There is a pre defence review ritual that everyone with an interest indulges in. It starts with a few gentle discussions on Great Britain’s ‘place in the world’, the scale of our global ambition and obligations as a G8 regional power with a seat with our name on at the UN.
After a suitable period has elapsed the discussion then veers into areas of risk and threat but even during this phase the mood is still good natured.
Phase 3 gets heated because it is the first stage at which money is usually involved and therefore consideration of how the diminishing cake is sliced up between the services.
It is during this phase that negotiations and backroom deals kick in and the inevitable ‘test the water’ leaking to sympathetic journalists.
The final phase happens when it is all over and then as the implications of actual decisions made become clearer the bitterness sets in which can last for decades (see moving Australia and CVA01 for a good example).
If you start with the money and define a fixed budget you still get into the same argument and all that happens then is people tend to shape the first phases so that, oh look, my answer was right all along.
Start with risks and threats and the answers will always have to be tempered by the time it comes back around to budgets. Each review is rapidly made redundant by ‘events dear boy’ and the cycle starts again.
There are no easy answers and to think so is rather foolish, if there was an easy method, everyone would be doing it.
The one thing that I think does retard the process is the first phase, maybe it is something we just have to contend with but there seems to be an uncertainty around our place in the world of nations.
Yes, we used to be a world power, yes, a lot of the map used to be coloured in red and yes, we still retain a significant global influence but we are no longer the world power we once were and we still don’t seem to have fully grasped this.
With a roughly 2% of GDP defence spend the UK actually maintains a much broader set of capabilities than other comparable powers with similar spending. It is easy to be seduced by the ‘we are all doomed’ narrative but there are very few nations that can honestly say they maintain selected capabilities that are right at the cutting edge with an ability to sustain a global footprint and extended campaigns.
There is a danger of looking inward and only seeing the negatives that we should avoid.
However, I think there is still a general view that does not recognise the actual capabilities we now hold and this is at the heart of the defence review problem.
Every single defence review results in a reduction in capability closely followed by an inability to actually recognise it as such, so we get nonsensical statements like ‘no strategic shrinkage’ and ‘punching above our weight’
The ‘punching above our weight’ theme needs to be ruthlessly struck from the vocabulary because not only does it lead to illogical equipment decisions and hollowed out forces it fundamentally results in the talk loud small stick foreign policy that we seem unable to wean ourselves off.
You can only get away with this for so long until others start to realise you are bluffing and I believe this is where we are now, even our allies are starting to realise that our big talk isn’t backed up, despite having the worlds most advanced x or y, they are of little practical value if you only have a handful. Fur coat and no knickers could be an apt description of much of the UK’s defence capabilities, as painful as it may be for us all to recognise, and so I think there is a fundamental need to reassess ‘our place’.
A more honest appraisal might possibly result in a defence review that in not accompanied by howls of ‘there is no fat left to cut’
Over the next couple of months I am going to be posting a set of loosely linked articles on the general theme of SDSR 2015 looking at specific issues along the way.