In 1998 the new Labour government published the well regarded Strategic Defence Review. It was a well regarded and well-written piece of work that took nearly a year and a half to produce, setting out clearly a strategic vision for the armed forces.
Apart from the rather dodgy production values, basking in the confidence of the new government’s popularity it was greeted with near-universal praise. Central to the 1998 SDR was a number of themes but the main one was the need to modernise to better reflect new threats
the confrontation of the Cold War has been replaced by a complex mixture of uncertainty and instability
Is any of this familiar?
It also recognised that the previous governments Front Line First and Options for Change reviews had neglected logistics and combat support capabilities and that this had reduced the overall effectiveness of the armed forces. Resultant structures included the Joint Rapid Reaction Force, Joint Force 2000 (Joint Force Harrier) and the Joint Helicopter Command, the beginning of joint working structures.
Key missions were identified to cover priorities; Peacetime Security, Security of the Overseas Territories, Defence Diplomacy, Support to Wider British Interests, Peace Support and Humanitarian Operations, Regional Conflict outside the NATO area, Regional Conflict inside the NATO area and Strategic Attack on NATO. However, it did not seek to define these priorities in impact or likelihood terms, capabilities would be based on flexibility to respond to any within a specified scale and duration.
Nuclear weapons were also included, no dodging the issue there.
Despite saying all the right things in all the right places, the problems with the 1998 SDR were fourfold;
- It was never adequately resourced by a Treasury headed by Gordon Brown
- Events overtook it
- It was seduced the promise of the Revolution in Military Affairs
- It relied on too much European integration for major equipment
When it came to funding the equipment and structures proposed in the SDR the Treasury simply never followed through. Defence spending declined and defence inflation increased, the forces were starved of cash.
This is a simple fact.
Tellingly, some large programmes highlighted in the document like the carriers were never ordered until far too late. Putting off various decisions until the next day meant the next day build up a bow wave that came crashing down a few days ago.
Clearly, the world since 1998 has been a turbulent place with a greater range of threats than envisaged in the SDR, the most obvious being Islamic terrorism and Al Qaeda. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated (yet again) the lethality of simple explosive devices against the hi-technology equipment as envisaged in the SDR. Our enemies in these conflicts have gotten inside our decision cycles and exposed both a military and political weakness, the vulnerability of our conventional force structures and the increasing, media-fuelled casualty sensitivity. Conventional thinking was that rear echelon forces, operating far from the fighting in a conventional sense could quite happily use soft-skinned vehicles. Insurgencies do not have front lines and insurgents will choose to attack soft targets because their aim is not force destruction but casualty creation. This shift came as a real shock and it is only now that we are seeing a realisation that the IED was a game-changer.
The revolution in military affairs postulated that a high technology vision of warfare could create an environment where rapid manoeuvre, supported by advanced sensors, total situational awareness and precision weapons would supplant the need for protection, persistence and mass. Again, Iraq and Afghanistan put paid to this PowerPoint fantasy but not before costing a huge amount, in all senses of the word.
Finally, the naturally European friendly Labour Party placed great emphasis on European cooperation and joint ventures across a number of organisational and equipment development areas. Many of these simply failed or produced costly outcomes that had little grounding in reality.
A number of revising mini-reviews, Delivering Security in a Changing World and SDR New Chapter were carried out but they did not result in any fundamental strategic shift.
After a promising start, the New Labour record on defence has been poor, reducing funding, capability shrinkage, a rash of poor decisions and a continuous stream of operational commitments without the fundamental organisational change needed to deliver a responsive organisation.
Too many sacred cows have been allowed to graze freely.
Despite publishing a green paper on defence prior to the election it was always likely there would be a change of government and after the coalition agreement was concluded a defence and security review was announced.
Making the job of creating a successful strategy almost impossible is the financial situation. Many people fail to grasp the seriousness of the debt issue and the need for urgent action. After decades of underinvestment in comparison with other department’s one might make a strong case for exempting defence from the general austerity measures being taken across public spending and the ring-fencing of overseas development is especially galling but cuts were always going to have to be found.
As a backdrop to the need for national austerity measures were a number of other significant factors; a change in the Anglo/US relationship, uncertainty about the future of NATO, an increasingly Euro friendly Conservative party, the complication of a coalition government, a bow wave of unfunded commitments, enduring operations in Afghanistan, new threats, a highly charged political environment and many more.
It would have been nice to sit back and create a more balanced strategy but given the need to make the SDSR arrive co-terminus with the Comprehensive Spending Review meant there was an immovable external deadline.
In the run-up to the election and the aftermath, Liam Fox was clearly committed to his brief and despite a couple of stumbles he was saying all the right things, but as the scale of the cuts required became more and more obvious there was a realisation that it was becoming less and less about strategy and more and more about cutting.
There then followed the disgraceful spectacle of leaking, briefing and fighting like children. A serious business set against a backdrop of service personnel being daily on a two-way range was marred by the conduct, at least externally, of the review. We might have to wait for the memoirs but one can imagine the behind closed doors activity was equally unpleasant.
If nothing else comes out of this it must be that future reviews enjoy stronger leadership and be conducted with greater respect for the nation and service personnel. Instead of arguing that their service was of a higher value and therefore should be less vulnerable to cuts, it would have made a nice change if sensible and coordinated suggestions for reductions could have been aired.
We need to talk less about which service has won and lost and more about a coherent strategy for the future.
It was indicative of a lack of leadership, a lack of cash, a lack of coherence and a lack of clear strategic direction that a single equipment project was allowed to dominate the thinking and consequent headlines. Naval carrier strike even warranted a section on its own in the SDSR, a clear sign that something had gone badly wrong. A strategic defence and security review should deliver more clarity on strategy and less on equipment; the tail should not wag the dog, we should not fixate on equipment.
Throughout the process was a commitment to having a sensible review with no sacred cows and a clear statement that those well worn difficult decisions would be made, the result was anything but.
We cannot criticise the Government for having to make cuts in public spending but we can question the details.
In summary, it was not an ideal time to conduct a serious and considered review but circumstances dictated that a hasty review was unavoidable. It was always going to be tough and it could have been worse, but it could have been better.