Are we playing the short game as we get closer to SDSR 2015?
Reportedly the Defence Secretary has stated that a ‘war-weary’ public will only accept interventions which are ‘time-limited’. Setting aside whether he has been reported accurately (this is The Telegraph, after all) and whether this idea of war weariness is true, if the point is accepted it poses an interesting question for the next NSS/SDSR. Some of the key drivers for structuring and resourcing security systems and the military are the assumptions made about the scale and duration of any operations you intend to conduct.
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The last SDSR reduced the scale of the operations the UK expected to conduct with Future Force 2020 (down by about a third in terms of land forces against the Iraq invasion and Afghan stabilisation) whilst keeping up concurrency (the number of operations to be done at any one time) and type (how long they were supposed to last).
This is covered in the Defence Planning Assumptions (DPA):
But broadly speaking, the ‘Adaptable Posture’ and the DPA are explicit that they think the UK will still be taking part in significant stabilisation operations, probably as part of an alliance. If the Defence Secretary *really* believes the British public will only accept short, sharp, campaigns (and this begs the question about legal and parliamentary authorisation of force), then should the next SDSR change the DPA – and if so, how?
One option would be to explicitly make the UK a ‘short-game’ player; further investment in high-end capabilities based around initial intervention and ‘kicking the door in’.
The Navy and UK strike capabilities would be the prime beneficiaries of this approach, with numbers and precision strike, along with amphibious capabilities and special forces. The Army would be the most challenged; if you aren’t suddenly having to support an enduring operation of 6,500, it can free up a lot of people. In other words, this looks a lot like the ‘Strategic Raiding‘ option outlined by RUSI before the last SDSR:
In this scenario the UK becomes a big hitting, but low-stamina partner – explicitly taking on the tough initial work, but expecting others to do longer-term presence. There are problems, the most obvious being the argument that situations that might look like needing stabilisation aren’t going to go away, just because we wish them so.
Further, it makes the UK a sprinter, not a long-distance runner; if you want to rule out UK participation, just make a situation look messy and protracted. The hard gains of the last few years in terms of knowledge and tactics could also be lost.
The counter is that this is a sunk-costs fallacy: why structure yourself to conduct operations you don’t think your population will support?
The UK is already reducing forces and has, by default, become a smaller and more high-tech military with a global presence but more thinly spread. ‘Strategic raiding’ sounds like it could play to our strengths (and is what a non-imperial Britain has done successfully for much of the past 500 years).
This may not be what Hammond is arguing; it would run counter to the ‘no strategic shrinkage’ claim the Prime Minister has spent the past four years repeating.
It would be an explicit acceptance of limitations in some respects. And it is entirely possible that the PM and SofS have been emphasising the Syria vote last year and the idea of war-weariness to try and create a reaction and shape a debate they want to conclude with greater support for the UK maintaining a full set of capabilities (especially after Secretary Gates made his recent comments).
But if they cannot come up with a convincing reason for the UK to continue to have the ability to ‘go long, go strong’, then it may be they end up with UK forces only able to play the short game.
So, should they?