The Five Fundamental Challenges for SDSR 2015

As we approach the regular inter service squabble, covert media briefings and letters to the editor of the Telegraph that is commonly called the Strategic Defence and Security Review there are a number of challenges that sit firmly on the road to the future land of milk and increased defence budget honey.

1. The Lack of Cash and Increasing Costs Pincer

Look beyond the politics and it is clear that the economy is still in the toilet with unsustainable levels of debt that cannot be simply inflated away.

At some point, the UK (and West for that matter) is going to have to face facts about loading debt onto future generations, the costs of an ageing population and cut back on public spending.

Defence is public spending.

Defence inflation is higher than wider inflation and we seem unable to constrain cost growth across a wide range of major equipments (see the light fitting on FRES as an example)

There are good reasons of course but that does not alter the fundamental, each subsequent generation of tank, plane or ship generally costing more than what went before, in comparative terms.

If equipment costs more, people definitely cost more. Rising life expectancy, increasing medical costs and the need to care for what is likely, an increasingly demanding ex service personnel community (rightly so), means people costs will increase disproportionately.

The traditional approach of capabilities compensating for mass is going to have less utility in the future as many trades and groups have already started to lose critical mass. The scope for increasing contractorisation, outsourcing and and loading military tasks onto civilian organisations is diminishing, most opportunities to rationalise the military workforce have already been taken.

In short, the wider economy is less able to provide money for defence and what is provided will buy less ‘stuff’ and fewer people.

2. Mission Accomplished – The Shortage of Bad Guys

The Cold War is well and truly over, the UK faces no direct military threat and after 13 years of continuous military operations overseas the UK is not perceived as any safer or under greater threat, one way or the other.

Hold the outrage for a second, this is not a commentary on Iraq and Afghanistan but a recognition that the nation has carried on pretty well as normal for the last couple of decades, no threat of Russians driving across Europe beyond its immediate sphere of influence and the threat of terrorism is something by and large, seen on the news. Yes of course we had the 7/7 bombings, Lee Rigby and the residual terrorist activity in Northern Ireland but if you live in Manchester or Newcastle or Cardiff, terrorism is something that generally happens on your 40″ LCD Smart TV.

Did someone not say a few days ago ‘mission accomplished’?

The readers of Think Defence know about the coming hot war between the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam, we all know about the impacts on security of climate change, water shortages, religious intolerance, population movements, energy insecurity, a belligerent Russia, expansionist China and a gazillion other things in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Antarctic but Think Defence readers are not the norm.

In short, increasing defence spending after ‘Mission Accomplished’, good luck with that.

3. Politics, Competing Priorities and a Strategic Vacuum

Whether it be for health, education, climate change mitigation, energy security, policing, overseas aid or welfare, the simple fact is defence spending is not a high priority for the general population and if politicians want to gain office, it will not be off the back of a ‘spend more money on defence’ ticket.

If a coalition or left wing government comes into power in 2015 then simple politics dictates a lessening of the demand for sustaining or increasing defence spending.

No amount of complaining about NATO minimums is going to trump back room policy deals and trade-off’s

Then of course there is service politics which conspires to reduce the value for money the UK obtains from its not inconsiderable defence budget.

Genuine strategic thinking seems to elude modern politicians and decision makers, in this vacuum, making the case for increasing defence spending whilst flood defences are crumbling or old ladies in bobble hats are freezing to death because they can’t afford to put the gas fire on is likely to remain incredibly difficult, see item 2.

Finally, Scotland.

4. Risk Aversion

The UK is becoming increasingly risk averse and this has been institutionalised in defence terms by successive governments.

If the deployment of military force becomes so fraught with ‘what might happen if’ questions and resultant paralysis in decision making the less they will be seen as an answer and this will be manifest in SDSR 2015.

See item 3

5. Resistance to Change

Despite increasing jointery the three services are still as fundamentally resistant to change and deep reform as ever.

Pressure from the defence industry, a lack of clear strategic thinking and old fashioned organisational inertia means radical reform that maximises outputs at the expense of tradition and ‘service first’ will remain stuck in limbo, other than that, the norm of making yesterday perfect will continue to influence defence decision making.

Whole herds of sacred cows will remain free to roam our green and pleasant land.

So what does all this mean?

SDSR 2015 will…

  • Reduce the overall defence capability and influence of the United Kingdom
  • Present itself as strategic thinking wrapped up in ‘tough decisions’ that honour ‘our brave servicemen’ whilst maintaining the outward appearance of normality because of ‘efficiency savings’ and ‘agility’ mean we can do the same with less
  • Provide for a few shiny baubles to keep the grown ups and the defence industry happy
  • Still consume billions of pounds yet waste many of them

Anyone that wishes for a new age of significantly increased defence spending in relation to actual increasing security threats should watch this video about wishes

SDSR 2015 is an opportunity for real strategic thinking about how defence and security in a budget constrained world can be delivered.

Instead it will be a ‘steady as she goes’ effort to preserve the current status quo.

My wish is that it produces fresh and innovative thinking which results in a set of defence reforms and a subsequent capability set that addresses modern threats to the UK and a range of benefits outside those threats in an environment of constrained spending, where innovation maximises every last penny.

Ah, now what was I saying about wishes!

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