Why British Defence Reviews Fail


There have been numerous defence reviews in the United Kingdom since 1952, but all have failed to meet their objectives. No review has managed to match our commitments to our capabilities. In an ideal world, an altered set of challenges like that which accompanied the end of the Cold War would lead in short order to wholesale changes in the way that Britain conducts itself in foreign and defence policy. A calm and deliberative government would realize that the world had been transformed. Politicians would accept this, putting the nation’s interests before short-term calculation or what works ‘electorally’. Like the politicians, service chiefs would recognize this as well, and accept cuts and other adjustments accordingly. Rationality – a very Enlightenment-based notion – would rule the day, and commitments would be neatly realigned with resources, as we all think they should.

Unfortunately, this is not how governments work in the real world. The response is often painfully slow, even to major strategic shocks like the end of the Cold War and September 11. Indeed, the reaction can be so time-lagged that resources continue to be dedicated to fight ‘threats’ which have not existed for years. Changes can be made eventually, of course, but by the time they take place they may already reflect the general reasoning of one or two reviews ago; by 2020, British military forces will probably look more like those envisioned in the 1998 review rather than the 2010 one, for instance. Bureaucratic and political constraints, as well as overoptimistic estimates about the cost of new equipment and how long it will take to manufacture, clearly affect whether governments adapt.

Why this tendency to fail? There are probably at least four reasons, in my view. First of all, it happens in part because service chiefs avoid cuts to their own organizations where they can and compete with one another over ‘who gets cut’. This is what I like to call Homo Bureauracticus in action. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) can often be more important than ‘rational’ decision-making, and the different services can be relied upon to defend their own interests to the hilt, especially when their backs are against the wall. As the Harvard political scientists Graham Allison noted long ago, organizations tend to perceive the world from the perspective of their own bureaucratic ‘perch’. The Treasury, for instance, tends to see issues mainly in terms of their economic impact; air chiefs see the strategic importance of planes and helicopters, the Navy the necessity for ships, carriers and boats, and the Army the need for a standing army or other land-based forces, while the Ministry of Defense tries to tie all these bureaucratic interests together. Defence secretaries, meanwhile, are still politicians, and have to balance bureaucratic desires against the art of the possible as well as their own (usually short-term) interests.

Secondly, reviews can fail because domestic political factors stand directly in the way of painful cuts – especially where defence procurement is dispersed across political constituencies – and short-termism is encouraged where prime minsters replace defence secretaries before they have had a chance to get to grips with the military. The UK Ministry of Defence is run not just by Homo Bureacracticus, but by Homo Politicus as well. That we fail to reach a balance is partly attributable to the nature of defence leadership in a democracy, which places a premium on the here and now. We often fail to make the kind of hard choices that make strategic sense but are politically costly; better to leave such decisions to the next government. Some cuts actually cost money in the short-term, and politicians are reluctant to make such reductions because they do not benefit politically from them. To make things worse aircraft carriers and fighter aircraft are sometimes built mainly because they bring jobs, even when the products being manufactured aren’t strategically necessary.

Thirdly, failure occurs because many reviews have stressed the utility and deterrent quality of our nuclear capabilities, but have then shied away from the political pain associated with cuts to conventional forces; better to have your cake and eat it too. There has long been a commitment to what we might call the defunct Homo Polaris, but it arguably makes no sense in the light of the Coalition government’s own National Security Strategy (NSS) of 2010 to maintain a stockpile of nuclear weapons given that very few of the threats it identifies can be potentially deterred by that stockpile. The NSS talks in large part about cyber threats, terrorism and natural disasters, but it is unclear whether possessing nuclear weapons can deter any of these.

But perhaps the most recurrent cause of this historical trend to failure has been events themselves: circumstances frequently derail our most cherished plans. Keeping the Latin theme going, we might refer to this as Homo Contingicus. What most often derails reviews is that they (naturally enough) cannot see into the future; often things come along which are entirely unanticipated when each slow-moving defence review begins, but these events later become so critical that they scupper the whole enterprise. For instance, Harold Wilson came to office in 1964 determined the maintain Britain’s extended role in the world, and the 1966 Denis Healey review pledged to maintain our role ‘East of Suez’. But then came the famous economic crisis of 1967 which necessitated both devaluation of the pound and a military withdrawal from East of Suez. The role of events was equally striking in the case of the Nott review of 1981, which envisioned major reductions to the naval budget. Nott had considered future out-of-area amphibious British operations like the one which the Navy soon undertook during the Falklands War unlikely, and he had consequently pushed through plans to sell HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes (both of which ended up playing a pivotal role in the war, since through sheer luck they had not yet been decommissioned).

The events-driven nature of British defence policy appeared again after the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) undertaken by George Robertson. Not surprisingly, though, the review did not envisage the events of September 11, 2001 or the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem of unforeseen events is present today, moreover, since the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). The bilateral UK-British intervention of 2011 in Libya was seen by some critics as an almost immediate ‘overtaking event’, but humanitarian commitments in Iraq this year, which have seen UK Tornado aircraft based in Cyprus progressively intervening in the war against ISIS, have stretched things still further. Four years ago, the authors of the SDSR were willing to foot the bill for only one or two limited interventions. But by 2014, haven’t these already occurred? The NSS committed Britain to playing its traditional global role – allowing for no ‘strategic shrinkage’ – but we are increasingly seeing that there are few military resources in Britain for doing so.

Image: The plaque outside the south door of the Ministry of Defence Main Building in Whitehall, London. Courtesy of Defence Imagery and reproduced under the open government license.

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