Sunday, 12 October 2014

Preparing for Ambiguity in an Age of Austerity: the United Kingdom and the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review

Andrew M. Dorman discusses the age of austerity in the context of strategic defence.

After a decade of wars the then new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government assumed that the United Kingdom would not engage in any further conflicts before 2020 except in extremis. Their 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR)[1] therefore planned new force constructs for the armed forces that would not be ready until 2020 and would provide capabilities approximately two-thirds what then existed. In some areas, notably aircraft carriers and maritime patrol aircraft, the government accepted that they would be without a capability for some time. The coalition also sought to regularise the United Kingdom’s haphazard history of defence reviews by making fixing them at the start of each parliamentary cycle. Their assumption being that in 2015 the review would be a relatively minor audit of the progress they had made towards the 2020 force structure.[2]


Almost as soon as the SDSR was published the armed forces found themselves committed to the Libyan adventure and more recently they have deployed to provide reassurance to the Baltic States and also begun air operations over Iraq against ISIL. The apparent predictability over the future use of force planned in 2010 has been replaced by ambiguity and Cameron’s third Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, has spoken of operations against ISIL lasting several years.[3]

At the same time the austerity that led to the defence cuts announced in 2010 has not gone away. In 2010 George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, promised to eliminate the 11% current account deficit in five years. Four years on the deficit has been reduced by only 2/5s and the next Spending review looks likely to be as brutal as that in 2010. As The Economist has put it, this is a tax-free recovery for the United Kingdom.[4] With the Health, Education and International Development budgets apparently protected whoever becomes the next government, Social Security and Defence as the two largest unprotected budgets look particularly vulnerable. It does not look as though any political party will be prepared to make the case for maintaining or increasing the defence budget.

Exacerbating the situation has been a series of incremental announcements will restrict the options in the 2015 SDSR. Now the second aircraft carrier will be retained, although it still looks as though it will lack aircraft and a crew, reports are emerging that the United Kingdom will buy or lease a number of Boeing P8 maritime patrol aircraft, the rundown of the Tornado force will at least temporarily be halted and the army has announced the acquisition of the first tranche of vehicles to provide it with a medium weight force capability. Further complicating the problem will be the issue of Scotland. Although the referendum in September led to a ‘No’ vote the relative closeness of the vote, Scotland’s traditional animosity to basing the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent and the potential for a further vote in a decade or so raise the question of whether the facilities at Faslane and Coulport should be moved to England as part of the nuclear replacement programme.[5]

The 2015 SDSR planners therefore find themselves confronted both by increasing ambiguity in terms of the use of the armed forces and the expectation that the defence budget will be further cut in order to help balance the nation’s books. So what options are there? With armed forces that consist principally of people, equipment and the defence estate the cuts will either have to be focused on equipment programmes or a further large reduction to the armed forces. Selling off the defence estate is always problematic and is unlikely to deliver the scale of savings that are required. In which case given the pre-existing capability gaps it looks like it will be the personnel area that will bear the brunt of the cuts. It would therefore make sense for the army to rip up its Future Force 2020 structure and plan for a regular army not of 82,000 but somewhere nearer 50,000. Only by making such a cut and also finally addressing the top-heaviness of the armed forces will defence be able to start to live within its means and configure its forces for the ambiguity of the present and future.

Professor Andrew M Dorman is a Professor of International Security at Kings College London.



[3] Steven Swinford, ‘British air strikes against Isil in Iraq will go on for years, defence secretary says’, Telegraph online, 25 September 2014,  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iraq/11121296/British-air-strikes-against-Isil-in-Iraq-will-go-on-for-years-defence-secretary-says.html accessed 3 October 2014.
[4] ‘The Tax free recovery’, The Economist, vol.412, no.8905, 20-26 September 2014, p.31.
[5] See Andrew M Dorman, ‘More than a storm in a tea cup - the defence and security implications of Scottish independence’, International Affairs, vol.90, no.3, May 2014, pp.679-96.

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