This seems, at first glance, to be a highly unusual defence review: there have been announcements of additional spending – on special-forces and on drones, of the re-creation of lost capabilities with the purchase of maritime patrol aircraft, and of the establishment of two new rapid response brigades, two new Typhoon squadrons, one new F35 squadron, and a new class of light frigates. There will be over £12 billion extra spent on new defence equipment and a commitment to keep defence spending at 2% of GDP. This is not how the accepted script on British defence reviews should run!
Defence reviews have the reputation of being focussed on cutting capabilities and commitments, of cancelling defence projects, of reducing numbers of troops, and then being accompanied by the wailing and gnashing of teeth by retired generals, think-tankers and Conservative back-benchers as Britain’s international power and influence is seen to be shrinking and UK is accused of withdrawing from its ‘world role’.
This was certainly the case with the 2010 SDSR when aircraft carriers were withdrawn from service many years early the Harrier was scrapped and the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft was cancelled. The 1990 Options for Change review was another review in which the thawing of relations with the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall prompted an across-the-board cut of defence spending as the UK entered recession. The 1981 Defence Review – which was seen to have ended the political career of the defence secretary Sir John Nott – was notorious for its cuts in Royal Naval equipment: aircraft carriers, frigates and destroyers, and the South Atlantic ice patrol ship all got the chop just months before these very forces were then used to re-take the Falklands Islands. The 1975 Defence Review saw the withdrawal of British forces from the Mediterranean and residual Indian Ocean and South East Asian commitments, whilst the Defence Reviews of 1964 through to 1968 saw the cancellation of a galaxy of procurement programmes, from the TSR2 bomber and CVA01 aircraft carrier to the P1154, a supersonic version of the Harrier, and the HS681 military transport aircraft. This was accompanied by rapid withdrawals from British commitments in South East Asia and the Persian Gulf.
These reviews were all ‘Treasury-led’ – focussed on attaining a particular budget level in the short or medium term, with strategic and foreign policy objectives clearly secondary. This has generally seen by commentators to be a ‘bad thing’ but there is a good case in support of this supposedly accountant-led approach. Defence equipment can be extremely expensive, and given that nuclear submarines, fast jets and drones are often being designed and built at the very cutting edge of modern technology it is not surprising that their costs can escalate. The structure of the UK defence industry and its relationship with the Ministry of Defence does not always help either: the consolidation of defence contractors has made it difficult to ensure competition or cost effectiveness in procurement, and internal pressures on staff officers are strong to make sure that projects favoured by their own services are pushed through no matter the impact on through-life service support. Until 2010 defence reviews were conducted ad-hoc rather than every five years, and in almost every case were called under Treasury pressure to deal with either short term cost overruns in the defence budget, or cost projections that meant huge over-spending in three to five years’ time without cuts in the sorts of programmes much favoured by admirals, generals and air marshals. Defence reviews are therefore often painful: sacred cows were cancelled and the wish of service chiefs to replace old kit with new kit on a ‘one-for-one’ basis can rarely be fulfilled.
This defence review seems therefore to be something quite different; there have been few cancellations: there will be only eight Type 26 frigates, but new light frigates will be procured instead and the original figure of thirteen was considered within the navy to be optimistic anyway. The F35 programme will be lengthened by a number of years but the maritime variant will be front-loaded into service a few years early.
This suggests a parallel with the only Defence Review up to this date that has been considered not to be ‘Treasury-led’: the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. In general, commentators saw it as a ‘good thing’ – it was ‘strategy-led’ rather than Treasury-led and its strategic assessments, which rebuilt the military around a post-Cold War expeditionary capability, then led through to the equipment decisions that followed, including procuring new aircraft carriers, emphasising defence diplomacy and the rapid reaction to unexpected events world-wide. The 2015 SDSR, with its emphasis on maintaining a full-spectrum of capabilities to deal with the unexpected, therefore fits into this concept of a ‘strategy-led’ review. However, there is a sting in the tail: the SDR of 1998 was widely praised, but the following year’s Comprehensive Spending Review set out how much money would actually be available to fulfil the outcomes of the SDR. It was clearly not enough, some cuts quietly followed but a reluctance to face the full nature of the problem and embark on a new review meant that when a defence review finally arrived in the shape of the 2010 SDSR, some of the conclusions were brutal.
This should be borne in mind when analysing the 2015 SDSR: the F35 programme is being stretched over a number of additional years. This is likely to mean reduced or at least better controlled costs in the short and medium term, but it will inevitably mean the programme will cost much more overall. All those engineers, managers and production lines will have to be kept open for more years, and these extra costs will in the end overshadow any short term savings. If the remaining eight Type 26 frigates are similarly stretched over the time period in which the original 13 would have been built, then again there will be some short term savings but overall the reduction in the project costs will not be that great. By 2025 a large proportion of the army will be rapidly deployable (4 ‘war fighting’ brigades plus 16 Air Assault brigade). Can the equipment and training be afforded to make this significant number of troops deployable at such short notice? What about the rest of the army, will there be sufficient resources available to fulfil their training and equipment requirements?
The SDSR 2015 is therefore storing up problems for the future that will have to be addressed in the next review. The picture will only become clearer when the fine details become apparent: when the Treasury clarifies the Defence budget figures and when the next Major Projects Report by the National Audit Office is published. Maybe this defence review is not all that unusual after all.
Dr Edward Hampshire is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Defence Studies Department. His first book analysed the naval side of the defence reviews of 1964 to 1968 and his most recent article deals with the period prior to the 1981 defence review
Image: HMS Invincible Returns From Falklands War, via flickr.