Towards #SDSR18 – Alliances and Politics

Part 3 of the occasional series on SDSR 2018, an examination of alliances, politics, Europe and beyond. Where to do more and where to do less.

In Part 1 I explained that in the absence of new funding the MoD will have to prioritise based on changed assumptions and strategies. Part 2 looked at the most immediate ‘near’ risks. Of course, there are many more risks than those highlighted but there has to be some triaging of those most likely to be realised in the short and medium term.

This post will try and make sense of those priorities and suggest alternative means of mitigation that meet the realities of Part 1 and the risks in Part 2.

Although the heady days of the 1998 SDR ‘force for good’ era are well and truly over, the UK still approaches its defence and security by going forth into the world and engaging with it. Whether that is being the largest contributor to the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence arrangements in Eastern Europe, leading the Joint Expeditionary Force, offering forces for humanitarian relief in the Caribbean, searching for the ARA San Juan in the South Atlantic, training counter poaching forces in Kenya, getting to grips with an Ebola outbreak and malleting ISIS in Iraq.

Global Britain is not just a catchy slogan.

Any common sense strategy will first seek to deter enemies and reduce the potential for conflict, a simple assumption that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The relative amounts spent on preventative and responsive capabilities will change over time and in many cases, the same spend will cover both.

This high-level approach is unlikely to change, nor should it, but a flexible approach should be able to change resource provision in response to threats and opportunities, it is this point forward that most of the arguments about the UK’s defence capabilities tend to start. Some say we should adopt a maritime strategy, after all, we are an island you know, others suggest helping our allies in mainland Europe will provide greater benefits. The UK, therefore, exists in a complex coalition of nations with common goals and shared objectives, by and large. It retains the ability to act alone on a modest scale but for the majority of times, its defence and security actions will be delivered in a coalition.

In making changes, a number of key principles should be noted, some in general terms and some derived from Part 1 and 2;

  • Effective defence and security rests on being an active and reliable partner in a coalition
  • With finite resources, prioritisation means just that, the UK must maximise defence, industrial and political capabilities and opportunities
  • Changes must reflect the need to improve recruitment and retention
  • Compromise on equipment specification is perfectly reasonable and often, in aiming lower, the MoD might actually reach higher
  • Resilience and depth in a smaller number of capabilities is preferable to doing a little bit of everything

Capabilities that are stretched drum-tight are less than worthless because they are not resilient, give decision makers a false impression of what can be achieved with them and don’t impress if we are seeking influence in a coalition. Better a well-equipped, fully manned, well trained and extremely robust capability at medium scale now than a weak, brittle larger capability without enough enablers that have to rely on UOR’s in maybe 6 months-time if the industry can help. Readiness and resilience must be key principles of force design. The days of self-delusion about ammunition stocks, training in realistic environments with live weapons, post gapping and that enablers matter less than teeth must come to an end.

This is more about pragmatism than anything else. Yes, sunk cost theory means if such a review of priorities comes up with an answer than HMS Queen Elizabeth is not needed then it is not needed and we should scrap it and move on. But sunk cost theory comes unstuck sharpish when faced with political reality. Of course, it would be a fudge to suggest that the UK builds its priorities around the equipment in service and work back up the food chain but that is the reality.

In a post-Brexit political environment, we need to bind our European allies closer and ensure that we use our industrial and research capabilities to combined effect for the collective defence of Europe. The same applies to further afield with our other allies, especially the USA. The defence, industrial and political must, therefore, go hand in hand and partnerships need to be smart.

The UK is a significant military power and anyone saying the words ‘Belgium with nukes’ should, frankly, stop reading now. That said the UK military must work in coalitions to achieve mass; where possible, sub-regional multinational partnerships offer great potential for others to work with the UK. Cooperation and coordination should, therefore, be absolutely central to future plans

Too broad an aspiration means diffusion of resource which means we end up being too thinly spread to have a decisive effect. Concentrating the UK’s political, defence, overseas development, academic and industrial capabilities onto a smaller number of well-defined issues and areas will provide an intellectual focus and maximise effect.

In a world of fixed budgets, it is not unreasonable to do less with less. Taking a large reduction now in order to sustain a genuinely useful capability for the future might not be a bad option if we are prepared to be honest about it. By aiming lower, being realistic about ambition and reach, the simple reality is the UK will be able to under promise and over deliver, unlike at present, which is probably the exact opposite.

There is also the issue of equipment specification and that hoary old argument of quality versus quantity. By aiming high in qualitative terms the UK if often forced to compromise in both. Look at FRES to Ajax, both variants AND quantities have been forced to be reduced. More pragmatism and being selective about where to apply the clichéd gold plating should be one of the fundamental principles.

Defence and security exist in multiple overlapping and connected layers, but the first and obvious layer is to see to one’s own territorial integrity. To be an effective member of a coalition, one should not be an unnecessary burden on others. If your defence rests on one for all and all for one, a disparity in capability is perfectly acceptable but a disparity in commitment is not.

To this end, if the UK is going to be that effective partner, the foundation is the defence of the UK and British Overseas Territories.

The UK and British Overseas Territories

Defence of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the British Overseas Territories and their people from physical, cyber and other threats is the most important defence priority.

Trident is the ultimate guarantor of UK security and is, therefore, the number 1 priority. Yes, there are good arguments for and against but in my opinion, none of the ‘against’ arguments is compelling enough to overcome the ‘for’. Maintaining Trident is arguably the one capability that the risk of the unknown is actually a valid reason to keep it. The UK should, therefore, continue to maintain a minimum effective nuclear deterrent and one that is credible. It is eye wateringly expensive but there will be many industrial and economic benefits and it includes the nuclear enterprise, security, continued cooperation with France and the USA, transport and means of protecting the SSBN’s as they move about, doing their business.

The UK should continue with Trident, partnerships with France and USA and efforts to exploit the nuclear enterprise for civilian purposes, small modular reactors for example.

After that and in general, air defence and QRA, offshore protection (including fisheries), counter-terrorism support, EOD, MCM, intelligence/counter-intelligence and civil resilience tasks remain.

A continued emphasis on cyber defence and counter-subversion should remain although it should be noted it is a ‘whole of government’ responsibility. Defending the MoD’s infrastructure and platforms from cyber intrusion and disruption is a different matter and if funds are required to improve protection against this very real threat they should be made available from lesser priority activities. Offensive cyber capabilities including submarine cable interception should also be funded (if they aren’t already). The ongoing debate about the degree by which cyber defence should be a function of the uniformed services needs to be resolved and whether it remains joint or a separate service, also. Information exploitation and operations capabilities should be expanded although it is debatable whether, like much of cyber, it should be a MoD function, let alone the uniformed services, and even more let alone, whether each of the uniformed services need their own.

With finite resources, the UK should avoid creating ‘mini-kingdoms’ that duplicate within defence, activities that are or can be reasonably carried out elsewhere.

If there is to be a post BREXIT increase in the demand for fisheries protection resources and with an increasing amount of critical energy infrastructure offshore and submarine cables, there is an argument for more resources in this area, but again, difficult questions whether this is a defence responsibility must be asked and answered.

Public duties, defence music, display and ceremonial tasks remain an important part of national life and taken together the contribution to the UK economy is significant. The general rule that costs lie where they fall for Government expenditure still applies so getting Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, the Royal Household or the Mayor of London to stump up the money is a non-starter. Whether it is training horse and rider, actually providing the Queen’s Guard, making horseshoes or keeping the Red Arrows and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight in the air, means of reducing the cost of delivery should be sought.

This might include dedicated public duties battalions manned on an FTRS basis or establishing a publically owned agency to maintain aircraft and other equipment.

For the UK defence housing and basing/training estate, an immediate independent review of the cost-effectiveness of the current outsourced service providers should be carried out. One of the change principles is about designing for people, it would seem that none of the current providers have been without controversy or are popular with users. There may be opportunities to replace the single monolithic provider contracts with localised arrangements that allow smaller business, veterans owned, non-profits and others to compete. This would also provide employment opportunities for partners and a viable transition route for some leavers.

Straddling both the UK’s nuclear deterrent and civilian nuclear sites, the MoD Police and Civil Nuclear Constabulary, together with what was the MoD Defence Guard Service, have undergone significant restructuring in the last few years but it would seem logical to examine their roles to determine if a single agency could cover them all to reduce duplication and cost.

Although not only for UK defence included here for convenience. UK Air Surveillance and Control System (ASACS) at RAF Boulmer and a number of remote radar heads, Typhoon, ASRAAM/Meteor and Voyager create a very strong air defence and QRA capability but the current state of the E-3D Sentry fleet is cause for concern. The aircraft has not been upgraded to current standards, availability is low and support costs high. Existing measures to improve the resilience of the air defence system should be given a higher priority, as should efforts to address the E-3D Sentry issue.

Although the defence responsibility of the UK to its overseas territories remains a constant and their enduring utility and strategic value likewise, it is not unreasonable to explore measures that ensure they are more resilient and self-sufficient.

Whilst the parlous state of the Argentine armed forces means the threat to the Falkland Islands remains low, there still exists a desire by Argentina to ‘reclaim’  the Falkland Islands. The UK maintains a military posture that is commensurate with maintaining an effective deterrent to Argentina with capabilities from all three services permanently deployed.

As the Falkland Islands economy grows the local government has committed to funding more of their own defence. Relationships with Argentina may be improving and HMG should continue to encourage this further but also consider options for greater self-reliance in matters of defence, perhaps starting with an expansion of the Falklands Island Government Air Service (FIGAS) to include Search and Rescue, an expansion of the Falkland Islands Defence Force (FIDF) onto a more permanent basis or the replacement of the Royal Navy Falkland Islands Patrol Vessel (currently HMS Clyde) with a locally flagged and operated vessel.

The parallels of reducing commitment to the Falkland Islands in 1982 will, of course, be made but now is not 1982; four Typhoons, FIDF, the forthcoming Land Ceptor and the Roulement Infantry Company still provide a powerful and appropriate deterrence.

The recent operation to render assistance to the hurricane hit islands in the Caribbean was a textbook example of response at range and demonstrated the very finest qualities of the UK armed forces, civil servants and voluntary sector, but the irony of UK taxpayers paying for infrastructure restoration on an island that is a significant part of the offshore finance industry cannot be ignored. The issue of being unable to qualify assistance as part of the UK’s official ODA funding has also been controversial. For the future. Instead of a response, the UK should focus the Caribbean British Overseas Territories on infrastructure resilience and local/regional response, a key lesson from Op RUMAN now being implemented.

Counter narcotics smuggling is also a role carried out by RN/RFA vessels on a regular basis, again, we should question whether this can be delivered in alternative and lower cost ways to reduce RN/RFA workloads.

For the Caribbean BoT’s, some have suggested a permanent presence like that of the Dutch support ship HNLMS Pelikaan but there is an alternative. The Royal Bahamas Defence Force have recently completed their ‘Sandy Bottom’ project which has delivered a number of patrol vessels, a large RORO craft, containerised disaster relief equipment and significant port facility.

As an alternative to responding and regular deployments, the UK could fund an expansion of Sandy Bottom to include hurricane hardened relief supplies storage, improved command and communications facilities and another RORO vessel to create a sustainable regional capability. This is just one example, other locations with better proximity to suitable airports may well be more suited but the concept would remain, work with local civil resilience organisations and build up local capability.

Most of the suggestions above are principally about reducing cost (by investing) and reducing the load on service personnel (by reducing comittments, thus meeting the main principles described in Part 1, i.e. create breathing space.

On Politics, Alliances, Europe and Beyond

The successful defence of the UK is certainly within its own gift but in a complex and changing world, the UK’s interests, and the defence of those interests, is predicated on working in alliances. This is principally NATO, but also a number of others. Politics is changing, one might predict the nation state is making a comeback, the USA is facing the reality of China and the UK has a complex and fraught relationship with the EU to resolve.

The new US National Security Strategy will have implications for the UK and EU, the EU’s new PESCO framework will also have questions of the UK. If for example, the US disengages from Europe because it must also prioritise there might be an opportunity for more UK involvement, if it concentrates on the Middle East and Pacific region, will the UK be better placed aligning with the US in those regions.

As I suggested in Part 1, the current strategy of doing everything everywhere with decreasing capabilities is fooling fewer and fewer people, logic dictates the UK has to choose, or at the very least, prioritise one over the other.

It is absolutely vital to understand that the UK can change the strategy over time but given the immediacy of threat and the need to maximise Brexit political opportunities, the UK should prioritise threats closer to home, moving the resource slider more to the defence of Europe and less to issues further afield. Note, this does not mean doing nothing further afield, it just means making priority decisions.

The UK is not only subject to treaty obligations but also, contributing to the collective defence of Europe is in its interests. That said, an increasingly complex relationship with the EU makes the scope and scale of this activity entirely dependent upon BREXIT, however much one would wish otherwise.

Although many in the EU would like to see it replace NATO this seems unlikely in the medium term as the EU wrestles with multiple problems that represent very real risks to its cohesion; Brexit, debt, youth unemployment, cultural shifts between the Western and Eastern members, security and other threats from migration, systemic problems in the banking sector, separatism is several member states and rising Euro-scepticism and anti-immigrant sentiments. The EU is rather adept at surviving multiple crises but there are an awfully large number of problems at the minute.

The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) agreement provides the framework for increased EU defence and security integration. The language used for ‘third states’ participation seems to unnecessarily emphasise barriers to entry but as with any such text, it is open to interpretation.

If benefits are mutual, I expect that a softening in interpretation may occur, after all, the UK is hardly an insignificant defence research and industrial nation. It is interesting to see who declined to join which opens up a number of cooperation opportunities for the UK outside of PESCO; Norway, Denmark and Portugal in particular. Poland, who it seems has only joined to impede progress and one or two others are reluctant and it must also be observed, the nature of PESCO looks like a deterrent to anything actually useful emerging soon. A cynic might observe it is actually a smokescreen for many EU/NATO member states not honouring their 2014 NATO Summit Defence investment Pledge of getting to 2% of GDP on defence by 2024.

The future direction of PESCO is unclear, the future of PESCO in the context of NATO is equally unclear. Issues such as differing strategic cultures, funding, risk aversion and perceptions of risk will compound this uncertainty. Whether the ultimate goal of a European Defence Union is achieved, simply put, who knows. European nations will have to decide how to deal with increasing integration desires in the EU in general but more specifically between France and Germany. The pro free trade pro NATO miserable man of the EU role that the UK provided to balance this desire for greater defence integration will be absent as the UK leaves.

The real threat to NATO is not actually the EU, it is the US disengaging because many EU nations seems far too interested in shuffling uncomfortably whilst looking at their feet when someone mentions 2%. If most European nations fail to fund their own defence whilst continuing to lecture and sneer at an America that does, patience will be worn very thin indeed. Whilst Trump may be a fickle friend to the UK, he is openly hostile to much of Europe. If the US decreases its share in the defence of Europe, the UK, who is by far still the principle defence power in Europe, becomes geopolitically more important.

I do not favour making clumsy efforts to see defence as a ‘playing card’ but the UK should also be very clear to the EU the risks of humiliating the UK whist pretending the UK’s defence contribution does not matter and can be seen separately, all whilst teetering on a collection of other crises that the UK can decide to help with, or not.

In the fight against ISIS, the UK has contributed a great deal; special-forces, training and especially large amounts of airpower, certainly in comparison with any other European nation. The UK still has forces in Afghanistan and in the Gulf, the Royal Navy maintains a presence with a surface combatant that can work within a US Navy group, a mine countermeasures squadron and various supporting assets (including the new HMS Juffair support base).

The UK has to recognise that it has global obligations but that if it is to prioritise to achieve effect there are limitation to what can be achieved outside of those priority areas. South Asia, the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions are all important but we must be realistic. If Europe is to be prioritised, logic dictates we must do less elsewhere.

Therefore, the UK should contribute fully to the collective defence of Europe, demonstrate leadership by remaining committed to the NATO Defence Investment Pledge, exploit multilateral partnerships where they makes sense, be neutral on increasing EU defence integration if it does not undermine NATO and in general, be generous with our resources in key locations such as the North, Baltic States and Eastern Europe. This means a rebalancing to the defence of Europe, more Europe not less, and strictly through NATO and bilateral arrangements. But it also need to be very blunt on that ‘will’ and ‘wallet’ thing described in Part 2. Logic then dictates, ‘East of Suez’ must have a reduced resource focus



The full series

PART 1 – Breaking the Crisis Cycle

PART 2 – Risks

PART 3 – Alliance and Politics

PART 4 – Defending Europe

PART 5 – The Middle East, Africa and Beyond



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December 5, 2017 12:54 am

I hesitate to criticize but I wonder at the wisdom of prioritising Europe in our defence policy. As the leading financial and political power in Europe Germany has both the means and the finance to create an effective and powerful national force and to contribute substantially to the NATO and/or PESCO supporting network. Germany chooses not to do so and instead maintains a very large surplus to the detriment of her neighbours. In addition I would ask if the big bad Russian bear is genuinely the most serious threat we face both today and tomorrow ?

In the next 30 years Africa is projected to more than double its population while both poverty and climate change will make it extremely likely that migration on a previously unimagined scale will take place. With skilful political leadership both Africa and Europe may manage this situation peacefully, without such leadership the risk of armed conflict is high. This surely means that politically and militarily our interests are best served by small, highly mobile, well trained and hard hitting forces that can help bring stability to that continent, together with infrastructure and growth programmes funded by the ODA budget.

At the same time the population of Asia is similarly projected to double. The potential for conflict in this region is much greater than that of conflict between Europe and Russia – who could be a valuable if not essential ally in promoting stability in a volatile world. Trade routes upon which the UK relies would be exceptionally vulnerable in many conflict scenarios, and a strong RN and RAF with good working relationships with allies and friendly nations in the region would probably be of much greater value to UK security than Europe centred forces who would be relatively powerless to help.

A vibrant UK economy will depend upon its ability to trade successfully with existing and emerging markets, particularly India, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Brazil and Columbia amongst others. The UK’s ‘soft’ power will also rise or fall depending upon our relationship and influence with them, and I would suggest that militarily our ability to work with them will be an important part of that equation. Could not the same kind of forces required to implement such a globally based defence policy also be quite capable of contributing to the defence of NATO’s northern and southern flanks?

I’m a middle aged man who has lived through and is living in ‘interesting’ times. I am not a politician or a General, but I can’t help feeling that the nation my grandchildren will grow up in has its best chance for prosperity and influence in being a truly outward looking and ‘international’ player, and not in using most of its treasure in trying to maintain influence in a Europe and EU that persists in protectionism and political idealism over and above practicality and reality.

December 5, 2017 2:39 am

Nothing about real East of Suez–Singapore, Brunei, British Defence Staff there?

December 5, 2017 1:09 pm

Excal, something most people don’t realize is that shortly after the Cold War, to reassure a down and out Russia that NATO wasn’t going to march through their gates and set up camp in the middle of the Red Square, there was a very severe arms limitation treaty put into place called the CFE or Treaty for Conventional Forces in Europe that set a cap on the limits of equipment the whole of Europe could stockpile. The problem with this is that once the ‘conventional forces’ got distributed among all the countries involved, the amount of equipment per country ended up pretty low. Even if one country wanted to underwrite the whole of NATO, it would not have made a difference since any increase in the warstock of that country has to be compensated with the reductions in another country, it would never have caused an increase in overall forces since the UK would then have to reduce their stock to comply with the regional treaty.

Of course the CFE was repudiated in 2007 so it’s back to business as usual….not. Especially since budgets have gotten used to the missing warstock. It’s going to be hard to turn back the clock to 1990 since the funds have long been spent on other things and bureaucratic inertia is the closest thing we have to an immovable object so unless there is an existential crisis, I suspect it’ll be the usual of ‘promising 100, delivering 25’ when it comes to the military budget.

Corin Vestey
Corin Vestey
December 8, 2017 1:46 pm

The need to keep the US engaged in Europe does seem paramount to me. Russia is absolutely the most immediate existential threat to NATO states that we face now. Deterring her by keeping the US engaged ought to be the primary role of the British Army and a major secondary task for the RAF. I would say shifting back to one of the (many) previously mooted Army structures that allowed the deployment of an armoured brigade and basing it in Poland under a NATO flag on a permanent rotation is required to demonstrate the UK-end of European commitment to NATO. The Poles would be asked to contribute another brigade and perhaps the Americans might do the same (+/-). The whole shebang would be under US leadership and would work towards becoming a new model NATO division with organic air defense against drones, it’s own drones and organic fires plus cyber capabilities. Optimised in other words to resist an Ukraine style hybrid effort by the Russians. Still a trip wire force but a start.

Our light forces and remaining expeditionary air / naval power could as easily be used in Africa as the streets of Bradford. It’s not impossible both will be required over the next fifty years as the demographics of the nation continue to rapidly change.

steven duckworth
steven duckworth
December 31, 2017 7:46 pm

TD has it seems covered all ready some of my comments on building up our dependencies and smaller close allies forces using their lower cost man power , our training,our surplus kit and funding by us to support them taking a greater role locally releasing high value assets to provide more direct support to our own armed forces.( not to mention encouraging the Dutch,French etc who have similar legacies to do the same)
By providing this kind of support injects cash and improves the local economy generally as well as upskilling locals in various jobs from sparkies,chippies, pipe benders, brickies etc who build and maintain the increased infrasture to the ships engineers or aircraft technicians to the automotive technicians who maintain the tech side as the demand for their skills becomes an increasing need.
Any strategist worth their salt can pick apart our armed forces ,breaking down their abilities , availability and minimum required tasking to make an assessment of what Global Britain could deploy in 1 week , 1 month ,3 months etc to make a good guess at our real effectiveness is , our PR engine certainly gives them enough information :-(
P.S. perhaps I should read ALL the articles before commenting :-)

” The need to keep the US engaged in Europe does seem paramount to me. Russia is absolutely the most immediate existential threat to NATO states that we face now. ”

I beg to differ in that they are our physically closest ally in holding back the rising storm that is the MENA region. Do you actually see it getting any better in the next 25 years? As TD points out their population is going to double and with the huge availability of small arms ( a container full of StG44’s was found in Syria recently by US Spec Ops , got containers in TD:-) these are 70+ year old weapons still in working order which will still punch holes in you at 400m) the potential for conflict will come from the south/south eastern direction for Europe as well as from within as we crazily let xISIS jihadist back into the EU who decided they didn’t like losing and really ‘didn’t know what was going on there’ despite a million internet videos they viewed before going showing the horror of the ISIS regime .
Having an equally threated well armed ally to our east would be a GOOD thing.

January 1, 2018 4:29 pm

“Trade routes upon which the UK relies would be exceptionally vulnerable in many conflict scenarios, and a strong RN and RAF with good working relationships with allies and friendly nations in the region would probably be of much greater value to UK security than Europe centre

A vibrant UK economy will depend upon its ability to trade successfully with existing and emerging markets, particularly India, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Brazil and Columbia amongst others. ‘

This is often brought up when discussing uk economic dependence usually as a point of highlighting how we must guard vessels across the sea lanes of the world.

But if we’re trading with the likes of China and India to have a vibrant economy who exactly possesses the blue water naval capability in that region to disrupt these sea lanes?

There is a variety of ways good comes from the Far East to the uk. East across the Pacific, round the cape, rail or air. Very very few countries possess the ability to disrupt them all. Yes there will be issues by state backed actors or terrorist groups and pirates at various spots in the world but then those countries that are supplying goods from there factories to be sold in the UK have as much interest in seeing there good reach the uk market as we do.

If for example China wanted to disrupt the uk trade routes I assume instead of attacking ships bring goods from Chinese factories they’d just stop making the goods in the first place!

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x