"The Strategic Defence Review must consider the essential capabilities that the UK will need in order to both maintain its desired place in the world and provide domestic security."
Cate Pye, defence acquisition expert, PA Consulting Group
General Sir Mike Jackson and Ed Savage of PA Consulting Group set out some of the key components of the forthcoming Strategic Defence Review…
The challenges of delivering a Strategic Defence Review that can be practically implemented are numerous. The requirements of national security and foreign policy are increasingly complex; the review must deliver sustainable outcomes in order to meet current commitments whilst ensuring that the UK has the capability to defend itself, and its interests, in the future; and the existing machinery to accomplish this has neither delivered an affordable and balanced plan nor has it brought expenditure under control. It is now widely recognised that a comprehensive and top-down approach is required to address the multiple strategic, political and economic pressures that are driving change in the role of UK defence.
The approach must be international and multi-departmental
Earlier reviews have responded to worldwide strategic shifts. The next review offers a similar opportunity to respond to global changes and to re-establish the desired role of the UK in the world. However, the less clear-cut, emergent needs of national security must have a greater influence on the outcomes of the review than previously, as must foreign policy objectives, for which military force is but one instrument. Government, industry and society will need to be prepared to cope with an increasing variety of threats to our security, ranging from nuclear attack (at the extreme) to attacks on citizens and critical infrastructure and services. The impact of these threats is magnified by the greater levels of connectivity, dependency and reliance that exist in our global economy and accordingly the solution needs to be set in this international context.
The next review must also be multi-departmental, drawing on, and shaping policy in, the fields of energy, health, international aid, community cohesion and home affairs, as well as taking account of foreign, defence and security drivers. This implies that the solution needs to involve all of the parties concerned, and understand their priorities, while remaining neutral and drawing requirements together objectively. A balanced and sustainable solution will not be found without full visibility of the needs it must meet.
Balancing short-term needs with long-term capabilities
There is a difficult balance to be struck between meeting current commitments and making the necessary investments for the future. The two are not mutually exclusive but the solution must be capability-led and coherent across the Services. To determine these capability-led requirements, there must be clarity of the UK’s foreign policy aspirations and the demands of national security. Once these are translated into a set of capabilities to be delivered across government, the role of defence can be determined. This will lead to greater clarity around the likely future demands on the MOD: the defence capabilities that will be required to deliver them (and subsequently the budget required to do so).
It is increasingly unrealistic to expect the UK to sustain a full-spectrum defence capability to meet all future threats by itself. The review must therefore also determine which sovereign capabilities are truly essential to support both international aspirations and defence of the realm, recognising that operations to achieve this may be on foreign soil. As such, the UK must be able to work with its allies in order to ensure that all threats can be countered. The questions are: which of those capabilities must the UK maintain itself; which can it afford to trust to others; should the UK look primarily east or west for allies; and where can readiness be reduced?
Significant savings could be found, but with commensurate risk
It may be judged that state-on-state warfare is unlikely to involve the UK alone, and that the UK can therefore afford to reduce its readiness to respond. If so, it would then be possible to draw down capability to the minimum that would be required to maintain sufficient expertise in the UK, so that a full capability could be regenerated when and if needed. This approach would only work if the risk of low readiness, including the requisite time for regeneration, can be accepted and managed. The savings available from such a radical approach, however, are potentially significant.
An associated challenge will be the need to manage the required increase of investment in research. The effect of underinvestment in research and development (R&D) often manifests many years after the reduction itself, with a ‘knock-on’ impact on manufacturing capacity. Maintaining the fine knife-edge of a minimum level of sovereign expertise inevitably risks losing it completely; ensuring sufficient R&D continues is essential to staying on the right side of that balance. Reducing readiness levels is much easier said than done, even after the initial difficult decision is made.
The acquisition machinery needs to evolve
Having decided which capabilities are needed, the machinery for capability planning and acquisition must be able to deliver them. Historically, the existing system has persistently failed to deliver to time, cost and performance, or to maintain a balanced and affordable plan. One of the many reasons for this is the inability to determine, and adhere to, a clear requirement, and the need to build sufficient depth of capability to deliver it.
The difficulty of setting long-term requirements pushes planning towards a focus on delivering shorter-term, more definable capabilities, or towards a deliberately phased approach. Either way, project teams must restrict unnecessary change and more actively manage the impact of enforced changes upon programme timescales or budgets. There is also the opportunity, or potentially the necessity, to develop intelligent solutions that exploit Commercial Off-The-Shelf and Military Off-The-Shelf technology and investment. Both could help in making investment go further or, at a minimum, reduce the technology risk.
Furthermore, the three Services need to focus on the overall military capability as well as the shared ultimate goal of defence of the realm (both at home and overseas) – and the answer may not be more tanks, aircraft or ships. A partisan approach to maintaining today’s actual and planned capability diverts attention from the fact that future military operations may, and almost certainly will, require a rather different spectrum. An holistic approach is inevitably more difficult culturally, and potentially more complex to manage, but in an increasingly cash constrained environment, the available resources must be optimised. The challenge for the review will be to manage stakeholders to ensure engagement and buy-in as well as providing objective and transparent trading approaches that offer more insight into the capability decisions made.
Not least, the acquisition machinery must become more agile. This includes ensuring that the right skills and professional expertise are available in small teams at the outset of a project and that those teams have the freedom to use their knowledge to deliver. Recent experience in delivering some of the most complex UORs in DE&S has highlighted expertise which could be applied to both rapid and core procurement in future.
The spending ‘bow wave’ must be brought under control
The spending bow wave means that the current defence plan is likely to remain unaffordable for almost two decades, excluding any further significant funding. An affordable and sustainable plan cannot be achieved if the equipment budget remains over-committed just to deliver current needs. Decisions on the balance of equipment spending, between the operations of today and the national ‘insurance’ policy for the future, will be crucial. These decisions might allow a cut in investment (to maintain a minimum expertise) rather than abandonment of a capability; however, the pressure to cut a capability is likely to increase as funding becomes more stretched, and such decisions may be necessary unless the bow-wave can be brought under control in the near future. Whether ‘cuts’ implies losing a capability or just reducing investment, the public perception of the impact on jobs will need to be managed across government departments.
The Military Covenant must be repaired and maintained
If the Military Covenant is to be rebuilt, service personnel and their families need a realistic expectation of the role of the UK military and the equipment that they will have available. A belief that service personnel will be given the right equipment to do the job reduces stress on individuals and their families. In recent times, this trust has been under pressure and is increasingly cited as a reason why individuals leave the military. Meeting the needs of both individual and family sets sustainable expectations for the future and may well prevent the loss of good personnel and critical skills.
Significant but not insurmountable challenges
The Strategic Defence Review must consider the essential capabilities that the UK will need in order to both maintain its desired place in the world and provide domestic security. It must also consider that the current spectrum may no longer be the most suitable to meet the future expectations of defence. In turn, the review team must comprise both those with deep defence and security expertise and those able to ensure an objective and deliverable solution. On this basis, the review will be able to set the framework for sustainable defence in the long term, while providing immediate direction on defence capabilities for the short term. The framework must include guidance on the capabilities needed to deliver current and future operations, and a structure within which defence fits with a Whitehall-wide comprehensive approach.
To read a previous article on ‘A comprehensive approach to the next defence review’, please visit here.
General Sir Mike Jackson GCB CBE DSO
Senior Advisor, PA Consulting Group, and former Chief of the General Staff
Article contribution also received from Cate Pye.