SDSR 15: Five Questions


The Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 (SDSR15) document is in many respects both muscular and ambitious. It has a global focus, taking the view that ‘engagement is not an optional extra’ on the basis that domestic and international security are now linked inextricably. It argues for the need to ‘act decisively’ against terrorists abroad. It places a premium on alliances and international partnerships as one of the key means through which Britain can achieve the three key goals of protecting the British people, projecting British influence, and promoting prosperity for Britain. It has enhanced Britain’s military capabilities, with the provision of extra air and maritime forces, and new investment in ‘strike’ brigades and Special Forces. It has provided new investment in meeting cyber and terrorist threats, reflecting growing concerns at the likely increase in challenges from this quarter. It identifies fragile states as a key problem that requires attention, and focuses more resources on meeting this challenge.

But the content of the review is likely to be controversial, not least because it struggles to answer five key questions.

First, can it solve the perennial problem in British grand strategy of the mismatch between resources and commitments? SDSR is in many respects a very traditional statement of British interests. It argues forcefully that the UK’s security depends on British involvement internationally. SDSR15 has given the armed forces an extra £12 billion of equipment, and in the longer term it will give the equipment budget a 1% real increase per year in funding. The government has also committed itself to meeting the 2% of GDP NATO defence spending target. However, in order to meet the 2% target, the government has included items not previously rated as part of defence spending, including war pensions and UN peacekeeping expenditures. Moreover, defence inflation generally runs well ahead of ordinary inflation, meaning that the boost to the equipment budget will slow, but is unlikely to eradicate, the re-emergence further down the line of difficulties in equipment affordability.

In terms of manpower, the review does not reverse previous cuts but does add to commitments. The review allocates 10,000 military personnel to potential military aid to civil power tasks; it boosts the emphasis on military defence diplomacy activities; it allocates more forces to the Joint Task Force; it maintains the UK’s commitment to multi-lateral and bi-lateral force structures. Technology is important in winning wars, but manpower still matters. Recent history suggests that winning peace and building stability is hugely manpower intensive. SDSR15 has not reversed the bulk of the previous cuts in personnel. Moreover, increasing the size of the Reserves by 5,000 is unlikely to allow the government to balance commitments and resources, given that it has proved difficult to recruit and retain to the existing level of 30,000.

A second question is ‘how capable will the new military structures actually be?’ SDSR15 makes a forceful case for the success of SDSR 2010, arguing that ‘over the last five years we have reconfigured Britain’s armed forces so they are able to deal with modern and evolving threats’. This assertion itself might raise some eyebrows given the problems experienced in mounting and sustaining operations in Libya. Despite increasing the size of the Joint Task Force (JTF) from 30,000 to 50,000, SDSR15 is very light on such details as the readiness of some of the forces that will comprise the JTF, or for how long such forces will be able to be sustained in the field. Adding to this, the review announced a nearly 30% cut in Ministry of Defence civilians. There is little detail on where these cuts will fall, but given the depth of previous cuts, there is a very real fear that the new cuts will hollow out civilian expertise vital for the effective conduct and sustainment of operations. The SDSR also makes the confident assumption that Britain ‘will maintain our military advantage’. But against whom and in what circumstances?

A third question is whether the non-military tools at Britain’s disposal actually will be as effective as hoped. The SDSR attaches great importance to the impact of UK soft power, and it provides extra resources for such things as the BBC, the Diplomatic Service and for military building stability overseas (BSOS) activities to ‘further enhance our position as the world’s leading soft power’. Soft power, however, is a controversial instrument. It is not clear the extent to which the reputation of the BBC world-wide, or the extent to which other nations speak English actually translates directly into an increase in Britain’s clout in the world. Cultural interest is not power. Hamid Karzai loved the BBC programme ‘Last of the Summer Wine’, but it didn’t make him any easier to deal with.

A fourth question is whether, given the SDSR’s title, it actually provides the strategies necessary to link together effectively the government’s objectives and the means that the new SDSR has laid out. Again this is potentially problematic. At some points, the SDSR presents as strategy a statement of outcomes. So, for example, it notes in relation to the decision to acquire a successor to Trident that ‘we have chosen to deter potential adversaries’. But deterrence, of course, is a complex business. Whether or not a Trident successor deters is surely a matter of context, and it is extraordinarily unlikely to deter all, or even most, threats. At many other points in the SDSR15 document, what qualifies as a strategy is actually a controversial focus on means. This is particularly the case in relation to dealing with fragile states. This is a challenge that SDSR15 places a great deal of emphasis on, for example directing that half the Department for International Development budget will now be focused on such states. But there are no new strategies guiding how these new resources will be used. The paper puts great faith in democracy, rule of law, and accountable government as ‘part of the golden thread’ that leads to security and prosperity. But democratisation can actually promote instability in the short to medium term. Indeed, the documents assertion that projecting our power abroad reduces the likelihood of threats emerging is hugely contestable. Many of today’s problems are yesterday’s solutions: for example, the international intervention in Iraq almost certainly provides one of the material causes of the rise of ISIS. We have poured huge resources in Iraq and Afghanistan in pursuit on democracy and stability, and the outcomes have been disappointing and inherently unpredictable.

Finally, how well does SDSR bridge change and continuity? The SDSR15 paper acknowledges that long-term change is taking place in the balance of economic and military power. This change is important, given that the document places a great deal of emphasis on acting with allies and in building relationships with other countries. But there are hidden contradictions here. China, for example, is seen clearly as a key partner in delivering on the objective of increasing Britain’s prosperity. At the same time, however, China is probably the key rising power. The extent to which the linkages that we build with China economically may actually constrain us in the security sphere, creating tensions with such other partners as the US and Japan, may well grow over time. SDSR15 seems to view allies and partners as passive instruments of British influence. But in building relationships with Britain, other actors will seek to maximise their own interests, and should be expected to leverage their links with Britain for their own gain. In such circumstances close relationships may become as much a source of vulnerability for Britain as a source of strength.

Overall, SDSR15 is an ambitious assertion of Britain’s global roles and interests. But the extent to which the UK has actually the expertise and resources to tackle conflict and build stability overseas is difficult to discern. SDSR15 asserts that the UK’s objective of economic development and prosperity overseas ‘improves peace, security and governance’. This is an assumption that may not be shared by others. We may focus on the benefits of a ‘rules based international order’ but other actors may disagree profoundly on our assumptions about what those rules should be and how they should be implemented. In the acid test of some future crisis, the government may find that contested ideas of soft power are much less effective than actual military capability at giving the UK genuine influence in the world.

Dr Christopher Tuck provided written evidence on the SDSR15 process to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. He provided verbal evidence to the Committee as part of its initial assessment of SDSR15 outcomes.

Image: HMS Bulwark’s embarked Royal Marines put on a showstopper by storming a beach in Gibraltar.

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