SDSR – Analysis #02 (Where’s the Strategy)


I could simply leave this post as a title, there was very little strategy which given the next post (Elephants) could be forgiven.

The Government talk a great deal about holding Strategic Defence Review’s every 5 years but a strategy should be something that stretches out decades ahead, what the SDSR was, and will be, is nothing but a series of short term sneaky peaks around the corner whilst looking into an empty wallet.

As the Public Accounts Committee acknowledges, the UK is devoid of any serious strategy making apparatus and this needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Instead of strategy, we get constant background noise about Britain’s place in the world, punching above our weight and a collection of increasingly fatuous and meaningless sound bites.

What I want to see from a strategy is a vision of how the nation’s wealth and health are going to be maintained and improved.

I don’t care about our place in the world but I do care very much about our interests.

I don’t care about Great Power status but I do care about Great Power benefits.

The SDSR was merely a risk assessment with a few vague notions of how some of those risks might be mitigated. The Chinese, Brazilians or Indians don’t worry or care about their place in the world but is it a measure of our arrogance that we think we can solve the world’s problems, or have obligations beyond enlightened self-interest.

We can’t afford to be a force for good anymore if we ever could, so the sooner we get off this particular vanity trip the better.

The problem with this is that the opinion-formers and ruling class of this country tend to favour a high handed, almost anti-self-interest approach. In a recent opinion poll commissioned by Chatham House our highers and betters were asked to name the assets that best served British interests, incredibly the BBC and British Culture were ranked first and second but the same question asked of members of the public saw the armed forces and the BBC take the top spots. Incredibly, the first group said ethics should trump the national interest but the public were under no such over-educated, effete notions and realised that in the national interest the values that we aspire to might be put aside now and then.

How have the ruling class become so detached from reality?

This difference is what drives the arrogant, force for good, place in the world, obligations claptrap that has seen the SDSR more or less destroy the capability of the armed forces to act alone, even at a small scale.

Great powers act in their own interests, not others.

It is also well understood by everyone but those of leafy North London that soft power must have a foundation of hard power to be effective.

In the run-up to the publication of the SDSR, there were a number of thoughtful and very well-considered articles, conferences and other publications about the strategic choices the UK might make. One of the best was a piece published by RUSI that laid out a number of options, the most likely being a maritime centric approach called Strategic Raiding or a COIN approach called Global Guardian. A third option considered making contributions to a coalition in a range of selected areas but losing the ability to act independently. Battle lines were drawn and various parties aligned behind these options, particularly the first two. I thought two things about these options; 1, they were far too neat for the real world and 2, they demanded hard edges, it was to be one or the other.

It also and somewhat naively, thought the Government would actually make a choice, ho ho ho.

I tend to think neither the army centric Global Guardian or maritime centric Strategic Raiding option is valid. Iraq and Afghanistan have been hugely wasteful in whatever currency you care to measure and the pro CVF/pro-Navy strategic raiding concept assumes that all we need to do is inflict a short sharp slap and everything will be OK, we can leave the aftermath (there will always be aftermath) to others. This is strategically and operationally naive; as demonstrated numerous times in the past, ‘raiding’ is only effective if one follows up with sustained land operations and if you aren’t committed to this most difficult phase, why should others.

In the grand scheme of things, both have proven to be largely ineffective in contributing to the nation’s wealth and health.

Commentators accused the Army of ‘presentism’ or assuming that the future nature of war will be the same as Iraq and Afghanistan but this rather aloof assumption fails to understand the current situation, a lack of resources for ground forces fighting a complex land war whilst we are planning for the next 50 years and making busy buying or justifying yet more shiny baubles. But what about the ‘we are an island argument’, food and fuel etc. I looked at this a while ago and it is a tremendously flawed argument that conveniently ignores several inconvenient realities, at least when trying to use it to justify a maritime centric global power projection capability.

Those who were expecting a clear decision were disappointed, no matter how they spin it.

We can’t predict the future, even George Osborne and David Cameron offering their rapier-like strategic insight into Cold War relics haven’t got 20:20 future spectacles. There is always the unpredictable, so any strategy should acknowledge unpredictability and try and set out a series of capabilities that can adapt. Despite all the critics banging the cold war drum about inflexible capabilities, the fact is that the vast majority of those much-maligned cold war structures and equipment have in fact, proved rather adaptable for the last 20 odd years of enduring conflict. The Challenger 2 wasn’t designed/configured with operations in the Gulf in mind, nor was the Royal Tank Regiment but they fared rather well. The same can be said for the Tornado or Harrier or Type 23 Frigate or almost any other capability we have, all cold war relics but all doing rather well in supporting our most adaptable asset (people) do violence unto the Queen’s enemies!

There is a nugget of a point in there though; the problem with gearing up for all eventualities is the cost, we can’t afford it, even more so now, so the only sensible option is to plan for a range of eventualities but hedge against the others.

This is what the SDSR has attempted to do but in conjunction with the National Security Strategy failed to spell out what is the long term national interest and demonstrate a cast-iron link between any resultant threats to those interests and how we might deal with them using defence and security capabilities.

It should also be noted that protecting and promoting our national interest is not always a task best carried out with the force of arms or by well-meaning armed social work, sorry, conflict prevention.

We simply ended up with 75 pages and 30 odd thousand words of management speak that talked a lot but said very little.

If there was a strategy in the SDSR, it was a simple tactical retreat forced on us by economic conditions. In most ways you can measure the validity of a strategy this seems fair enough, you can’t have a choice between guns and butter if you can’t afford either.

The SDSR has made some frankly ludicrous and inexplicable decisions, dodged the real big issues and created a salami-slicing fudge in direct contravention of all the big words prior.

A little honesty would have been refreshing, instead of chattering about an adaptable Britain with no strategic shrinkage we could have simply said, we need to make changes based on our empty pockets and left it at that.

That wouldn’t have needed 30,000 words.

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