UK’s Strategic & Security Defence Review 2015: Ready and Able?

Zachary Barker - Assistant Editor

Defence Secretary: Michael Fallon | Image: Gareth Milner

“Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments”.

– Frederick the Great

The 2010 UK Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) was not widely praised by any measure. Many observers saw it as hastily put together and it was largely a ramshackle attempt at cost saving. Indeed, on the same day the 2010 SDSR was released I received a text from my Tory Best Friend (TBF) who woefully stated that “today we have ceased to be a serious military power”. I was inclined to agree, but alas the government seemed to read the public mood well for this new posture. The UK was, and in many ways still is, war weary after the long mission in Afghanistan, the Iraq War and the chaos following the intervention in Libya. For good or ill, and I would argue that so far this has mostly been for ill, real doubts abound in the public consciousness about whether hard power projection is desirable. This gave the government room to cut down much of the British Military’s armoured inventory and turn it into a 2 tier force, one full time and the other reservist. As far as the public were concerned a force heavily reliant on reservists was one looking to move away from adventurism. This seemed to tune nicely with Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne’s dogmatic minimalist state ideology. Bar a short intervention in Libya the Coalition Government adopted a general posture of avoiding military adventurism mirroring public opinion.

Former Prime Minister of the UK Harold Macmillan, when asked about what could change the course of his government gave a very simple reply; “events, my dear boy, events”. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the resurgence of Russia has provided those said events. After refusing to rule out an overall cut in defence spending in 2010 the government announced at the front of the SDSR 2015 public document it’s decision to stick to the NATO target of 2% of GDP. The big winners are the three main British intelligence services, special forces and the Royal Air Force, all now at the forefront of the effort to destroy ISIS as well as parry any possible incoming attacks from them.

The three British main British intelligence services (MI5, MI6 and GCHQ) have all been given a boost in personnel to the tune of 1,900. This is unsurprising given the value placed on intelligence in helping governments understand the nature of terrorist groups opposing them in addition to intercepting chatter about any further attacks before they come to fruition. The UK special forces groups, including the most well known the Special Air Service (SAS), is due to receive a £2 billion increase in their equipment budget. Given that western special forces units have often been deployed in a counterinsurgency capacity, it stands to reason that this may be in preparation for using UK units against insurgent ISIS forces. There is already some speculation in the press that the SAS has already been covertly deployed in Iraq to take on ISIS, which has not been definitively confirmed or denied by the government. The RAF is widely seen as the main winner of the SDSR 2015 with a £12 billion increase in it’s ten-year equipment budget, to a total of £178 billion. Most of that will go on accelerating the acquisition of 24 stealthy F-35B fighter jets, to ensure that each of two new planned aircraft carriers will have at least a squadron of F-35s by the time both are fully deployed in 2023. The multi-nation-sponsored F-35 project has been dogged by delays and high costs which have been attributed to the unwise decision of its US developer Lockheed to merge the design stage with the testing stage. Recent reports found engine fires occurring in the prototype of the Fifth Generation Fighter Jet. Faced with the embarrassing possibility of having brand new aircraft carriers with no planes on, since they won’t be able to fly, the government have decided to use some of the RAF’s budget increase to extend the life of Typhoon Fighter-Bombers just in case. Some of the RAF budget increase will also go towards upgrading its unmanned drone inventory.

One of the UK's growing arsenal of unmanned arial drones | Crown Copyright
One of the UK’s growing arsenal of unmanned arial drones | Crown Copyright

The Royal Navy strategic importance is arguably becoming greater all of the time in a world of rising sea levels. While at face value the Navy has not been one of the main winners of the SDSR 2015, it has plenty of support for some key projects. The government has decided, after some wavering, to definitively back the building and simultaneous deployment of two new aircraft carriers. The government has also backed the like-for-like replacement and upgrade of the Trident II submarine-based nuclear missile system, as well as the building of new submarines to fire the new weapon from.

The Army itself has not been subject to as significant change or reorganisation as it was under the SDSR 2010. The reasons for this are likely multiple, including a desire to maintain readiness and lessen grumbles up and down the command structure about not having to endure yet another top-to-bottom Amy reorganisation. It also helps that one of the main architects of Army 2020, implemented in the interim between this SDSR and the previous one, was Chief of the General Staff General Sir Nick Carter who would be unlikely to criticise his own plan. The only other big feature is the Joint Force 2025 plan which aims to increase the Army’s coordination with Britain’s security services, which is likely to be widely acknowledged as a sensible call anyway. New features also include the capability to deploy two 5,000 strong rapid reaction brigades. The reorganisation means that either these brigades will be deployed individually on a temporary basis, or if circumstances require it, deploying both of them for a long term campaign.

While the government seems to be moving more away from a military geared towards long term campaigns, it is still by the plan of the SDSR 2015, one that does promote British hard power projection. A study by the University of Bristol pointed out that there is a growing gap in what the government want in a future British military and the public. The former want some kind of expeditionary force capability while the latter generally lean towards having a more Home Guard-type. I believe this is one of the rare instances in which the government are right and the public are wrong. An expeditionary capability is valuable. The reason why the public increasingly do not see this is because of disillusionment over recent interventions that have gone wrong, such as the examples of those in Libya and Iraq, while ignoring the ones in the 1990s that went well. The delay of the Chilcot Report has not helped this, and the government have only themselves to blame for allowing it to drag on. I personally believe this concerning trend in public opinion is down to two chief culprits, the government and the leader of its main opposition party, Jeremy Corbyn. The government, and its predecessor, has not made its case clearly to the public about why an expeditionary capability is needed. Corbyn, whom I see as more of an ideological fanatic than a man of conviction, believes he lives in a different world to the dangerous one we actually live in. The UK needs an expeditionary capability to uphold liberal values as outlined in Human Rights legislation like the Genocide Convention, contribute to NATO and prevent the emergence of a power gap. This case is not self –evident and has to be fiercely promoted.

About Zachary Barker 42 Articles

Zac is a graduate in BA Hons International Relations and Politics and MsC International Development and Security. He is Bristol’s Local Coordinator for the political organisation, Republic. His favourite journalists include Nick Cohen and Hunter S Thompson. Zac is currently working on a novel. His interests include Model United Nations, current affairs, travel, video games and reading and writing. Follow Zac on Twitter @ZacharyBarker1