Free to view

Understanding UK Military Capability: From Strategy to Decision

17 Oct 23


(Bristol University Press – £80.00)

ISBN 978 1 5292 2989 9

244 pages

Dr James Bosbotinis

Understanding UK Military Capability is a timely book. The author, Air Commodore (retd.) Dr Andrew R. Curtis, an independent defence researcher and Associate Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, seeks to “unearth the reasons why the UK has the military capability that it has”. Given the evolving – and deteriorating – international strategic environment, and enduring debate on its implications for UK defence policy, budget, and force structure, Understanding UK Military Capability, in particular its focus on how the strategic direction set by politicians is translated into actual capabilities, provides valuable insights. The author, whilst a retired Royal Air Force officer, does not consider the subject from a single service perspective, but very much a defence-wide view. Moreover, his research builds on his doctoral work, supervised by Professors Matthew Uttley and Andrew Dorman, at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, which is located at the Joint Services Command and Staff College. The depth and quality of the author’s research is clear throughout the book.

Understanding UK Military Capability provides “an investigation of the interrelation between strategic direction, provided by politicians, and the subsequent military capability decisions made within Defence”. In order to do this, the author considers factors including the relationship between ‘Strategic Direction and Military Capability’, ‘The UK’s Approach to Strategy’, ‘Defence Roles, Missions and Tasks’, the relationships between the single services and Defence, as well as the affordability of defence. Further, Curtis examines the evolution of UK defence policy from 1946 through to the 2021 Integrated Review, or as he explains, a period divided into three epochs, encompassing the Cold War (1946-1990), the ‘Early Expeditionary’ period (1991-2009), and the ‘Quinquennial Review’ period from 2010 to the present. This provides the necessary long-term context for examining the development of military capabilities, and the processes within which UK defence policy is developed. In addition, as the author explains, “there is no shortage of rigorous analysis on specific defence reviews. However, most of the associated analysis is focused on policy formulation at the government level. Very little of the secondary literature has considered the impact of associated actions one level down; specifically, the role played by defence decision makers in the interpretation of policy and allocation of resource”.

At the start of the book, the author sets out a model for the ‘Translation of Strategic Direction into Military Capability’, which is revisited in his conclusion and updated with the analysis developed through the book. As the author highlights, a core component of his research was the conducting of interviews with “those military officers and civil servants who were able to provide an in-depth and first-hand opinion of the translation of strategic direction into military capability”. The insights gained through those interviews adds significantly to the analysis, together with a deep engagement with both primary and secondary sources, all of which are detailed in the bibliography. Whilst the hardback and e-book editions nominally cost £80, a paperback edition is due out in May 2024 and will be £24.99; at the time of writing this review, the Kindle edition was available for the same price via Amazon. Understanding UK Military Capability is very much a scholarly work, drawing as it does from a PhD, well-written, with the author providing a highly detailed yet engaging read. It will particularly appeal to those with a professional or academic interest in defence capability development and would certainly be most valuable for those preparing for staff college. This book is highly recommended.