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The Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: ‘Offshore Balancer’ and ‘Strategic Raider’?

Image credit: Nicolas Raymond

Image credit: Nicolas Raymond

In this article, James Rogers discusses the United Kingdom’s (UK) new Strategic Defence and Security Review, which was outlined yesterday by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in the Houses of Parliament.

What are the key threats and strategic priorities outlined by the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2015?

I think the first thing to remember is that the SDSR 2015 is not a knee-jerk reaction to the events of the past few days. The philosophy steering the review reflects a longer-term thinking process that has attempted not only to understand the multiple crises facing the UK and Europe, but also to try to rationalise the British defence budget within a constrained financial context. It is also no secret that the review better reflects the desires of a party that holds a majority in Parliament. In this sense the review places a lot of importance on Britain as a ‘global power’ with ‘global interests’. The cosmopolitan mores of past reviews have disappeared, and there is a sterner focus – to be applauded – on national interests. It understands conventional threats, terrorism, crime and crisis response to be the main lines of departure for British defence and security policy for the next few years. Russia and Islamic State are positioned as high priorities and it is interesting to read the language on China in the document: largely the UK sees China as a challenge, but a positive one overall.

As such, in many ways, the 2015 review is a more mature document than its 2010 predecessor because it not only firmly upholds Britain’s global and national interests, but it joins up the ‘strategic dots’ on how Britain will maintain and extend its global influence and prosperity. What has intrigued me most about the document is that it positions the UK in two ways, seemingly returning the country to its historical roles. Firstly, when speaking about the European balance of power, Lord Bolingbroke once remarked that Britain is ‘the arbitrator of differences, the guardian of liberty, and the preserver of that balance’. On reading the 2015 Review, I think the UK is trying to re-position itself along the lines Bolingbroke had in mind, i.e. as an ‘offshore balancer’, particularly in relation to deterring the challenge from Russia. Secondly, the review blends this with another role the UK has traditionally fulfilled – that of a ‘strategic raider’ – particularly against more unconventional threats, this time like Islamic State, by providing the country with the means to punish or even eliminate its opponents.

In terms of the announced weapons/capability programmes, do you think the right balance has been struck between the Army, Navy and Air Force?

Broadly, I think it has – and this is a marked departure from the previous review in 2010, which was frankly a cost-cutting exercise, conducted in a rush. The new SDSR is a very different beast, placing heavy emphasis on working up the UK both in the context of an ‘offshore balancer’ and ‘strategic raider’, emphasising power projection and global reach. This will cost a mind-boggling sum of money: £178 billion (€256 billion/US$280 billion) over the next decade will be spent on military equipment alone. The centrepieces of the renewed UK strategic design include the successor submarines to the Trident nuclear weapons system and the new Queen Elizabeth class supercarriers, with their on-board aircraft – the Lightning II – which will be procured in sufficient quantity (138) to enable both carriers to project significant airpower against any conceivable opponent. Meanwhile, in the longer term, the Royal Navy will likely see a welcome increase in the number of frigates available to the fleet: while only eight rather than thirteen of the Type 26 vessels will be procured for now, they will eventually be supplemented by a cheaper, more plentiful design. The Royal Air Force will see an increase in size with the development of two additional squadrons using the Eurofighter Typhoon and the procurement of nine P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), correcting the controversial, indeed stupid, decision in 2010 to cancel the Nimrod upgrade programme – and Britain’s maritime patrol capability with it. The British Army will undergo further restructuring to enable it to deploy over 50,000 troops by 2025, rather than the 30,000 envisioned in SDSR 2010. In addition, the Army is to acquire two new ‘Strike Brigades’ of 5,000 troops each, which could be used as initial entry forces paving the way for larger interventions and/or to punish Britain’s enemies, particularly those like Islamic State or other unforeseen non-state actors.

SDSR 2015 places special emphasis on Eastern and Northern Europe in relation to the Russian challenge and the Gulf region in relation to the threat from Islamist extremists and geopolitical competition in the Middle East: does this make geostrategic sense, while matching the related UK capability development programmes?

I think it does. Britain’s military reach is a key element of its overall global strategy. As such, there were some silly mistakes made with the 2010 review, but I think now a clearer statement of purpose has been made. The next five years are laying the seedbed for further positive growth in the UK global defence system. The government seems to believe it will still be in office come the 2020 elections – and following the performance of the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition in yesterday’s Commons debate, I can see why. The UK intends to be able to globally deploy force whenever and wherever it is required. In terms of its overall power, the UK is galvanising a global posture and its forces are designed to be able to ‘plug in’ with US and French forces. While there will be no growth in the size of the British Army, the ‘Strike Brigade’ idea is clever given the urban-style land battles it is likely to be engaged with in the future. I agree that scrapping Nimrod was stupid, and while the government took a quick decision on the type of MPA aircraft it would procure, to not have any would have been imprudent. We have known for some time that the UK would put to sea two supercarriers, and a pledge on the Type 26 vessels is good even though over time the numbers will rightly increase – albeit with another class of vessel – to meet the UK’s global maritime objectives, which do not always require state-of-the-art warships. Replacing Trident is the wise thing to do. While 3 Commando Brigade are ‘Arctic-ready’, the Royal Navy should step-up Arctic training. Finally, I also think that the commitment made to intelligence and cyber security is healthy.

What message do you think the UK’s European partners should take after reading the 2015 SDSR?

I think it depends on the partners concerned: on the one hand, Britain’s European partners should read from the SDSR 2015 that the UK is also going to remain a thoroughly global power with worldwide interests, as well as intense intelligence-sharing partnerships – the ‘Five Eyes’ – with the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Equally, it is clear the UK is seeking much closer relations with Japan, South Korea and the countries of the Five Power Defence Arrangements. This means the UK’s focus, orientation and posture will always remain extra-European, particularly ‘East of Suez’ from Suez to Shanghai.

On the other hand, France, Turkey and the countries of the Northern Group should welcome the SDSR 2015, albeit in different ways, in the context both of ‘offshore balancing’ and ‘strategic raiding’. Paris will find in the SDSR a like-minded and increasingly resourceful partner that is heavily committed to ‘strategic raiding’, and to some extent in a complimentary context to its own efforts. The review emphasises France’s special role, alongside the US, as the UK’s most important historical ally, and outlines London’s anticipation for continued British-French cooperation at the highest strategic levels, such as the development of a new remotely-piloted combat jet. Other European countries – particularly Turkey and the countries of the Northern Group, like the Baltic states, Poland, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Germany – will notice that the UK intends to remain an ‘offshore balancer’, not least in relation to what London now sees as a dangerous, revisionist Russia. The SDSR 2015 seems to position the British military ever-ready to thrust itself forward to the most exposed European countries, thereby amplifying their own ability to deter aggressors.

How should those who support renewed efforts at regenerating the European Union’s (EU) Common Security and Defence Policy see the SDSR 2015?

The SDSR 2015 was clearly written with NATO and the UK’s relationships with the US and France (and to some extent Japan) in mind. CSDP is a largely civilian enterprise and not the military project that it was initially envisaged to be by London or Paris. Even Paris has grown impatient with CSDP and its invocation of the Mutual Defence Clause should be seen as a strong message to smaller EU Member States to do more on defence. The expeditionary ethos embedded in the CSDP is only a part of the global, full spectrum, scope of the 2015 SDSR. That is not to say that London will try to shut-down CSDP, as the government clearly recognises that for missions such as Operation Sophia there is merit in going through the EU. Yet, the SDSR 2015 makes quite an important statement about the importance of ‘hard’ economic and military power. The latter is not at the core of the CSDP because many European states have an aversion to using military force.

London wants the eurozone members to tend to their own economies and it desires, through its renegotiation process, to recalibrate the pace of integration within the EU. As such, the 2015 SDSR is in a way ‘Brexit’ neutral – that is to say, that the review is geared to meeting the UK’s national interests and its commitment to NATO even if in the meantime the UK votes to leave the EU. Minds in London are firmly focused on NATO and the new ‘Euro-Atlantic Security Policy Unit’, which will bring together NATO and CSDP policy-makers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is symptomatic of UK thinking. Nevertheless, while there is a lot in the SDSR 2015 that will benefit CSDP missions (e.g. the A400M Transport Aircraft) if the CSDP continues to be seen by some states as some sort of political project – specifically ideas about an ‘EU Army’ – then it will be met with stern opposition in London. So, as far as capabilities go, then supporters of the CSDP should be pleased, but in terms of London’s commitment to the policy beyond minor crisis management operations, then the prospects of a renewed CSDP remain bleak.

What message does the SDSR 2015 send to Washington?

In contrast to a few months ago, when President Barack Obama openly questioned the British willingness to commit sufficient resources to uphold the two countries’ integrated worldwide defence effort, I think this new review sends a forceful correcting message to the White House. While the SDSR 2015 does not set the UK on a path to wide-scale rearmament commensurate with the economic resources available to the British state, it certainly puts in place the key ‘strategic enablers’ for London to remain Washington’s closest and most powerful European ally. Indeed, the British and Americans seem to be slowly and quietly together generating and slotting together the components to allow one another to compliment each other’s new geostrategic vectors: as the US scales back its commitments to the Gulf states and to Eastern and Northern Europe, the UK is filling the void, which is naturally in keeping with British geostrategic interests. The new permanent British naval base in Bahrain, HMS Juffair, allied to the Queen Elizabeth supercarriers, and their on-board Lightning II combat aircraft, mean that the UK may eventually be able to replace the US in the Gulf as security guarantor. Meanwhile, the UK nuclear deterrent, the extensive British role in NATO’s assurance measures and the working up of the Joint Expeditionary Force concept puts London in a lead role in relation to Northern and Eastern European security. This helps enable Washington to focus its efforts on boosting security in an increasingly volatile East Asia, as part of the much-vaunted US ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ to the Indo-Pacific, which in turn contributes to global security. For sure, the US will watch closely as the UK builds-up over the coming years the military capabilities needed to engage in ‘offshore balancing’ and ‘strategic raiding’; the only issue now is whether London has the political willpower to use them.

Vol. 7, No. 72 (2015)


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