Britain Unveils New Defense Strategy

In this first part of a series, James Pritchett examines the strategic effects of Britain’s Strategic Defense and Security Review.

This is the first part in a series of reports on the effects of Britain’s latest Strategic Defense and Security Review. This part focuses on the announced changes in strategy. The second entry discusses the consequences for procurement.

Britain’s Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) has now been published and, depending on whom you are, it’s either as bad or not quite so bad as you had feared. In fact the only people who may see benefit in changes planned in the SDSR are the Treasury, having managed to cut 8 percent of the budget for defense.

The headline grabbing details include a loss of 5,000 personnel for both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. The Army will lose even more, 7,000 to bring the numbers of soldiers from all arms and services to 95,000. Defense projects will be scrapped, along with a number of fleets of vehicles, including the iconic Harrier jump jet of Falklands War fame. Against much expectation, the two CVF aircraft carriers will be built but one may be sold.

Each of the services is expected to suffer in terms of materiel and manpower, as is the Ministry of Defense, the political body which, in part, directs British strategy and security policy. However, procurement issues aren’t strategy; they are the visible results of changes within the system which mean either a reorganization based on strategic nuances or, in this case, economic weakness. In this article we hope to take a look at what the cuts are, what they mean for each service, and how they effect or are informed by strategic issues.

Firstly we must examine the parts of the SDSR which aren’t attracting headlines. The strategy parts. The SDSR is informed by the National Security Risk Assessment, among other documents. The former points to the following as the major concerns for the British state: terrorism; instability and conflict overseas; cyber security; givil emergencies; energy security; organized crime; border security; counterproliferation and arms control.

Energy security was hinted at during the SDR of 1997/1998, although cyber security is a new addition and has produced some alarmism in the media concerning “cyber terrorism” and also attacks of such a nature by other states. Cyber warfare, or rather, cyber methods within defense, have been used recently by both Russia and China and have caused some understandable concern within the administrations of the West. Operation Titan Rain, the Ukranian server crash, and some others have pointed out the vulnerability of states to these tools. The intention from this is to establish a counter cyberterrorism group.

The rest of the SDSR seems to be more of the same as last time, but with rather less emphasis on an ethical foreign policy lead strategy. The harsh economic times seemed to have instilled a pragmatism which was not evident last time in the SDR. Because of this, campaigns outside that of a purely British interest flourished in places like Sierra Leone, Kosovo and more.

The residual terrorist threat in Northern Ireland gets a mention, as do intelligence matters surrounding Islamic terrorism from both domestic and foreign sources. As expected.

Of particular interest are the chapters concerning alliances and partnerships. There has been much speculation on this matter. Some hypothesized that Britain and France would enter into a surprisingly close defense partnership, perhaps including the sharing of an aircraft carrier. In the SDSR we see the results of these, and other, concepts concerning Britain’s alliances of the day.

As has been the same since the 1950s, NATO forms a large part of British defense policy, as outlined in the SDSR, and is described as the bedrock, in fact. A continued close alliance with the United States is another continuing and unsurprising theme, though the reductions in spending and capability suggest an even greater asymmetry between the world’s preeminent military power and the United Kingdom. Interestingly there is a greater emphasis on European power features. An outward facing EU, willing to get to grips with global issues seems to be a desired element of British defense policy, much in keeping with the concept of working closely with the United States with the hope of directing American power in support of British aims, which has often worked in the past due to such close similarities in views. In the EU, where Britain has a greater say, the prospects of utilizing European power are even greater.

Working closer with France and the Americans seems the order of the day. In the hard world of practice, a greater need for multilateral action and alliance may develop and this is well catered for in the review, with emphasis on allied operations.

There are details concerning interoperability with the French, also, which include the development of Franco-British military doctrine and training programs. Greater logistical support based on the A400M airlift project is mentioned, suggesting the possibility of an amalgamated though not shared airlift fleet. The development of an integrated military industrial complex is also worth much attention. It certainly means a continuation in European based defense projects, with more jobs based in the United Kingdom and France for manufacture, and more homegrown capability. This is in keeping with much of the SDSR and the headlines which follow it.

The knock on effect of the cuts and cancellations on British jobs, especially those in BAE, have been noted in the media — although this particular reference to developing a shared industrial and technological base with France will mean at least a continued position for British war related industries. What the results will be may include more shared systems development, such as how Eurofighter was built in league with an alliance of EU member states. It will not be surprising, therefore, to see more systems developed in league with the French to replace existing independent ones. Vehicles of all variety, small arms and so on may be developed from this to be used by both French and British armed forces for both ease in cost and interoperability. However, the history of shared defense projects is one which does not inspire confidence.

This brings us neatly on to materiel. The impact on British jobs could be seen as a sign of progress. Traditionally British defense capability has been marred by the intense and unpragmatic desire to develop equipment within the British Isles, much of it of a questionable quality, invariably late and almost certainly costing considerably more than previously expected. Even equipment bought in from the United States is often modified to comply with MOD specifications, at great cost, or to fit EU regulations, again at cost — a prime example being the Boeing Chinook debacle. This mindset has led to such unfortunate incidents as the 1990s example of amphibious vessels wherein the construction of such assault ships was seen as an opportunity for social regeneration and an attempt was made to build vessels on the river Tyne, where ships have not been built in decades. This effort failed miserably due to the lack of skilled workforce. The idea of putting the construction of important weapons in the hands of provincial politicians so that they may garner favor through the provision of jobs only works when the people have the skills to do so and is one of the sad tales of British procurement.

Working closer with allies will also mean a smaller burden (depending on how you look at it, perhaps) on the British armed forces, though there are certainly issues around operational sovereignty. At current it seems unlikely that Britain could individually mount an operation similar to that in the 1982 Falklands War or even Sierra Leone. After the cuts this will certainly be the case for a few years and even then, with greater reliance on the French and/or Americans, such an operation may be even less likely as political and military action would be dependent on their support.