So, as predicted, the world really is a more dangerous and complex place. It was ever thus.
Speaking on Radio 4 this morning, the Defence Secretary argued that no-one could have predicted the rise of a capable insurgent force, a global jihad or a Russia doing things we didn’t like at the time of SDSR 2010. Other views are definitely available. Indeed, lots of people were expressing just these views in 2010 for the rush-job, Cabinet Office and Treasury-led review that seemed to insulate itself not only from expert voices from outside Whitehall but from those in Main Building too (hence the circular PR firing squad of military voices that boomed out prior to the publication of the review). So, having been pilloried in the press, by military experts and even by academics (including myself in measured tones) you would be a reasonable person if you’d have thought the government would have learnt from the experience. And they may have. This is a balanced programme. It might not require the sort of revisions that most defence reviews are subject to, which would make a distinct change to the past. But Cameron still said ‘full spectrum’, which to me kicks the ‘we just don’t have the money for this’ can further down the road.
The ‘trip-wire’ brigades are an interesting innovation, even if they are not going to be rapidly formed (they’ll be ten years in the making). Whilst 2010 was an insular review, signalling a withdraw from expedition – followed immediately by Libya (oops) – this implies that we’re still in the expeditionary game (be it eyeing up Eastern Europe, or the Middle East). Should these brigades need moving via the oceans then we might have a problem, even with the new announced capacity. But from 2025 onwards, wherever there is a fight with a western coalition of the willing, the UK will be in the middle of it. On one reading of the recent past, this sort of activity then causes the requirement for further investment in counter-terrorism capabilities.
But the big missing element is the coherent strategic vision the Prime Minister promised. Having failed to articulate one in 2010 and now in 2015, I think we have to conclude that despite the hours that have been invested in discussing ‘strategy’, the Parliamentary Committee inquiry led by Bernard Jenkin and so on, that strategy is a lost art. And it’s an expensively lost art. Because it causes us to cover everything badly, rather than build capabilities behind something coherent. These best single line articulation of the strategy the UK ‘ought’ to have is from Malcolm Chalmers of RUSI – ‘a force for stability in the world’, amending the ‘force for good’ that was so widely scoffed at, at the time. Such a strategy would build upon cooperative work with our ‘frenemies’ (relevant today might be Russia and Iran, who will almost certainly need to be the boots on the ground element to sort out the Syria debacle). Prosperity and security as bonded concepts has some traction, but it definitely spending to save, and it’s not clear to me why the UK has to be at the centre of it (the old east of Suez debate writ large). I may be being unfair. If there is a strategy, it’s to return to the post-war UK, of global reach just reframed for today.
The positioning of the nuclear deterrent could have been sorted out with a simple political decision – to underwrite that the money attached to the deterrent could be kept within the defence budget not repurposed away from defence and into something else. I think that the issues around the nuclear question become much more solvable with that in place: pound for pound into conventional forces the nuclear money becomes not just useful, but game-changing. I wrote a few years ago about how and why the defence review had made our nuclear deterrent unsafe. The missing ladder of escalation not only rendered the deterrent useless, but potentially dangerous too. The death and/or retirement of those who really understand nuclear deterrence is a gaping gap in our collective knowledge of defence currently.
One of the most important things to have come between the 2010 and 2015 reviews was the decision to break the tie to our native defence manufacturers. I wrote about what I saw as the significance at the time, but I had subsequently concluded I just was interested by something very dull. The decision to replace Nimrod with Boeing P8s, and the potential (and large) markets for smaller, and alternative defence manufacturers to meet the new threats I think evidences that breaking the tie was significant. I’m not sure it can be justified in terms of off-the-shelf capabilities being cheaper (the shelf is still expensive to fill), and ultimately it will undermine our defence industries, who are already migrating to markets that appreciate them more. The European system of manufacturing – be it collaboratively, or brokered via the European Defence Agency – has merely entrenched competition between European states, rather than broken them down. Consequently, the UK has left itself hostage to its relationship with US defence giants, rather than being part of a European alternative, or an expensive indigenous capability. It is made expensive by the absence of competing supply. When the UK led the way in aircraft, four or more manufacturers competed for aircraft contracts, with the MoD underwriting the losses (they could innovate because failure didn’t result in bankruptcy). What we have now are contractors who have to be cautious and who are forced to underbid – and then overrun. There are half as many officials involved in UK defence procurement as there are in the entire European Commission. Given the scale of their respective challenges, that’s shocking. But losing a third of defence civil servants is equally shocking, in its own way.
The UK can offer something unique to its network of allies in ‘these dangerous times’. And that’s intelligence plus disruption. Because of our genuinely special relationship with the US in the intelligence field we do punch way above our weight in this field. The 1900 extra officers announced last week should be a welcome initiative, and meet some of the need of ‘Security Politics’, although recruitment and training puts extra capability years away. But in this area lies the British USP. Certainly on this budgetary spend.
So, do we have a coherent strategy? Maybe.
Do we have capabilities arriving quickly enough for the challenges? Not really.
Is the navy still two men and a dinghy? Sadly yes.
Is the nuclear deterrent issue resolved? Yes.
Do we have answers for how we’re going to deal with the challenges presented in the Middle East and Eastern Europe? No…
But we have extra money, albeit coming relatively slowly, and some nice announcements and a balanced platform. Not a bad effort, given the timeline allowed for the review. But if you’re sat in Main Building tonight it’s one cheer and one raspberry apiece.