Part 2 – The Disappointment of SDR (1998)
Defence reviews have a habit of only coming round every change of government. This simple piece of information should be taken as an immediate pointer to the nature of defence reviews: they are a statement of political intent. A review of both the likely threats and the current and future capacities to deal with those threats are a necessary add-on, but clearly of secondary importance.
Nevertheless, on first reading, the Strategic Defence Review published in July 1998 appeared to be a very solid document that had made a genuine and honest assessment of the political, security and defence situation. Moreover, it also appeared to have been produced by a genuine collaboration between the civilian politicians and the uniformed staff to arrive at a coherent and workable strategy to deal with future military challenges. It certainly had its flaws, but it was a very welcome document that seemed to tick all the right boxes.
Less than 12 months had passed before it became abundantly clear that the document was nothing but hot air. If not an outright attempt to deceive, it was certainly a clever piece of political spin. Events quickly proved that the document was more a conflation of two statements – one by New Labour and one by Chiefs of Staff – than collaboration to effect common strategy. And it wasn’t just the politics that was spun, the military element also proved to be little more than a coat of gloss to hide the rot beneath.
Bold statements I know, so I’d better put some meat on those bones. Why? Because the SDR 1998 (and subsequent add-ons) provide a perfect picture of what’s wrong at the heart of defence policy, strategy and planning. We could learn a great deal from it.
Back to the Good Points
With the decline of the Empire, British military might had been concentrated in Northern Europe and the North Atlantic. Step by step, the UK armed forces were subsumed into a multi-national attempt to prevent the Soviet Red Army marching eastwards. Even by the early-70s, what little out of area capabilities that remained were legacies from an earlier period – allowed to wither away completely as platform life expired or burned out (literally as in the case of HMS Eagle!). British defence was predisposed to achieving two simple goals: delay the Red Army on the North German Plain; and, keep the North Atlantic sea-lanes open for US reinforcement. Unfortunately, the US had other ideas and developed tactical nuclear strike capabilities and doctrine that would allow an end to hostilities without having to expend too great an effort in resources and manpower – at the expense of a few European cities!!!
Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the UK armed forces were left in a bit of a quandary: all tooled up to fight an enemy that no longer existed. What to do? The entire 90s were a period of complete stagnation and drift. Iraq and Yugoslavia kept them occupied, but at the same time also exposed and highlighted their internal weaknesses. Virtually the entire Army was robbed to place two ‘triangular’ (and bandaged) brigades into the Gulf with modern equipment. Had they needed to be replaced in the front-line, scratch formations of tired Chieftains and FV430 APCs were next up. Thankfully, they were not required. The RAF’s main strike aircraft had to be quickly re-roled from the very mission it was doctrinally built around. And the RN, the alleged prime mover in power projection beyond UK shores, was hardly the key asset in securing an Iraqi climb-down.
In Yugoslavia, the Army had major problems supporting just two small battle groups, whilst maintaining ‘deployment harmony guidelines’, on an enduring, open-ended, peace support mission. The RAF and RN were found wanting in their ability provide credible support to those meagre ground forces.
Both examples show major structural weakness in the Armed Forces regardless of political restrictions that may have hampered their performance. The Conservative government singularly failed to provide political direction and the military chiefs were more interested in their own internal turf wars. It was left to the opposition, New Labour, to pick up the baton and to provide both the political direction and the imperative/urgency to the military to get their house in order.
Coming to power in 1997, the new government did not divulge its political intent with undue haste. It appeared to consult widely and sensibly and thus published its Strategic Defence Review sensibly in July 1998. It publically – and honestly – stated that there was no longer any practical (military) threat to UK territory or sovereign independence This gave them a blank page on which to craft a defence (and security) policy around all UK interests – there was no longer any need to put all their eggs into the anti-Soviet basket.
New Labour grasped this opportunity with open arms and, rather than simply cutting the military to the bone as some anticipated, developed their ideology of foreign intervention and being a “force for good”. The military had a new purpose for which it needed new doctrine, strategy and – to the obvious delight of the military staff – new equipment.
The SDR document laid it all out in a simple and understandable manner – albeit padded by plenty of fluff. Politically, the UK was to remain firmly aligned with the US, NATO and the EU and was to encourage even greater military cooperation with these partners. At the same time, it was going to form expeditionary forces that could perform a multitude of tasks ranging from disaster relief, through peace support to putting the stick about occasionally to bring undesirables into line. Of course, this was all to be done from a firm position on the moral high-ground.
For their part, the military staff put together a coherent plan to restructure the forces then available to best tackle those political demands, and to lay out what equipment and strategy would be required in the future to even better perform the given tasks. Relatively minor alterations were made to core structures with the emphasis being placed on acquiring the logistical capacity to support these potential far off and enduring missions. But on the whole, it was hardly a bold reorganisation or reform and very little was surrendered by the services in the way of numbers, equipment or control – especially for the Army and the RAF. The RN, however, were a little more forward looking and were prepared to make immediate sacrifices in existing platform numbers with the promise of the future arrival of two new, huge ‘fleet’ carriers.
But, what was perhaps the most gratifying from the document was the apparent cooperation between the uniformed and the non-uniformed in laying out publically the manner and extent to which UK forces would be deployed and engaged. It truly looked like there had been an attempt to match what the politicians wanted to do with what the military could do – and agreement found in the middle.
Oh how we were all mistaken and the doubters and critics proven right
Where it All went Wrong
SDR 1998 clearly laid out the scale of operations that the military would be able to contemplate based upon its size and resources: namely, a “large scale” (ie division sized force) high intensity operation OR two concurrent “medium scale” (ie brigade sized force) operations with only one being, temporarily, of high intensity. Please note the capitalised ‘OR’. A “very large scale” or “full scale” effort would only be made where the UK itself, or a NATO ally, was under direct attack and the forces would be deployed in the tradition hunting grounds of the North German Plain.
Neither the Kosovo Albanian people, nor the insurgent cum terrorist organisation Kosovo Liberation Army, were NATO members or allies of the UK. Their plight may well have caused sympathy in the UK, but it was hardly crucial to UK interests let alone defence. Nevertheless, the UK government was prepared to make available virtually the entire British Army as a battering ram up the Kacanik Pass to ‘liberate’ Kosovo. At the political level, both 1st and 3rd Divisions were offered for the assault, as well as 5 Airborne and 3 Commando brigades. Fortunately, this force was not required.
Less than 12 months after SDR 1998 was published, the fundamental planning assumptions were ignored and effectively cast aside. New Labour were willing to rubber stamp a deployment at almost “full scale” – not to secure UK sovereignty or even crucial interests – but for the personal gratification of Tony Blair’s sofa committee. SDR 1998, as a guiding document was dead in the water. Just about every policy document related to military affairs subsequently produced – of which there were many – barely considered military effect; there were nothing more than political fluff.
It’s difficult to find a period since 1999 that the military has ever been within those planning assumptions!
Kosovo 1999 also showed the vast weaknesses in the military structure and capabilities extant. The relatively minor structural changes to a “balanced force structure” and the creation of an “operational cycle” across 6 similar brigades were stillborn. Various cap badges were more interested in preserving their own territory and tradition that creating an army fit for purpose. Still, the very concepts of ‘pairing’ brigades in a “balanced force structure” and the “operational cycle” were the main flaws of the military element of SDR 1998 as Op Telic 1 was to demonstrate. Almost 5 years after SDR 1998 appeared, it still required the stripping bare of almost the entire 1st Armoured Division to deploy a single ‘square’ brigade.
In 2010, the Army is barely any closer to resolving this particular conundrum despite the best efforts – much hated – by General Jackson.
Moreover, the efforts of neither the RN nor the RAF were able to provide the knock-out blow to a poor 2nd rate enemy after almost 10 years of sanctions. During Allied Force, more civilians were killed by NATO bombing that YU security forces. Democracy in Serbia brought victory in June 1999, not strategic bombing, naval power projection or even the threat of land invasion.
To knock over even a small, significantly inferior opponent requires MASSIVE forces if the blunt cudgel made of jelly is applied. The UK doesn’t have the financial resources for a small little cudgel let alone a MASSIVE one. Think Serbia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
New Labour’s ideological wet dream of deterring assorted bad guys by talking tough, deploying forces to borders in a show of strength and, if necessary, using them, had collapsed at the first point of contact.
Since 1999, the government continued to compound the problem as it disregarded all reference to their own policy documents. SDR 1998 was a valid document until, perhaps, 1 April 1999 and no longer. From then on, New Labour made up defence policy and strategy on the hoof. Or maybe, on the sofa. The military simply played catch-up, with both eyes firmly fixed on selfish cap-badge interests.
The military is inherently conservative when it comes to change. But their conservatism and aversion to change is not based upon wanting to prevent the breaking of something that is not broken, it’s about preservation of selfish cap-badge interest – keeping what’s broken rather than replacing it with new.
SDR 1998 depicted a relatively minor restructuring. The Army was incapable of even managing this due to the structural weaknesses of the regimental system and intransigence of any cap-badge to sacrifice or downsize – irrespective of merit and value to the whole. Collectively, the Army remains wedded to fighting an armoured conflict against the Red Army. If it were to drop this notion it would mean the donkey wallopers and the (big) gunners having to give up their prized possessions and competing for pre-eminence in a ‘recce’ corps – primarily with air assets that would probably better fit in the AAC!
The Navy decided, boldly, to forsake some ageing surface ships on the future promise of a pair of fleet carriers. CVF has become the Navy’s Holy Grail for which they now seem to be prepared to sacrifice anything to obtain. The Navy has done far greater damage to its own capabilities, current and future, by pursuing this dogma than the Treasury has inflicted. Its plan for the CVFs is to tramp steam around the oceans with an all FAA (ie weak) air wing. To do any meaningful intervention operations, it will require major investment from its arch enemy the RAF.
The RAF too sacrificed some older aircraft to keep its Typhoon pet project on the table. Intervention forces desperately need strategic and tactical airlift. Other than 6 C-17s, what has the RAF done to increase either its fixed wing or its rotary airlift since SDR 1998?
The RAF doesn’t want to be a taxi driver to the army.
In effect, none of the services, corps or even regiments were willing to see any significant change to what they already had/did even though they claimed to be willingly signing up to the new doctrine of intervention and expeditionary warfare. You see, a change of tasks meant lots of new equipment, which means an inter-service bun fight for the cash. Unsurprisingly, the government managed to find away to slice the cake evenly.
And even more unsurprisingly, none of these key equipment purchases has yet to appear. Where are the CVFs? It took over 10 years of New Labour government before they even signed the contracts to order the steel! Where is the strategic airlift? And where are all the lovely FRES vehicles that are going to be whisked around the world as a “force for good”?
As it now stands, the UK military will begin to receive over the next decade the hardware that had relevance for about 9 months from July 1998 to March 1999.
But it will arrive, in credible numbers, about 2020 and then handicap the military for the next 30 years.
Well done New Labour! Well done the Chiefs of Staff.
What’s happened since Kosovo 1999?
More of the same. Iraq and Helmand are nothing more than political wet dreams gone wrong. The initial air assault on Afghanistan in 2001-2 was conducted with relatively small numbers and proved essentially successful. It’s the sort of thing Britain should be aiming to be able to do, as a final resort, alone. It’s what happened since that went wrong.
Sierra Leone also stands out as an example of how it should be done: both politically and militarily. Strangely it took a 1-star military commander to actually get the policy right before setting the military element on the way to success. Again, a lot was done with a relative small and technologically outdated force.
The trick is picking the right places to intervene and applying rapier like precision to ones efforts – pretty much as SDR 1998 anticipated.
It’s when the politicians think wielding blunt cudgels made of purple jelly will reshape the world that things go wrong. This strategy seems to have made the UK less, not more, secure.
And therein lies the lesson(s) which I consider most important. The future lies in the military capacity to provide prudent rapier like incursions. Prudent being the key word in that sentence. And those incursions are not necessarily of a war fighting nature. A prompt casualty evacuation or disaster response in a hostile area is more likely to win friends than create enemies – thus enhancing (indirectly) UK security.
This is the complete opposite (cause AND effect) of New Labour efforts in the ‘Moslem’ world.
The future does not lie in a new set of politicians trying to dream up new political tasks for the military to bark at. Nor does it lie in continued intransigence of military personnel to change and reform and their dogmatic determination to fight amongst themselves to preserve their own fiefdoms.
If the UK gets the diplomacy, the intelligence and the prudence in intervention right, there is no need for massive air, land and sea forces to man siege fortifications around the British Isles.
SDR 1998 was a cleverly constructed document that came in two parts: a political statement explaining how the British Armed Forces were going to be used to satisfy Tony Blair’s sofa committee morals irrespective of capacity and capability; and, how the services were going to do their absolute utmost to prevent change and fight their way internally for a bigger slice of a diminishing defence budget.
I hope the soon to be published ConLibdem defence and security review is not another helping of the same. The omens are not good.
In Part 3, I will look at each of the services in turn as to what and where, perhaps, they should be looking to accomplish and implement as a benefit to UK national interests rather than their own self cap-badge interests.
It is of course, just my own opinion that I have hastily tapped into my laptop.
ED: Mark, great post, there is nothing wrong with hastily typed opinions, it our stock in trade here!