“Events, dear boy, events.” So said Harold MacMillan when asked what the single biggest impediment to the development of a coherent strategy. Unexpected events have derailed many defence reviews in recent years. The Nott Review was rendered almost immediately irrelevant by the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands. Options for Change was overshadowed by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War.
The 1998 Strategic Defence Review needed several updates following the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington DC. The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review was within months overtaken by the Arab Spring, and the subsequent uprisings in Libya and Syria.
The resurgence of Russia has illustrated that many of the assumptions of that review were incorrect. Only the day before this year’s SDSR was announced, reports of a Russian submarine provoked a search north of Scotland by a Royal Navy frigate and submarine. Embarrassingly, the United Kingdom needed to rely on Canadian and French Maritime Patrol Aircraft in order to assist with the search. In this light, then, it should be welcome news that SDSR2015 has committed to the procurement of 9 Boeing P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft.
That said, it is tempting to conclude that unlike previous Defence Reviews, this one was derailed by events immediately before its publication. The terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday 13 November has produced in politicians what they are most prone to do in times of national crises – knee-jerk reactions.
It is difficult, as a historian of the British Army, not to be sceptical about the surprise announcement only this morning that two new ‘Strike Brigades’ consisting of 5,000 troops each will be formed by 2025. Apparently these new units (drawn from existing and already overburdened army numbers) will be equipped to ‘deploy rapidly over long distances using the new Ajax armoured vehicles’. Initial deployment (one presumes) will be accomplished in the new 100% carrier capability which Britain will have by 2025. Moreover, these units will be more deployable because of a ‘lower overall logistic footprint’. Was this a knee-jerk reaction to the unforeseen events in Paris?
All this will form part of a 50,000 strong expeditionary force, capable of working independently or (more likely) alongside allies, which will include a maritime task group centred on a Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft carrier equipped with F35 Lightning combat aircraft; a land division with three brigades – including the above strike force; an air group of combat, transport and surveillance aircraft; and a special force task group. This forms part of a new ‘Joint Force 2025’.
And, of course, we already knew about extra funding for the Special Forces, and the renewal of Trident.
Undeniably, the big winners are in the big-ticket high-technology items, although the Royal Navy will only get 8 rather than 13 Type 26 Anti-Submarine Frigates, while the money saved will be spent on a newly designed more agile, flexible and, crucially, cheaper frigate. The Royal Air Force will get two new squadrons (because the life of the old ones is being extended), as well as at least 20 new ‘Protector’ remotely-piloted air systems (Drones to you and me).
One cannot help but conclude (initially at least) that with so much money being spent on high-tech materiel, the low-tech end of the spectrum – the soldier in particular – will be hard done by. Navalists might well rejoice that the United Kingdom is at least taking a step in the right direction in reassembling its badly under-resourced maritime capability. Britain is an island, and the foundation of its success – diplomatically and militarily – has been a strong navy and a sensible maritime strategy. My maritime minded colleagues will pass comment on this aspect of the SDSR.
For my part, I cannot escape the sense that the government is focused on almost constant restructuring, and do not necessarily appreciate the value of mass. The British Army might not fall below 82,000, but the emphasis here is on teeth, not tail, and more expertise is expected of the same, if not fewer people.
Historically such restructuring as has been started today has hampered the army’s ability to adapt and innovate. Augmentation of an army which is the product of such restructuring also became exceedingly difficult. SDSR2015 promotes a secure and prosperous United Kingdom, but its focus on achieving this security and prosperity is on technological solutions.
It is tempting to conclude, as the Prime Minister did today, that history teaches us that we cannot predict the future, that today’s complexities offer unimaginable challenges, which our predecessors never had to overcome. It only seems that way because we know how our predecessors overcame the challenges and complexities which they faced – history teaches us the solution and it is difficult to separate ourselves from that hindsight. The real value of history is learning how our predecessors overcame such challenges. Very few of them succeeded by over-burdening fewer people and expecting them to do more.