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The UK Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: a conversation

Image credit: UK Defence Images

Image credit: UK Defence Images

In this post a number of experts on UK defence policy share their thoughts on the implications and importance of the 2015 United Kingdom (UK) Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). Professor Julian Lindley-French (Vice President of the Atlantic Treaty Association and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Statecraft), Olivier de France (Research Director, IRIS) and Ben Jones (King’s College London) discuss a range of issues associated with the 2015 review.

We see a Britain that is returning to the strategic fundamentals. We claim that the UK is emerging as an ‘offshore balancer’ and ‘strategic raider’. What are your initial thoughts about the SDSR 2015?

Lindley-French: As I have argued in an extended essay on the issue, the 2015 National Security Strategy and SDSR were launched as Russian Graney-class nuclear attack submarine, believed to be the Severodvinsk, had entered British waters. A week prior to this Islamic State militants killed 132 people and wounded over 300 in Paris. Recently, two F-16s of NATO member Turkey shot down a Russian SU 24 killing crew. It is no wonder that Prime Minister David Cameron delivered SDSR 2015 rather than Michael Fallon, the Secretary of State for Defence, as would have more normally been the case in more normal times. However, that is precisely the point about SDSR 2015; these are not normal ‘let me get off the strategic roundabout whilst I fix the economy’ times. Thus, it is against those ‘times’ that the SDSR 2015 must be measured.

de France: Yes, I think the 2015 review would appear to spell the end of a long, dreary stretch for the British armed forces. After pulling out of Afghanistan, the UK government was widely expected to produce a holding document, destined to cater for a period when the military was not expected to do anything quite as taxing. The finer details of the budget allocation still need to come through, but the new SDSR does not assume the armed forces will merely be sitting sit tight, and looks to be saying rather more than ‘steady as she goes’. It plugs some key capability gaps, sets forth a massive equipment plan that places a premium on big and high-tech assets, and gives Britain new high readiness capacity.

Jones: After the rather brutal, crisis-ridden SDSR of 2010, the latest review reads like a far more confident document. In setting out plans for a maritime patrol capability, it exorcises the ghost of the Nimrod MRA4, 2010’s most high-profile victim. It also up-scales the UK’s full-effort expeditionary force from 30,000 to 50,000 personnel. On the other hand, medium-to-low scale operations are presented in more stand-offish terms than before; gone is 2010’s concept of the ‘enduring stabilisiation operation’. In strategic terms, this is perhaps a greater recalibration of planning assumptions than was expected. But there are no huge departures from established policy.

What do you think the 2015 review says about British geostrategy for the next five years?

de France: David Cameron, seldom described as the most strategically-minded of men, showed himself to be quite the consummate politician in the Commons debate on Monday 23 November. He was able to uphold the narrative he has stuck to throughout: the hard choices and spending cuts made in 2010 were necessary to soak up the deficit – and it is now time to revive the flagging fortunes of the British armed forces. Whether the UK is back on track and back to business remains to be seen. But if SDSR 2015 is anything to go by, the evidence is that strategic shrinkage and splendid isolation may no longer be the order of the day.

Lindley-French: The Review is 96 pages long and does exactly what it says on the tin – merges strategy, security and defence. Being a defence wonk I have spent many hours trawling through SDSR 2015 and my sense is that Britain is as ever trying to be a ‘pocket superpower’ on the cheap, and partially succeeding. Much of the analysis of Britain’s changing strategic environment in the 2015 review is sound. Moreover, although essentially resource-led SDSR 2015 does at least try to balance affordability with strategy. As such the 2015 review is far superior to its predecessor SDSR 2010, which can best be characterised as slash, burn, panic and preach. Even so, SDSR 2015 is still replete with the tensions that attempts to square Britain’s unsquarable defence strategic circle generates.

The blurring of the lines between security and defence that is implicit in the merging of the 2015 National Security Strategy and SDSR 2015 is also evident in the blurring of the lines between the strategic counter-terrorist strategy and what Professor Michael Clarke saw as the future role of Britain’s armed forces as ‘strategic raiders’. SDSR 2015 in effect abandons mass for manoeuvre with British forces to be instead postured to conduct strategic deterrence, high-end counter-terror operations, and through carrier strike some limited level of both power and force projection. Sustained counterinsurgency à la the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq is all but abandoned in SDSR 2015.

Where do think the 2015 review falls short of expectations?

Lindley-French: SDSR 2015 still fails to answer the seemingly eternal problem Britain has faced since at least the end of World War Two; how to be a pocket superpower on the cheap. Which is after all the implicit ambition therein – why else have super-carriers, nuclear attack submarines and a strategic nuclear deterrent? Indeed, until Britain’s leaders finally decide just what kind of power Britain seeks to be in this world that question can never be answered. There is also one other caveat I have about SDSR 2015 which demonstrates the Treasury’s continued grip on Britain’s defence strategy and the ‘how much threat can we afford’ culture that still permeates Whitehall. All of the above is predicated on the assumption that the British economy will continue to grow at 2% per annum, which is one hell of a big ‘if’.

Britain spends around 7.4% of GDP in the round on security and all the evidence suggests that the government has simply shifted money around within that pot and created a Joint Security Fund to act as a crisis contingency reserve. In other words, there is no ‘new’ money or at least not much. Even the much-lauded £12 billion increase in the defence equipment budget will include a minimum of £7 billion and as much as £11 billion of ‘efficiency savings’ (cuts). Much of those cuts will see some 30,000 Ministry of Defence civilians cut, many of whom were engaged after SDSR 2010 to replace military personnel. In other words, the very real prospect exists of a hollow force turning into a very fragile force.

Jones: In terms of spending commitments, the deal has been hailed as impressive by the media, but it is so only by virtue of the current fiscal situation in the UK and by comparison with the fate of other departments. In fact, it represents a continuation of the long-term UK defence spending trend of ‘flat-real terms’ or just a little better. And here, historical experience of defence cost inflation suggests that the Government and its successors will struggle to deliver SDSR 2015 in full. Although the defence budget is reportedly in better balance than for many years, there is already multi-billion pound cost growth in the Vanguard-class submarine replacement programme. The future frigates and F-35s may be vulnerable to ‘salami-slicing’ if things go awry. The vast cuts in civilian support staff since 2010, and gaps in manning across the services also raise concerns for the viability of the review’s assumptions.

What should the UK’s international partners take from the 2015 review?

Jones: I think that recognition that the UK must deepen its international partnerships is very welcome. Intriguingly, Germany is singled-out as a significant partner for future cooperation, including in equipment. One of the mantras of the 2010 review, and indeed the contemporaneous Franco-British Lancaster House treaties, was that bilateral cooperation was more straightforward and efficient, and thus superior to alternatives. Will SDSR 2015 signal a return to a more multilateral approach to defence cooperation? Another surprise, particularly from a Conservative majority government, is the rather complimentary write-up for the role of the EU in security matters. It seems this is also a ‘pre-referendum’ document.

de France: The announcements contained in the SDSR are a boost both for the UK’s standing in Europe and for its international partners, at a time when British maritime capability issues have become a bit of an embarrassment. Having the French, the Canadian, ‘Scottish fishing boats’ or ‘social media’ sporadically monitoring Russian submarines off your national shores simply does not cut it for a nation of proud maritime pedigree. It was important also to lift the lingering ambiguities around key attributes of national sovereignty. The Trident nuclear weapon system will be renewed, and both aircraft carriers will take to the sea with the apposite number of F-35 fighters to fly off them. One of the carriers will be part of a 50,000 strong force that will give the UK genuine, sustainable expeditionary capability.

Many thanks for your time in responding to these questions.

Vol. 7, No. 73 (2015)

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