2017 – the Year of the Royal Navy: time to get real?

Professor Andrew M Dorman and Professor Matthew R H Uttley

Centre for British Defence and Security Studies

As we entered 2017 the Ministry of Defence earmarked 2017 as the ‘year of the Royal Navy (RN)’. In the press release that accompanied the announcement key milestones for 2017 were highlighted, including the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth leaving Rosyth and commencing sea trials, the launch of her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales and the fourth Astute-class SSN, the arrival in the UK of the first of four new Tide-class tankers and the opening of the first permanent RN base East of Suez in more than half a century.

This built on the government’s 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (NSS/SDSR pp.30-1). As part of Joint Force 2025, the RN would continue to maintain the continuous at sea deterrent with four new nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines. The NSS/SDSR also pledged to bring into service both of the large aircraft carriers currently under construction in order to have ‘one available at all times’. The government also promised to bring forward the purchase of F-35B Lightning II aircraft so that there would be 24 aircraft available by 2023. Looking further ahead, the 2015 review committed the government to buy three new logistic ships to support the fleet, in addition to the four tankers that were due to have entered service from 2016. The government also confirmed that a fleet of 19 destroyers and frigates would be maintained with the hope that ‘by the 2030s we can further increase the total number of frigates and destroyers’ (NSS/SDSR pp.30-1).

Since then, the Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, has confirmed ‘… that the expansion of the Royal Navy is fully funded’ (Oral Questions on defence 30 January 2017). Yet, behind this rosy façade, however, is a somewhat different picture. In the second half of 2016 the financial pressure on the RN’s budget had become evident. Over the summer, technical problems with the Type 45 destroyer’s power plant emerged leading to all the ships being temporarily moored alongside. In November 2016, it emerged that the Harpoon anti-ship missile would leave service in 2018 without a replacement in the near term rendering RN ships reliant on their deck guns until the Wildcat helicopters are equipped with an air to surface missile. Since Christmas the government has been plagued by revelations concerning the test of one of its Trident missiles last June.

Looking behind the veneer of the 2015 NSS/SDSR a whole series of other cutbacks are evident. The Landing Pad Helicopter (LPH) HMS Ocean is scheduled to leave service in 2018 without replacement. Instead, the second aircraft carrier will be equipped with some amphibious capability. The obvious question this raises is what happens if HMS Prince of Wales is fulfilling the strike carrier role and the government needs both a strike carrier and LPH? The pledge to bring forward the acquisition of the planned 138 F-35Bs so that 24 frontline aircraft would be available from 2023 sounds like a positive development for the RN. However, with each carrier capable of carrying 36 F-35Bs in the strike role, the planned frontline of 24 F-35Bs by 2023 leaves the UK dependent on the US Marine Corps to fill the deficit. Moreover, sustaining the planned Maritime Task Group will be hampered by delays in the delivery of the four new tankers and the continuing absence of an order for the promised three stores ships.

At the same time, the RN is beset with personnel challenges as the most recent personnel statistics have shown with shortages in a number of specialist areas(MoD 2017). As a consequence, the MoD has acknowledged that one of its frigates, HMS Lancaster, was being effectively mothballed pending a refit later this year. Similarly, as the LPD HMS Albion is brought out of reserve and refit her sister ship will be put into reserve ahead of a forthcoming refit. These factors suggest that the uplift of 400 in personnel numbers announced by the 2015 NSS/SDSR is insufficient to allow the RN to crew its existing ships, let alone ensure that one of the new aircraft carriers is always available. As a result, there are rumours that Royal marine numbers will be cut to free up posts for the dark blue element of the navy.

Personnel shortages only partially explain the decision not to restore the amphibious brigade capability taken as a cut in the 2015 review despite the growing fears expressed about Russia and the need to support the UK’s NATO partners. Instead, much of the amphibious capability is fulfilling other tasks in place of other ships. Thus, HMS Ocean is currently acting as the command ship for the US/UK deployment to the Gulf. At the same time, the RN has struggled to commit ships to the various NATO standing forces and some of its tasking is being gapped. Put simply, the RN appears simply too small for its mandated tasks but the government remains unwilling to acknowledge or address this.

One might be forgiven for holding out for the longer term. Before Christmas, Sir John Parker published his report designed to influence the forthcoming ‘National Shipbuilding Strategy’, which called for major changes and investment in the UK’s naval shipbuilding industry. Many of the recommendations appear sound, including gearing the new Type 31 frigate for export and seeking to break BAE Systems’ monopoly of the construction of major warships. Such recommendations are, however, strangely familiar: both the Type 23 frigate which the Type 31 will partially replace and the Upholder class of conventionally powered submarines were originally designed with the export market in mind in the 1980s. It is noteworthy that no foreign sales were achieved and the Upholders and three of the Type 23s were ultimately sold-second hand to Canada and Chile respectively. Moreover, if the government truly wants to implement a viable long-term national shipbuilding strategy, then it needs to bear in mind the life-cycle of its ships and how this will influence the RN’s force size. For example, a RAND study of the UK’s nuclear submarine industrial base concluded that to maintain the industry’s capacity a submarine needed to be ordered every two years (Schank 2005). If one assumes an average lifespan of 30 years then the submarine force needs to comprise some 15 boats. Currently the force comprises just four SSBNs and seven SSNs with no planned future increases.

Moreover, lurking in the background are question marks over the wider affordability of the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) overall Equipment Plan between now and 2026. The most recent edition was published in January 2017 and the financial risks contained within were highlighted in the accompanying National Audit Office report. Four risks stand out. First, previous iterations of the Equipment Plan had contained significant amounts of uncommitted ‘contingency’ funding to cover unforeseen programme cost increases and new requirements. This reserve has been almost entirely allocated to new programmes with the result that there is little flexibility in the budget despite the MoD’s extensive previous experience of unforeseen programme overruns and cost increases. Second, one of the results of the Brexit referendum vote has been a fall in the value of Sterling against both the US Dollar and Euro. Whilst the MoD has taken some mitigation steps, the January NAO report highlights that these ‘hedges’ will be insufficient unless the value of Sterling starts to rise. In particular, the significant cost of existing equipment orders in US dollars from the US – including the Boeing P8A Apache AH-64E, F-35B and successor missile compartment tube programmes – means that further cuts to the MoD’s equipment programme are almost certain. Third, the affordability of the Equipment Plan is predicated on a shift of funds from other areas of the defence budget. The risk here is that MoD assumptions that personnel costs will rise below the rate of inflation, significant income can be generated from the sale of assets and major efficiency savings can be achieved might prove overly optimistic. Indeed, failure to achieve the requisite savings in any of these areas could derail defence budgeting assumptions and, by implication, the future viability of the MoD’s Equipment Plan. Finally, the budget is predicated on a 1% real terms increase in defence spending for each of the next ten years. Ironically a similarly optimistic outlook was ultimately the undoing of the ill-fated 1981 Nott Review.

These factors, together with concerns over whether the UK’s GDP will continue to grow in the post-Brexit era, raises serious doubts about whether 2017 will be the ‘year of the Royal Navy’ or the nadir before which financial chickens finally come home to roost.

Image: HMS Arc Royal, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Suggested further reading

‘2017 is the Year of the Navy’, Ministry of Defence Press Release, 1 January 2017,

‘An Independent Report to inform the UK National Shipbuilding Strategy’, Ministry of Defence, 29 November 2016,

Cabinet Office, ‘National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom’, Cm.9,161, (London: TSO, 2016),

Ministry of Defence, ‘Royal Navy and Royal Marines Monthly Personnel Situation Report for 1 January 2017’, 9 February 2017,

National Audit Office, ‘Ministry of Defence – The Equipment Plan 2016 to 2026’, HC.914, session 2016-17, (London: TSO, 2017),

John F. Schank, Jessie Riposo, John Birkler, James Chiesa, ‘The United Kingdom’s Nuclear Submarine Industrial Base, Volume 1’, Sustaining Design and Production Resources RAND, 2005), file:///C:/Users/Andrew%20Dorman/Downloads/RAND_MG326.1.pdf

The British Army’s role in defending NATO’s Eastern Border


This post summarised some of the evidence Dr Chin gave to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee on the British Army and SDSR 15 in October. A recording  of the session is available here.

SDSR 15 acknowledged the increased threat posed by Russia to NATO and made clear its intention to deter any future Russian aggression. Most interesting is the role assigned to the British army which may be called upon to fight and defeat Russian forces. The British army’s thinking on this issue seems to contain echoes of the Cold War on the central European front in that our conception of defence rests on being able to fight a combined arms battle employing armour, infantry and artillery supported by airpower. As then, we face the problem of how to fight outnumbered and win with the added complication NATO is unlikely to have control of the air domain and the army lacks any integrated air defence capability. As in the past, we have also fallen back on a traditional western solution to ensure ends, ways and means are in balance, which is to employ technology as a force multiplier so that quantity is overmatched by quality. A number of questions arise regarding this approach.

First a great deal seems to depend on the successful acquisition of the Ajax armoured vehicle and the family of related tracked vehicles. However, the history of British weapons acquisition does not inspire confidence this programme will be delivered on time and to cost. A good example of the kind of technical problems that could be encountered is the recently cancelled FRES programme, which appears to contain many of the same technical features. The current CGS emphasised that a great deal of thought was being invested in this programme:`we are building the capability in a methodical and deliberate fashion over time, as this equipment rolls off the production line. Rather like we did in the 1930s, the idea is to test it to destruction and to experiment with it, in the same we did with the mechanisation of of force in the 1930s, so that we get the doctrine and the concept right.’ However, whilst I agree the UK did play a leading role in experimenting with armour in the inter war period and that by the start of the Second World War it was the most mechanised army in the world, we also need to take note of the fact that this still resulted in the production of tanks which were poorly armed and protected and the adoption of a divisional organisation and doctrine which was deeply flawed to the point that it was still being changed in the midst of battle in summer 1944. My point is that the successful introduction of technology is due to many factors some of which are beyond the control of the army and this could inhibit the success of the Ajax programme.

A second concern relates to the belief that combat power can be best articulated via the division. Gen Nick Carter explained:`The rise of state on state threat post 2012 made it important that the UK be able to deploy war fighting division.’ The justification given for focusing on this formation is that, like an aircraft carrier, it has a range of capabilities and it is where the orchestra comes together – `it is where all the capabilities that you need to compete in the state-on-state space happen.’ In his view, the possession of a division provides a metric to your friends and enemies about your power in the land domain about how powerful you are. There are two points I would make here. First, aircraft carriers are high value assets and extremely vulnerable in the modern battle space and because of this are unlikely to be deployed in the forward edge of battle – something a division might have to do if the data links between it and its remote theatre HQ do not work or are hacked. Second, in an age of fiscal austerity we need to think more boldly about how we organise and use military power and I am not certain enough thought has been given to this matter in the land domain. We also need to remember this formation dates back to the Seven Years War which begs the question why in the twenty-first century do we still need an organisational structure which really grew out of the requirements of warfare over two hundred years ago. In other forms of human activity technology is supposedly leading to flatter and more decentralised command structures, where power is devolved to the lowest levels of decision making.

One might argue that this trend can be accommodated within a divisional structure and that might indeed be the case. However, let us not forget that one of the reasons we introduced a divisional command structure into Afghanistan in the latter part of the war was to centralise rather decentralise command and control. Finally, whilst the division remained part of the orbat of some western armies in the post Cold War, the brigade seemed to rise in importance and I think became the most important unit of currency for a time at least. I raise this question because there are those who assert the covert goal of creating a war fighting division has a lot to do with protecting the army from the prospect of further cuts; a division is between 10,000 and 20,000 strong, and because of the teeth to tail ratio of modern armies will require at least a similar number if not more to keep it operational in battle. In essence we need to be bolder and more radical in our efforts to address this security challenge.

Image: UK Warrior Armoured Fighting Vehicles on Exercise in Poland, November 2014, via flickr

Understanding a different ‘holy trinity’: procurement and British defence policy, part 3: Time


My previous two blogposts on the procurement trinity covered capability and cost. Many people see the problems of defence procurement as a trade-off between one of these two factors or the other, but there is also the third forgotten element: time. Delays in projects can affect the other two elements of the trinity: firstly capability is affected through the need to keep in service ageing and less capable equipment, whilst secondly costs are increased through the need to spend more to keep that old equipment working as well as to maintain a production line for the delayed equipment for longer thus incurring additional costs.

The issue of time can often be the most insidious problem in procurement projects: using time holds out the false promise of solving a problem (for now) but in fact serves only to make the problem much worse and leave bigger mess for others to clear up in a few years’ time. At first glance, nothing can be simpler than stretching out a project – either manufacturing over a longer period of time, or keeping the design in development purgatory before finally committing to placing orders for manufacture. Short term battles within the MoD are averted, the budget profile looks immediately better, and the problems will only surface when most of those involved – politicians, staff officers, many officials – have moved onto other, and perhaps, better things.

An example was given by Sir Bernard Gray (whom we met in my previous blogpost) in a speech to the International Institute of Strategic Studies at the end of the last year as he retired from his position as the head of the Defence Equipment and Support organisation, the body within MoD that manages procurement and acquisition. He recalled a proposal to delay aspects of the avionics for the Typhoon jet aircraft in the late 1990s: it would save £20m in the next two years, but it would mean delaying the in-service date of the aircraft by eighteen months. This delay would result in the under-employment of personnel in the factories making the aircraft and the maintenance of a full range of overheads and working capital for this additional time period, which over the life of the whole procurement project would add between £70m to £100m to the total Typhoon procurement cost. A small short term saving had been bought at the cost of a long term cost increase of over 3 to 5 times greater.

In the MoD argot, this is known as creating a ‘bow wave’, after the phenomenon in which a wave forms at the bow of a ship as it sails through the sea. The greater the bow wave the slower the vessels goes as energy is dissipated in pushing the water forward in the bow wave rather than in propelling the ship forward. In short, energy (money) is wasted in a bow wave at the expense of pushing the ship (procurement project) forward.

The procurement bow wave comes in a number of forms and one example should highlight the difficulties in understanding all the costs associated with such stretching out or delaying of procurement projects. Largely unreported from the recent 2015 SDSR was the decision to push back the procurement of the successor to the current Vanguard class nuclear powered submarines – which carry the British nuclear deterrent in the form of Trident D5 ballistic missiles – by what seems to be between three to five years. In the 2010 SDSR the Trident successor was expected to cost £20bn at 2006 prices (£26bn in today’s prices) and enter service in the ‘late 2020s’. The 2015 SDSR announced that it would cost £31bn with a £10bn contingency and that it would enter service in the ‘early 2030s’. This will not include the replacement of the warheads on the Trident missiles these boats will carry. This was originally planned to take place in the early 2030s (SDSR 2010), then the late 2030s (2015 SDSR), and is now planned to occur in ‘the 2040s’ (Ministry of Defence, January 2016). (SDSR 2010, pp. 37-39; SDSR 2015, pp. 35-36; Ministry of Defence Policy Sheet Jan 2016)

Setting aside the warheads, there are at least three consequences of delaying the ‘successor’ class of submarines themselves. The first is the standard bow wave in which keeping the production facilities going will mean additional overheads at the end of the programme whilst staff will be underemployed at the start. It appears that this increase will be between £5bn and £15bn depending on whether and how much of the contingency is used. Second is the fact that the existing and increasingly ageing Vanguard boats will have to be kept in service for longer – older equipment, systems and platforms will need more maintenance and servicing. This will cost money and mean a reduction in capability as these boats soldier on past their planned retirement dates. Third, because of a need to maintain a skills base in nuclear submarine-building the government has committed to ensuring that there will not be substantive gaps in submarine construction (which if such gaps were to occur would mean the laying off of highly trained shipyard workers and engineers, probably never to return, resulting in even larger amounts of money being spent to re-create a skills base when production re-starts), so it is almost inevitable that the last vessels of the preceding Astute class hunter-killer submarines will be stretched out to prevent a gap emerging. Therefore a bow wave in the successor class has probably created another bow wave in the Astute class with the inevitable consequences for costs.

It seems likely that these delays have little to do with technological problems with the successor boats – they will probably utilise much of the technology already developed for the Astute class – but with a wider ‘portfolio’ issue of fitting the whole procurement programme into the expected budget levels in the next ten to fifteen years. Of the capability enhancements announced in the 2015 SDSR, the most significant (and expensive) was the decision to procure nine P8 maritime patrol aircraft after the 2010 SDSR had removed that capability entirely. A large part of the justification for the re-introduction of this capability was their role in patrolling the approaches to the nuclear deterrent submarine base at Faslane to prevent surveillance by other countries’ navies (for ‘other countries’ read Russia). So to add to the layers of complexity, the new P8s are in fact part of the wider capability to provide a continuous at sea nuclear deterrent that also encompasses the Vanguard class, the successor boats and the nuclear warheads. Looked at in this way the whole capability provision could run to much more than just the currently planned price range of £31bn to £41bn.

The aim of this post and the preceding two has been to highlight the complexities and difficulties of getting defence procurement right. The procurement trinity needs to be balanced, and no decision-maker should ever fool themselves that change to one element of the trinity, be it the stretching of a project timescale, the tweaking of requirements or the allowing of restrictive support contracts to allow for cheaper up-front costs, will not impact on one or both of the other elements. The examples I have given in these blogposts have been placed under one of the three trinity elements, but as readers of these posts should now no doubt realise, at least one of the other two trinity elements will always come into play. How much capability should be traded off to get the project completed on time and to budget? How much money should be spent to try maintain a project’s capability or to keep it to schedule? Is the time bought by a delay worth the money and the reduction in existing capability in the mean time?

The problems discussed here have been acknowledged for many years: but the late 1990s SMART procurement reforms resulted in a concerted effort to view procurement in terms of a whole life cycle. They introduced the ‘CADMID’ procurement stages mentioned in my second post and began to bring together the disparate procurement and logistics organisations in the MoD. Some of these reforms were pulled off track by the post 9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but two reports towards the end of this ‘long wars’ period refocussed activity on reforming systems and structures.

The Gray report of 2009 recommended a series of changes in procurement including regular defence reviews to help keep the programme in budget, the better delineation of responsibilities between the commands and the Defence Equipment and Support organisation (‘DES’), and controversially the recommendation that the latter should privatised. Bernard Gray himself was subsequently brought in to head DES in order to lead the reforms based on his proposals, although the privatisation attempt eventually fell through. In 2011 the Levene report, written by a former head of one of DES’ predecessor organisations, proposed a whole series of reforms across the Ministry of Defence as a whole, not just in procurement. The budgetary autonomy of the individual commands was enhanced in return for clearer lines of delegated responsibility – in procurement as well as other areas – whilst staff officers were encouraged to remain their posts for longer to prevent the loss of corporate memory. These as well as a range of other reforms are currently being implemented across the MoD, whilst as has been seen, the economies of the 2010 SDSR apparently dealt with the £36bn projected overspend the National Audit Office predicted in 2009. Many of the new processes and systems are undoubtedly making a significant difference to the effectiveness of British defence procurement, but it would a brave person who would predict that the issues set out in these three posts are now a thing of the past.

Image: A Trident II missile fires its first stage after an underwater launch from a Royal Navy Vanguard class ballistic missile submarine via wikimedia commons.

Understanding a different ‘holy trinity’: procurement and British defence policy, part 2: Cost


In my previous post I discussed the problems faced in defence procurement deriving from one of the members of the procurement trinity: ‘capability’. This post will now turn to the second element of this trinity: cost.

It is the cost escalation of projects that unsurprisingly most exercises the Treasury when it reviews the Ministry of Defence’s spending plans. Almost all defence projects seem to rise in cost at a faster level than planned, leaving policy-makers and staff officers with difficult decisions about prioritisation, reduction in project size and even cancellation.

One important factor to recognise is that defence procurement spending is subject to something called, in the Treasury jargon, the ‘relative price effect’. In essence that means that all things being equal, defence procurement will inevitably rise faster than inflation. Time and space are at too much of a premium in this post to explain this in detail here, but one of the elements that causes the relative price effect is the increasing cost of producing the same capability as an opposing threat increases over time. In short, much more money needs to be spent in order to do the same thing today compared to say, twenty years ago, because your potential enemy has improved their defences and their weaponry in order to stop you. Defence economists have estimated that this aspect of the relative price effect causes increases in the procurement budget by approximately 5% a year.


When officials and staff officers are faced with an escalating procurement budget, for whatever reason, they have a number of options. At level of an individual project, costs might be unobtrusively and almost invisibly pushed into the future when negotiating with a contractor over a particular sub-system or piece of equipment. As purchases of such equipment increasingly come with an attached maintenance contract with the same company, the easiest approach would be to negotiate a lower initial purchase price with the contractor, but at the cost of a much more restrictive and inflexible maintenance contract over the equipment’s service lifespan. On the surface, money has been saved, but in practice, the cost has been pushed from those staff officers dealing with procurement, to those staff officers in the slightly less sexy area of managing ongoing upkeep. They will have to deal with a maintenance contract that is not fit for purpose without renegotiation or expensive work-arounds.

Since the 1990s, procurement has meant to operate on a whole-of-life concept where conceptual work, assessment, demonstration, manufacture, in-service life and finally disposal (known as the CADMID cycle) are all equally taken account of, but in practice older attitudes can remain, and in the end, if costs need to be controlled, pushing the problem into the future – bringing in our third element of the procurement trinity: time – can be a way to keep everyone happy (for the moment).

Another way of saving money quickly when costs escalate is to reduce the project’s production run. This ‘salami slicing’ approach has the inevitable effect of increasing the individual cost per item, be it a rifle, fast jet or frigate. The newly shrunk production run has the same development costs as before, contracts might have to be renegotiated, and more significantly the cheapest units in the procurement (those produced last, when early glitches have been ironed out) are the ones that have been cancelled. The difference in cost between the first in the production line and the last can be substantial. For example in 2012 it was expected that the last Astute class nuclear submarine would cost £300m, nearly a fifth the cost of the fourth boat (£1448m – see appendix. 4, p. 39). This is an extreme example and partly reflected recent changes in the schedule of production for the class, but unit costs at the end of production run which are less than half those at the start are not uncommon.

This sheds an interesting light on one of the major decisions of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review: the planned order of 13 Type 26 frigates will be reduced to 8, and in the place of the cancelled ships, the MoD would investigate building 5 cheaper vessels instead   (p. 31) However, the cheapest Type 26s have just been cancelled, whilst the first of the new Type 31s (as they have been informally dubbed) will be the most expensive of what would anyway be a short and therefore in itself expensive production run. It seems distinctly possible that the Type 31s will no cheaper than the cancelled Type 26s they will replace unless they are significantly less capable and not much more than enhanced offshore patrol vessels.

Other factors can increase costs dramatically: over-ambitious requirements using new technology can be a significant aspect of this. As described in the previous post, aiming for the best can add a hugely disproportionate amount to a project. The changing of requirements by staff officers either too late in the design process or too often can increase costs exponentially, as well as more mundane matters of effective cost control and the types of contract under which a contractor is operating.

The use of ‘cost plus’ contracts (which used to be widespread in the 1970s) for the most complex procurement projects could also escalate costs: the contractor would be permitted to pass on any development overspends onto the Ministry of Defence, thus providing an incentive for routine overspending. ‘Cost plus’ contracts are now used much more sparingly and with a wider range of controls and cost control measures are much more effective, but cost escalation is still a significant issue within contemporary defence procurement: by 2009 it was estimated by the National Audit Office that the total defence procurement programme was on course to overspend by over a huge £36bn over the next ten years  (p. 4). Although much of this overspend was apparently dealt with during the 2010 SDSR, as we have seen the recent 2015 SDSR might have added new opportunities for long-term overspending.

As has been seen, it is surprisingly easy for the costs of procurement projects to escalate. In my previous post I showed how pushing for too great a capability leap can multiply costs, as can multiple changes in requirements. Reduction in production runs is a way to reduce or at least control costs at the expense of capability, but the result is much higher unit costs. In a similar way, the reduction in sub-system purchase costs at the expense of inflexible or inflated maintenance and support contracts, is another way in which capability is traded in order to control costs. This trading away of capability has therefore been partially hidden through the pushing the costs incurred forward in time. This therefore brings us to the subject of my next post, and the last element of the procurement trinity: time.

Image: HMS Ambush Arriving at HMNB Clyde, via flickr.

Challenges for British Strategy and Defence Policy in 2016


British strategy and defence policy face a number of challenges over the coming 12 months. Some of these require close cooperation with allies, notably devising a common response to an increasingly assertive Russia whilst also formulating a workable approach to the Syria conflict (and the problems associated with it such as migration) and handling unfinished business in Libya. This is quite enough in the inboxes of senior decision-makers on the National Security Council, who will be earnestly hoping that no further crises are added to the pile (a clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example, or North Korea going further than its past missile waving, let alone a clash in the international waters claimed by China). Two particularly pressing issues lie rather closer to home, one underway and the other only a possibility. The first involves taking forward the decisions announced in the Strategic Defence and Security Review of last November. The second is dealing with what could be a huge strategic shock (albeit not an unforeseeable one) in the form of Britain deciding to leave the European Union.

For understandable reasons, commentary on defence reviews tends to focus more on the initial announcements made in a blaze of publicity on its release rather than the more prosaic yet vital implementation stage that remains after the headlines have faded. It is here that some of the less appetising details emerge as small print is scrutinised, detailed plans devised to flesh out and implement the main announcements, and assumptions and reasoning are tested against reality – which can, unsportingly, change.

Reactions to the 2015 review were divided. On the one hand, the resources that the government chooses to devote to defence and security still do not seem fully commensurate either with its political aspirations or with the more dangerous and unstable world that the review described. The much hailed ‘2% of GDP’ target for spending was retained, albeit via some fairly startling accountancy gymnastics – not least the inclusion of several costs not previously counted as part of the defence budget. While these adjustments may well be permissible under NATO rules, adding them into previous British spending to provide a truly comparable figure further underlines how steep the reduction in spending has been over the past couple of decades. More fundamentally, the question remains of whether these resources are enough to fund the stated strategic ambitions of the government – which is where previous reviews fell apart, not least the initially welcomed 1998 Strategic Defence Review. Much of the vaunted new equipment is some time away from delivery, with several programmes slowed or delayed, with the resulting increase in cost; as so often with defence reviews, the jam is promised for tomorrow (or even later), while today offers something less appetising. Moreover, even this relatively modest budgetary settlement is by no means guaranteed, as the assumption of continued economic growth offers quite a hostage to fortune and the vicissitudes of the world economy.

Yet on the other hand, there were and are real grounds to be more positive, even if in a guarded fashion, along the lines of ‘it is a lot better than it could have been’. At the most basic level, this is arguably the first British defence review since the Second World War to display an increase in strategic ambition rather than a reduction. It can therefore be seen as a turning away from, if not yet a complete repudiation of, the declinist instinct that welcomes continuing contraction of Britain’s world role. In terms of resources, despite the chicanery involved, retaining the 2% pledge with some modest increases to come provides a solid basis to move forward and is a stark contrast to some (expectation managing?) rumours before the review. In a refreshing change, this financial settlement was set during the early stages of the review rather than at its end, thus avoiding the wearyingly familiar ‘knife fight in a phone booth’ that has consumed the single Services right to the end of previous reviews, and permitting a more thoughtful and constructive approach. Looking forward, while there is still pressure on budget holders to save money, they have the incentive of knowing that these savings can be reinvested where they choose rather than disappearing into the ever hungry maw of the Treasury. More broadly, in terms of structure and process, while the National Security Strategy that underpinned the review has been criticised as rather thin, it must be a step forward that the UK is considering all the broad aspects of its security in the round rather than in isolation and is making some progress in joining them up. Taking this further by strengthening the secretariat of the National Security Council might be an area to explore.

Whatever one’s conclusion on the review, producing a snapshot of the government’s vision for defence was the easy part. It has often been observed that formulating a strategy is easier than putting it into practice. One of the reasons that strategy is challenging is that the world does not remain static: difficult as it is to devise a British strategy – or rather a British contribution to an allied strategy – to deal with the various problems mentioned above, doing so will become all the more challenging should a strategic shock occur. A renewed crunch in the international economy could throw the ‘cup-half-full’ financial settlement into doubt, while it is usually a safe prediction that some entirely unpredicted crisis will emerge. Perhaps the biggest cloud on the horizon is a potential strategic game-changer that is all but in the diary, in the form of the possibility that the referendum on British membership in the European Union will result in a vote to leave.

The implications of this result would be enormous, albeit unpredictable in detail. Much would depend on the relationship between Britain and the rest of the EU that was negotiated in the aftermath of a decision to quit.

Such a decision would not necessarily indicate an inwardly-focussed ‘little Britain’ any more than a decision to remain would demonstrate support for the ‘little Europe’ tendency that can be perceived in parts of Whitehall as well as in some other European capitals. Britain would still seek to play a role on the global stage and would be as keen to retain a close partnership with allies in Europe as they would be keen to keep Britain involved. Continued free trade across the Channel and also some policy cooperation in a range of areas would be a mutual benefit. The atmosphere surrounding an exit could make this difficult, however. While economic rationality, let alone security considerations, would point to a positive settlement, this could well be trumped by irritation and resentment at the British departure – as well as by a desire to deter other member states from taking a similar step – resulting in a vindictive stance despite the costs. On the other hand, perhaps in the longer term, a decisive resolution of the ongoing question could be preferable to a Britain that is a reluctant member, always casting longing glances towards the exit.

Equally significant would be the impact of a British withdrawal on the two unions concerned. First, it would in all probability be followed by a new Scottish referendum on independence. While the collapse in the price of oil has made a complete nonsense of the economic blueprint of the Scottish National Party, such a referendum could well be swayed (like the one on the EU that would have triggered it) by the issues of the moment and sentiment, rather than cold economic rationality. It is likely that a British decision to leave the EU would be followed by a Scottish exit from the United Kingdom, with all the complications for defence policy that would ensue. Second, the implications for the European Union could be almost as problematic, and not only because the departure of the UK would see it lose a considerably greater proportion of its population and wealth than Scotland represents within the UK. The EU has not yet healed the self-inflicted wound of the Euro crisis, which alongside the flow of migrants from outside its common borders has exacerbated some of the long-standing (though usually glossed over) differences of national perspective among members. The UK’s departure would shift the Union’s balance of power away from the ‘northern’ block with its preference for economic openness and financial prudence, further deepening many of these tensions. A British exit would therefore cause considerable shock waves on the continent, well beyond the loss of a significant contributor to the EU budget.

This will therefore be a busy year for British strategy and defence policy makers. At best, they will be implementing a defence and security review against a backdrop of considerable international instability. At worst, they might need to undertake a fundamental rethink of the place in the world of a UK (or whatever it might be renamed) without Scotland and outside the comfort of the European Union. All of a sudden, the challenge of getting defence spending to add up to 2% of GDP might look easy in retrospect.

Image: HMS Victorious near Faslaxne, via flickr. 


Back to the Future? British Air Power and Two Defence Reviews 2010-15

Dr David Jordan

When the Prime Minister sat down in the House of Commons after concluding his presentation of the 2015 SDSR, he may have allowed himself a smile of satisfaction at the largely positive response it received, and not just from his own back-benchers. This may have become a grin by the time the positive media reaction became clear, with much of that based upon the news that substantial investment is to be made in British air capabilities.

For once, the headlines did not revolve around fast jets, with the decision to purchase nine Boeing P-8 Poseidon multi-mission aircraft (MMA) taking centre stage. Often seen as a reversal of the 2010 decision to cancel the Nimrod MRA4, more astute commentators noted that it was actually a logical conclusion to the process where experienced aircrew from the old Nimrod fleet became part of a ‘seedcorn’ programme, which saw them posted on exchange tours to allied maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) fleets to ensure that it would be possible to regenerate an MPA force in due course. The decision to procure the P-8 was an entirely logical consequence of this. While some of the seedcorn aircrew served with the Australian, Canadian and New Zealand air forces on the P-3 Orion, this is an aging (yet still effective) type, which was not going to be the replacement MPA for the RAF. Those who served on the US Navy’s P-8 force, on the other hand, can bring expertise of the type to bear as the MPA force regenerates at RAF Lossiemouth. While the stated plan is for a third of the overall purchase to be in service by 2019, the Secretary of State for Defence is reported to have been negotiating for the loan of a small number of US Navy P-8 airframes to expedite the process of returning an MPA to British service. It is not unfair to say that the government deserves some credit here with the seedcorn initiative, and the recognition that a decision needed to be made in this review. Had there been further delays, there would have been a considerable risk that significant number seedcorn aircrew might have left the RAF, wasting a relatively small and sensible investment.

While SDSR presents the P-8 as an MPA (Section 4.49), this should not obscure the possibility of the aircraft being used as an MMA with the procurement of additional airframes and the Airborne Ground Surveillance system. This aircraft might provide a replacement for the Sentinel R1 in the battlefield surveillance role in the early to mid-2020s. The Sentinel has become something of a serial survivor of reviews now, avoiding rumoured cancellation in the early 2000s, then having its life extended beyond its original retirement date, now to the early part of the 2020s. It would not be entirely surprising to see a further life extension, since the Sentinel has played a valuable role in a number of recent operations. If the type is not extended further, there will be a need to replace its capabilities, and the P-8 seems to offer the most sensible base for achieving this.

The fact that the P-8 is based upon the Boeing 737 offers another possibility, namely in the field of airborne warning and control. This is currently undertaken by of six Boeing E-3D Sentries (aka ‘AWACS’, from Airborne Warning and Control), which entered RAF service more than 20 years ago. Although the type has been upgraded, the question will arise as to how long it can remain effective in service, and whether or not it would be more cost- effective to procure the 737-based E-7 Wedgetail as a replacement. Since the E-3D appears just once in SDSR15, the question of what happens in this important – and often misunderstood – realm of air power seems to have gone unanswered.

Although SDSR is equally vague about the Beechcraft Shadow R1 operated by 14 Squadron RAF, this has more to do with its sensitive operational role and the concomitant lack of publicity. What we do know is that the aircraft will remain in service until at least 2030, after beginning life as an Urgent Operational Requirement which has been ‘taken into core’. In addition to upgrades, the current fleet of five operational aircraft and a trainer will be increased to eight operational airframes. Whether this means that the Army Air Corps’ equally mysterious Islander and Defender aircraft are to be retired or will run on unencumbered by the attention of the press and military commentators is unclear.

These were not the only developments worthy of comment, since the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) fleet will be boosted with the procurement of a new remotely piloted air system (RPAS), the Protector. The RAF currently operates ten of the (in)famous MQ-9 Reaper ‘drone’, while there will be at least 20 Protectors. The Prime Minister announced this procurement some weeks before the SDSR, amid much confusion as to what Protector was. It transpired that it was a renaming of the extant ‘Scavenger’ RPAS programme, and will involve an upgraded Reaper variant. This means that the RAF’s RPAS capability will be double what it is now; what is not so clear, though, is what the imprecise ‘more than 20’ (section 4.49 of SDSR) means. 21? 30? We could, in fact, have seen a commitment to an even greater level of RPAS use by the UK over the next decade or so, which has potentially interesting implications in terms of force structure – as the current ten RPAS are operated by two squadrons, will this mean an expansion in the number of RAF flying units? And if so, will the scheme to recruit RPAS-only pilots and systems operators increase?

Even allowing for certain areas where clarity is lacking SDSR15’s handling of airborne ISR assets seems encouraging, with the restoration of an MPA capability which offers interesting potential developments in terms of surveillance and AWACS replacements from the mid-2020s onwards, and an expansion in capabilities in the ISR field overall, even though there are some questions to be answered as to how that capability will be fully realised when the RAF’s personnel numbers are not apparently going to increase on the sort of scale that might be anticipated.

This was not the only ‘good news’. The C-130J Hercules transport, meant to be retired in 2022 was given a reprieve. There has been much debate as to whether the A400M Atlas was a suitable replacement, since it appeared to be too large to perform the Special Forces support role effectively. Although there was a belief that a small force of C-130s might be retained for this role, the decision to keep 14 airframes was perhaps unexpected. This effectively means that the reduction in transport capability presaged by SDSR10 has almost been reversed, although it must be noted that the extension of the Hercules is only until 2030. Coupled with the introduction of the Voyager and the growth of the Atlas fleet, SDSR15 appears to have set about reversing the decline of the fixed wing transport force. The policy for the support helicopter force, subject of much attention in the past decade, might be said to have been set as ‘steady as she goes’. The decision to introduce two Strike Brigades in addition to 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade suggests that the RAF and Commando Helicopter forces will be kept busy.

The same is almost certainly true of the RAF’s fast jet force. The venerable Tornado GR4, despite some bitter – and often wildly inaccurate – criticism from certain defence bloggers remains a critical part of the RAF’s forces. The review, though, makes clear that the Tornado’s time is drawing to a close (even though a further life extension would not be a surprise) as the Typhoon finally gains the ability to use Storm Shadow and Brimstone missiles. That the Typhoon, always intended to be a multi-role aircraft in RAF service, has been hobbled by a multi-national MOU which caused years of delay to the introduction of its full range of capabilities is a lesson worth learning for those involved in future procurement. Until the three remaining squadrons disband in 2018 and 2019, the GR4 will remain at the forefront of operations, potentially completing almost 30 years of continuous operational deployments. The extension of the Tornado force reflects an issue dating back to 1991. Then, the RAF had 30 fast jet squadrons. SDSR10 would have reduced that to six by 2020, a reduction of 80% – yet the tasking for the RAF’s combat aircraft had not diminished by anything like as much. There is a case for saying that the end of the Cold War saw an increase in RAF fast jet deployments against a backdrop of continuing cuts, with little or no ‘peace dividend’. While the increase of the future force to nine squadrons from the planned six addresses some of the problems, it may well be the case that more units are required in due course, and it will be interesting to see how this is addressed.

In this context, the decision to retain two additional Typhoon squadrons and extending their service life until 2040, is welcome. The decision means that the RAF will end up with seven Typhoon squadrons, which was the originally-planned force structure for the type; a true ‘back to the future’ aspect of the review, albeit one which reverses a number of decisions made over the course of the last 15 years or so, not just the last 5. The ability to use the Typhoon in concert with so-called ‘5th generation’ aircraft has already been explored in exercises with the USAF’s F-22 fighters, and this has applicability for work with Britain’s purchase of the F-35B Lighting (or Lightning FG1 in British service).

The F-35 joint strike fighter programme has been beset with problems and vitriolic criticism; indeed, a number of commentators have called for it to be cancelled and for the UK to purchase F/A-18E or F/A-18F Super Hornets, to equip ‘cat and trap’ carriers. This rather misses the point. As well as the defence industrial implications of abandoning the F-35 and the likely diminution of British influence in coalitions without its ‘first night’ capability, it represents a misreading of what the F-35 will deliver, even in the F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) version. The actual position is perhaps reflected in SDSR15’s increasing the number of aircraft to be purchased by the mid-2020s, thus allowing one carrier to be at sea all year round with F-35Bs as part of the air wing if required. If the intention for a purchase of 138 F-35s is realised, this will further transform the capability of British air power, offering the ability to base 5th-generation aircraft both aboard the carriers and on land bases, making the aircraft not just a step on from the Harrier and Tornado, but a possible ‘game-changer’ in terms of the UK’s ability to project power. There are some potential pitfalls which need to be noted, though. The first is that the pace at which the F-35 is bought may well create a situation where the number of aircraft available to support embarkation aboard a carrier is, at least initially, insufficient. Although the importance of the Queen Elizabeth class to the projection of British air power has been obvious for years (as I suggested here 14 years ago), there is a risk that adopting a concept of use which sees most of the F-35 force tied to carrier operations for at least the first few years of the aircraft’s use might represent a reduction in the flexibility and potential capabilities that the F-35 offers.

The US Navy, for instance, demonstrated this with the deployment of around a third of a an F-14 squadron (VF-154) to a shore base during Iraqi Freedom, and although arguments that the F-35B simply cannot expect to be fully effective if the aircraft ‘hop and hop off’ the QE carriers are entirely valid, the risk of tying a valuable aircraft type to the carrier deck (or, if not embarked, back at base regenerating capabilities after a cruise) needs to be considered very carefully. As the number of F-35s increases, this risk will reduce. It does, though present a second problem, which is the risk of the question of ‘ownership’ being revisited, perhaps more by commentators than by practitioners.

This raises the risk of rejuvenating counter-productive inter-service which achieves little beyond getting in the way. Although not perfect, the Joint Force Harrier experience, with the emphasis very much on ‘joint’ was a valid model which can be built upon. Notions that the FAA should undergo considerable expansion so as to operate the majority of the F-35B force may appear attractive, but the likelihood – given the lack of any significant uplift in personnel numbers for either the RAF or the RN means that such a debate is largely nugatory. The key will be in ensuring that a balance is struck using the joint force, rather than getting becalmed in a circular debate over whether the F-35B is owned by the RAF or the RN; attempting ‘regime change’ at this stage is likely to cause more problems than it solves. The key issue here is one of balance, and as Viscount Templer’s committee which looked at the future of British air power in 1965 (concluding that arrangements were ‘broadly right’) observed, this was often lacking in considerations of air power. It is to be hoped, 50 years on, that this can at last be overcome.

A further consideration will have to be the amount of synthetic training that is projected for the F-35. It is entirely possible that as much as 50% of the training will be conducted in simulators, using encrypted networking capabilities to maximise benefits. SDSR15 did not discuss the burgeoning revolution in synthetic training, and this has obscured just how important a part of F-35 operations this is likely to be. Unless there is a mechanism for placing a significant networked simulator architecture aboard a QE class carrier, then there would be a real risk that the ‘traditional’ model of embarkation would reduce the efficacy of the F-35B force as a result of skills fade. Focusing on past debates between the RN and RAF over aviation is not going to be a helpful course of action when dealing with the F-35B. Whilst there is a risk of overstating just how significant the leap from 4th to 5th generation aircraft is – if only because much of this is based upon manufacturers’ brochures rather than hard experience – it is not unfair to observe that the latent capabilities of the F-35B mean that innovative thought and application of effort is going to matter far more than the imposition of traditional operating and training regimes.

And it is in the arena of training that concern must also arise. Although the RAF and FAA are to receive new aircraft and retain others for longer than planned, these aircraft are – obviously – useless without the personnel to fly and maintain them. It is not entirely clear how a nine-squadron strong fast jet force (vice a planned six), coupled with the purchase of the P-8, an increase in RPAS numbers (and potentially the number of simultaneous RPAS orbits) and the retention of C-130s, Sentinels and Shadows means that the RAF, in particular, is at risk of continuing to ‘run hot’. Given that the RAF ‘returned to contingency’ in 1991, carrying out more than three dozen contingent operations years before the drawdown from Afghanistan supposedly enabled a return to this form of operation, this is an issue which is notable by its absence in the discussion of air power in the SDSR15 document.

Overall, then, there was much to cheer from the perspective of British air power, as key capabilities are to be restored and/or enhanced. There are challenges, though: the risk of returning to outdated thinking about air power (perhaps a greater risk in this sort of format than in actual planning documents) could hamper developments if allowed to flourish, while the question of how a notable increase in aircraft numbers can be allied to ensuring that there are enough people to fly and maintain them remains a nagging concern. Yet SDSR15 should be welcomed from an air power perspective – recognising the importance of the environment to the prosecution of the UK’s military operations in a way which previous reviews have not and laying the foundations for the full potential contribution of air power in a properly ‘joint’ context to be achieved. If, by so doing, it marks the point at which snide comments about 100 year experiments (based upon a gross misreading of a remark by Viscount Trenchard in 1925) can be retired and replaced with mature consideration of what air power can most efficaciously deliver to campaigns, this may be its most significant achievement of all.

Image: A ground crew member with the Royal Air Force preparing a RAF Tornado GR4 ready for take off as it prepares to depart Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan for the final time.

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.

SDSR and the Return of Deterrence


The National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2015 has brought deterrence back to centre stage for the United Kingdom more than at any other time since the end of the Cold War. The primary context for this in SDSR 2015 is the resurgence of state based threats. This is both understandable and unsurprising given Russia’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Moreover, the UK’s increased emphasis on deterrence was presaged, most notably in the Prime Minister’s priorities ahead of the NATO Wales Summit in September 2014:

6 months after Russia illegally violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of her neighbour Ukraine, we must agree on long-term measures to strengthen our ability to respond quickly to any threat, to reassure those allies who fear for their own country’s security and to deter any Russian aggression.

The nature of Russia’s confrontational approach places the deterrence challenge in stark relief. Through its ‘hybrid’ methods – as typified in Crimea and eastern Ukraine – Moscow has sought to prosecute its strategic objectives through a combination of conventional and unconventional means, wrapped in a targeted and effective information campaign, and which has sought to camouflage its direct involvement and complicate deterrence efforts against it. Moscow’s nuclear sabre rattling – which has taken many forms, including the concept of potentially using nuclear weapons to de-escalate conflicts – has added a menacing element to the challenge facing the UK and allied defence planners.

The SDSR’s answer to this challenge is to place an emphasis on using ‘the full spectrum of our capabilities – armed force including, ultimately, our nuclear deterrent, diplomacy, law enforcement, economic policy, offensive cyber, and covert means – to deter adversaries and to deny them opportunities to attack us’. Full-spectrum deterrence is certainly not a new concept, far from it. But it has been a key topic of discussion in UK defence and security circles over the past 18 months, and rightly so.

Developing a credible full-spectrum posture, however, is no straightforward task. It will require in-depth knowledge and understanding of potential adversaries (their strategic intent and their domestic political imperatives), including but not confined to Russia, in order to ensure that the requisite deterrence capacities are in place, that they are shaped into a coherent whole and their application is effectively coordinated across government agencies and with allies.

One of the main challenges here is that – outside of a very small community of military and civil service personnel, as well as a few academics and think tanks – for a quarter of a century, little serious and systematic thinking has been applied to the role of deterrence as a British approach to conflict prevention and international security management. Most recent post-Cold War thinking prior to SDSR 2015 has been limited and primarily focused around the rationale for retaining the nuclear deterrent in the long-term. This general lack of attention is not a challenge unique to the UK of course and it is shared with other NATO allies.

There are clearly some intellectual requirements that flow from SDSR 2015’s renewed emphasis on deterrence:

First, there is a need to ensure that personnel at all levels across government and the armed forces are given the opportunity and the time to relearn deterrence: its core tenets, how it has been applied in the past, how things are different now and the challenges of developing a full-spectrum approach and effectively communicating this to potential opponents.

Second, there is a requirement to reinvigorate thinking, research and debate around deterrence as a tool the UK can apply for security management and conflict prevention. What should the balance be between punishment/retaliatory and denial-based approaches to deterrence? Many non-western countries, for example, have increasingly focused on denial-based approaches in recent years. China’s anti-access and area denial (A2AD) approach to deterring external intervention in a regional contingency is one prominent example.

Third, the full spectrum approach will require new and innovative deterrence thinking particularly in terms of cross-domain linkages and interactions. Addressing specific challenges such as attributing attacks in the cyber domain further demonstrates the complexities involved.

SDSR 2015 states that within NATO the UK will ‘lead a renewed focus on deterrence to address current and future threats’. Addressing these intellectual challenges should be at the heart of Britain’s leadership push in this area.

Wyn Bowen is author of ‘Deterrence and Asymmetry’, Contemporary Security Policy, 25 (April 2004) and co-author with Jasper Pandza of ‘Radiological Terrorism: Is There a Role for Deterrence?’ in Andreas Wegner and Alex Wilner (eds), Deterring Terrorism: Theory and Practice (Stanford University Press, 2012).

Image: A Trident II D5 missile is fired from HM Submarine Vanguard during tests in the Western Atlantic in 2005. Courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons.

NSS/SDSR 2015: The Maritime Issues


The Strategic Defence and Security Review presented a mixed picture for maritime capabilities. On balance, those at the top of the Royal Navy are likely to be raising a glass to toast the result… but the glass is perhaps only half full. Moreover (and I am trying to keep my cliché count to a reasonable minimum), the devil will lie in the detail, as further announcements fill in some of the broad headlines, and detailed policies are devised to achieve some of the aspirations and to address some of the problems that were not tackled.

The Review contained much that was positive from a maritime perspective – not least, looking in broader terms, it was the first defence review since the Second World War that did not cut the Navy. Some of the welcome announcements, or perhaps implications of the Review document for the Navy, include three new stores ships for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, and the apparent intent to continue with the whole planned programme of seven Astute-class submarines. There was no mention of a replacement LPH (farewell, Ocean), although one of the carriers will be modified to enhance its amphibious capabilities (para.4.47). The list of the constituent parts of the impressive ‘Joint Force 2025’ includes two LPD: it would be nice to believe that this was not just padding and that it really does mean a reversal of the decision in the last review to have one of Albion and Bulwark at lower readiness; restoring the amphibious capability in this way would fit well with the aspiration for an enhanced expeditionary force. There was also one brief statement that has not yet attracted much comment but is something to keep an eye on, in the form of an increased UK interest in ballistic missile defence: ‘We will also investigate further the potential of the Type 45 Destroyers to operate in a BMD role.’(para.4.16).

There were three big announcements affecting naval capabilities that have understandably dominated the early reactions to the Review.

First, the widely expected return of a maritime patrol aircraft – one of the more controversial cuts of the 2010 review – was confirmed. Contrary to some expectations that the Review would merely announce a competition for this capability, further drawing out the process and potentially allowing defence industrial considerations to trump military capability (opinions will differ over whether this is a good thing or not), the review specified that nine Boeing P8 Poseidon aircraft would be bought. At least this should draw a veil over recurring recent headlines about US / French / Canadian aircraft having to be called in to hunt Russian submarines in British waters.

Second, the Review announced an acceleration in the acquisition of F35 Lighting II aircraft, so that there will be twice as many in service in 2023 as previously planned. This will give the two carriers (it had been confirmed beforehand that the second would be brought into service, not launched and then mothballed as previously intended) a stronger air group albeit considerably less than they could operate. Interestingly, most of the media comment has described these as ‘RAF’ aircraft, whereas many (ideally most) will be operated by the Fleet Air Arm – the proportion allocated to each Service is one of those devilish details to come. Another, of course, is whether all the promised 138 F35s will be the ‘B’ short take-off and vertical landing variant suitable for operation from the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers (which would maximise the commonality of the UK aircraft fleet as well as the country’s expeditionary firepower), or whether a proportion will be the conventional ‘A’ variant that some in the RAF would like, albeit at the price of increasing the number of aircraft types operated (the principle that was cited to justify scrapping the Harriers in the 2010 review). There was no mention of unmanned strike aircraft for operation from the carriers, though this is a logical direction for the future. The Review document did hail collaboration with France in carriers (para. 5.35) and also in developing an Unmanned Combat Air System (para.4.50); bringing these two together would be interesting.

Third, the review stated that only eight of the fully-capable ‘Type 26’ frigates, optimised for anti-submarine warfare, will be bought (and at a worryingly slow pace). On the other hand, the review also pledged, ‘We will maintain our fleet of 19 frigates and destroyers’; indeed, this number will actually be increased… albeit not until the 2030s. Given the hints leaked before the announcement that the force would fall below 19 (only a cynic would see this as classic ‘Yes, Minister’-style expectation management), this was a relief. The circle will be squared by having the 13 Type 23s replaced by eight Type 26 and, initially, five of a new, less sophisticated and hence cheaper, more flexible, general purpose frigate. The government hopes (though similar aspirations have often been dashed in the past) that such a vessel might attract export orders. The appropriate balance between quality and quantity has been debated for some time and while the concept of a more affordable, more flexible (perhaps modular?) frigate is attractive, the key will be whether it will have the capabilities it will need rather than being stripped down into a ‘snatch corvette’ in a forlorn hope of attracting overseas orders. There is something of the ‘jam tomorrow, something less appetising today’ in the announced plans for the frigate/destroyer force but if the numbers, steady and then increasing, are held to, the future pay-off will be worthwhile.

Perhaps the main disappointment, and certainly the dog that did not bark as loudly as some were hoping, is the vexed issue of manpower. The Navy needs an increase in personnel to be able to man its current and planned platforms, and while an increase was announced (700 for the Navy and RAF combined, of which briefings suggest 450 will be for the Navy) it is a small proportion of the existing shortfall. Further, some of the spending commitments are to be paid for by heavy cuts in the civilians employed by the Ministry of Defence, most of whom are not the ‘pen pushers’ beloved of tabloid editors, but rather provide vital support for the Services; previous savings were taken by shifting uniformed positions into civilian ones, which will leave gaps if the latter are further chopped. The tendency to dismiss support (exemplified in the tired ‘teeth versus tail’ distinction, which might be better rendered as ‘teeth and spine’ or perhaps ‘teeth and gums’) is regrettable and stores up problems for the future. Resolving the manpower challenge (in terms of totals, with particular difficulties in some key branches) is the principal headache for the Navy at the moment. The risk is that the impressive headline force will in practice be much smaller, as holes can only be filled by leaving ships tied up alongside for extended periods.

The Review contained much to celebrate from a maritime point of view. The details must now be refined, the promises kept to (not least avoiding further accountancy tricks over what can be shoved in to defence spending to meet the ‘two per cent’ target) and the challenges tackled. New MPA and faster delivery of F35 to allow more on the carriers are welcome; the promised eight Type 26 must be accompanied by five (and then more) of a capable, albeit cheaper frigate. Maritime UAVs and BMD are areas to watch. The main disappointment was the failure to tackle the manpower crisis resulting from previous reductions; in this respect, the Review was only the beginning. So, two cheers, if not all three.

Tim Benbow is Director of the Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre, and Deputy Director of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies.

Image: Royal Navy Sailor with the Type-22 Frigate HMS Cumberland, via Flickr.

NSS/SDSR 2015: The Missing Link


After many leaks, the full report of the National Security Strategy and Strategy and Defence Security Review 2015 (NSS/SDSR 2015) has been launched and released by the Government. In many ways, NSS/SDSR 2015 is a marked improvement on the NSS and SDSR of 2010 and is a demonstration of a procedural advance the first steps of which were taken in 2010. What I find most encouraging about this latest rendition is a fuller recognition that Britain’s security can only be provided by a wide range of government departments, and not simply defence. This ‘integrated approach’ to dealing with wide-ranging security threats is, of course, not completely new, but NSS/SDSR 2015 puts it more firmly at the heart of Britain’s national security strategy.

However, it is far easier to proclaim an ‘integrated approach’ to security than it is to deliver this, and this leads me to what I see as an important missing link in NSS/SDSR 2015 – How the UK security community can leverage existing knowledge within its various elements in order to work together effectively and efficiently to address Britain’s security challenges. In other words, how Britain’ security community can learn from each other, from allies, and ultimately innovate and generate new ways of working.

The importance of ‘innovation’ has been recognized for many years by one of the UK’s main allies, the United States. Through much of the 2000s, ‘transformation’ was the touchstone of US defence policy, and the traumatic experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan put ‘knowledge management’ and the timely identification of lessons front and center in US defence practice. Indeed, even the Quadrennial Defense Review of 2014 made ‘innovation’ a key aspect of US defence policy, stating:

Across the three pillars of the defense strategy, the Department is committed to finding creative, effective, and efficient ways to achieve our goals and in making hard strategic choices. Innovation – within our own Department and in our interagency and international partnerships – is a central line of effort. Infusing a culture of innovation and adaptability that yields tangible results into an organization as large as the Department of Defense is by necessity a long-term, incremental undertaking. We will actively seek innovative approaches to how we fight, how we posture our force, and how we leverage our asymmetric strengths and technological advantages. Innovation is paramount given the increasingly complex warfighting environment we expect to encounter.

So where is the recognition in NSS/SDSR 2015 that ‘innovation’ and learning are essential elements to realising its objectives? NSS/SDSR 2015 does mention innovation. It states: ‘Innovation – generating ideas and putting them into practice to overcome challenges and exploit opportunities – drives the UK’s economic strength, productivity and competiveness.’ Now, of course, technological innovation has been at the heart of revolutions throughout the history of conflict – the invention of aircraft, of tanks, of nuclear weapons all led to massive changes in how wars were conducted. Without corresponding development in the ideas about how to uses these technologies, however, they would be nothing.

And this is the problem with NSS/SDSR 2015. While it correctly identifies that new ways must be found of dealing with the myriad security threats facing the United Kingdom, it does not go far enough in developing how the UK security community is to work together to solve these problems. It envisions ‘innovation’ as something that happens purely in the economic and scientific realms. It does not identify the necessity for innovation and adaptation to bind together the often disparate elements of the UK security community. It does not create the aspiration, let alone the mechanisms, for sharing and utilizing the vast pools of knowledge that exist within the different elements of the UK security community. This is a shame, as I do not see how the United Kingdom can have a truly integrated approach to security challenges without a solid understand of the importance of innovation and learning as the link that ties its strategy together.

Image: Troops from the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment take part in riot control exercises. Photo courtesy of Defence Images.