As I write this column before the outcome of the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) is known (expected towards the end of October), it is already clear that the process has been rushed through. Where the previous SDR in 1998 took a year-plus to complete, this time and despite the desperate need for a strategic re-evaluation which is long overdue, the process hasn’t taken more than five months. Britain’s allies should take note; there is a real danger of this impacting on the long-term ability of the UK to commit and sustain over time forces in support of multinational campaigns that it has done in the past.
The British coalition is a government in a hurry to begin tackling the UK’s deficit which was extensively built up by the previous government and cuts of between 10-20 percent from an annual budget of £37 billion (around 2.5 percent of GDP) are now expected.
On 15 September, just over a month before the scheduled announcement of the SDSR, the House of Commons Defense Committee (HCDC) issued its first report to the new Parliament. Early in the report’s conclusions, it highlights the ‘startling’ speed of the process at which it has been conducted: “A process which was not tried and tested is being expected to deliver radical outcomes within a highly concentrated time-frame. We conclude that mistakes will be made and some of them may be serious.”
The SDSR is being overseen by the new National Security Council (NSC) and takes place at the same time as the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). While acknowledging that the SDSR could not be held after the CSR report, there is nevertheless a serious concern that it will not be a ‘comprehensive’ study. The general feeling is the decision making process has been turned upside down. That is, economics will drive the defense stance rather than evaluating the UK’s strategic aims and shaping defense spending accordingly.
Industry representatives have also been vocal, saying that they are increasingly frustrated regarding the scant opportunity to engage and contribute into the SDSR decision making process. The report again refers to this: “There is a very real danger that the examination of which capabilities are required for the UK’s security and defense needs is disconnected from the examination of how, when and at what cost those capabilities can be provided and sustained, and the vital skills base retained.”
While it is hard to find anyone who disagrees with the overall principle that savings do need to be made across the UK in every single area, the defense of national interests when looked at in terms of a global perspective cannot be shoe-horned into a ready-made budgetary package.
One of the areas of potential savings that the report highlights as not having been given sufficient attention is the lack of development of the UK’s reserve forces, saying that it “reveals a failure to address seriously the option of placing capabilities into the Reserve Forces at much lower cost, as the Americans have done.” In aviation terms, the United States Army Reserve alone can call on the 11th Aviation Command numbering 4,000 soldiers with some of the latest aircraft, including Apache AH-64Ds. With the current focus on the importance and utility of rotary wing, perhaps the development of a UK aviation reserve could offer a way ahead to reduce costs but retain capability, as the last reserve helicopter squadron was stood down several years ago.
Britain’s close allies, especially the United States, need to be prepared to witness the fall-out in from the expected cuts in terms of operational capability, both in the UK’s numbers of troops on the ground and in the quantity and variety of aircraft type that will be made available for foreign operations. The report warns that the MoD “could end up with only short-term priorities, misaligned resources, a barely reformed acquisition process and a structure short of manpower to deliver good performance and improperly configured for its tasks.”
One of the positives of the 1998 Strategic Defence Review was the creation of the Joint Helicopter Command (JHC), a joint organization that currently comprises more than 230 battle helicopters and air assault forces from the Royal Air Force, Army and Royal Navy. It has been the “go to” organization for the MoD for rotary wing packages to support foreign operations. It remains to be seen whether the 2010 SDSR will result in further joint areas of responsibility. As the UK’s defense force shrinks, the JHC is perhaps one example of where the future management of parts of the UK’s armed forces lies. Whether the SDSR will represent a ‘real review’ rather than a Treasury led budget slash, the report remains unconvinced that “the combination of a budgetary strait-jacket, the short timeframe and the apparent unwillingness by the Ministry to think outside existing structures, will deliver that end.