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How strategic is the 2015 UK Strategic Defence and Security Review?

military

A striking difference (pardon the pun) between the last two Strategic Defence and Security Reviews has to be the fanfare (or lack of) surrounding their respective announcements.  Whilst 2010’s review was widely – if nervously – anticipated, and set amid a backdrop of financial Armageddon; 2015’s announcement was ‘slipped in’ between the news of the PMs visit to the Élysée Palace, and the ongoing lock-down in Brussels (connected stories I grant you).

The announcements seem broadly positive at face value; unless you are a civil servant in the MoD (in which case you may have some anxiety ahead), or reside in the vicinity of one of Lincolnshire’s RAF bases (in which case you may have some anxiety ahead).

But where is the detail?  I’m still waiting for the Press Release from gov.uk  – and had expected it to arrive from late afternoon (23rd November).  Good things come to those that wait? Perhaps.

The planned procurement of 9 Boeing P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) is great news (or will be in around a decade) in terms of plugging a capability gap; and I for one will not be jumping on the ‘but you chopped up the Nimrod MRA4s five years ago’ bandwagon.  Those aircraft – in my opinion – were rapidly destroyed as they represented one of the worst, hastily-arranged procurement decisions of modern times.  We did NOT remove a capability by their destruction; the capability was simply not there – information sources involved directly in the project revealed huge issues with airworthiness and safe flying (shock wave formation directly in front of the tail cone being but one example).

Procuring new armoured vehicles for the British Army is great news – as is the extra F-35, Typhoon and Reaper aircraft for the RAF, the (reduced) acquisition of new frigates and offshore patrol vessels for the Royal Navy, and the extra funding for Special Forces and the Security Services.  Even more satisfying to hear was the announcement that Sentry, Sentinel, Airseeker and Shadow aircraft will be extended to at least 2020 (for Sentinel, and up to 2035 for Sentry and Airseeker).

Admitting that the details are scant at present, I don’t see that further scrutiny will alter the fact that this feels like tactical decisions based on a specific, current threat – for which we will have the capability to counter in around a decade (excepting the formation of two Strike Brigades, and the troops placed on standby to counter a ‘Paris’ style attack).

I doubt very much that warfare will ever again involve state versus state; as we are now heavily intertwined with allied forces in the battle against asymmetric enemies – and this review will certainly counter current threats with future capability (if both the government and I are correct).

But here’s the thing – all new, enhanced and burgeoning capabilities require an inordinate amount of personnel to operate, maintain, support and procure for – not to mention the need to house, feed, sustain and provide medical and dental care for such personnel.  I may have missed how the government intends to attract new armed and civilian personnel (as well as concurrently making a third of MoD civil servants redundant) to provide this support.  And if the rumours over eradicating automatic incremental pay rises for those still serving are true – they may have a huge battle on their hands to simply retain the existing numbers.

My humble opinion?  A seemingly tactical review to meet a projected and current asymmetric threat, with no clear indication on how to provide the manpower required to nurture and support increased capabilities.

I await with baited breath for now.  Watch and shoot.  Watch. And. Shoot.

What is your take on the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review?  Let everyone know in the comments section below – and please share this article using the icons at ‘share with friends’ below.

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Comments 6

24 November 2015 Reply

Yesterday’s announcement was never going to carry the shock and awe factor we saw in 2010. However, I too share your concerns that we will find ourselves with a whole load of Gucci equipment but no means by which to support it.

24 November 2015 Reply

Thanks for your comment, Andy. Will this be a case of ‘all the gear; no idea’? Can our Armed Forces continue to take all that’s thrown at them? Where is the detail…?

5 February 2016 Reply

Andy and Matt, I agree, I read nothing that resembles ‘strategic’ in the Strategic Defence and Security Review and there is no ‘strategy-to-task’ linkage between the SDSR and the National Security Strategy, which again was more tactical than strategic.
I have for many years, particularly when serving and in Defence Procurement, voiced my fears of MOD becoming over-reliant on a few expensive, ‘multi-role’, very complex and automated (and thus highly vulnerable), and almost obsolete as they come into service, fleets of long-gestation equipment programmes running on an austere manning footing: F-35B, QE carriers, T45, T26, etc, etc.
Fewer people and equipment means MOD has fewer resources to deploy and sustain deployments, is heavily vulnerable to attrition, will be mis-tasking high value and expensive systems for high risk, and highly vulnerability to ground fire, tasks such as a F35-B providing Close Air Support?), or a T45 undertaking anti-piracy patrols. There is the obvious mismatch between geographical impact and numbers: a T45 may be multi-role, but once tasked it is on a dedicated role, and it can only be in one place at any one time. Mass of numbers allows operational effect to be spread to effectively strike in a number of places and/or concentrated for the ‘shock and awe’ effect as required by the Manoeuvrist thinkers. Mass of numbers allows you to take damage, and be present in a number of places to influence. Mass of numbers allows you to swarm and overwhelm fewer more sophisticated systems. I think someone needs to tell the Emperor that he’s not wearing any clothes.
Why does it take 10 years to procure P-8 LRM aircraft that exist and operate today (80/20 rule?), and MOD selected aircraft that cannot be refueled by the air-to-air tankers it already has nor the new ones procured? Means modifying a perfectly good aircraft with the usual programme risks, increased costs, and procurement challenges. Why does it take a decade to rearrange and train some soldiers and their armoured vehicles into something called a Strike Brigade – what in fact is a Strike Brigade and what are its constituent parts and equipment? Won’t the concept and need for Strike Brigades be obsolete by the next SDSR in 2020, let alone its projected IOC in 2025?
It’s disappointing that 3 months after its stealth publication, the SDSR smoke has yet to disperse to reveal more clarity.

8 February 2016 Reply

Invaluable insights, Maurice – thank you. It is indeed bemusing over the ‘flash to bang’ time for the P8s; and it is utterly frustrating that we still have no clearer a picture. Thanks for taking the time to give your thoughts.

10 February 2016 Reply

I suppose one of the challenges of any defence review is understanding, beyond what is explicit in the announcement, what has been omitted. We all know that when one is selling a car, one will focus on the positives. However, one of the problems of what looks like a generous equipment plan (especially for the RN and RAF), is the funding for areas such as personnel and training to man this equipment – I imagine the RAF will be trying to figure out how to train the personnel for the P8. In terms of the time taken to acquire the P8, 10 years does seem like a long time. However, my guess is that the acquisition period has been extended both to spread the costs over several accounting periods and to allow the training and manning to catch up.
Finally, Matt, you doubt whether peer-on-peer warfare will ever happen again. Isn’t that exactly the problem we have had in the past? I know that Nils Bohr said pithily that “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future” but my concern would be that as soon as you rule out one type of warfare, then that is the one that the enemy plans and as Maurice argues, there’s quality in quantity.

10 February 2016 Reply

Can’t argue with the unpredictability of predictions, Dan! “A plan never survives the first contact” may have been a good mantra for the SDSR team, perhaps?

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