending our shores, the waste on huge Aircraft Carriers should be subject to legal action.

    I also think there is a case for a National Service, although chatting to my military friends, it would have to somewhat different due to the technology now. However, they could always be called on for a domestic issue, rather than use full time staff.

    All I can say on the expenditure side is we should be carrying out operations in line with the funding. We should not be expecting our service personnel to subsidise it with extra hours of unpaid work, poor equipment and poor support when they suffer from a conflict.

  • Matt Wardman 21st Feb '22 - 11:17am

    I agree with some of the sentiments – interests need to be identified before capabilities.

    The UK is the 5th largest economy in the world, with worldwide trading and other interests. Allies in Europe and other places of the world have similar interests, and we need to work together to protect those.

    I would say that the West’s most significant error was to pretend that we have not been back in substantially Cold War situation wrt Russia for the last decade or more. If we had not taken such an extended holiday from serious deterrence, we would perhaps not be where we are now.


  • Our armed forces from the perspective of the Ukraine crisis seem to be a political tool to add credibility to our diplomatic efforts and reassurance to the electorate. Increasingly they will be used to support humanitarian actions and aid movements of UK citizens faced with the need to move quickly. Otherwise, they should be seen as part of larger forces only acting in accordance with regional or global cooperation.

  • Laurence Cox 21st Feb '22 - 12:17pm

    @Matt Wardman

    Look at the Wikipedia article on the F-35 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_Martin_F-35_Lightning_II and scroll down to “differences between variants”

    The F-35B has only 3/4 of the range of the -A and -C variants, is less manoeuverable and only carries 5/6 of the weapons payload. That means you have to get your carrier closer to the target (and therefore more vulnerable) and you have to send more aircraft to destroy a target (which means more losses). Do you know what a MoD SAG scenario is?

    Incidentally, the additional £2-3 billion only came about because of changing the design; it would not have been anything like that if the carriers had been designed for catapults and arrester wires from the start. There is an argument for STOVL for use with much smaller carriers, but not the size of our two.

  • Jenny Barnes 21st Feb '22 - 3:50pm

    James Fowler : interesting suggestion.
    I think the UK dependency on sea power really went with the Empire by the end of WW2, and we now rely on the USA for sea dominance. However, to try to get near to your idea we could do 2 Carrier battle groups based on the HMS WhiteElephants.
    They would need a minimum of :
    80 F35Bs We have 24, another 56 would cost 56 *£M 89
    4 Daring Class destroyers. We have 6, but they are presently not fully available because of engine problems.
    4 ASW frigates We have 13 type 23 Duke class (obsolescent) and plans for 8 type 26 which would replace them
    4 Attack Subs We have 5 Astute class and a few more planned

    So by spending 5 £billion on aircraft we could have 2 basic carrier battle groups. Would that be effective? It’s not likely that there would be funding for a 3rd QE class carrier and the necessary support vessels, aircraft and personnel to create a 3rd carrier battle group. I supect they could be useful if operated in conjunction with US CBGs, but probably insufficient on their own. I certainly don’t have the expertise to judge that.

  • Thanks to everyone who has responded.

    @Laurence Cox and @Matt Wardman – one of the original selling points of the carriers was the supposed ease with which they could be converted to “cats & traps” using new electromagnetic catapults then under development in the US.

    They might still be, one day. But when the Government enquired as to the cost of doing so in 2012 they were quoted £2bn per ship.

    I agree with Laurence that we are currently stuck with the least useful variant of the F-35. Catapults and arrestors would give the Navy the option of also operating F-18s or Rafales which aren’t stealthy but are half the price and are otherwise modern and capable aircraft with greater payload than the F-35B.

    The bigger question is whether you need carriers at all if your main concern is to defend the UK’s coast and the North Atlantic as opposed to projecting power further afield.

  • How many minutes would it take to wipe out two UK carrier battle groups in the event of unlimited modern guided missile computer warfare with Russia (or China) ?

    Probably less than it takes to sing ‘Hearts of Oak are our men)………. So Steady boys (and girls), Steady……………………….

  • CJ WILLIAMS 21st Feb '22 - 8:20pm

    The Liberal Democrats have just issued a statement which includes the phrase ”We must stand with the people of Ukraine. The UK must be at the forefront of the international coalition against Putin’s aggression”. Putin despises liberal democracy, it wont be sanctions that bring him to the table, it will be the threat of NATO. Germany must be brought back into line or else Putin’s ambitions will grow. Someone once speculated on the end of history, it appears to be back. Finland next?

  • I doubt Liberals will ever actually agree to increased defence spending. The automatic instinct is to make sneering references to a past empire and then to denigrate the UK. It seems to be an ingrained part of Liberal DNA to dislike Britain and to automatically dismantle defences. Strange instincts.

  • Mohammed Amin 20th Feb ’22 – 10:49am:
    [The UK] is only slowly coming to terms with the fact that it is no longer a world-level power, but instead a medium sized European country, small in world terms.

    Medium sized in land area, but on most attributes the UK is a ‘Top 5’ country…

    The Soft Power 30 [2nd. place]:

    ‘Nation Brands 2021 Ranking’ [equal 5th. place]:

    ‘2021 HEPI Soft-Power Index: UK slips further behind the US (again)’ [2nd place]:

    ‘Education Rankings by Country 2022’ [2nd. place]:

    ‘Study finds UK is second most powerful country in the world’ [2nd. place]:

    Global Finance Centres Index [2nd. place]:

  • Nonconformistradical 23rd Feb '22 - 9:34am

    “The automatic instinct is to make sneering references to a past empire and then to denigrate the UK.”
    Should I take it that you are a supporter of the ‘my country right or wrong’ approach?

  • Matt Wardman 23rd Feb '22 - 1:07pm

    What an interesting debate about carriers.

    I’d say that the QE and POW carriers were thought about very carefully, and have ended up getting most things right. We have 2 for £6bn (=7.2bn Euro), which gives constant availability. And £1.6bn of that was added when Mr Brown managed to increase the cost, and slow it down, in one fell swoop. There was also a strange thing about loss of VAT exemption.

    On catapult aircraft, interoperability with allies would be savagely reduced (USA only, maybe Fr), compared with jump jets, and no conflict we have been in in 50 years has required the extra range. Plus the cost of putting Catobar in is much more, and the cost of keeping pilots current would be ~£50-100m extra per annum.

    If you consider that France has just announced a budget of 7 billion Euro for *one* carrier to be delivered (we hope) in 2038 (so 20 years of cost increases), I’d say the comparison demonstrates the value of the UK setup. Nuclear carriers are excluded from many countries worldwide.

    The people who really to look at them are the USA. The USN could have 3 or perhaps 4 for the price of one of the latest USA Ford class carriers (cost: $13bn), with a similar number of people, significantly more aircraft capacity and sorties, and the flexibility to be in 3 or 4 places at once. Whilst many US missions don’t really require a nuclear carrier.

  • Paul Fisher 23rd Feb '22 - 9:15pm

    The comments illustrate the CONE at work.

  • Tristan Ward 25th Feb '22 - 10:20am

    @ Kit,

    Liberals better had agree to more defence spending given the world as it is; and I heard Ed Davey asking Johnson about reversing defence cuts in Parliament yesterday. We need to walk softly and

    We need to learn both form the failure of the 1930s and the successes of the USSR Cold War.

    @ Nonconformistradical

    Not my country right or wrong at all, and I feel this is an unreasonable characterisation of the debate. We need to walk softly and carry a big stick, and the debate is about how big the stick should be and what kind of stick it is .

    For hose whose instrict is to look at history I strongly recommend:

    this: https://www.amazon.co.uk/History-Peloponnesian-War-Classics/dp/0140440399

    and this: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Peloponnesian-War-Athens-Conflict-431-404/dp/0007115067/ref=sr_1_4?crid=E4U66GLJV3PG&keywords=donald+kagan+peloponnesian&qid=1645784178&s=books&sprefix=donald+kagan+peloponnesian%2Cstripbooks%2C51&sr=1-4

    As Thucydides observed, the Strong do what they will, the Weak do what they are forced to. Better to be strong (and act in a liberal democratic way of course) than weak with the likes of Putin and Trump around.

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