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Defence Notes

Opinion: London’s latest SDSR review attempts to square the defence circle

10th November 2017 - 14:00 GMT | by The Clarence in London


The UK has adopted a policy of conducting a Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR) every five years.

The process aims to review commitments, ensure the balance of investment in capability is correct and put forward a ten-year vision of what UK national security, and specifically military capability will be (the so-called ‘future force’).

This sets clear direction and certainty to planners on what tasks they need to be prepared to face and the equipment needed to do this.

The review of 2010 was about balancing the books and ensuring the UK had an affordable and credible plan for defence and wider national security. The review of 2015 was about reaffirming these plans, and trying to build in extra capability where possible and affordable, such as acquiring new P-8 aircraft or extending the life of the Typhoon jets.

The surprise announcement then of a stocktake of the 2015 review's findings in July 2017, barely 18 months after the last SDSR, and nearly 3 ½ years before the next one was due, suggests that the MoD is experiencing significant financial challenges.

Ostensibly, this is a stocktake to ensure it continues to deliver the right balance of investment across the board in security capabilities.

But it has become increasingly clear that despite a commitment to growth in the defence budget, the MoD is in deep financial turmoil, again.

The vote for Brexit has led to a collapse in the value of Sterling, causing significant increases in both day-to-day operating costs and a significant rise in procurement costs – particularly for projects sourced from the US, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

A wider failure by the MoD to identify and deliver on stretching efficiency savings, with over £5 billion yet to be found, which were agreed as part of the last spending round, means there is a significant hole in the department’s short term budget plans.

The wider picture is that even in the last two years the global security picture has changed.

The nature of the threat to everyday British citizens' lives is not necessarily a resurgent Russian military, or a nuclear capable Iran, but more realistically a radicalised individual driving an old van down a crowded inner-city pavement.

This dilemma sums up the paradox facing UK security planners today. The public inherently want to feel protected, and perceive protection as being derived from heavy military assets such as tanks, fighter jets and warships. But the means to provide security to most effectively protect them are not derived from the MoD.

As a nation, the UK arguably possess significantly more influence and reach using its so-called ‘soft power’ assets than a globally deployable, but limited military capability.

The combination of diplomatic leverage, membership of a wide range of international organisations, significant financial and economic clout, coupled with world class policing and intelligence capability helps the UK project significant influence on the world stage.

It is an irony that many Britons judge their nation’s standing by its military strength, looking at pure numbers and not focusing on the intangible strengths it enjoys.

For national security planners, focused on delivering against the goals laid down in the National Security Strategy, the armed forces are just a small part of the equation and the costliest.

The parts of the armed forces that really matter to allies is often niche – logistical units, access to specific bases around the globe, MCMVs and air defence destroyers, special forces and air power – particularly tankers and ISTAR.

Allies are not necessarily looking for balanced force packages, but specific enablers to complement their own planning. Almost every major nation has tanks or jets; far fewer have the underpinning logistical, intelligence or engineering ability to deploy and sustain them on operations a long way from home.

Here the UK can add real value, and exert significant influence among friends and allies to jointly work together. 

There also needs to be a recognition that the UK security architecture is complicated and still full of considerable stovepipes.


Of equal value to Cabinet Office planners is enhancing physical security measures to stop vans or deradicalizing young members of the Islamic community who pose a clear threat.

Providing small training teams of police and intelligence officials to help friends develop the rule of law and human rights abroad to tackle the threat of terrorism also helps make the UK safer. Investing in effectively monitored and governed aid projects helps build stability in the long term, no matter how unpopular the aid budget may be with the media.

Much of what enhances the security of British citizens is less about possessing a large standing armed force, and more about incremental gains in spending elsewhere – often at vastly lower cost than most military procurement projects to achieve significantly greater long-term outcomes.

There also needs to be a recognition that the UK security architecture is complicated and still full of considerable stovepipes.

Look at maritime security, where the Royal Navy, UK Border Force, police forces, Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency, HM Coastguard, Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities among others all play a part in providing ships, patrol craft, helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft to monitor maritime security.

This complex structure suggests that the answer is not necessarily more ships and aircraft, but better co-ordination of the assets the UK has already to enhance national security capabilities.

In many ways UK defence is returning to the 1980s – a financially cash strapped department trying to deliver a Trident replacement and ensure it has sufficient maritime, air and land capability to deter a resurgent Russia.

At the same time the UK must consider how to halt, or reduce the nefarious influence of Russia and other nations around the globe in areas it considers part of its own sphere of interest.

The growth of UK commitments in the Gulf, the quiet but not insubstantial commitment to Africa and a growing interest in the Asia Pacific again all point to a nation torn between the need to play its part in NATO, and exerting its global influence to protect national, and allied interests.

For the MoD the challenge is to define its relevance. The threats facing the UK do not call for a balanced force package able to deploy overseas. Realistically they call for investment in presence overseas to reassure allies (such as enhancements to Gulf basing).

There is a need to invest in anti-submarine warfare skills and ensuring ISTAR platforms and certain strike capabilities like Brimstone and Storm Shadow remain credible, for these buy influence and access.

Recent trends suggest a need for a small regular military which is heavily invested in high end capabilities, rather than a large force with a barely affordable budget.

The RN and RAF are too small to meet the tasks asked of them, while the British Army headcount is probably 15-20,000 people over what can credibly be afforded or is needed.

Politically though there is no way that shrinking the army, even to grow the other services, will realistically be supported by the backbenches, wary of reneging on yet another election manifesto commitment.

The dilemma at the heart of UK national security planning then is that the assets which really matter to ensuring security are the ones perhaps least visible or tangible. 

This will sound hollow if the Secretary of State must explain why major capabilities and force structures are being scrapped wholesale in February.


Trying to make a persuasive case that UK citizens lives depend on investing more in secretive intelligence capability and less in conventional military power is challenging. Ministers will need to find a way to persuade the public that the review is a response to the real threats the UK faces and not just a means of balancing budgets in a hurry.

While the stock answer for some time has been the phrase ‘rising defence budget’, this will sound hollow if the Secretary of State must explain why major capabilities and force structures are being scrapped wholesale in February, barely two years after they were deemed an essential part of the 2015 SDSR force package.

The key challenge facing planners is to balance off national aspiration, credible threats and overall affordability and do so for projects with long lives.

The phrase ‘strategic’ seems now to imply a horizon of barely two to three years. This will be the third defence and security review in seven years, yet the projects under scrutiny will be expected to be in service for 30-40 years.

The Queen Elizabeth class carrier had its genesis in the mid-1990s, is conducting trials now and will continue in UK service well into the 2060s. Planners today must make long term decisions on investment, capability and outputs that have decades long ramifications when the world is changing on an almost monthly basis.

This is not an easy task, and there is no certainty that this stocktake will be the last before the next review in 2020. 

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