Towards #SDSR18 – Risks

If the UK is to avoid its finite defence resources being spread across multiple risk area in increasingly thinner layers it must prioritise, and learn to live with consequences.

If the UK is to avoid its finite defence resources being spread across multiple risk area in increasingly thinner layers it must prioritise, and learn to live with consequences. Some discussion on those risks is needed. Those risks will have impact, likelihood and timescale characteristics, and any risk analysis would also look at opportunities in addressing them.

Recruitment and Retention

Society changes, people change, but an indisputable fact is that capability rests on people. With constant bad news stories, there is a risk that the armed forces become decreasingly attractive as a career option.

Civilian and uniformed personnel in defence and their families are the backbone of capability. All the shiny toys in the world are useless unless we have committed and engaged personnel that are not taken advantage of or abused, see a career and vocation, not a job, and have partners that allow them to serve the nation without being disadvantaged because of it.

I cannot stress this enough.

Realistic training, a sense of being valued, good remuneration, partner employment options, a lack of petty regulation, not being persecuted by the legal profession, being treated like adults, decent accommodation and food and basic administrative systems that work all contribute to the objective of making people want to join, and perhaps more importantly, stay.

All three services are under-manned, clearly, there is a problem with recruitment and retention. Diversity, continued education and perhaps even flexible working for some trades are all good, but there are other fundamentals that need to be addressed.

There is no joy in saying this because reducing personnel means making them redundant, changing their lives and stopping them doing what they desire, and in no way should be viewed lightly. But if it creates a sustainable career and family life for those remain, instead of just continually asking them to do more and more with less and less then it is something that has to be considered.

Defence must provide a sustainable environment for its people that does not actively destroy morale and retention because of a lack of training, opportunity, equipment support, accommodation, pay and family time. This cannot be stressed enough, no longer should we take for granted the goodwill of people in defence.

The Unknown

Not only does defence have to shape and be shaped by the environment in which it resides, it must also anticipate future changes in readiness for when they may occur. The DCDC Strategic Trends programme publication ‘Future Operating Environment’ reviews and analyses likely threats and potential deployment scenarios to 2035 but was BREXIT predicted, the rise of ISIS or Russia getting back into the nation-state game, did anyone a few years ago understand the impact of cryptocurrencies and Blockchain technology, when did the global finance regulatory bodies warn about an impending financial crash? Predicting the future is difficult bordering on the impossible which makes publishing a document with a 25-year horizon interesting, but we should be wary of betting the farm on it.

Without veering too far into Donald Rumsfeld territory (or is it a Dunning-Kruger Black Swan!), there are threats as yet unknown and trends yet to be revealed.

This does create a problem, almost any capability at any scale could be justified on the basis of ‘well you never know’, but still, it is important to recognise unpredictability and our generally woeful ability to predict the future.

Although it may seem cliched, the defence enterprise must retain sufficient flexibility and adaptability to adjust to the unknown and unforeseen, even though this creates a conflict with any desire to focus on fewer areas.


There is no doubt BREXIT will be a significant issue for the UK, NATO, European NATO Nations, the EU and European nations that are in NATO and/or the EU to deal with.

There are two principle risks with BREXIT, one related to finance and the other to the security of Europe.

The devaluation of the Pound will make imported defence equipment more expensive. It is important however to note that large and complex programmes like the F-35, P-8 or Apache will have an equally large and complex set of payment arrangements, profiles and assumptions. The Treasury will do some hedging but as with all these things, it is about degrees. Currency fluctuation is not unusual in long-duration projects and the Treasury have a range of instruments and techniques to deal with them. The F-35 for example; in 2007 when the UK ordered CVF, the Pound was worth just under $2. When the UK announced in 2015 it would order the full 138 F-35’s, it was $1.48. By March 2016, it was down to about $1.42. After the Brexit plunge, it has stabilised at around $1.35 but who knows what it will be over the lifecycle of some of the larger projects. The simple fact of the matter is equipment from the USA will be more expensive than previously. Future plans have also been based on a budget predicated on a forecast of national economic growth. Although the percentage of GDP is often used to describe defence spending one does not buy things with percentages. These predictions will have tolerances but if the post-Brexit economy contracts outside of those tolerances then there will potentially be less real term cash for the MoD.

Of more concern for all is the potential for defence relations to be harmed. Much has been said on this and much is yet to be said, it is not time to break out the fainting couches just yet, despite the rather ill-timed and unfortunately timed intervention from Michel Barnier about the UK in Europe’s fight against ISIS terrorism on the same day Theresa May was in Iraq discussing the UK’s significant (and largest in Europe) contribution to the fight against ISIS. This was both inflammatory and clumsy and elicited a strong response regardless of intent.

Despite that, cool heads on grown-up shoulders are needed to remind both the UK and the EU that the collective defence and security of Europe is a serious game with harsh offside rules.

There are some points that need to be fully understood.

Defence alliances depend on two things and two things only, the will and the wallet.

The UK’s will to contribute to Europe’s wider security is both in its interest and the right thing to do for allies within a collective defence environment that has a rich history of shared sacrifice. The will to defend a Europe that includes the UK is and should be absolutely undiminished by all and all should continually make that point.

But here is the blunt part…

Defence and security is very much dependant on the economy, the UK’s economy is very much dependant on the nature of any future trading relationship with the EU. Should that trading relationship be needlessly damaged it will reduce funding available for defence? If, as some predict, there will be a rapid and significant adverse economic impact to the UK, the Government will have to find significant funding for emergency measures, medium-term economic stimulus and unemployment benefit costs. Given the lack of MoD exceptionalism described in the first part of this series, the MoD will be invited to contribute to the costs of those short to medium term measures.

A smaller ‘wallet’ means less defence for Europe at a time when it needs more, regardless of the ‘will’

If a poorly managed exit generates significant financial impact a blame game will be played out. Why should British blood and British treasure be put on the line for those who have been active in damaging the British economy will be the cry? Regardless of your position on Brexit, your thoughts on the acceptability or validity of this position, it is as predictable as night following day that it will happen. It would be argued that given the UK is part of Europe and when Europe is threatened the UK is threatened so regardless of BREXIT, our commitment should remain in both will and wallet. Good luck with convincing the British people of that, especially when the opposition party now has much stronger anti-Trident and anti-NATO views.

This is a significant risk to NATO and the security compact that has provided European peace for decades, especially if the US does indeed start a strategic disengagement from Europe, from a disorderly BREXIT. As leading member of NATO, nuclear power and with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the UK has a crucial role in European defence. The UK and EU should ensure continuing defence relationships remain after Brexit. It is clumsy and insulting for the UK and EU to make threats to each other but it is not unreasonable to remind all that the economy cannot be magically unlinked from defence and security so there are big stakes at play when defining a future EU/UK economic relationship. Everyone should understand, playing with matches carries a risk of everyone burning the whole house down.


SDSR 2010 had barely a mention of Russia, four of them, and two of those were in the Glossary. ‘Russia blindness’ was not confined to the UK with perhaps the best illustration of it coming during the US 2012 Presidential Election.


SDSR 2015 upped the count to twenty-five but the reality is the UK and others failed to take Russia seriously whilst allowing the EU and NATO to expand east, expecting no response. The pride and resilience of Russia and their status as a great power downplayed or ignored.

This was foolish, but what threat does Russia pose now?

The Russian economy is not in rude health, is based largely on the extractive industries and beset with corruption and low productivity. Its single greatest strategic threat is US non-conventional oil and gas but none of that means all of a sudden there will be a clamour for less defence spending. The West tends to under-estimate the degree of hardship the Russian people will endure and the resilience of its current leadership. Russia devotes a large part of its wealth to defence and manages to produce a wide range of equipment, much of it every bit as good as equivalent NATO nations.

An excellent overview of Russian defence capabilities can be found here but highlights include;

  • Improvements and modernisation in strategic nuclear forces
  • Introduction of the Borei (Dolgorukiy) ballistic missile submarine
  • Iskander-M and Kalibr cruise missiles
  • Bastion shore defence missiles protected by S-400 air defence missile systems
  • Launched 55 military satellites in the last 5 years
  • 16 air defence regiments upgraded to the S-400
  • New deliveries of aircraft at the rate of 200 per year
  • 60 new naval vessels in the last 5 years
  • 3,000 new armoured vehicles delivered
  • New command and control systems implemented
  • 1,800 new unmanned aircraft
  • UAV based radio jamming equipment
  • High levels of readiness and an increasing move away from conscription

In addition to these conventional capabilities, Russia has clearly shown an ability in cyber and information operations. These threats cannot be seen in isolation, neatly boxed off that allows defence to handle one and the security services the other. The west should not ignore Russian meddling in its politics but should also be very wary of over-reacting and ascribe a degree of actual influence over recent elections and the EU Referendum that it did not have. Over-reacting will likely be counterproductive as it becomes a matter of party and cultural politics instead of security. This is already evident in the ‘Russians made me do it’ comedy memes one can easily find and the over-amplification of issues in partisan media outlets.

Threats are likely to be greater the closer one is to Russia, probably fair to say Lithuania faces a greater threat than Portugal, both members of NATO. The threat ranges from a hugely increased level of submarine activity in the North Atlantic to blended cyber-attacks and information warfare in the Baltic States. It is a complex threat.

To counter this evolving spectrum of threats from Russia, NATO, the EU and individual nations are increasing defence spending, improving equipment and readiness, and innovating in response to unconventional and conventional threats alike. Even Sweden and Finland are increasing cooperation with NATO, all this is good, although we can argue the pace of change isn’t fast enough given the ground many NATO members have to recover.

Russians are not intrinsically evil and the West has a number of shared interests with it, but equally, they are a threat that must be approached from a position of strength, not weakness. Weakness is something which Russians hold in contempt and this means the UK, as part of a wider Western alliance, must recognise the risk and play its part in countering it. NATO as a whole is getting stronger in response to the Russian threat. The UK should maintain its own defences, continue to advocate for a minimum spend of 2% GDP on defence across NATO and contribute to collective defence measures in key areas such as cyber, intelligence, information operations and the North. It should also consider how best to support Eastern Europe and the Baltic States. Finally, constructive dialogue with Russia wherever possible is not a bad thing

Instability in Africa and the Middle East

The conflict in Libya exacerbated an already fragile security situation by releasing huge quantities of arms and munitions into the area. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Mourabitoun and Boko Haram are all active, and all creating mayhem and conflict. Boko Haram, as just one example, killed 11,000 people in 2015, the scale is staggering. The French intervention in Mali came as a result of attacks by no less than five separate Islamist groups for example. The rivalry between Al Qaeda, ISIS and other Islamist groups is often intertwined with decades-old local conflict.

On top of this; corruption, water scarcity, religious extremism, transnational crime, piracy, migration exploitation, conflict minerals, great power shenanigans, human trafficking, illegal fishing, poor governance and poaching, Africa has it all. The net result is increased migration to Europe, illegal trafficking and an attendant increase in security threats for Europe.

The UK is already engaged in Somalia, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and other locations across the area in addition to providing ongoing support for France who has a more formal operation across the Sahel called Operation Bharkane. Italy has also been quietly working in Libya to reduce the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean.

There does seem to be a feeling that Iraq may be returning to some level of stability after ISIS but the wider Middle East is still in a perpetual state of conflict. Saudi Arabian and Iranian funded proxies continue to corrupt and destabilise nations. Whether the ancient Shia/Sunni conflict will continue to find release in proxy conflicts or explode into full-on war is not clear but whatever happens, the UK has direct interests in the region and any number of indirect interests.

Significant quantities of natural gas and refined petrochemical products are imported into the UK from the region and many Middle East nations are important trading partners, both for import and export.

Wider conflict in the area would likely result in global economic impact.

The potential for continuing and escalating conflict in Africa is enormous and this only means one thing for Europe; more insecurity. Instability and terrorism. The ‘Arc of Instability’ from Somalia to Morocco will be of increasing concern and cannot be ignored, despite the political aversion to enduring stability and counter-terrorism operations. A key question for the UK is whether to stay engaged in the Middle East at the current level and if so, how it can be resourced. Given finite resources, it may be a question of assessing the relative value of each location in terms of threat and opportunity.

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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 1, 2017 9:31 am

NATO: UK must start being smarter about how NATO is supported, the signals it sends to NATO and Allies, and the quality of staff it sends to NATO appointments. For too long the UK appears to have regarded NATO as some kind of club where it expects others to acknowledge its premier position without ever taking it seriously. There are some great UK operators in NATO billets but there are many drifters, and many opportunities to support NATO with Voluntary National Contributions (VNCs) which the UK simply ignores. The contrast with France in particular since they rejoined the military structures is profound. They are heavily represented with quality operators throughout the major HQs and outstations, and they make sure that French interests, not least in defence industry, are very well represented. In short, they take the Alliance seriously, when often it appears the UK does not.

December 1, 2017 1:36 pm

For better or worse, this could also sum up the UK’s attitude to the EU, the UN, and a whole host of international organisations.
Taking them, and the other nations involved, seriously by participating actively with good quality personnel as you say is an easy way of gaining influence and allies, and getting our value for investment!

December 1, 2017 2:49 pm

Great article and for me does a good job of stating the Geopolitical situation concisely.

I really do worry about the UK – not just the military but the whole country, as we seem to lurch from one crisis to another without ever having a strategy. Korea has 8 national projects that it runs to change and renew the country and retain its competitiveness, the UK has ???

This is important as without an over-arching plan to get the country working as one, we end up drifting into what is easy and comfortable and sadly that does not often make people, companies or countries great. And so it is with our military who have slotted into a US first ally responder mode whilst trying to ensure jobs are maintained in Scotland to avoid discontent.

Your comments on NATO are spot on and can be extrapolated to the EU, for too long we have underpinned NATO and the EU without getting too much in return. Going forward we should articulate that we cannot afford to defend a continent if that continent is not friendly towards us – it really is that simple, our ability to defend the continent is dependant upon our GDP and others will need to take up the slack.

I think clearly the game has shifted for the UK to an Expeditionary Force reliant upon the Royal Navy and RAF. Cyber is now the fourth spectrum of war and has been used to great effect by Russia. Lessons learned from our commitments in the Middle East and observation of the Ukraine has shown our land forces to be woefully under powered at both the personal weapons level and the artillery level.

Lastly and going back to your first paragraph – the force is too small and under equipped to meet the tempo of operations being requested of it. This is placing undue mental and emotional strain on service personnel and their families and is a key reason, in my opinion, why recruitment and retention is a significant problem.

We must find a way to recognise and reward our service personnel (and their families through excellent housing, schooling and care facilities) to make the military an employer of choice again.

This is going to be very difficult to do within the current budget – but not impossible. A clear strategy on people first followed by a 25 year fully costed equipment programme that allocates funds to key areas. Rigorous (read Brutal) Governance needs to be enforced to ensure senior military leaders are on the hook (and dismissed if need be) for failure to deliver programmes to time and budget.

December 1, 2017 3:02 pm


, for too long we have underpinned NATO and the EU without getting too much in return.

Really ??

Perhaps BREXIT shows that politically your argument in respect of EU has some popular support, but that doesn’t necessarily make it true. I would be even more fascinated to know how you think the UK has “underpinned” NATO in the last 20 years. We are not the US.

Rocket Banana
December 1, 2017 9:35 pm

Recruitment and Retention:
– Create shiny kit and provide an attractive lifestyle
– Have an agile engineering industry (cutting edge excitement)
– Have a global expeditionary army, airforce and navy

The Unknown:
– Have an agile engineering industry (quick to adapt)

Brexit – Devaluation of GBP:
– Have an agile engineering industry (exchange rates don’t matter)

Brexit – Relationships:
– Have an agile engineering industry (self sufficiency)

– Devolve UK defence into EU and reverse Brexit
– Pal-up with USA ever more
– Create North Sea Defence Alliance
– Ballistic missile defence –> agile engineering industry (play the one-up game)
– Have an agile government department to deal with Cyber warfare and associated “rights”

Instability in ME and Africa:
– Have a global expeditionary army, airforce and navy
– Have appetite to conquer or steer clear

…and I don’t even like Scrum/Kanban/etc :-)

December 2, 2017 8:05 pm

Great article TD. It is a very interesting time for the UK, the past few days have reminded us that our closest allies in the EU and the USA cannot be relied upon to understand or support UK interests. In a post Brexit world the UK needs to focus on a strong homeland / BOT defence, which will increasing get tested especially in the maritime and airspace domain. Further afield it needs to exert an effective influence which suits its budget. Pretending we can punch above our weight in significant land based conflicts has not served us well in the recent past, and we should not fool ourselves that Iraq / Afghanistan were one offs. However, when done right like Sierra Leone and the Gulf has helped influence and bring security.

Dangerous Dave
December 4, 2017 1:38 pm

TD, I have long maintained that the UK and Russia will only rarely be allies. Not because we, or they, think the other is “evil” – but rather that they want to be in charge of their gang and we want to be in charge of ours (to reduce international diplomacy to the level of the School Playground!). This will inevitably cause rivalries and friction, so the best we can do is be respectful rivals – honourable competitors, if you like. Otherwise we risk each risk demonizing the other.

On to recruitment and retention; I agree wholeheartedly with you – but as a layman I thought this had been agreed and in-train since SDSR 2010? Are we still giving service personnel substandard housing, inadequate options for schooling for their kids, and not treating them like adults?

All ranks need to be increasingly technologically “savvy”, while keeping up traditional expertise in fitness and skill at arms. That’s a small segment of the population you’re aiming at. Making “a career in the Armed Forces” an equal option to bring a teacher, sales exec, computer programmer, etc. would help with attracting the right sort of person.

Don’t expect schools to supply potential recruits with the right kind of technology knowledge – School IT’s still too focused on designing websites, coding games and using spreadsheets. And the ones who *are* technologically inquisitive – who could operate in a “gadget” filled battlefield – aren’t necessarily the ones who naturally devote a lot of time to the required amount of fitness, or willingness to use lethal force.

Lastly, while it’s unclear if Brexit will deliver short term pain, or short term gain to the UK. What’s clear (and being getting clearer, at least to me, since the Chinook HC3 debacle), is the necessity for the UK to take absolute control of IP for the equipment it uses. This will force the need to provide an equivalent amount of engineering and manufacturing capacity – since a foreign manufacturer is unlikely to give over the IP for it’s products to HMG, even if we let them make the items for us.

Sorry if this post is a little obvious, or doesn’t use the in-vogue terminology – I am after all just someones old sysadmin with an unhealthy interest in Defence issues!

December 9, 2017 1:26 pm

Not unreasonable discussion I’m glad to see no mention of marching of to Korean War 2 or patrolling the South China Sea as direct threat to UK.

The Russia section is nuanced with the acceptance of the threat to Latvia being different to that to Portugal but still seems somewhat exaggerated. The 60 new naval vessels in the last 5 years must include significant numbers of tugs and landing craft and other auxiliaries, they are not building anything like that in surface warships.

They will end up with an SSBN force of 6 in Northern Fleet facing a combined 8 of UK and France and 4 in the Pacific Fleet facing China. Those are being replaced as a priority as the 1980’s versions are taken out of service.
They are replacing old SSN but they are still retiring old vessels slightly faster than introducing new ones.

The surface fleet only consists of 32 warships frigate or above split across the difficult geography of 4 fleets. The Northern Fleet facing us consists of the Carrier which having spent a deployment in the Med is now facing 2 years in dry dock, a Kirov nuclear powered cruiser from the 1980’s and they are proposing to bring a second back into service. A Slava Cruiser is about the size of a T45 and 4 smaller Udaloy DDG all are late 80’s to early 90’s vintage so at least 25 years old. The single modern ship is a single FFG, with 3 more planned.

This is not the Soviet Northern Fleet and the In terms of ground forces it is worth remembering that the GSFG in East Germany alone consisted of 358,000 men 5,200 Tanks and 8,000 other armoured vehicles. That is 1000 miles further East than the position today. The threat till 1989 was that force would reach the Channel getting the average Brit excited about small incursions on the Latvian border is going to be difficult

December 28, 2017 8:20 pm

DS17 seems to be the only blogger that has taken into account the poor quality/age of Russian ships and equipment. Far to many commentators take into account quantity rather than quality. Much of the Soviet arsenal, men/machines is of risible quality, backed up by cutting edge propaganda vapourware, which the western press gobbles up like kittens to milk.

December 30, 2017 5:52 am

I kind of agree on the Russian equipment thing. Even more so, they no longer have an evangelistic mindset. In the past, a lot of their aggressive action was in support of Communist International, once Communism collapsed, there really isn’t much of a reason left for Russia to go gallivanting through the European countryside. Crimea is a bit of a different story since it is actually a critical gateway for Russia so Russia was in part forced to take it or risk getting cut off from the Black Sea. Beyond that, there really isn’t anything in Europe that Russia would want, ‘World Domination’ being more of a joke concept than any form of reality.

The biggest problem now isn’t Commonwealth of Independent States armies running through the European countryside, it’s what are we supposed to DO with it? There really isn’t a final vision of EU/UK-CIS cooperation and economic integration, most plans involving Russia are charitably described as ‘we’ll handle it as it comes’.

One very important question to ask is ‘What do you want your ideal relationship with Russia to be like?’ Because if you don’t have a target, you’re bound to miss it. And unfortunately, a lot of answers from the US is ‘Just like the Cold War, them on one side of a wall, us on the other.’

steven duckworth
steven duckworth
December 31, 2017 6:06 pm

The inability to see the future ,duh!, is the defining aspect of a defence structure, the perceived ability to flexibly respond effectively in the short term to a threat thus providing a credible deterrent to a potential OPFOR’s ambition’s is the goal. Stopping the threat before it starts is the number one goal and achieving it once action is taken is an absolute must to retain credibility both with the public, personnel,allies and especially the threat.
Be it some 13 year old potential jihadist on their laptop hacking to disrupt their ‘enemies’ , too a state actor needing to flex their muscles ala General Galtieri to survive politicaly or an actual deliberate act to gain territory/position for national gain we must provide key components to NATO and the UN based on our financial means. If that means individual elements such as a spec ops force to a HK sub to a FF/FD to a Rapid Reaction Force to a full CBG or just bloody good Intel and counter/active cyber warfare or all of the above combined we must do our part effectively and be seen to be doing so at minimum loss to ourselves and maximum to the OPFOR who picked on the wrong people.
In demonstrating these goals and asperations we would acheive the confidence in our partners across the EU and the World we have their back and importantly to our future and existing service personnel that they are part of something worth joining and staying with.
This rise in confidence in our abilities would bring both new friends, retain old ones and in the long term save lives and money.

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