SDSR in 10 Easy Pieces


When all the wailing and gnashing of teeth has finished and the media moved onto the CSR there will be time for a calm reflection on the SDSR. With this in mind I am working on a detailed analysis but for now, my initial take on the SDSR in ten easy pieces


Was anyone really surprised, we all knew it was going to be damaging, we all knew there was going to be very little by the way of strategy and we all knew the boast about it not being a series of salami slices was going to be complete and utter shite?


Let’s not forget why we are in this hole, champagne tastes and mild ale pockets. The constant project slipping, extending and general avoidance of the word ‘decision’ by the previous Labour governments, coupled with a head in the sand attitude by the defence chiefs meant the bow wave of unfunded wishes was always going to have to be addressed at some point. Combine this bow wave with increasing PFI payments, operations in Afghanistan and the general financial crisis and you have a recipe for deep cuts. So the Labour Government, MoD and previous service chiefs must shoulder most of the blame for the need.


One of the greatest myths in modern politics is that the Conservative party are ‘strong on defence’, whilst they hide behind the achievements of ‘our brave boys’ and wrap themselves in a flag, they have a rather shocking track record when it comes to paying for it. Anyone who remembers Front Line First or the destruction of forces medical facilities doesn’t fall for the fallacy and neither should anyone else. As for the Liberal Democrats, well, the less said about their stance on defence the better, let’s build a campfire and we can all sing songs. Whilst the need was obvious, the choices can be questioned. If, as David Cameron repeatedly points out, defence is the first duty of government, why has the overseas aid budget been ring-fenced, why are we paying yet more into the EU, why do we spend money on the most ridiculous of things but find it acceptable to cut 7,000 personnel from the Army whilst engaged in operations? It is simply unjustifiable that we can spend £7bn on overseas aid yet have to cut defence.


If anyone thinks this is the model for a review of the nation’s defence and security, the first duty of government, they want their heads examining. Especially in the run-in, the amount of leaking, briefing, counter briefing, information operations and all sorts of nefarious skulduggery was, and is, shameful. The conduct of the SDSR and in particular, the inter-service bitterness that has been promulgated by yesterday’s men and an eager press, was just wrong. We needed strong leadership and we got an unedifying display of bickering. Must do better next time. The quality of some of the reporting was equally rubbish and generally, comically inaccurate.


For all the macho talk of taking tough decisions, a cold analysis reveals the exact opposite. There was no real strategic change, we still aspire to punch above our weight, be adaptable, contribute fully in world affairs, be a force for good (oops, sorry, that was the last one) and various other soundbites but the unfortunate reality is that without the means, the ends are simply nothing but wishful thinking. Pick your metaphor, fur coat and no knickers or paper tiger, that is what the armed forces are heading for. Industrial and political self-interest played just as big a part in the decision-making process as it always had. Where was the tough decision on Lynx Wildcat or ceremonial, to pick two just examples? Yes, there have been some harsh decisions but were they really tough, I don’t think so. In fact, one might be forgiven for thinking that some of the decisions have been based on how much political capital they could extract, better to stiff New Labour on the Nimrods ill-fitting wings and safety of the old MR2 than actually bring what is quite probably the most versatile and useful aerial asset we have into service, the MRA4 is more or less paid for and the small running cost savings simply do not make any sort of sense when measured against the capability loss. We can also conveniently forget that the projects with the largest cock-ups were in fact inherited from the last conservative government, sshh. As with all defence reviews since the end of the war, this one is about dressing up reductions across the board as some all-seeing, all-knowing strategic vision, it’s not fooling anyone.


The 1998 SDR introduced us to a whole new language of military fashion speak and this one is no different. Does anyone really understand what focus and integrate diplomatic, intelligence, defence and other capabilities on preventing international military crises or ensures those capabilities have in-built flexibility to adjust to changing future requirements actually mean?


Apologies for yet more food metaphors but the tough decisions have been dodged (see point 5) and the cuts evenly applied across the forces. No doubt each service will be arguing that they have taken the biggest hit, complete with dubious comparisons with other nations/eras but the cuts have been pretty evenly applied. Equal pain for all, now what was it the Conservative government said about being bold enough to take tough decisions and not making salami-slicing the order of the day?


There are hidden agendas galore but the one that seems to have caused the biggest stir is greater European integration. Tucked away near the end is plenty of evidence for a reduction of independence and greater co-operation with the European Union and especially France. The smokescreen about the F35B being the most expensive to run is just that and complete and utter nonsense, as has been proven by every single study the MoD has ever carried out. People seem to think that the RAF wanted F35B against the wishes of the Royal Navy but nothing could be further from the truth. Neither services wanted the STOVL model so why has it been the preferred option for FJCA from the start? Because the Treasury quite rightly dictated the requirement based on the lowest through life cost against a set of modest requirements. The statement about interoperability with allies is yet more smokescreen because our other allies, like Spain, Italy and the USMC will be operating the F35B so going for a conventional CATOBAR arrangement for our shiny new carrier actually reduces flexibility and interoperability for us. Instead of being able to operate from any USN or USMC carrier, plus any French/Australian/Italian/Spanish and other carriers 9including in extremis, other large deck vessels) we will now be limited to just conventional carriers as owned by the USN and France. So we get less interoperability and flexibility but France and the US Navy get more, what’s in it for us exactly. The only way this makes any sense is if we are heading to a single, joint UK/French carrier force, the USN do not need more decks to operate from but France does, go figure.


Everyone is hoping that an improvement in the financial situation will lead to more money for defence. I want world peace and an end to the Coke v Pepsi debate, but hope is not actually a sensible strategy, don’t hold your breath.


The speed of the review process means that it has inevitably created just as many questions as answers. Many decisions seem to have been made without the full facts, switching to the F35C for example will come back to haunt this government. The next few weeks, months and years will see the true picture unfold because it is not over yet. Plenty of scope for more blogging so watch this space!

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