SDSR 2015 – A Few Thoughts


I think the first thing to do is to recognise the hard work over many days and weekends of the people, military, academic and civil servant, that have produced the National Security Strategy and the Strategic Defence and Security Review.

Second, it is probably fair to say that in comparison with other departments, the MoD has done quite well from the Comprehensive Spending Review.

Out of this unusually good bounty, what have the MoD chosen to do?

In summary, this SDSR is not particularly radical, different equipment choices have been made, budgets shuffled and organisations re-organised to shift the direction broadly speaking, into the same direction it was already going.

This is not necessarily a bad thing of course and whilst not particularly radical, it is ambitious.

There remain a number of questions and much of the spending promises are contingent on a combination of yet to be realised efficiency savings, heavy reductions in civil servant headcount, ‘pay restraint’ for all within the MoD, and selling off the family brass; the gold, silver and bronze, sold a long time ago.

With all defence reviews, there is always a large amount of political theatre and out and out politics, this was one no different. They are always aimed at both a domestic and international audience and because the standard of defence debate, in general, is at a relatively poor level, it was distilled into a series short punchy ‘lines to take’, with the detail buried in the document, or in many cases, yet to emerge.

The strapline is always instructive of what is to follow.


2010 saw the phrase ‘Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty’, to be replaced with ‘A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom’ in the 2015 version, perhaps, United Kingdom suits the post-independence referendum mood better.

One of the key differences this time around was reported to be the degree of involvement/interference from HM Treasury, if the MoD could make savings, the MoD could bank the money and reinvest it in whatever capabilities it saw fit, the CSR coming pretty much at the same time as SDSR. This is an unusual and positive sign of the growing financial credibility of the MoD across Whitehall. a result of changes instigated by Liam Fox, hammered home by Phil Hammond and deftly managed by the Permanent Under Secretary, Jon Thompson.

Out in front was a statement from David Cameron;

Our national security depends on our economic security, and vice versa. So the first step in our National Security Strategy is to ensure our economy is, and remains, strong.

The deficit reduction strategy and underlying state of the economy are still governmental strategy, and wisely so. Sound finances underpin everything the MoD does. It doesn’t take long for politics to intervene, though, references to the ‘black hole’ for example, still, 5 years later to be fully detailed.

The two underpinning principles of the NSS and SDSR are a commitment to both maintain defence and security spending at 2% of GDO and Overseas Development Assistance at 0.7% of GDP

In other words, defence, and making sure we don’t have to use defence in the first place.

We know the creative accounting used to get to 2%, we know 2% actually represents a decline from previous years and that defence inflation may well outstrip any increases in real term cash delivered by virtue of a growing economy and increasing GDP. Despite this, at the very least there is some measure of stability and control within the equipment plan and other longer term cost centres.

The National Security Objectives

These are a new feature of the SDSR/NSS process; high level and easy to interpret in whichever fashion the Government chooses, but at least, written down and aligned across government departments.

Objective 1; Protect our people,

Objective 2; Project our global influence, and

Objective 3; Promote our prosperity

What flows from these three objectives is the defence and security strategy for the next five years and beyond.

Stung by accusations of strategic shrinkage and disappearing from the ‘world stage’ the document described how the UK has many advantages and attempts to announce that the UK is back.

Ambition, loud and clear.

The Security Context

None is left out of the document; domestic and global security challenges, the resurgence of state-based threats (looking at you Russia), the role of technology and even climate change and an ageing population get a mention.

The risks are grouped into three tiers;

NSS Risks

I don’t think this section of the combined document will get the credit it deserves, it seems a wholly sensible view of risks that the UK faces described in a relatively easy to understand manner.

Good work.

Objective 1 – Protect Our People

There are a lot of words in these sections and I am not going to just copy each one but a summary of the key points, below;

4.9 We will increase funding for the security and intelligence agencies to enable £2.5 billion of additional investment in staff and capabilities. More than half of this investment will be on counter-terrorism. We will recruit and train over 1,900 additional security and intelligence staff across the agencies to respond to, and deter those behind, the increasing international terrorist, cyber and other global threats.

Increasing counter-terrorism spend has been widely discussed in the last few days, hard to argue against this.

4.15 In 2011 we established the UK National Maritime Information Centre to coordinate information about our maritime security, nationally and with international partners. We will enhance joint working between law enforcement agencies and the Royal Navy to increase patrolling in our territorial waters. We will also improve aerial surveillance operations and information sharing across government.

Does this mean more surveillance patrols in UK waters and greater aerial observation, perhaps with the announced MPA aircraft in the longer term and civilian agencies in the shorter term?

A snippet that has not been widely picked up is;

We will invest in a ground-based BMD radar, which will enhance the coverage and effectiveness of the NATO BMD system. We will also investigate further the potential of the Type 45 Destroyers to operate in a BMD role.

Beyond RAF Fylingdales, the UK does not have a ballistic missile defence radar so it will be interesting to see how this pans out. It is good that the very effective Type 45 Destroyer will continue to play a role in theatre BMD, even if it is very early days yet.

4.18 We will invest up to £300 million over the next 10 years to enhance operational communications, renew the existing air defence system and upgrade infrastructure

This is for the Falkland Islands, replacing the Rapier FSC with Land Ceptor/FLAADS(L) and a range of upgrades. Has already been announced.

Nothing additional for Gibraltar.

On the Armed Forces

Deliver our commitment to maintain the size of the regular Armed Forces and to not reduce the Army to below 82,000, and increase the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force by a total of 700 personnel, assumed to be 400 for the Royal Navy and 300 for the Royal Air Force.

The Prime Minister had previously made a commitment to not impose any reduction on the regular strength and the additional personnel for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force will be welcome, despite not being as high as wanted.

Note quite sure what this means, though;

We will also take steps to increase the productivity of the Armed Forces

The document defines eight missions that the Armed Forces will do;

  1. Defend and contribute to the security and resilience of the UK and Overseas Territories
  2. Provide the nuclear deterrent
  3. Contribute to improved understanding of the world through strategic intelligence and the global defence network.
  4. Reinforce international security and the collective capacity of our allies, partners and multilateral institutions
  5. Support humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and conduct rescue missions
  6. Conduct strike operations.
  7. Conduct operations to restore peace and stability.
  8. Conduct major combat operations if required, including under NATO Article 5.

HADR is now a core military task.

Building on the 2010 Future Force 2020, SDSR 2015 describes the Joint Force 2025.

Joint Force 2025

Joint Force 2025 is described as;

4.40 We will be able to deploy a larger force more quickly. By 2025, this highly capable expeditionary force of around 50,000 (compared with around 30,000 planned in Future Force 2020) will include; A maritime task group centred on a Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carrier with F35 Lightning combat aircraft. A land division with three brigades including a new Strike Force. An air group of combat, transport and surveillance aircraft. A Special Forces task group.

When not deployed at this strength, which is the older ‘large scale’ force, it will be able to undertake a number of smaller operations simultaneously;

A medium-scale operation, often drawing mostly on just one Service, such as our current counter-ISIL mission in Iraq. Multiple additional operations, ranging from specialist missions such as counterterrorism or counter-piracy, through to broader, more complex operations such as the military support to tackle Ebola in Sierra Leone or the enduring naval presence in the Gulf. A wide range of defence engagement activities, such as training teams and mentoring.

This is a departure from previous defence planning assumptions that were more detailed about how many of each type/scale of operations could be conducted at once. It would seem to be a reduction in deployment expectations.

In order to protect the armed forces from unjustified legal claims;

We will develop proposals to ensure that the Armed Forces can operate effectively overseas and are not subject to unjustified legal claims that undermine their ability to do their job.

A difficult and complex issue where the answers might not actually be as simple as first thought.

Special Forces will receive an investment increase across a number of areas, again, widely reported before publication.

The Royal Navy

Despite the hype and expectation, still no definitive word on whether the two QE class carriers will enter fully into service and operate in parallel, both fully manned and operation with aircraft, or one in service at a time in such a manner that we are always assured one will be available. Other have read the document to be confirmation that two will be fully crewed and in simultaneous service, not sure, differing perspectives on the text I expect.

They will form the core of our maritime task group, with one available at all times. We will increase the number of F35 Lightning aircraft we are buying in the early 2020s to ensure that we make best use of this world-leading capability, and we will buy three new logistic ships to support the fleet, in addition to the four tankers that will enter service from 2016.

Confirmation that the three Solid Support Ships will be purchased, joining the new Tide Class tankers. The RFA will, apart from Diligence and Argus, have a relatively new and very capable fleet.

The next bit was a bit of a shock;

We will maintain one of the most capable anti-submarine fleets in the world with the introduction of eight advanced Type 26 Global Combat Ships, which will start to replace our current Type 23 frigates in their anti-submarine role. We will maintain our fleet of 19 frigates and destroyers. We will also launch a concept study and then design and build a new class of lighter, flexible general purpose frigates so that by the 2030s we can further increase the total number of frigates and destroyers. These general purpose frigates are also likely to offer increased export potential. We will buy two further new Offshore Patrol Vessels, increasing the Royal Navy’s ability to defend UK interests at home and abroad.

Only 8 Type 26 GCS will now enter service, likely the ASW optimised variants that will pull through Sonar 2087 from the Type 23 fleet. Despite the disdain of two-tier fleets from all quarters, this is exactly what the Royal Navy will get. At least five cheaper, flexible (I hate that word) and lighter frigates, going back to the FSC C1/C2 concept perhaps.

After fighting tooth and nail against this, after all the announcements on Type 26 before, this is a big change of policy. In the plus column is it keeps design capacity going but in most other regards, am struggling to see the upside.

Recognising that the Type 26 design, despite the very expensive risk reduction activities in the Assessment Phase, is not ready for ordering, the two additional Offshore Patrol Vessels are the direct result.

These are vessels that the Royal Navy neither needs nor wants but like the batch 2 Rivers, a direct consequence of the desire to retain onshore complex warship building in Scotland, and the Terms of Business Arrangement (TOBA) that the MoD has with BAE.

We would have to pay BAE in any case so why not just build more OPV’s, all well and good, but this means less personnel and cash available for Type 26.

So, the reduced numbers of Type 26 would, at least on face value, to be the direct result of prevarication and being unable to agree on the design of the Type 23 replacement, something that goes back many years.

Talk of exportability for the new light frigate has echoes of exportability for Type 26, wishful thinking.

There is also a lot of potential for a reversal in the commonality that the RN has been seeking, with multiple overlapping types and equipment in service.

The Royal Marines will see one of the QE carriers enhanced for amphibious operations.

We will enhance a Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carrier to support this amphibious capability

What this means is not yet clear, perhaps davits for LCVP’s?

No updates on MCM or survey, although the graphic would seem to indicate a small reduction in the MCM fleet.

The British Army

The major change for the British Army is the formation of two ‘Strike Brigades’

The division will draw on two armoured infantry brigades and two new Strike Brigades to deliver a deployed division of three brigades. We will establish these two Strike Brigades to be able to deploy rapidly over long distances using the new Ajax armoured vehicles and new mechanised infantry vehicles. They will double the number of brigades ready for operations. With these, and 16 Air Assault Brigade’s very high readiness forces, we will improve our ability to respond to all likely threats

In the new joint force approach, I would have thought that 16AAB and 3CDO would have been considered and described together.

The Strike Brigades are yet to be fully described and where in the Army 2020 structure they will be drawn from. With Ajax, they make the claim that together with the new Mechanised Infantry Vehicle (MIV) they will be able to deploy rapidly over long distances.

I remain to be convinced by this, Ajax is a 35 tonnes vehicle that will need a HET to move, so unlike a wholly MIV based formation, will not be able to self-deploy by road, where roads are a viable means.

The fact that this rapid reaction force will not be established until 2025 was also the source of much merriment today, irony it seems, lost on the Army.

Apart from the conformation of CR2 LEP, Warrior CSP and Apache Sustainment projects the other major news was the formation or two ‘innovative’ brigades.

Two innovative brigades comprising a mix of Regulars and specialist capabilities from the Reserves able to contribute to our strategic communications, tackle hybrid warfare and deliver better battlefield intelligence.

Is this part of the 77th Brigade or something new, more details yet to emerge?


A number of infantry battalions reconfigured to provide an increased contribution to countering terrorism and building stability overseas. They will conduct defence engagement and capacity building, providing training, assistance, advice and mentoring to our partners

Am assuming, these will be stripped down light role infantry battalions.

The Royal Air Force

Anyone looking for ‘the one true word’ on F-35B numbers is going to be disappointed.

We will establish an additional F35 Lightning squadron and two additional Typhoon squadrons. We will invest further in Typhoon’s capabilities, including ground attack and a new Active Electronically Scanned Array radar to ensure that we can continue to operate it until at least 2040. We will maintain our plan to buy 138 F35 Lightning aircraft over the life of the programme.

No details of timings, numbers per squadron, basing (rumour is Conningsby nd Lossiemouth for Typhoon), training, or where the air and ground and air crews are coming from.

‘We will maintain our plan’ is not an order.

By 2023, the UK is planned to have 42 F-35B’s in service, remember, this is a JOINT Combat Aircraft, not just for carrier strike. This translates into two squadrons (809 NAS and 617 SQN) plus the OCU.

Multiple moving pieces are on the table, GR.4 availability and OSD, operations in the Middle East and Balkans, Brimstone and Storm Shadow integration, MFTS and availability contracts. Aligning the swim lanes will be a complex process.

More than 20 new Protector armed remotely piloted aircraft, more than doubling the number of the Reaper aircraft which they replace

This is good, the UK will join France, Italy and the Netherlands in the European Reaper Club, paving the way for resource sharing, more efficient training and enhanced interoperability, within national security boundaries.

Sentinel will be extended into next decade, Shadow until 2030 and Sentry and Air Seeker/Rivet Joint to 2035.

The major announcement for the RAF was the widely leaked decision on Maritime Patrol.

Nine new Boeing P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft to increase further the protection of our nuclear deterrent and our new aircraft carriers. These aircraft will be based in Scotland and will also have an overland surveillance capability.

During defence questions before the main announcement, Michael Fallon confirmed that this would result in over $1 Billion for UK manufacturers. This was contradicted by Boeing later in the day, describing how each of the nine would include a whopping £3m of UK content.

Expect this to rumble on.

There is no doubt the decision is fantastic news, a gaping hole that needed urgently filling and enhanced interoperability with the US, Indian and Australian armed forces possible, whilst maximising the considerable SEEDCORN investment already made. But we should be clear that the UK has sacrificed a proper competition for an expeditious delivery, hopefully starting in the next two to three years with ISD towards the end of the decade. There are also a few issues like in-flight refuelling and UK weapons/comms/crypto that will need to be resolved, one way or the other.

These are, however, relatively minor issues.

Perhaps the best aspect of the decision is that it provides a medium to long term replacement path for Sentry, Air Seeker and Sentinel, albeit hopefully with new airframes!

We will upgrade and extend the life of our C130J aircraft, allowing them to support a range of operations until 2030

Evidently, the A400 is still having problems with certain tasks and may not be able to replace the smaller C130 in certain roles, especially special forces support. This may be a reflection of that.

A high altitude unmanned aircraft will receive investment, currently assumed to be the Zephyr.


A recapitalised Command Support Air Transport fleet to replace the current aircraft as they reach the end of their life. This will increase their operational utility and ensure we are able to continue to transport the Royal Family and senior Ministers cost effectively. We will also adapt one of our existing Voyager aircraft so that, as well as its primary air tanking role, it can transport senior Ministers securely, delivering better value for money than the current use of charter aircraft. The aircraft would also be available to the Royal Family.

A sensible way to utilise the oversized and underutilised Voyager fleet, we are paying for them in any case. Not clear what the rest of the smaller air transport fleet will be replaced with.

FCAS will continue in collaboration with France.

People and Estate

The new engagement model continues to evolve;

We will make the changes necessary to enable our Armed Forces to work flexibly, reflecting the realities of modern life. We will make a new accommodation offer to help more Service personnel live in private accommodation and meet their aspirations for home ownership.

No news on what this means in practice and the document described a number of changes to terms and conditions of employment that will no doubt described in more detail in due course.

The Defence estate will be reduced by 30%, the proceeds of sales going into the MoD’s coffers.


No change on deterrent except confirmation of a new MoD body to manage Successor.

Confirmation of cost increases on the design phase for the four Successor submarines to £3.9 Billion with latest estimates of manufacture costs to be £31 Billion inclusive of inflation. A further £10 Billion will be reserved as risk funding.

Combatting Extremism and Terrorism

The CONTEST strategy will be updated in 2016.

New Counter Extremism Strategy to be published in October 2015.

2016 will see a consolidation of investigatory powers, this will be controversial.

Cyber and Other

£1.9 Billion over five years for cyber capabilities including what I think is the relatively uncommon declaration in Western nations, offensive cyber operations.

New National Cyber Centre will lead the response, led by GCHQ.

There are a number of provisions that I will write about in a separate post, including serious and organised crime and crisis response and resilience, and space.

Objective 2 – Project Our Global Influence

Key defence related announcements include;

50% of the DFiD budget will be focussed on fragile states.

Defence Engagement to be a funded core MoD task.

Establish British Defence Staffs in the Middle East, Asia Pacific and Africa in 2016 with increasing training opportunities for partner nations.

Establish a £1 Billion Conflict, Stability and Security Fund to be used across defence and security, international development and intelligence.

The rest of this length chapter is basically, keep doing what we are doing.

Objective 3 – Promote Our Prosperity

Even wordier than the preceding chapter.

Apart from some news on space, SME’s in defence, more funding for cadets, defence export controls and defence industrial strategy refreshes, this was again; do what we are already doing.


By the end of reading Chapter 3, I was beginning to flag, the document is packed with lots of information about how great we are and what we are doing, over 40,000 words.

A comprehensive piece of work, although it would have been much better to split the two. The hefty work on the risk section is largely apolitical, rigorous and wholly sensible, but this is not what people will read, they just want to get to the implementation measures.

SDSR 2015 WOrd Cloud

As per the introduction, it raises many questions and issues yet to be resolved, but the details will work themselves out over the next weeks, months and years.

I like it, it is a much better document that SDSR 2010

Was it strategic?

If the strategy is to pretty much carry on as before, then yes, it was.

There wasn’t a great deal new, with a large percentage of the content devoted to what we are already doing, but it does contain a range of solid decisions and some big ambition, with clarity on military missions and a very good appreciation of the risk landscape.

The implementation measures are less good, short on detail and subject to the inevitable political spin and jam tomorrow happy clappy jargon that so often seeps into these documents.

David Cameron has had a habit of taking big whilst carrying a small stick, the challenge will be to follow through on SDSR 2015 ambition to avoid the same accusation.

There is more in the good column than bad, by a very long way.

The biggest losers, however, are the MoD’s civil servants, a 30% reduction. Some of this will potentially come from the Germany drawdown but anyway you look at this, 30% is a big hit, especially on top of previous reductions. Remember, MoD civil servants support the military. The MoD is the largest user of contract personnel across Whitehall and this will likely increase as more posts are made ‘off books’

Finally, service personnel, lots of fine words but morale surveys, sign off rates and recruitment problems talk louder than words; and ‘pay restraint’ and undeniable erosion in terms and conditions of service are hardly going to help.

The real challenge SDSR 2015 faces is not one of money, or space, or equipment, risk, strategy or even ambition.

It is one of people, see you in five years.

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