Credibility in Defence

The MoD has recently described the SDSR process, how it has been inclusive and much more disciplined than the last fairly shoddy affair in 2010. Apart from the hiccup with the 300 word limit on public submissions it has been a muted affair up to now. This is good in some ways, discussion among academics and informed think tanks will hopefully provide a greater strategic underpinning to the eventual document.

In contrast to five years ago there has been little public discussion or documents, what few there have been have been fairly weak, like the one I savaged a few weeks ago. There has been very little leaking by seniors or those with an agenda, unlike the knife fight in a sandbag of 2010.

All good so far, at least as far as the process goes, am quite hopeful this time around will be very different than the last.

On Think Defence, there has also been a low volume of SDSR 2015 related posts, a few early ones from me, the current series from Andy C and a great article from David Hulme Footsoldier that contrasted the current discussion with similar processes in the USA and China.

There are many issues that SDSR 2015 will seek to address;

The continued utility of force, the role of the three services in addressing a changing and varied risk landscape, a balance of funding between capabilities, the UK’s long term strategic outlook set within the context of other rising powers and a declining influence relative to others, changing priorities and changing risk, and then onto force composition and equipment.

Above all though, maintaining the UK’s strategic and defence credibility is the most important issue the SDSR must address.

I think it is important to recognise that the British Armed forces will never achieve the mass available to others for a two very simple reasons; cost and demographics. To counter our weakness in numbers we have to unburden ourselves of worrying about how many tanks or frigates we have compared to others. What we do have is skill, experience and a technological advantage that despite recent setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan do provide us with a reputation of being a bit of a hard case, not to be messed with.

A reputation born of credibility has currency.

But this reputation is under threat.

At our peril, we squander it with timidity and half-baked strategies and deployments that spread our jam so thin we can be accused of talking loudly and carrying a small stick. I get the impression that this Government commits forces on the basis of ‘being second only to the USA’ as if this is the important factor, not merely a by-product. As long as we do more than France it doesn’t matter one jot whether the deployment is of value or has a clear target outcome.

Click the image to read in full at Politics Home

I wrote most of this post before the Conservative Party Conference but just to illustrate the point about spin and massaging figures for political effect, this is from Michael Fallon’s speech;

In fact today we have some four thousand servicemen and women serving on 21 operations around the world – twice as many as five years ago.

Some of these deployments have been tiny, 50 personnel for training in Ukraine for example, but they count as a deployment and so serve to counter the criticism from many that the UK is ‘leaving the world stage’

To those who last week questioned the relevance and power of our Armed Forces, let me tell you that only the United States is doing more around the world.

My point exactly, as long as we are second only to the United States, all is well in the world.

He went on;

But keeping Britain safe doesn’t depend on defence ministers – it depends on the almost two hundred thousand men and women who wear the Queen’s uniform.

Two hundred thousand divided by four thousand is?

And anyway, what is the definition of ‘nearly’

Well, the September Update of Defence Statistics might provide an answer;

The Strength of the Full-time Trained UK Armed Forces is 142,490, a decrease of 3.8 per cent (5,680 personnel) since 1 August 2014. The Full Time Trained Strength is 29,900 for the RN/RM, 81,060 for the Army and 31,530 for the RAF.

Ah you say, Reserves also wear the Queen’s uniform, indeed they do;

The trained strength of the FR20 Tri-Service Volunteer Reserve at 1 August 2015 was 25,490, an increase of 2,190 or 9.4 per cent since 1 August 2014.

So, 25,490 plus 142,490 equals 167,980, or if you are a Conservative Minister of State, nearly 200,000.

I suppose you could add in the 7,060 untrained Reserve personnel and 12,330 untrained personnel in the Regular forces to bump up the total to 187,370. How about the Ministry of Defence Police, they also wear the Queen’s uniform, all 2,700 of them. Add in the handful of serving Regular Reserve, Sponsored Reserve and Military Provost Guard Service and we might actually break the two hundred thousand barrier.

Still, I suppose he did say nearly two hundred thousand.

No mention of the MoD’s many and vital civil servants either.

The fudging of the 2% of GDP NATO target is grubby, shameful and frankly, beneath a power like Great Britain. The government can spin all they like but double counting and sharp accounting for the absolute reason of news management has damaged our reputation, Great Britain is not Volkswagon.

Michael Fallon, again in his conference speech, said;

In the first Conservative budget for 19 years our Prime Minister and Chancellor put defence first. Already the fifth biggest in the world, our defence spending will now increase every year and we will meet that NATO commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence not just this year, but every year of this decade.

I must say, am not surprised about this because the 2% figure is a purely political target but this is exactly the shallow flim flam that might manage the short term news agenda but does nothing for the UK’s interests or the personnel we ask to go into harm’s way.

What if we need 2.5%, or 1.5%?

Finally, this made me smile;

Each service is committing to greater efficiency, for example…

The Army will cut the cost of leasing and hiring vehicles by 10%.

By having a 20% reduction in personnel numbers.

The Royal Navy will in the future have three hundred fewer officers but six hundred more sailors to man our ships and submarines.

To address a manning crisis that has seen record numbers leaving, personnel from overseas having to be used for gap filling and even the unedifying spectacle of re-recruiting personnel made redundant. To say nothing of the pinch point trades being mostly officers, cut 300 officers to get 600 sailors seems like a bit of a dumb thing to say but let’s not forget, this is a political point to show how much the Tories are cutting’top brass’.

The Royal Air Force will save over £250m through better use of our Voyager Airtanker fleet.

By having a massive reduction in fast jet numbers.

Those kinds of savings are easy!

So at its core, the SDSR must have a solid grounding of intellectual honesty in matching ends and ways with means.

If we have to lower our aspirations because we cannot afford the means then just come out and say so, doing less with less is honest and has integrity, there is nothing wrong with saying just that.

And please, can we tone down the politics, defence is too important for Soundbite Tony and his heir apparent, 2% Fallon.

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October 5, 2015 1:51 pm

Although this is “business as usual” for the Tories it’s far better that the “blank sheet” written by the Labour lady, Maria Eagle.

Add on: I do see the US or NATO scolding the UK for changing goalposts to meet the 2% target.

Nor do I see former military figures (esp the dear Lord West aka Sea Lightning founder) picking out the details you did. (He will however probably resign the whip over “Trident”)

October 5, 2015 2:04 pm

NATO and the US will not “scold” the UK for changing the definition of defence spending as the UK has not done that. Its just that for the first time the UK submission to NATO will include everything the NATO definition allows it to include- which is what all other countries already do.

October 5, 2015 2:10 pm

As explained in my previous post the following: “The fudging of the 2% of GDP NATO target is grubby, shameful and frankly, beneath a power like Great Britain.”

Is not entirely true. The UK still meets 2% of GDP against the NATO definition, the same definition just about everybody else uses.

Also, the RN recruitment crisis was the RN’s fault, not the governments, they were the ones who miscalculated personnel requirements.

As for Voyager, still trying to work out what that means but there have been people looking at ways of trimming cost out of it for a while.

October 5, 2015 2:42 pm

The US will not scold the UK for its weasel wordery on 2% because it cares about quality partners rather than meaningless input stats. However, the words still look weaselly and the UK would do well to stop lecturing other European NATO allies given its contribution is ‘patchy’ to say the least. UK could have been a strong agent for collaboration in respect of pooled/shared strat airlift (not as a sole solution but to meet some of its surge needs) and or the MRTT air tanker project. Instead it spent quite a lot of its 2% on national only solutions, whilst simultaneously lecturing the others on not doing enough in Afghanistan. Short term bad politics

October 5, 2015 6:33 pm

I haven’t read his speech and I’m not going to. I’m still grinding my molars over the comment he made during the election, i.e. that a Labour government looking to renew the UK deterrent could not depend on Tory support. The Defence Secretary playing party politics with the nation’s nuclear deterrence. He’s about as credible as my designs on Kate Beckinsale.

And don’t get me started on Corbyn. His party supports the deterrent but under no circumstances would he push the button. When is a deterrent not a deterrent?

October 6, 2015 2:34 am

In fact today we have some four thousand servicemen and women serving on 21 operations around the world – twice as many as five years ago.

Fallon has used this before, I remember commenting on it. Never the less I will repeat myself.
When reading the above quote my first reaction was to think that the doubling in the last five years referred to the number of personnel deployed, a natural assumption. But of course five years ago Op Herrick was still going strong:
Op Herrick XII to October 2010 – 4 Mechanised Brigade
Op Herrick XIII from October 2010 – 16 Air Assault Brigade
With many more than 2000 personnel deployed to Afghanistan what the doubling actually referred to was the number of countries to which British forces are deployed on operations. In one way its rather clever, he has managed to give the impression that the number of personnel deployed has doubled, which it hasn’t. While at the same time conveniently forgetting to mention that the reason we can deploy on operations to twice the number of countries as five years ago is that one of those deployments was to Afghanistan, which consumed rather a lot of our resources.
When what appears to be a rather simple and straight forward statement of fact is nothing of the sort, but rather a well crafted piece of spin, if not deception, can we take anything at face value?

“White man (politician) speaks with forked tongue” springs to mind.

October 6, 2015 6:57 am

I wonder whether the lone RE Major attached to the MFO since mid-2014 is counted in the number of operations that the UK contributes to?

October 6, 2015 9:11 am

Just trying to work out what these are: Estonia (NATO air defence), Ukraine (training team), Iraq (x2 Shader and Iraq forces training), Somalia (x2 AMISOM, new training programme), Gulf/Bahrein (x2 counter-piracy/MCM), Afghanistan, Nigeria (x2 Niger Delta maritime security mission and CT Boko Haram), Mali, DRC (UN PSO), Cyprus (x2 UN PSO/Shader), Sierra Leone (Ebola), Italy/Med (migrant crisis), Libya (?), Turkey (Shader?), Carribbean (RN counter-narcotics), UAE (are there not some Typhoon/E3D there, or is that Op. completed?).??

This does not include all of the permanent non-operational stuff, like the training centres in places like Kenya (light infantry/peacekeeping), Belize (jungle warfare), Canada (armoured warfare), Jordan (desert warfare), Norway (arctic warfare), USA (F-35/Reaper) etc. – and the training teams/garrisons in the likes of Ghana (BMATT), Sierra Leone (IMATT), Oman (BMATT), Brunei (Ghurkas) and so on.

Any other guesses?

October 6, 2015 11:21 am

I can’t agree on the 2% figure being grubby. It is important for the resilience of NATO that the UK hits this target. Even if it means fudging the figures as its being done with in the rules it’s acceptable.

No one can say what we need to spend on defence. If Russia or China are going to bee an issue then we need 8%. if we only have to deal with IS then we can get by with 0.5%.

But defence spending does not take place in a vacuum. Given the shitty state of the countries finances 2% seems reasonable even if we have to recount an extra few things.

It’s also not that bad a thing that the Tory’s capitalise on this as they are going to take political flak for deeper cuts in other areas to pay for it.

That’s fact is that the UK forces are easily large enough to deal with any real threat to the country. Anything else is just running round the world sorting out other people’s s**t and it’s hard to justify people not getting cancer treatment at home to try be solve a civil war in the ME or Africa on our own.

October 6, 2015 11:36 am

Martin – I understand your view; its not difficult to agree with. Except… Part of the nation’s standing in the bigger wider world is based upon our ability and will to step forward to help friends and allies. Yes we can withdraw into our own cosy shell and watch as various moderate and benign states are trashed by zealots and thugs who do not share our view of a peaceable world, but that brings the risk that the zealous and thuggish become problems on our own doorstep. Sometimes helping out your mates is the best course of action.

October 6, 2015 12:05 pm

The problem at the moment is the SDSR process is being kept so close-hold by the government. I can not remember a defence review process being kept so rumour free as this one has been thus far so in many wasy we are just stabbing in the dark.

Additionally there seems to be a collective refusal in some quarters to accept just how good the defence financial settlement has been. Guaranteed real terms growth from a government committed to getting rid of the UK’s substantial fiscal deficit through significant spending cuts. It also suggests the department’s reputation in government has improved dramatically over the past five years.

Finally, I don’t think that criticising politicians, especially when they seem to have done a reasonable job in office, just for being politicians is especially useful. In hindsight Fox was probably a poor choice for the role but the last two incumbents (including the current one) seem to have been good custodians.

Gloomy Northern Boy
Gloomy Northern Boy
October 6, 2015 12:29 pm

– quite right…we can deal with problems where they are now; or wait until we have Islamist Warlords camped on the coast at various points from the Gulf of Guinea to the Golden Horn. A situation last seen when Kara Mustafa rocked up at the Gates of Vienna back in 1683…

Also worth observing that the Roman Empire in the West ultimately fell because of a mishandled refugee crisis…one component of which was an attempt by the Imperium to use money to buy off trouble beyond the borders; and indeed hold those borders using mercenaries, sometimes of doubtful loyalty…and all because keeping the Legions up to strength and up to scratch was costly and politically difficult.

The mystery then as now being the profound belief that if solving a problem is sufficiently costly, dangerous and expensive then it will obviously miraculously solve itself without putting us to any inconvenience…plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.


stephen duckworth
October 6, 2015 12:46 pm

The only real credibility is what you actual achieve ( or try to ) in the eyes of the world. The list of top defence spenders and the world’s in generals perception of their ability to intervene does not match up. We ,after the US , are seen to be a force for good in most eyes. What has Saudi done with is $80bn per year? Japan , held back previously by its constitution , spends $50bn . China , for its $130bn? Russia for its $70bn? Credibility is what you do and commit to keep on doing which is what we must do. Japan has altered its constitution to allow more active deployments ( I believe the troops deployed to Iraq on peace keeping duties were banned from using their weapons in all circumstances) . Saudi is now putting some wear and tear on its kit lately too. Iceland with a population less than Leicester and has no official Army deployed several bomb disposal experts to Iraq from its Coastguard ( something they specialize in of all things ) . These are the most volatile times since the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the huge power shift that brought with many , many countries on the borders of Europe in a state of or near to civil war . How long before , Tunisia implodes or the Algerian rebels make inroads or Egypt has another popular Muslim uprising? Greece almost melted down , with Spain and Portugal not far behind too. let’s hope that Osborne with his degree in modern history from Magdalen College can comprehend what the defence advisors are telling him and loosens the purse strings for SDSR 2015.

October 6, 2015 1:05 pm


Are you describing the negotiations going on with Erdogan’s visit to Brussels? RE
” the Roman Empire in the West ultimately fell because of a mishandled refugee crisis…one component of which was an attempt by the Imperium to use money to buy off trouble beyond the borders; and indeed hold those borders using mercenaries, sometimes of doubtful loyalty…and all because keeping the Legions up to strength and up to scratch was costly and politically difficult.”

October 6, 2015 1:50 pm

@ Chris – if any of our mates were being threatened I would agree with you. But Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan. Does anything come out of these places other twin refugees and jihadis?

even Ukraine I would find hard pressed to call a mate. Certainly if Russia makes a play for the Baltic’s then it’s a different story but then it’s not just us but near 1 billion members of NATO that Russia is taking on. It does not really justify a defence budget much north of 2% of GDP not to mention if we start sending armoured divisions Moscow’s way they are likely to start sending buckets of sunshine our way.

Also there is little point in having an interventionist military if we lack the will to use it. Can anyone here hand on heart say there is a situation in the world today that they would like to see large scale deployments of UK soldiers to solve.

If we are talking intervention by special forces and drones in a permissive air threat environment then the current budget is more than sufficient.

October 6, 2015 2:03 pm

In terms of defence budgets it was only a few years ago the UK ranked number 2 in the world. with the pound rallying, Europe still cutting back and almost everyone above us (Russia, Saudi, China) in economic collapse it’s entirely possible we might go back up soon and it will mean exactly what it meant before which is nothing. as the USA will still be spending 10 times more than us no one else will care and people will know as they did before that outside of retaking the Falklands or a small operation in Africa we lack the will to take on any operation without the USA in the driving seat. So if a country wishes good relations with the west there ain’t a lot of point in talking to us.

The French on the other hand don’t have anything like our capabilities or budget yet they have will. The Chinese have not conducted an operation beyond their borders since the 14th century but people perceive them as having the will to do so.

Russia is currently making the USA look stupid in Syria not because of Russian military superiority but because Putin has the brass neck to do it knowing there is little Washington can do to stop him.

It makes little difference if we can deploy a division by sea 8,000 miles a way if we have no credibility to use that force.

Gloomy Northern Boy
Gloomy Northern Boy
October 6, 2015 2:48 pm

– No historical parallel is exact, but it has to be said that many of the “barbarians” who created successor kingdoms in the ruins of the Western Empire were very obviously Romanised, but not quite Roman, and almost always with ambitions and interests of their own beyond the Limes.

The parallels are certainly there if you look for them…especially if Sultan Erdogan starts looking after our Balkan frontier (for a consideration)…whilst simultaneously building up a Pan-Turkic polity beyond his (existing) eastern frontier…


October 6, 2015 3:33 pm

Yes, France is no longer the fifth largest economy. It has been overtaken by the UK whose GDP is 4.5% higher than his. But France don’t have a small military budget.

Hollande announced Wednesday, April 29 retention of funds allocated to the Ministry of Defence in 2015 (31.4 billion euros) and an extension of 3.8 billion euros over the 2016-2019 period.

The decision of the president broke with several years of decline in the defense budget, even though this ministry is currently the second most endowed behind that of national education (47.4 billion euros in 2015).

It peaked in 1990 to € 39 billion before gradually decrease until today, a decrease of 20% for twenty-five years.

In 2014, France spent 2.2% of GDP to military spending, according to figures from the International Research Institute on Peace Stockholm that compares them with those of other states.

But that declining military budgets not just about France, the major world powers have seen their military spending stagnate or decline slightly since 2001, as a share of GDP. Only Russia of Vladimir Putin is an exception, with a massive investment in defense, especially since 2011, 4.5% of GDP in 2014. Moscow continues to view NATO as its main external threat and saw the conflict Ukraine as a symbol of the confrontation with the West, which have shown Kiev to NATO membership ambitions.

The rigor imposed on the Ministry of Defence has led to massive cuts in the workforce. More than 330 000 people in 2003 (civilian and military, excluding National Gendarmerie), they fell to 275 000. The military planning law, defining the ambitions of Defense between 2014 and 2019, set a goal of 34,500 job cuts over the six years. After Hollande announcement April 29, 18 500 jobs will be maintained.

John Hartley
John Hartley
October 6, 2015 4:00 pm

Martin. Which bit of Ukraine would you not class as a mate? Eastern Ukraine looks to Russia, so I can see your point, but large parts of Western Ukraine have often been part of Poland. I cannot see modern Poland standing by, if Putin parks his tanks on parts of Western Ukraine that was once part of Poland.

stephen duckworth
October 6, 2015 4:13 pm

“The Chinese have not conducted an operation beyond their borders since the 14th century”
Korea in the 50’s? FrenchIndo China in the 60’s,70’s , India in the 60’s ? Vietnam in the late 70’s?

October 6, 2015 4:29 pm

Without the occupation of Tibet, China would look like a small and overcrowded place.
– ok , Sinkiang and Inner Mongolia are not small additions, either, but have more historical roots for “belonging”