So now we know. After the months of bickering, interservice infighting, and leaks, the Strategic Defence and Security Review has finally been unveiled. The armed forces will provide Britain with a range of capabilities to meet the future defence challenges of the future. Well that’s what the government’s spin doctors will have us believe. But the reality is somewhat different.
The pre-review hyperbole suggested that this was to be the most important defence review of the last 30 years. It was supposed to transform the armed services from being geared towards state-on-state conflict, to defending the nation from so-called non-state actors such as Al-Qaeda and it affiliates. It was supposed to tackle the relevance of nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War world. The SDSR was meant to be driven by strategy and not cost cutting but in that respect, it failed.
How do I know this? Well, as late as 24 hours before the National Security Strategy was published, shady deals between the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence were being thrashed out. The Treasury wanted a minimum of a 10 percent budget cut – around £3.7bn – but the defence chiefs wouldn’t have it and complained to the Prime Minister. David Cameron threw his weight behind the defence secretary Liam Fox and the Treasury accepted a settlement of 7.51 per cent.
That decision meant that certain capabilities could remain in service, namely a large number of RAF Tornados, vital for the mission in Helmand because the Typhoon is unable to fly in the hot and dusty environment. Others, however, such as the 80 strong Harrier force, were axed entirely. But this was not an exercise in strategic thinking – it was market trading.
Lord Boyce, a former Chief of the defence staff, hit the nail on the head when he told the House of Lords that the government’s slash and burn approach to defence would dismay many of the nation’s troops, adding,
‘I cannot say I welcome the statement on this cash-driven defence review, and I certainly can’t possibly dignify it with the word “strategic”. It will be viewed with dismay by our hard working and operationally oppressed sailors, marines, soldiers and airmen.’
So Britain now has a Royal Navy composed of around something like 20 ships (the smallest for several hundred years) at the centre of which are two aircraft carriers, and only one of those will be equipped with planes – sorry, but where’s the strategic thinking here? A 10-year capability gap? If the same decision had been taken in 1982, the Falklands War would have had a very different outcome. Rather than asking whether the Royal Navy would be better off with more, smaller, and more versatile ships, the government continued with the Carrier Strike Programme because it would, in effect, be too expensive to cancel.
And a decision on the Trident replacement programme has been delayed by five years – strategic thinking or sweeping the problem under the carpet? The Army escaped heavy duty cutting when, in reality, it could have done with more. What good are large armoured formations against an enemy that uses asymmetric tactics such as flying hijacked planes into capital cities?
After the announcements that the Nimrod MRA4 programme – which has so far cost the tax payer $4bn – and up to 5,000 personnel will be axed, morale in the RAF is said to be at an all time low. But there have been some pluses. Britain’s Special Forces will get increased funding – this is vital. The Special Forces are a strategic asset and this is one area of the military that does allow the UK to punch above its weight on the battlefield. The two capabilities the US are said to value most within Britain’s armed forces are its Special Forces and Trident.
There was a general view and hope within the senior levels of the armed forces that the government would get the SDSR right, that strategy would come first, and that security of the nation would not be risked. But will Britain be safer in the future than it is today? And will our armed forces be able to cope with the next strategic shock?
Sean Rayment is the Defence Correspondent for The Sunday Telegraph. He served as a captain in the Parachute Regiment for five years and is the author of Into the Killing Zone. His latest book Bomb Hunters will be published in February.