hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

SDSR 2015: Debt, Defence & Events

“Our Armed Forces and security and intelligence agencies (the Secret Intelligence Service, the Security Service, and the Government Communications Headquarters) are respected around the world for their capability, agility, reach and ability to fight and work alongside our close allies. We took tough decisions to balance the defence budget in 2010, and are now in a position to invest in the highly deployable Armed Forces that we need to guarantee our security”.

National Security Strategy and Strategic Security and Defence Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom

Alphen, Netherlands. 25 November. Britain spends about £35bn annually on total debt interest, which is about the same as Britain spends on defence. NSS 2015 & SDSR 2015 (hereafter SDSR 2015 unless specified) is a conscious attempt by London to balance the growing demands for enhanced security and defence, with the Government’s determination to eradicate debt interest payments and achieve a budget surplus by financial years 2019-20. So, if one peers through the relentless political spin that has accompanied the launch of SDSR 2015 will Britain’s security and defence be stronger or weaker?

As SDSR 2015 was launched a Russian Graney-class nuclear attack submarine, believed to be the Severodvinsk, had entered British waters. A week prior Islamic State militants had killed 132 people and wounded over 300 in Paris. Yesterday, two F-16s of NATO member Turkey shot down a Russian SU 24, killing one of the crew members. No wonder Prime Minister David Cameron chose to deliver SDSR 2015 to Parliament rather than Michael Fallon, the Secretary of State for Defence, as would have more normally been the case, in more normal times. That is precisely the essential point about SDSR 2015; these are not normal ‘let me get off the strategic roundabout whilst I fix the economy’ times. Thus, ultimately it is against those ‘times’ that the SDSR 2015 must be measured. 

“National Security Strategy and Strategic Security and Defence Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom”, is 96 pages long and does exactly what it says on the tin – merges strategy, security, debt and defence. Being a defence wonk I have spent the last thirty six hours or so trawling through SDSR 2015 and my sense is that Britain is as ever trying to execute a politically perilous defence-strategic balancing act. Much of the analysis of Britain’s changing strategic environment in SDSR 2015 is sound. Moreover, although essentially resource-led SDSR 2015 does at least try to balance affordability with strategy. As such SDSR 2015 is far superior to its predecessor SDSR 2010, which was slash, burn, panic and preach. Even so, SDSR 2015 remains replete with the tensions that are inherent to Britain’s taut defence budget. The slightest shock, and or commitment beyond what are now very limited defence planning assumptions, could bring the entire SDSR edifice crashing down.

SDSR 2015 and Britain’s Strategic Dilemma: All democracies struggle to balance security, strategy, defence capability and capacity, and affordability, or ends, ways and means as it is known in the business. For the world’s fifth largest economy and a top five military actor, and a country which for all the sneering of many (all too often fellow Europeans who make no effort to pull their defence weight) Britain maintains influence and seeks to maintain influence at the core of all the major international fora. Indeed, enabling such influence to achieve cost-effective security and defence is the strategic method behind SDSR 2015. However, the extent to which power in all its forms can be invested in by the British remains an eternal dilemma for London, a dilemma this British government has struggled with more than most. And, it is a struggle that is all-too apparent reading between the lines of the three stated National Strategic Objectives in SDSR 2015: protect people; project global influence; and promote prosperity.

New Money? Much political spin has been woven by the Government these two days past about new money to be invested in defence. Indeed, SDSR 2015 makes much about maintaining defence expenditure at the NATO guideline of 2% GDP until financial year 2020-21. Much has also been made about the commitment to increase defence spending in real terms each year over the same period, and funding an ‘additional’ £12bn bringing the defence investment budget up to £178bn over the next decade. However, close analysis reveals much of this ‘new’ money to be existing resources re-tagged. It is a re-tagging effort that is particularly apparent when it comes to the ‘increased’ intelligence resources, counter-terror spend, and the investments to be made to counter hybrid warfare and cyber-warfare.

Creative Defence Accounting: If one compares the 2015 defence accounting model with the 2009 defence accounting model British defence expenditure on current projections could be as low as 1.7% GDP by 2020. This is because the 2015v model includes both the cost of the nuclear deterrent and so-called ‘other’ mainly non-military items of expenditure that are within NATO's definition of defence expediture, but not traditionally the British definiion. The most worrying aspect is the degree to which Britain’s world class diplomatic machine, the transmission between national strategy, power, influence, security and defence remains under-funded. There seems something dangerously churlish in the Government’s attitude towards the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Britain’s diplomats that seems to be driven by Chancellor George Osborne’s mistaken belief that foreign policy can be reduced to mere mercantilism. 

The Bottom-Line of SDSR 2015: 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. Even the much-lauded $12bn increase in the defence equipment budget will include a minimum of £7bn (and as much as £11bn) of ‘efficiency savings’ (cuts). Much of those cuts will see some 30,000 MoD civilians cut, many of whom were engaged after SDSR 2010 to replace military personnel. 

Britain’s Strategic Core force: The headline of SDSR 2015 is that Britain is committed to the creation of a small, reasonably ‘balanced’ force at the higher-end of capability able act as a core or hub force to offset a lack of capacity. This is sound thinking. As I suggested in my 2015 book Little Britain? Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power it is about time London abandoned the ‘little bit of everything, but not much of anything’ force to which every defence review has been committed since at least 1967. In the book I argued Britain needed a core or hub force which could reach across government in times of national emergency, and reach out to allies and partners. Such a force would take pressure off an over-stretched US, and/or act as a coalition command hub for European or non-European coalitions under a NATO, EU, UN, or any other flag of strategic convenience. To that end I am excited to see the Joint Force Concept and Command brought front and centre in the Future Force and its commander given an extra star. Now, I am not for a minute claiming any credit for this (oh, go on then just a bit) but by 2025 when all the force elements in SDSR 2015 come together Britain will have generated just such a core or hub force. And, should the strategic environment worsen the possibility does indeed exist to expand the force, albeit at cost and over time. 

Security and Defence Strategy: SDSR 2015 quite deliberately blurs the lines between security and defence which enables the government to mask even more cuts as efficiencies. Indeed, the aim of hiding cuts is the reason for merging NSS 2015 and SDSR 2015, most notably the blurring of lines between the strategic counter-terrorist strategy and what Professor Mike Clarke suggests will be the “strategic raider” role of the British future force. 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.

Royal Navy: This shift in defence strategy is most obvious in the new ‘balance’ SDSR 2015 imposes on the Royal Navy. Since the time of Drake in the sixteenth century the Navy has endeavoured to undertake both sea control and sea presence. The surface fleet is already down to 19 principle surface ships and SDSR 2015 claims to want to preserve that number. However, the reduction of the planned Type 26 Global Combat Ships (frigates) from 13 to 8 (with 5 more to come later?), the possible mothballing of one of the Type 45 destroyers, and problems with the life-extensions of the Type 23 frigates, makes me wonder if sea presence is any longer feasible. Force projection does not escape with the planned withdrawal of HMS Ocean. Moreover, there is also a possible reduction in the number of Astute-class nuclear hunter killer attack submarines from 7 (already cut from 8) to 4. My estimate is that the Navy could be reduced to a fleet of two super carriers, one amphibious assault ship, 8 new frigates (but only by 2030), and 5 destroyers. What is self-evident in the balance the RN is trying to strike is the impact of the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers (of which I am a fan) on the crewing crisis the Navy now faces. Even to crew the modest planned force the Navy still needs an additional 4000 personnel. Under SDSR 2015 it will get 450. 

British Army: The Army will be re-organised into two 5000 Strike Brigades, organised around the Parachute Regiment and other armoured infantry brigades, with much of the rest of the force configured to sustain those two brigades. There will be some limited capacity to ‘surge’ via the so-called Reserve Force. However, the only significant new technology the Army will receive will be a new Armoured Infantry Fighting Vehicle to enhance battlefield manoeuvre. Paradoxically, whilst the government makes much of the £2bn of ‘additional’ resources to be invested in Special Forces, it is hard to see how such a quality force can be recruited from such a small force base of some 82,500 soldiers. Therefore, taken together SDSR 2015 would appear to imply an abandonment of Army 2020 and the Reaction and Adaptable Force concept at its core. Or, rather SDSR 2015 now offers an Army 2025 concept that again changes the main mission of the force and looks too much like a hasty response to the Paris attacks.

Royal Air Force: The RAF which is desperately in need of modernisation will fare slightly better than the RN or the Army, with two additional Typhoon squadrons of twelve aircraft each being brought out of store. Moreover, the delivery of some 42 F-35s will be accelerated to be available for both the Fleet Air Arm and RAF by 2023, 24 of these aircraft will be on the new aircraft carriers. However, whilst a commitment is made to purchase 138 F-35s by 2035 I am still unclear as to the year-on-year build-up of the force and the RAF/RN split. Critically, eight C-17s plus some 22 A400M transport aircraft will also be retained, together with a force of 14 C-130Js. However, the number of such aircraft a US Stryker Brigade needs in support is markedly larger than is likely to be available to the British Army’s Strike Brigades.

Future Force 2025: What was Future Force 2020 has now in effect become Future Force 2025 in SDSR 2015 with slippage in both force reforms and big ticket procurement programmes. It is certainly good news that the UK will purchase all 138 F-35Bs, although God only knows what world Britain will find itself in by 2035. It is also good to see that nine Poseidon P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft will be purchased, although 12 would make more operational sense, although they are hideously expensive. Interestingly, five years ago I was in Hangar 4, RAF Kinloss, home of the Nimrods and planned home of the MRA4 replacement, to hear Assistant Commander-in-Chief Air Ops announce that all nine MRA4 aircraft, both new aircraft and those under construction, would be broken up. As he spoke an ageing American Orion aircraft took off to look for a Russian submarine that had entered British waters. Plus ça change? It is clear that neither the future carrier-strike force nor the Successor-deterrent would be able to operate at an acceptable level of risk without an ‘MPA’ capability. And, given that these two capabilities are in effect the twin pillars of SDSR 2015 such protective investment is critical.

Tension between Defence Strategy and Defence Budget: With the “Successor” programme to replace the four Trident-armed Vanguard-class submarines now increased from £25bn to some £31bn over a decade from next year’s likely ‘Main Gate’ decision to proceed, and with no new real money being injected into the British defence budget, given existing pressures on investment choices the cost of the new deterrent will continue to warp defence strategy. The consequences are already apparent. Implicit in SDSR 2015 is the extension of planned defence-equipment programmes and a reduction in numbers which means loss of economy of scale and increased costs. This factor would well explain much of the 'additional' funding in SDSR 2015 which if correct would represent a poor return on defence investment for the British taxpayer. Nothing new there then. Critically, SDSR 2015 has not resolved the SDSR 2010 failing; a hollowed-out force vulnerable to surprise and shock that could turn very quickly into a fragile or even a broken force if over-extended.

A Resource-driven SDSR 2015: My conclusion on SDSR 2015 remains the same as the core evidence I gave last week in London to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee; Britain is trying to create both a strategic nuclear deterrent and a global-reach conventional strike force on a defence budget which can probably afford one or the other, but not both. At the House of Commons Defence Select Committee I also said that I feared SDSR 2015 would be back of a fag (cigarette) packet politics dressed up as strategy. That was probably a bit hard. However, having read the document SDSR 2015 is still clearly resource-driven, rather than strategy, threat or interest driven.

Britain’s Critical Strategic Question: 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 of SDSR 2015. Why else have super-carriers, nuclear attack submarines, and a strategic nuclear deterrent? Indeed, until Britain’s all-too-often strategically illiterate leaders finally decide just what kind of power Britain seeks to be in this world that question will never be answered.

Does SDSR 2015 Make Britain Stronger or Weaker? Marginally stronger. However, debt reduction is clearly still more important to the Government than defence which suggests that on balance SDSR 2015 is a) a more political than strategic review; and b) the Treasury’s continued grip on Britain’s defence strategy reinforces the ‘how much threat can we afford’ culture that still permeates Whitehall. And, 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’.

7 out of 10: For all the lacunae and weaknesses in the document SDSR 2015 is a damn sight better than SDSR 2010 which simply threw the strategic bath out with the defence bathwater (or is it the other way round?). Moreover, it is a far better ‘strategy’ than anything I have seen elsewhere in Europe (most notably here in the Netherlands) to close the strategy, capability, capacity, affordability gap. For those reasons I think in time SDSR 2015 will be seen as a turning point in Britain’s defence strategy. SDSR 2015 at least implies more assertion, and a better understanding of the role armed forces play in power and influence. If Britain follows through on its defence investment plan Britain’s influence with allies will increase, most notably in Washington, Berlin and Paris, rational adversaries will indeed think twice before incurring Britain’s ire, and Britain’s influence will be strengthened in domains far beyond the strictly military. Therefore, whilst I gave SDSR 2010 4 out of 10, I am prepared to give SDSR 2015 7 out of 10, but only if all the commitments made therein are honoured.

Winston Churchill once said: “However beautiful the strategy, one must occasionally look at the results”. That is surely right. The gravest danger to SDSR 2015 is that it will simply get blown away by events.

SDSR 2015: debt, defence and events.

Julian Lindley-French


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