Defending Wales III: Structure & Oversight

(Title Image: Irish Times)

After giving a broad idea of what Wales’ defence needs are, and what duties a Welsh military could be expected to perform, there’s enough information to address the overall structure of a Welsh armed forces and Welsh defence policy.

What sort of military does Wales need?

There are many different ways to organise a Welsh military, but at its heart, a Welsh military would need enough manpower, materiel and organisational support to fulfil its role in Welsh foreign policy as well as domestic and international defence commitments.The first question is: Does Wales need a military?

I’m sure many on the left of Plaid Cymru would support the idea of Wales not having a military due to the party’s latent pacifism, and to a certain extent there’s an argument in favour of no standing military :

  • There’s a limited number of conventional military threats to Wales or Welsh interests.
  • Wales has no natural enemies (….not even England) and limited territorial clout: one land border with a friendly democracy and three sea borders with England, Isle of Man and the neutral Republic of Ireland.
  • Wales is (arguably) in one of the most geographically safe parts of the world.
  • Most threats to Wales can be dealt with by civil authorities or don’t require a conventional military – having a massive standing army or air force can’t stop terrorism, for example.
  • Foreign policy can be just as effectively supported by some sort of “civil force” (i.e a US-style Peace Corps).

16 sovereign states have no standing military (the largest and most famous being Costa Rica), and 6 states or territories have a limited military capability short of a full armed forces (the largest being Iceland and Panama).

Japan maintains a military (Self Defence Forces) but is constitutionally committed not to take part in conflict unless in self-defence, though this was expanded to include the defence of allies in 2014.

There are at least two methods by which Wales can ditch the military altogether without leaving us completely defenceless.

The Icelandic Model – No standing military. The police would retain a national security role and there would still be a place for a “civil force” to meet obligations like fisheries patrols and search and rescue operations, but at its basic level Wales’ defence needs (as in the capability of being able to counter armed aggression) would either be handled by civil authorities, or delegated to another power – presumably in our case England or the United States.

  • Advantages: No involvement in armed conflicts; little to no defence spending (saving hundreds of millions of pounds a year); would mark Wales out as a pacifist country which could help our image around the world, particularly in roles like conflict resolution.
  • Disadvantages: If Wales delegates defence functions to a foreign country it would completely undermine Welsh sovereignty; Wales would struggle to respond to most external and internal security threats; the police could become too powerful; it would impact Wales’ ability to respond to natural disasters and limit Welsh involvement in things like peacekeeping missions; would inevitably lead to Welsh citizens acting as “mercenaries” in other armed forces or private military contractors (Part IX).

A Gendarmerie – Under this option, Wales would establish a national paramilitary police force, like the Italian Carabinieri or Royal Canadian Mounted Police, to perform a domestic military role. This could be combined with policing duties at a national level (i.e. highways patrols). This should be enough to ensure domestic defence needs are catered for and would also open the door to a limited role abroad.

  • Advantages: Cheaper to run, recruit and supply than a full military; likely to be a highly-skilled profession; more accountable to civil authorities as a police force; would provide a joined-up national security approach encompassing both external and internal resources on issues like counter-terrorism; likely to be few, if any, Welsh combat casualties; would still enable Wales to take part in peacekeeping and law and order missions to support foreign policy.
  • Disadvantages: Many countries – like Portugal, Belgium and Austria – have ditched their gendarmeries so it seems outdated; having an armed police force with arrest and investigatory powers could be seen as authoritarian; could lead to a rivalry between local police forces and a national police force, with arguments over jurisdiction.
Those are the two main options should Wales not have a traditional armed forces. It’s certainly a tempting idea when both of those models are perfectly viable, but the military isn’t just about killing or maintaining sovereignty.Wealthier countries have a responsibility to protect people who can’t protect themselves or who are overwhelmed by matters beyond their control. That’s a positive global niche a disciplined and professional Welsh Defence Forces can fulfil.

There are three main options left should Wales decide to have a regular armed forces.The Swiss Model – Wales becomes a neutral state, adopting a “porcupine strategy” – which means an emphasis on domestic defence, done to ensure that although the military would be small, any belligerents would get a “nasty sting”. In Switzerland, this has resulted in high levels of investment in civil defence, male conscription and a reliance on domestically-produced military equipment. It’s particularly useful if you’re surrounded by potential invaders, hence why places like Taiwan, Israel, Finland and the Baltic countries follow a similar model.

  • Advantages: “Total defence” – Wales would have the means of fighting an effective defensive war; neutrality would mean Wales wouldn’t be dragged into foreign crises; it’s likely that a defence policy similar to Switzerland and Finland would propel Wales towards becoming a regional power in international affairs.
  • Disadvantages : Conscription issues would raise civil liberties and gender equality concerns; a “total defence” policy would be an excessive response to threats to Wales (Part I); although a conscript army/militia would be cheap in terms of labour costs, equipment spending would need to be significant to ensure all of them are trained to the proper standard.

The Irish Model – Like Switzerland, Ireland is officially neutral though subject to EU security policy. The Irish Defence Forces have a unified command structure and much greater operational inter-dependence than the British Armed Forces. Ireland’s defence strategy (2015-17 pdf) is mainly focused on routine domestic duties and internationally-mandated humanitarian missions, such as those under the UN banner. Irish military spending is lower than any NATO member.

  • Advantages : A military more than capable of responding to domestic defence needs, arguably with a greater focus on home defence than the British Armed Forces; capable of participating in international missions; limited combat deployments would minimise casualties; Wales could become a major player in multi-national peacekeeping and disaster relief efforts which could lead to a positive image around the world; lower defence budgets.
  • Disadvantages : Would probably make Wales incapable of participating in a conflict at short notice; would require unorthodox tactics to repel or slow down an existential military threat; could lead to complacency in defence issues; the lack of combat opportunities with, or restricted places in, a Welsh Defence Forces could lead to Welsh citizens serving in foreign militaries (Part IX).

The Danish Model – This is probably what Scotland will seek to emulate if they vote for independence. Denmark has a large enough military to be a significant player in their own right as a middle power in international affairs (Part II); they have up to date military equipment, play a full role within NATO and are capable of both combat operations (as an ally of the United States) as well as humanitarian missions. For a smaller country, Denmark’s defence capabilities aren’t as over the top as Switzerland, but impressive in their own right.
  • Advantages : A Welsh military on this scale should be more than capable of repelling any threat and would have the resources to engage in combat abroad when necessary; access to American/NATO equipment and expertise; would give Wales greater prestige in international affairs through being able to “carry a bigger stick”; would have much greater capability in areas like espionage and counter-terrorism.
  • Disadvantages: Higher defence spending, NATO members usually have to spend up to 2% of GDP on defence; could make Wales a target of retaliatory action if we participate in NATO-backed combat operations; would restrict independence in foreign policy as it would firmly place Wales within the American sphere of influence.

Of these five potential models, three probably suit Wales and its defence needs the best.

As a do-minimum scenario, a gendarmerie would provide enough security to ensure Wales is protected from most threats, backed by a civil force (presumably an Icelandic-style coastguard) to provide specialist assistance in things like search and rescue etc.As a long-term aspiration, Wales should aim to follow in Denmark’s (and presumably Scotland’s) footsteps in having a well-resourced armed forces that would be capable of participating in a full spectrum of deployments with minimal notice.

NATO membership could also be considered a long-term aspiration for Wales, but something best avoided immediately post-independence and only considered when the Welsh military is developed to such an extent that it can play a productive role in NATO – that might not happen for 20-30 years if ever.

So, all in all, the most appropriate model for Wales to follow immediately upon independence is the middle option of a Welsh Defence Forces based on the Republic of Ireland’s military. This would mean defence spending is significantly reduced (compared to what’s currently spend on Wales’ behalf in the UK), but should more than meet all of Wales’ present and foreseeable defence needs. Whether Wales should be a neutral country is a separate debate, but I would personally be in favour and it’s been made easier with Brexit.With that in mind, it gives us a template to work on :

As you can see, based on the Irish model, the Welsh Defence Forces would have an army, air force and naval component as well as a Chief of Staff. This is only a very basic outline and over subsequent parts I’ll add more a detailed structure for each branch.

Political & Operational Accountability

In terms of cabinet responsibility, the portfolio for defence could either be held by :

  • The Prime Minister/head of government (i.e executive President).
  • A “Secretary of State” who also has responsibility for foreign affairs (like the US State Secretary).
  • A stand-alone Secretary or Deputy Minister for Defence; in the case of the latter, presumably working under a Secretary for Home Affairs.

They would be responsible for: 

  • Allocating the defence budget
  • Defence estates and procurement
  • Civil defence (Part VIII)
  • Military training and recruitment policy (Part IX)
  • Fire and rescue services
  • Emergency planning
  • Organising domestic and overseas deployments
  • Publishing annual reports on the Welsh Defence Forces
  • Veterans’ affairs (Part X)

National security, border controls and intelligence services would be the responsibility of a Home Affairs Minister (Part VII). Both would, in turn, be advised by the Chief of Staff (I return to that later) and other national security advisers.

Actual policy itself would change alongside the government at each election, but the Welsh Government should conduct Strategic Defence and Security Reviews every 10 years, which would outline what the main military and national security threats are to Wales, what the medium-term vision is for the military’s role and what progress has been made on previous reviews and recommendations.

In terms of the Senedd, as suggested in Wales & The World III, defence and foreign affairs could be scrutinised by the same Senedd committee as they’re both closely tied and it would allow more cross-cutting examinations, particularly when it comes to Welsh defence policy complementing Welsh foreign policy.

For operational accountability there would be a Chief of Staff – a senior military officer appointed to the position by the Senedd (on the recommendation of the Welsh Government) and deputies made up of the commanding officers of each of the branches of the Defence Forces. The Chief of Staff would also participate in a National Security Council (Part VII).The post of Chief of Staff could be term-limited (perhaps one term lasting five to seven years) and rotate between the main branches.

Depending on what head of state an independent Wales would have, the Commander-in-Chief position would either be ceremonial (i.e. monarchy, elective monarchy, ceremonial president) or an executive role where they play a direct part in operational decision making (i.e. head of government, executive president, semi-presidential system). Nevertheless, their role would be to commission officers and rubber stamp any decisions of the legislature, government or Chief of Staff.

For obvious reasons, there should also be a constitutional block on any serving member of the Welsh Defence Forces from being in or forming a government.

A Welsh Defence Budget


In 2015-16, the UK’s defence budget was £34.4billion, of which £7.1billion was capital funding. This is expected to rise to £39.6billion by 2020-21 meaning the UK is well on the way to meeting the recommended defence spending by NATO members of 2% of GDP. Whether that will still be the case after the Brexit vote remains to be seen.

Over the same period, the proportional Welsh share of UK defence spending is approximately £1.69billion, rising to £1.94billion a year in 2020-21 – not including spending on a Trident nuclear missile system replacement.

£1.69billion a year is the equivalent of 3.1% of Welsh GDP, and is higher than the devolved budgets for the economy, science, transport, housing and tackling poverty; it’s also very close to the amount of money Wales spend on schools each year – the equivalent of £469.44 per head.

When you consider precisely what Wales’ defence needs are (Part I) and what an independent Wales could be expected to do in terms of defence (Part II), spending such an astronomical amount doesn’t make any sense. Yet, this spending counts towards the public spending deficit in Wales – the latest estimate putting it at £14.7billion.

Although it’s right to say some Wales-based companies, like General Dynamics, benefit from extra capital spending on military equipment at a UK level, it’s highly unlikely any significant chunk of our contribution to the UK’s defence budget is spent in Wales, with the three Welsh army regiments largely based in England; Wales is primarily used for training.

In 2015, the Republic of Ireland spent just 0.39% of GDP on defence, or €885million (£650million). If Wales were to spend the same amount, based on Welsh GDP in 2014 (£54.3billion) the Welsh defence budget would be in the region of £212million.

That’s too low. The combined budget for the four Welsh police forces for 2016-17 is expected to be £355million (pdf), which supports a workforce of 11,800. A Welsh Defence Forces would be smaller, but the capital requirements in terms of military equipment, training and overseas deployment would be greater than that of the police.

If Wales were to match Irish defence spending-per-head (£140.22 in 2015), a provisional Welsh defence budget would be a minimum of £430million a year, which sounds about right before you include civil defence projects like flood defences and weather forecasting within that figure. It would wipe at least £1.2billion from the Welsh “national deficit”.

A Welsh defence budget with its floor set at £430million would, based on the cost-per-employee of the Irish Defence Forces in 2015 (~£56,630), support a military at least 7,600 in strength.

These are ball-park figures, and things like capital spending on new facilities and equipment – as well as ongoing operational costs of missions abroad – would cause year-to-year fluctuations.

However, there would be opportunities to raise extra funds. United Nations “blue helmet” missions are partly funded by the UN by up to $1332 (£895) per deployed soldier, per month. If Wales followed Ireland in deploying the equivalent of a company (~200 troops) to peacekeeping operations in Lebanon (UNIFL), rotating every 6 months, the UN would potentially contribute up to £2.15million a year towards the costs of the deployment.

If Wales decides to rejoin the EU in future, the EU covers some costs relating to deployments under the Common Defence & Security Policy and EUFOR – though costs are largely borne by individual member states.

In contrast, it’s estimated the total cost of UK involvement in expeditionary combat missions since the end of the Cold War – like Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq – is more than £34.7billion; £64.7billion once veteran aftercare is included. The Welsh share of the combat bill alone would be £1.7billion, or £70.8million a year since 1991.

Authorising Military Action

The power to deploy the UK military is held by the UK Government under royal prerogative. Although there’s nothing inherently broken with this system, it’s meant that – in practice – the Prime Minister and UK cabinet have executive authority to deploy or use the British military in any way they see fit, although the convention has changed since the UK House of Commons voted to reject military intervention in Syria in 2013.

That convention aside, it’s fundamentally undemocratic. In an independent Wales, a written constitution could grant the legislature ultimate authority when it comes to deploying Welsh Defence Forces personnel. There would be exceptions – such as routine training exercises, routine fisheries patrols, search and rescue, national security operations or deployment of special/tactical forces; legislators shouldn’t have to be consulted every single time.

The legislature’s power should only be used in circumstances which don’t involve self defence (as recognised by the UN Charter) and where there’s a real and present danger of Welsh personnel sustaining casualties – this would include most mass deployments such as peace-keeping missions in war zones, disaster relief efforts and other urgent military action.

In Scotland’s Future (pdf p206), the Scottish Government proposed having a constitutional “triple lock” so major military deployments could only take place when they’re:

  • in accordance with the principles of the UN Charter (Wales & The World VII)
  • properly agreed by the Scottish Government
  • approved by the Scottish Parliament

This is a good basis for Wales too, requiring a simple majority vote in the Senedd. Also, it should be standard practice that after every major deployment, the relevant Assembly committee holds an inquiry in order to learn lessons, find out what went right and determine what we can learn from other militaries so they can draft recommendations to prevent continuing repetition of mistakes.

Part IV looks at a possible structure of a Welsh army in more detail.