SDSR Analysis #04 (The National Security Tasks)

River Class Offshore Patrol

The substantive part of the SDSR, The National Security Tasks and Planning Guidelines, describes the framework on which the changes to force structures and capabilities will be made as we move towards Future Force 2020. In the first paragraph, on the armed forces it says this;

Above all, they give us the means to threaten or use force when other levers of power are unable to protect our vital national interests

Interesting wording, to me, this looks like the role of the armed forces is purely a passive or protective one, no mention of actually advancing the national interest through the application of the capabilities of the armed forces (not necessarily the kinetic ones) and this links in to the previous post on a lack of true strategic framework into which the armed forces might fit.


On Afghanistan, it articulates what is perhaps the clearest reason for being there we have seen for some time, one might disagree but at least this is a clear statement. The tactic we are using is simply a repeat of ‘Vietnamisation’ from the early seventies, equipping and training the Afghan National Security Forces to look after their own security. Whether this will work, whether setting the arbitrary deadline of 2014/15 is the right thing to do and what will likely happen in the next few years are subject of a massive debate but at least the government has at least articulated an intention that doesn’t involve education or human rights. Clearly, there is a race for the door marked exit whilst crafting a story of success, expect lots of good news stories about the ANSF in the next few years. We are then treated to the first of many contradictory claims;

In the meantime, the Government is fully committed to ensuring that the campaign is properly resourced, funded and equipped. The nature of the campaign will continue to evolve, and we will regularly review the requirement for troops and capabilities. We will ensure that we provide our Armed Forces in Afghanistan with the full range of training and equipment they need and we will not take steps that could affect the confidence and commitment of our people serving there or their families supporting them at home

The government claims it will not take steps that could affect the confidence and commitment of our people serving there or their families supporting them at home, it will deliver on this claim by reducing an Army already at breaking point and busting various harmony guidelines by 7,000 personnel. Neat trick that one. Still, remember that overseas development aid is worth ring fencing.

And Defence must, like other parts of government, contribute to reducing the deficit in order to restore the economy

Except the NHS, Schools Building Programme, Department for International Development and EU contributions of course. Section 2.6 describes the priority the Government will give to recovering capabilities damaged or reduced as a result of overstretch caused by recent enduring operations, hitting the reset button if you will. Some of these capabilities that have undoubtedly suffered, like combined arms manoeuvre, anti submarine warfare and airborne strike, oh shit, hold on a minute, aren’t they Cold War Relics TM and thus to be cast aside. The description of the future character of conflict is based on the excellent work of the Ministry of Defence’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC)

Our Approach

The claim is that

the resources allocated for the next four years will enable us to pursue today’s operations and prepare for those of tomorrow. However, they will also require tough decisions which will result in some scaling back in the overall size of the Armed Forces and the reduction of some capabilities that are less critical to today’s requirements

Today’s operations are woefully under resourced in any way in which you care to measure so anyone who seriously thinks scaling back in numbers and capabilities is not somehow going to impact those operations is a fool. The impacts might not be immediately visible but the behind the scenes cuts will be felt. Strengthening key defence partnerships is clearly stated as a way of managing these reductions. Strengthening key defence partnerships means relying on others to do more whilst we do less, a greater state of dependency on allies will exist, no matter how it is spun. How will we do this? First…

focus our planned forces on what we judge will be of greatest utility to our allies as well as the UK

Nothing at all wrong in that, we have recognised that in all but the smallest of operations we will be acting in partnership with others so why not focus on a number of capabilities that will provide the greatest utility in this context. Second…

broadly retain a full spectrum of capabilities, even where we will be reducing their scale or suspending them until new equipment enters service. That ability to partner even in the most challenging circumstances is one of the UK’s key attributes and sources of influence

This sounds suspiciously like the Think Defence fudge of a small scale broad spectrum surrounded by a number of ‘capability plus’ areas that we bring to a coalition. Do everything at a small scale but only a select few at a contributory and high level. Third and fourth…

maintain collectively the ability to reconstitute or regenerate capabilities we might need in the future

invest in key technologies to ensure regeneration at the appropriate technological levels.

It is number three that I have the biggest problem with, there are very few examples of a capability returning after it has been reduced and farming stuff out to the TA is not the simple answer many think. You should be able to build up from a small but fully active core but once something has gone, it is a long road back. As for number 4, not sure I actually understand what that means.


This section sets out a new approach to employing the military, aligned to the adaptable posture outlined in the National Security Strategy and is a clear break from the interventionist ‘force for good’ foreign policy of the Blair years.

we will be more selective in our use of the Armed Forces, deploying them decisively at the right time but only where key UK national interests are at stake; where we have a clear strategic aim; where the likely political, economic and human costs are in proportion to the likely benefits; where we have a viable exit strategy; and where justifiable under international law

One might argue that the reason we will have to be more select is because our forces will be much less capable. There will be a greater focus on early intervention and coordination with other instruments of influence but a renewed emphasis on using conventional forces to deter potential adversaries and reassure partners is somewhat at odds with their reducing scale and scope. Deterrence is a complex activity but first and foremost it relies on credibility. Credibility is derived from two things, a demonstrable willingness to get involved and a realistic capability. If one wants to deter by waving your stick about, the party you are waving it at must believe that you are both willing to do something more than just wave and if you do hit them, that they won’t get up again. Stating that you will deploy less and with less; means that your stick waving value is greatly diminished and will lead to more people calling your bluff. Greater coordination of civil and military expertise in crisis response and conflict prevention is entirely laudable but coordination and cooperation must also be completely subordinate to achieving the overall strategic objective. Previous FCO, MoD and DFiD efforts in this area have been woefully inadequate precisely because there was a strategic objective vacuum and led to the three organisations pulling in three completely different directions. Greater coherence and discipline in this area should be applauded. A greater and more focussed defence diplomacy effort is also welcomed; effort in this area is very rarely wasted and increasing defence diplomacy activity has been MoD policy for some years. A regular SDSR will deliver an armed forces that have the following buzz word friendly attributes

high-quality, in training and equipment, with the logistics, communications and other enablers necessary for the tasks we plan to undertake rigorously prioritised, based on pragmatic decisions about what we really need to maintain and at what readiness, and the scale on which we wish to operate balanced, with a broad spectrum of integrated and sophisticated capabilities across the maritime, land and air environments efficient, using the minimum number of different equipment fleets, providing both quality and effectiveness well-supported, both in a material and a moral sense by the MOD, by other arms of government, and by the public flexible and adaptable, to respond to unexpected threats and rapid changes in adversaries’ behaviour expeditionary, able to be deployed at distance from the UK in order to tackle threats before they reach these shores connected, able to operate with other parts of government, international partners, civilian agencies, and local security forces, authorities and citizens in many parts of the world

Who can argue with these fine words but the proof as they say, is in the pudding. In the rest of the SDSR, especially in capability areas can we really say it has resulted in a balanced force that is well supported and efficient? Fine words need funding, the 1998 SDR was equally convincing and completely underfunded.

Tasks and Planning Assumptions

It is worth noting that the 1998 SDR made a set of assumptions about the scale of military tasks we would undertake in good faith, these were comprehensively ignored because it was, as perceived by the government of the day, to be in the national interest to do so. We might look back in 5 or 10 years on this and ask the same question, why were those assumptions ignored, again, fine words do not always survive contact with political reality. What were these 1998 SDR assumptions?

  • Small Scale, battalion size or equivalent,
  • Medium Scale, brigade size or equivalent
  • Large Scale, division size or equivalent
  • Very Large Scale and Full Scale, everything we have

Forces were scaled to support 2 Medium Scale operations, with a distinction drawn between endurance and intensity of these two operations. Although well regarded in many ways, being supported by RUSI and the defence academic establishment for example, the 1998 SDR had many flaws. These included fudging the choice between Europe and the USA and most importantly of all, failing to stand up to the forces project shopping lists (Typhoon, CVF and FRES) which were never going to be affordable. It also failed to recognise the future character of conflict (see above) which was becoming clearer, even in 1998. The 2010 SDSR makes the following Defence Planning Assumptions

  • One medium scale enduring operation at about brigade level
  • One non enduring complex intervention at about 2,000 personnel
  • One non enduring simple intervention at about 1,000 personnel
  • Or three non enduring operations if we are not already engaged in enduring operations elsewhere but the scale isn’t defined.
  • And finally with sufficient notice, a one off intervention involving 3 brigades

The main difference between the 1998 SDR and the 2010 SDSR is the number of medium scale enduring operations, instead of 1 enduring plus 1 short term, we now have 1 enduring and a couple of small scale non enduring. The 1998 SDR did not provide for the scale of operations in Iraq or currently in Afghanistan and neither does the 2010 SDSR but whilst with previous force levels it was only just achievable, with projected force levels it will simply be an impossibility and/or destructive. Of course, the SDSR makes it quite emphatic that the cap will be at brigade size, again, let’s wait and see.

Future Force 2020

One of the key aspects of the 2010 SDSR is the concept of a future force, currently we are in a transition phase.

The planning framework set out above enables us to identify the Armed Forces we will need over the next ten years

Absolutely not, the planning framework allows us to see the armed forces we will have, not need, over the next ten years. There is a big difference. The three broad aspects of Future Force 2020 are as follows

  • Deployed, engaged on operations or conducting permanent activity such as the Typhoons providing QRA or a Trident carrying submarine on patrol.
  • High Readiness, forces held ready to respond to short term contingent requirements
  • Lower Readiness, forces recently returned from operations or those moving to high readiness

In reality, there is nothing revolutionary in this approach, it is exactly how forces are managed today but this sets out a clear rotation policy.

The future force is structured to give us the ability to deploy highly capable assets quickly when we need to, but also to prepare a greater scale and range of capability if required. The aim is to do so affordably and in a way that minimises demands on our people

Again, nothing really any different to what happens now The underpinning principles to support this are

Readiness. We will hold a small number of our most capable units at high readiness. Doing so imposes additional costs in terms of preparation and training, maintaining equipment ready to go, and having on standby the enablers needed to deploy it rapidly. It places considerable demands on the personnel held at high readiness and their families. The majority of our forces are held at graduated levels of lower readiness, conducting their routine training cycle or recovering from deployment or periods of higher readiness, making fewer demands on our equipment and stocks and under less constant pressure.

Reconstitution. We will hold some capabilities at what is known as extended readiness. The capabilities will not be available for operations in the short term but will be capable of being reconstituted if we have strategic notice of possible, but low probability, events to which we might have to respond to protect our national security. So for example, we will place elements of our amphibious capability in extended readiness rather than remove them from the force structure entirely.

Extended readiness is an interesting piece of existing MoD speak, to you and me, it means mothballing but is entirely dependent on the degree by what it is maintained. It also completely ignores the people aspect. Of course we can tie up an amphibious vessel alongside in readiness for use but how long will it take to bring the crew out of the same mothballs. Modern equipment is complex and if we are to use these capabilities held at extended readiness we owe it to the crews that will use them they receive the proper training or they will become a liability to themselves, others and any operation. Cobbling together a crew and plonking them on a ship that has been ticking over for a few years is not a recipe for operational safety or effectiveness unless there is considerable ‘strategic notice’

Reinforcement. Reserve Forces will contribute to each element of the future force. They provide additional capacity when regular forces are deployed at maximum effort. But they also provide specialists who it would not be practical or cost-effective to maintain within the regular forces and who can be used to augment smaller operational deployments – medical reservists play a vital role in Afghanistan, for example.

There is no doubt that reserve forces have played a considerable role in providing personnel for Afghanistan but this has not been plain sailing and many doubt, again given the complexity of modern equipment and training requirements, that this has been effective. Beyond specialists, we must be cautious about relying on reserve forces too heavily as a cheap or easy way to compensate for a lack of mass within the regular forces.

Regeneration. We will maintain the ability to regenerate capabilities that we plan not to hold for the immediate future. This will require plans to maintain technical expertise, keep skills and training going, and work with allies and partners who do hold such capabilities and with whom we can, for example, exchange personnel. We will have the capability to fly fast jets off maritime platforms when the new carrier and Joint Strike Fighter enter service, but the capability will not be maintained when Harrier is retired so we will need a plan to regenerate it.

This is clearly the most difficult, history has shown that once capabilities are gone, they are extremely difficult to reconstitute

Dependency. We rarely deploy alone. We and our NATO Allies consciously depend on each other for particular capabilities. For example, the UK does not have its own theatre missile defence capability, while we have capabilities that are highly valued by coalition partners such as mine counter-measures vessels. Part Five sets out our willingness and intention to deepen operational cooperation and potentially rely more on others when it makes sense to do so. We also depend for some capabilities on the market – for example, we do not hold all the shipping capacity we need since it is more efficient and effective to charter it when we need it.

I will look at this in more depth in subsequent posts but the EU Carrier Force and EU Airborne Refuelling Force are beginning to materialise through the haze. Clearly, Regeneration and Dependency are joined at the hip.

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