I started off trying to write a quick post on what I would like to see in and ideal SDSR 2015. But I got a bit carried away on the preamble of strategy and threats so decided to split it into two parts. This part is the pre amble so feel free to skip to the next post that will be the bit most of us are interested in on all the new kit and capabilities we would like to buy.
In the run up to the next Strategic Defence and Security Review SDSR 2015 the UK is faced with a pivotal choice. The cuts made in the last defence budget have not yet fully come though and the loss of capabilities that we have sustained while heavy is manageable and recoverable. However I believe the worst parts of SDSR 2010 are still to come. Largely in the form of the stealth cuts enacted by the treasury above the 8% cuts imposed in 2010. This stealth cut comes in the form of the decision to move the trident replacement program from the Treasury to the MOD’s core equipment plan. As the procurement of the successor submarine program begins to increase towards the end of this decade and the beginning of the next so we will find that more and more of the defence budget is eaten up from it and the likely result will be a severe loss of capability which we will never recover from.
SDSR 2015 is pivotal for several reasons. Firstly some capabilities that were lost in 2010 could still be regenerated relatively quickly if given funds fast enough. Critically I am thinking of MPA here where the necessary skills and people to form the core of a future capability should be preserved by the seed corn initiative until 2019. Secondly many of the other crazy decisions of SDSR 2010 won’t take effect until after 2015 such as the withdrawing of the Sentinel R1 and the MOD having to fund the Successor submarine program.
SDSR 2015 will also be the first defence review conducted in a decade and a half which did not see large numbers of British forces deployed abroad on enduring operations. This means that for the first time in a long time we can start to consider our strategic direction instead of simply reacting to operations.
So the choice of SDSR 2015 is relatively simple. Either the government can find more funds (not a huge amount) and maintain an engaged foreign and military policy by setting right some of the wrongs from the previous defence review or it can continue with the policies enacted in 2010 and see a much more limited military able to do very little other than a token support for US Lead operations.
SDSR 2015 also has another opportunity. Due largely to the good work of Phillip Hammond, sense seems to have returned to the MOD procurement budget. For the first time in a long time the MOD does not have a looming black hole in its equipment plan and most of the legacy projects that ate up much of the budget for the last two decades have been finished or are at least far enough down the road that costs can be relatively accurately ascertained.
Also I feel that after a long dose or staring into the abyss the top brass have become more realistic in their aims and are willing to accept simpler more off the shelf solutions to equipment than the Gucci bespoke kit which has caused us so many problems in the past. In short I feel that SDSR 2015 is the first time in a long time where we could reasonably say that budget increases even a modest one could drive up capability and that extra funds won’t simply disappear.
At the end of the day virtually everything about any defence review in peace time will come down to the budget. In the face of vague threats in an otherwise peaceful world how much of the national treasure are we willing to spend to maintain a military force. While the hoped for SDR budget of 2.5% of GDP with Trident program funded from the Treasury seems beyond the current political climate there must be an admission that spending the bare minimum NATO requirement of 2% of GDP is not sufficient. If the minimum budget is all that can be afforded in the long term then it would be better for the UK to fully withdraw from the world and retain nothing more than a self defence force spending perhaps 1% of GDP on defence. The UK should also commit to withdrawing from the UNSC. As we have seen time and time again no matter what our politicians say about no new wars for the next 5 years the pressure of international events can be too much to bear.
Operations in Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic have all been made despite the reluctance of both politicians and the public to get involved. The prospect of a dictator using chemical weapons against children was almost enough to bring us to the brink of war in Syria even though none of us wanted it.
The fact is that when the s**t hits the fan the world rightly or wrongly turns to a handful of countries with the capability to do something about it. If we want to be one of these countries and a UNSC permanent member then we should be prepared to spend the resources on it. If we are not prepared to do so then we should have the decency and grace to resign our position and be prepared to take a back seat in the way that Germany does. I think as much as possible the military should lay the argument out like this to the politicians. If you want to strut around on the world stage you must be prepared to invest your political capital is something other than pensions and the NHS.
So I will conduct my SDSR 2015 wish list on the assumption of a new government coming to office with a decent fiscal position prepared to spend a bit more than the previous government and looking to maintain and active and engaged foreign and military policy.
The trident funding decision will be reversed. A separate one of budget of several billion pounds will be made available to rapidly fill the gaps left by SDSR 2010 and the defence budget will receive above inflation funding for the five years of the next parliament.
This is hardly fantasy fleet type stuff and would be affordable to any government coming in after the 2015 general election. It would certainly not be enough to get us anywhere near the envisaged funding levels of SDR 1998 nor even back to the pre-2010 levels but I feel it should be enough to allow us to retain a decent sized force with a broad spectrum of capabilities.
I’m not really going to go into threats because one, I don’t think they have materially changed since 1998 and two, I don’t think we can plan for what threats we will actually face. Previous defence reviews have often gotten these assessments wrong and it’s generally the threat you don’t plan for that jumps up and bites you in the ass. Sufficed to say that in an uncertain world we need to retain as broad a set of military capabilities as possible with in the budgets allowed.
Also in a world where most of the threats we will likely face are asymmetric we should emphasize the breadth of our capabilities more so than the depth. We don’t need 1,000 tanks or 500 fighter bombers but we do need C4ISTAR platforms and other enablers. As with everything we must achieve a balance between depth and breadth of our capabilities but breadth should be emphasized more.
We must admit that we are not a global power. However we are one of a handful of countries in the world who can and do have a special role to play both in our region and beyond. As a member of the EU and NATO our backyard does not stop at the Channel or even the Polish boarder but stretches down to Africa and across to the Middle East. Events in these areas affect us directly. Weather its mass migration from failed states, drug running, terrorism or governments gassing their own people we are involved whether we like it or not.
We also have to acknowledge that our previous strategy of simply trying to engage the USA in all our issues may not be sufficient in the future, especially as the USA continues to pivot to the Pacific to counter the rise of China.
So our defence strategy should take two forms. Firstly continuing to support and engage with the USA and being able to provide meaningful contributions to US lead coalitions for large scale operations.
Secondly, being able to provide enablers to allow UK and or European NATO forces to conduct medium sized sovereign operations with minimal support from the USA.
We acknowledge our limitations and also our global responsibilities. We should maintain our focus primarily on Africa where we would see the French as our main partner and the Middle East and Gulf where we would continue to support the USA and key Arab allies. Other than some key areas like the Falkland’s, Straits of Malacca etc where we have special interest or territories we should refrain from getting involved in any way shape or form beyond minimal diplomatic efforts and off course humanitarian assistance.
We should acknowledge that the nation building exercises of the past decade have been largely a failure and the UK should refrain from making anything but a token contribution to such efforts in the future if they ever arise again.
However we should also acknowledge that small scale rapid interventions can be useful in changing events on the ground and prevent the failure of states such as in Sierra Leone and Mali. We must also be highly disciplined in preventing mission creep into such operations and should only be prepared to commit forces for a limited time in support of UN or other coalition operations.
Treaty with the USA
It’s been a long time since we had a bilateral treaty with the USA. In many ways over the past decade our friendship with the USA has become strained. This is common in war time just look at the relationship between our two militaries by 1945. As the USA continues to move its focus east it will need others to pick up the slack it leaves behind. So a I think a bilateral treaty covering non NATO commitments for both party’s going forward could be useful.
One thing that I would like to see out of this is a larger British commitment to the Fifth Fleet in the gulf. The UK could commit to maintaining its current force level of One SSN, One T45, One T23 and MCM squadron but also commit to having one of the Queen Elizabeth Carriers in the region for six months of the year. This would be achievable on our part although the carrier would probably have to carry two squadrons of F35B at the very least. It would free up carriers for the USN which I think it will be increasingly short of in future and it will show a firm commitment to our gulf allies as well.
(It also comes with the added advantage of making the carriers and the F35B near bullet proof in future defence reviews when no doubt the RAF will try to work its usual magic)