The UK, post-Brexit, has displayed an inclination for a greater role in global geo-politics. The UK is also a trusted partner of many Indo-Pacific countries. The pursuance of such a goal calls for greater capability building and the UK has opted for a leaner force that is technologically powered to act as a deterrent.
Nitin: In the new integrated defence review, there is a lot of emphasis on the acquisition of technology and the use of technology for the defence forces. How are you looking at that document and what are the takeaways for you and for your portfolio?
Jeremy Quin, Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Ministry of Defence), UK
Minister: It’s very exciting. There is a 14 per cent increase in defence investment. That includes 6.6 billion sterling, a 4 billion dollar commitment to spend at least on research and development over the next four years. We published a science and technology strategy last October. We have certain technological know-how that will keep our forces equipped at the required speed to meet the long term threats. The review is all about the threats we are facing, making certain that we can deter adversaries, making certain we have persistent presence, but ensuring above all that we have modernised armed forces with the kit they require to meet the challenge of deterrence. We all know how fast technology is moving. So we have a lots of lessons to learn.
There are new domains in cyber and space which are attracting huge investments. These are new areas which are grey zones between peace and war. It has brought a new factor, so in the past the UK had a large land army sitting at the riverine in Germany to deter adversaries by physical presence there. But it has changed in terms of how people operate, how to deal with cyberspace, how they influence decision making. This is about more persistent and more present using technology.
Nitin: You have covered a lot of ground – you spoke about cyber, space and you are also looking at artificial intelligence as an application for defence and going forward if you have to choose between manpower and technology. How do you propose to strike the balance because after all the man behind the machine is also important? So what are those strategies in play?
Minister: You are absolutely right. We are setting up an AI-specific centre looking at how artificial intelligence and machine learning and how it can be best applied. On the broader question of man on the machine, this is not a zero-sum-game. To match in the contested environment of the future we have to ensure proper combat support in place.
On the broader question, we are very aware that the punch can be packed by a smaller number of people. It is incredibly relevant to modern warfare. If you look at the recent modern conflicts, where modern technologies have been used to significantly reduce the adversary’s armour. We do recognise that it is an absolutely essential factor when we are investing in the technologies in the future.
In terms of the balance, we have opted to have a slightly smaller army, not significantly smaller, with absolute power-packed protection to deter. We have calibrated the right combination for our forces to meet the threat. That is what we want to do.
Nitin: I think a smaller army with smarter weaponry is going to be the future as you put it rightly. The numbers are not significantly small but they are certainly smaller than before. But the enhanced power-play should give them the ability to take on bigger challenges that is what you are planning.
Moving on, Britain’s review as well as the technological edge that Britain may have in terms of the platforms and weaponry, how do you intend to share with your friends and allies? Is there a plan for co-developing and co-production in some of the high technology or even smart technology with countries like India which the UK now trying to come back into a bigger role in Indo-Pacific? Does that play into the policy being now pursued?
Minister: Yes. No one can underestimate the vital importance of the Indo-Pacific region in the future. With over 40 per cent of the world’s trade, it’s going to be an incredibly important area. We have very-very strong friends in the region and we wish to build on these relationships. That’s why we are working very closely together in terms of having better inter-operability, knowledge and training between forces that is mutually decided. From our perspective, there are very close friends like India. Our Prime Minister couldn’t come to India on the occasion of Republic Day celebrations but he will soon visit India as it is going to be one of the major overseas trips after UK left the EU.
I am very-very aware as friends and partners, about the Make in India programme and it’s more about make and create in India. You have tremendous capacity in terms of research and development. We are looking to work closely and there are areas of combat air, complex weapons, maritime technology where we hope to see the opportunities to work together closely in future. The UK is very open, when I talk about our defence industry in the UK I firmly include in it major subsidiaries of overseas companies who have chosen to locate in the UK with some great names. They research and develop in the UK, they provide employment and contribute to our skills. We are very open in terms of what constitutes the defence industry. We are similarly open in terms of our international partnerships. We see opportunities in India to work with some of your great companies on the huge skills that you have.
We certainly know the potential in India. India contributed a quarter of students’ visa sponsorships in the UK last year. We known the skills that are present in India. We are open to a broad discussion on that and I look forward to working towards that. But I would like to highlight the three areas again – combat air, complex weapons and maritime technology. In these areas, there is immense opportunity to work together and contribute together on a make and create basis.
Nitin: We are also part of the ecosystem where we try to encourage collaborations which are win-win for both sides. I look forward to the proposals, partnerships and projects that will come through. We hope to speak to you again with a little more concrete details as and when they emerge particularly after the Indian Prime Minister visits the UK at the end of April and some projects come through. Thanks for your time.
Nitin A. Gokhale, Editor-in-Chief, Bharatshakti.is one of India’s foremost defence journalist