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Strategic Defence Review

In a world of increasing instability and uncertainty, it is crucial that our Armed Forces develop, adapt and are given the brief to cope with the new, perceived, international environment. However, the defence of the British Isles has, for a long time, no longer been the sole remit of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The purpose of the Strategic Defence Review is to reassess Britain’s commitments at home and internationally. The Government recently released the Green Paper in the lead up to the review next year. It lays out, briefly, the current commitments, likely future commitments and where the government stands on particular defence issues.

The green paper is 54 pages of loveliness and facts, however there is little reliance upon statistics. Spilt into five chapters, there are others though largely supplementary to the main body, The first two chapters put the review into context. The remaining three chapters deal with the various aspects of the review being: Adaptability and Influence; Partnership and; People, Equipment and Structures.

CONTEXT: Uncertainty and Affordability

The context in which the next Strategic Defence Review will take place will see a development in a number of major trends, including a shift in the balance of power from the Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific region. These trends will produce more potential threats, threats to Britain’s national security. Many of these threats will be transnational and harder to predict in a world characterised by uncertainty. However, the world, from a Realist perspective and to an extent Liberal perspective, has always been full of uncertainty and anarchy. This is why Britain has to trust the constants, such as NATO, EU and US.

There are currently over 12 million British citizens that live overseas and other commitments, particularly through NATO, to contribute to the defence of others. This means that the defence of Britain can no longer be internalized and a struggle for the MoD on its own. This is where greater cooperation between the government departments come into the equation. Other commitments also include peacekeeping with the UN and the green paper extols the virtues of Britain in leading the way in peacekeeping operations, the beginning being the anti-slavery campaigns. However, in the midst of these commitments is the threat of instability, in particular from rogue states.

“A state which is allowed to pursue its interests by changing borders by force or flouting international agreements such as the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is likely to contribute to wider instability and weaken the international system.”

For the cynical among you, this could indicate Iran or North Korea. However, because of the increasing globalised nature of events and systems domestic security cannot be separated from international security, the two are explicitly linked. This further means that, without a doubt, there needs to be greater cooperation between the various government departments, in particular: MoD, FCO, DfID and the Home Office.

And then, over the page, we are greeted with a long list of potential threats to British security. These threats consist of; TERRORISM; HOSTILE STATES; FRAGILE AND FAILING STATES; INTERNATIONAL CRIME; NATURAL DISASTERS. Within the doom and gloom is a positive trend:

“Political freedoms have spread. No Soviet-style global rival to Western liberal democracy has yet emerged.”

This is very good news as democracies, in the Liberal strand of International Relations, do not attack each other. Again cynics might point out that the way Western liberal democracies go about creating other Western liberal democracies is through the medium of war e.g. Iraq. But if you want peace, prepare for war.

Luckily for us, NATO is also going through a review of its own, the review of its Strategic Concept, which is basically making sure that NATO remains an effective force. This also means that the SDR has to tie in with it, as Britain is a stakeholder in NATO.

Due to the recent financial crisis there are pressures on departments to cut budgets. The core defence budget has grown 10% since the 1998 defence review, but it is still less than in 1992-93. There are also unseen costs, not in the core budget such as the counter-terrorism budget, maintenance of the independent nuclear deterrent and subsidies for the defence industry. These unseen costs are also coupled with an increase in the costs of resources such as fuel. Research into a technological edge over the enemy is also producing a strain on the defence budget, as well as a rise in wages and pensions.

“Historically, rising unit costs have been offset by increases in capability and changes in the nature of the threat which have led us to reduce numbers of both personnel and platforms. But there are limits to how far capability improvements or efficiency can compensate for numbers.”

Like all matters, it is finding the careful balance between efficiency, quantities and costs. It is trying to find that point on the curve which produces optimum efficiency not just theoretically but, more importantly, practically.

CONTEXT: Complexity and the Use of Force

Joint operations, between the three services and other international players, have become the norm. Support functions such as logistics and communications has meant that the sum is greater than the parts. Operations are becoming increasingly more complex as they become more interrelated.

The expeditionary capabilities of the Armed Forces have demonstrated their value to current operations. The expeditionary force, as part of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps – headed by a British Lieutenat-General, has been able to deploy and sustain forces from theatres such as Sierra Leone to Afghanistan.

Parallel, and central, to the review is an independent paper – The Future Character of Conflict. The full report can be found here. The paper looks at the perceived threats and conflict situations up to 2029. To briefly summarise the paper, future operations will involve:

1-Contested – access and freedom of manoeuvre will have to be fought for
2-Congested – drawn into urban areas and lower airspace. Effectively close quarters and FIBUA (Fighting in Built-Up Areas)
3-Cluttered – increasingly difficult to discriminate between the enemy, civilian population, friendly forces and non-state actors such as NGOs
4-Connected – key lines of communication will be increasingly vulnerable to attack and disruption
5-Constrained – legal and social changes will place limits on actions.

Along with these five areas characterising Britain’s future operations, there is also the changing nature of the enemy.

“Our adversaries will avoid engagement on our terms. They will adapt rapidly to exploit our vulnerabilities, for example fighting in built-up areas or concealing themselves amongst civilians. They may extend the conflict to areas where we are less prepared or protected.”

The relatively good news is, is that British forces are already experiencing this type of conflict in Afghanistan. That’s the good news, the bad news is that they are adapting much quicker to exploit our vulnerabilities than we are in protecting our vulnerable points. Whilst we are engaged in operations overseas there must be an increased multi-agent effort in restructuring and rebuilding in conflict zones. This effort will extend and compliment the ‘Hearts and Minds’ counter-insurgency strategy.

Expectation at home, in Britain, will also play a major role in shaping military actions and commitments. Their support will depend on the government being able to explain that operational objectives are in the UK’s interest and the approach is feasible and proportionate, especially in human lives. The backlash to Iraq and growing hostility to Afghanistan is proving that the British public does not like being treated like children when it comes to entering into conflicts. Britain needs to justify the reasons for entering into conflict so as to justify the loss of lives, in terms of the public’s interests, British lives.

With regards to strategic communications, the use of new media will become more important as the need to introduce transparency into the operational capability becomes more important. However,

“There will be occasions when the need for operational security will override the case for openness. But we must guard against that being routinely used to avoid transparency.”

With the spread and development of communication technology the views of individuals, as opposed to governments, will become more important to influence as these individual voices will increasingly affect our security.

The green paper also stresses the importance of technology, but there is the problem of; how do you utilise the correct technologies? Another problem is how do you defend against developments in technology that could expose and attack Britain’s vulnerable points? An increasingly viable threat is cyber warfare, already experienced by the attack on Google and other non-state actors. Do you bring private companies on board? They have more experience in defending against unwanted intrusions into a security network, but their interests are usually different from those of the nation state in that, by nature, they are mercantilist in their approach.

Investment in the sciences might be able to remedy and alleviate fears about vulnerabilities in our security. Civil investment is R&D is much larger than defence spending and most of this research could also be used in a military context. At this point I would also advise consideration about combining defence R&D budgets with European allies as the combined total would most likely rival US and China, plus wonderful projects are born out of it, like the Eurofighter.

Another problem is that by striving for the technological edge over the enemy could quickly become redundant as the ‘simple’ technology of IEDs are already beating the ‘advanced’ technologies of ISAF.

Adaptability and Influence

One way to increase the adaptability of defence is to hold regular defence reviews, this will ensure that strategic policy reflects changes in the international arena as opposed to lagging behind. Restructuring the top levels in the military and civil service could also, potentially, make the Armed Forces more responsive. Creating a multi-skilled service(wo)man would also increase the adaptability of the UK Forces, many of them are already operating outside of their primary roles.

Prioritising investment in multi-capability, multi-utility technologies, such as helicopters, will benefit the military in its operational capabilities. Developing closer links between regular and reserve forces will ensure access to a wider skills base and personnel pool. Using mature technologies would reduce the risk and cost involved through R&D and could, potentially, foster stronger links between Britain and other countries, such as Germany, as mature technologies will invariably come from foreign countries.

Improving the ratio between deployed personnel and equipment with overall numbers means that greater flexibility in deployment patterns can be introduced, which in turn will increase operational effect. Greater cooperation across Whitehall will also produce a more adaptable defence system.

With adaptability must come influence, in order to protect our interests at home and abroad. One of these influences is deterrence. The most notable and, perhaps, controversial is the independent nuclear deterrent. The government is committed to nuclear disarmament but;

“we have to begin the process of renewal of the Trident submarine system because not to do so would effectively commit us now to unilateral disarmament as future date regardless of the threats pertaining at the time.”

In other words, we do not want to get caught with our pants down, therefore we must, this time, maintain the nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future. Alongside the practice of deterrence is the practice of reassurance, which is providing allies with military support when threatened. Another useful tool of influence is the provision of economic sanctions, as well as traditional diplomacy.


Partnership refers to international and domestic partnership and NATO remains the corner stone of our security. However the EU is becoming more important as;

“a robust EU role in crisis management will strengthen NATO. Playing a leading role at the heart of Europe will strengthen our relationship with the US.”

This view is nothing new, as it was an opinion propagated by Tony Blair during his first term as Prime Minister. There is also scope to increasing British involvement in the UN whether through civilian or military operations. There is also scope to incorporate the African Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations into the policing capabilities. This is because European hegemony no longer exists and as a way to increase international stability by recognising the influence of the emerging powers.

As mentioned before greater cooperation across Whitehall will increase operational effectiveness but also improve Britain’s national security. One of the best examples of cross-department cooperation is the CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy. The full report can be found here and the brief summary leaflet here.

People, Equipment and Structures

The most important part of this chapter is the focus on equipment, as the supply and maintenance of equipment has been brought into question during the Iraq Inquiry. The MoD has established a Strategy for Acquisition Reform, which will

“help us create an affordable long-term equipment programme, make better decisions about what we buy, ensure it delivers the right performance to time and cost and enhance our ability to adapt to change.”

In light of the other issues raised, in particular international partnership, this brings into question the usefulness of the British defence industry, seeing as a vital piece of equipment, the SA80, is made by Heckler & Koch the well known German arms manufacturers. The paper does not deny the outsourcing of defence equipment, but

“there are cases where specific industrial capability must be located in the UK for operational reasons.”

For example the development and maintenance of the Royal Navy. However the government would not want to get rid of the arms base in the UK as it is not in Britain’s interests to do so. Some £20bn is spent per annum in the defence industry which means that Britain’s decisions have a significant and long-term impact on the UK’s industrial base and therefore on the livelihood of many British citizens. The counter argument can be found here


Britain is in a pickle without the support it has from its international partners. Closer cooperation between the MoD and other government departments will increase operational effectiveness as will greater cooperation between Britain and her allies.

One thing that has not been raised in the green paper, but most likely will be in the Strategic Defence Review, is the operational effectiveness of the RAF. I know that the Army and the Royal Navy are pressing for its dissolution. The RAF was born out of the amalgamation of the Army Air Corps and Fleet Air Arm after the First World War. Yet the Army and Navy still maintain their wings. As conflicts, since the end of the Second World War has increasingly relied upon expeditionary forces and deterrence. Now the threat of the Soviet Union has gone and Europe is unified Britain’s airspace is safe. The RAF’s role is redundant. What the RAF does is also done by the Navy and Army. In a world of increasing efficiency, especially in savings, cross-over in roles does not make sense. Do not be surprised if the RAF is dissolved during the next Strategic Defence Review.

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