The Government’s announcement of a Green Paper, on 7th July 2009, makes a full defence review inevitable during the next Parliament.
Over the last decade, the level of operational commitment has grown increasingly out of step with planned defence funding. As such, the next review will need to reset the planning assumptions and road map for UK defence priorities. A successful outcome will ensure that the UK is able to field a balanced force, capable of sustaining current operations and meet foreseeable contingencies over the next two or three decades.
A key priority will be to understand and identify the strategic challenges and political choices. Central to these is whether there is an enduring requirement to maintain the ‘full spectrum’ capability necessary to conduct 'state-on-state' industrial-strength war in the next 30 years; whether the risk of not doing so is one that any government can sensibly take; and whether the needs would change if a different perspective on the nature of future threats was taken.
A further consideration concerns the degree of load-sharing or risk-taking the UK is willing to accept. For example, if it were decided that the UK should take risk against a full spectrum capability, the review would need to determine the minimum force structure that should be retained in order to 're-grow' capability in a crisis. Given the time required to procure new capital equipment, and bring them to full operational capability within revised force structures, the scope of the review will need to span the coming two decades and include a budget for the next Comprehensive Spending Review period.
The next defence review offers a unique opportunity to adopt a comprehensive approach to realigning the UK’s defence, foreign policy, national security and industrial strategies, within an affordable and sustainable resource profile.
The review should balance the ambition with resources allocated
The defence reviews of the past two decades may be characterised as a response to strategic shifts in the external world: the end of the Cold War; the 1990s trend to expeditionary and peacekeeping operations; and post 9/11 demands for rapid intervention. This time, economic constraints and political choice will have a significant influence on the rebalancing of the UK’s longer-term strategic ambition. A resource-led ‘cost-cutting’ review could set the Armed Services against one another, potentially leading to an incoherent outcome. The next review should therefore be capability-led but resource-constrained, with alternative outcomes assessed in relation to the degree of acceptable risk.
With increasing instability in the world, the level of operational commitment is unlikely to be reduced. The UK will need to determine whether the mission and capability goals remain affordable, and look to ever more innovative ways of achieving the ambition, including closer collaboration with allies and other Government departments. A real increase in defence spending is unlikely; therefore the broad choices are between maintaining full spectrum capability through aggressive restructuring and cost reduction, and reducing the strategic ambition to align with available funding. In both cases, the required outcome is to achieve ‘more for less’.
In addition, the review will need to rebalance investment and technology towards irregular warfare, and revisit the scale of effort that the UK is prepared to provide to support foreign policy objectives. It should examine the extent to which the UK is prepared to use expeditionary capabilities for intervention, conflict resolution and support to overseas development and international reform.
National security will feature more strongly than previously
National security objectives will be given greater priority than in previous reviews. Whereas the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR 98) was led by foreign policy, the next review should also take into account the military contribution to domestic security threats (including counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, resilience, cyber and energy security).
Addressing the wider national security context will entail a far broader scope, encompassing the relationship with the intelligence community, law enforcement and emergency ‘first responders’ – including an assessment of the utility of military force to ‘homeland security’. This will require a more ambitious and complex approach than previously, particularly if there is a need to make capability and investment trades across defence, intelligence, security and international development goals.
Future flexibility requires strategic decisions now
It is expected that future governments will wish to retain the full spectrum capability of a nuclear deterrent plus three world-class Armed Forces, capable of independent sovereign action, enabling the UK to continue to play a leading role in international affairs. However, there are key strategic choices to be made over the degree of load-sharing with the US or European allies, and the appropriate balance between hard power (coercive military force) and soft power (other levers of statecraft). In particular, the review will need to examine whether it is necessary to achieve full operational and technical compatibility with allies or only role complementarity.
The review will also need to strike a balance between sustaining the current level of operational commitments and maintaining the national ‘insurance policy’ against a resurgent strategic threat. Aircraft carriers, main battle tanks and fighter jets may seem an expensive luxury during today’s enduring counter-insurgency operations, but they cannot rapidly be procured and brought to operational readiness in a crisis. Further, it could take the UK decades to regenerate key industrial capabilities once lost. The UK’s defence industrial base has shrunk by two thirds since the Falklands conflict and capability planning will be needed in order to identify any further steps necessary to preserve an agile, flexible and responsive sovereign industrial capacity.
Implementing the strategic transformation of defence capabilities and force structures will require frequent progress checks and make adjustments as circumstances change. Twelve years between reviews is too long. The length of time since SDR 98 has left capabilities out of step with the changing operational context; a shorter review cycle (such as the US quadrennial review cycle, but with allowances for the variable timing of general elections) would allow for changes in direction needed to respond to today’s uncertain world and its rapidly evolving threats.
Success will need cultural change
If the UK is to reset its defence planning assumptions to match ambition to resources, a comprehensive approach should be taken to balance defence goals, foreign policy, national security objectives and industrial strategy within economic constraints. The review must identify the contribution the Armed Forces are to make, and the capabilities needed to deliver the operational missions, both to sustain current commitments and as a foundation for future contingencies.
Delivering balanced and affordable capabilities to meet the challenges of the next two decades will require innovation and cultural change. The review process will need to establish an environment in which single-Service decision-makers act collegially, and a key objective must be to achieve a far closer alignment between accountability for operational outcomes and responsibility for investment decisions and programme delivery. Achieving this will require changes in the way in which servicemen and women, MOD civilians and those in defence industry think and how they approach their work. It is vital that the review takes full account of the modern day requirements on, and aspirations of, the men and women who serve.
The final step will be to develop the strategy to deliver these capabilities in the required performance, cost and time envelope, and negotiate the solution. In cash-constrained times, the MOD will need to take a radical look at the portfolio of programmes – making it ‘fit for purpose’, not necessarily ‘fit for every purpose’. Further acquisition reform is inevitable, but the MOD should be permitted to use the planning process to determine the optimum portfolio of affordable capabilities and to scale back requirements where necessary. Procurement decisions for long-term capital programmes will need to be constrained to the 80% solution, with more agile and flexible acquisition processes for managing smaller programmes, upgrades and enhancements.
The recently announced Green Paper will seek to define and address the fundamental questions the review should answer. It will not set out a final blueprint for change but is the first step in a national debate that will set out the range of proposals that the Government believes will meet its objectives, leading to the future defence review itself.
General Sir Mike Jackson GCB CBE DSO Senior Advisor, PA Consulting Group and former Chief of the General Staff
Nick Newman, defence consulting, PA Consulting Group