Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour defence review must consider changing nature of warfare

The first priority of a government is defence of the realm, protecting the public from threats at home and abroad. In order to achieve, this maintaining an effective army, navy and airforce is essential. Britain currently faces two major threats: first is the rise of Daesh-induced terrorism, and second is a more belligerent Russia. In order to respond to these new challenges, our armed forces must modernise.

The Labour party’s ongoing internal defence policy review provides an opportunity for our party to show leadership and define Labour’s vision for the armed services. However, in order to present a coherent plan the party must be able to look beyond the debate around Trident renewal.

Last week in the Guardian Paul Mason eloquently put forward the leftwing case for renewing Trident, arguing that the public is unlikely to support an anti-Trident Labour party. In addition to this, Trident is backed by major trade unions like the GMB. So, rather than enter a protracted internal debate about nuclear weapons, Labour should back Trident and move forward with strengthening policy and providing an effective opposition to the Conservative government.

Once we move beyond this debate, the defence review can then look at how we adapt our armed services to better deal with the ever-changing threats. In order to achieve this the review must cover three key areas: 

  1. Drones: The use of drones raises important moral questions around the permissibility of such weaponry in the theatre of war. Objections to the use of drones are often rooted in arguments over the lack of transparency and the potential for civilian casualties. However, as the machinery of war has evolved, so has the moral framework, setting out the ethical boundaries of war changed over time. According to current rules of engagement drone use is entirely permissible in war, and its use will not only continue but proliferate. Therefore the defence review must examine the role of drones and new technology, looking both at the ethical implications and future potential for their use by our armed services.
  1. Rapid deployment: Our threats and potential enemies have changed. We are no longer in conflicts with entities that control defined territories or even functioning governments. Terrorist groups may occupy limited land but hold global reach, as recent terror attacks have demonstrated. We must therefore reflect on ways we can improve and better utilise the rapid deployment of our armed services.
  1. Modernising military training: In February the government announced it is investing £1.1bn in the future of military flying training. This was a welcome announcement. However, further investment is needed in our army and navy training facilities in order to ensure our armed forces are equipped with the skills required to tackle future challenges. Labour’s defence review must look into what forms of investment can be made to modernise training.


Hopefully, Labour’s defence review will engage with some of the topics outlined above. If we are to form a government in 2020, we will have to win over the trust of the public. In order to do so, the Labour party must be strong on security and defence and not distracted by abstract debate.

To contribute to the discussion next month the Young Fabians will be launching its own defence and security review. Running from May to September in parallel with the Labour Party’s own defence review, this project will investigate what a credible, affordable and ethical defence policy might look like for the left. To find out more please click here.


Martin Edobor is chair of the Young Fabians. He tweets @MartinEdobor


Photo: Defence Images

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Martin Edobor

is chair of the Young Fabians


  • This underestimates the revolution in military capabilities causes by emerging disruptive technologies – not only cyber (though this is huge), but also platforms that are numerous, small, cheap, smart and well targetable (specific), highly adaptable, networked (swarming), autonomous or semi-autonomous, and whose capabilities rapidly. It is wishful thinking to skate over Trident, but Trident is only a symptom of a bigger shift away from big platforms.

  • I’m surprised there’s no mention in this piece of cyber warfare and the potential use of computer viruses to disrupt the infrastructure, both military and civilian, of enemy nations. Equally, I would have thought a reference to possibly merging the service arms into a single Defence Force, much like in Canada, would have been merited.

  • We need a Referendum on Trident, and Labour could be offering one to the voters in 2020. As the Tories will no doubt vote it through in the next year or so it hardly needs to be a live issue, whatever side of the debate we come down on.

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