SDSR 2015: Initial Analysis

SDSR 2015: Initial Analysis

SDSR 2015: Initial Analysis

Following the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review, Endeavour Public Affairs’ Defence and Security expert, Liam Purbrick sets out his initial analysis what the Review will mean for the future of our Armed Forces and the opportunities that may now be available to the Defence industry.

Liam is a defence and security expert. Prior to joining EPA he spent nine years in the army as an infantry officer, developing his knowledge of defence and international affairs while taking part in operations in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. After spending his last military posting at the Permanent Joint Headquarters he worked in Whitehall as a civilian focusing on foreign affairs.

The essence is in the first paragraph.  The Government aspires to a United Kingdom ‘with global reach and influence‘.  Although this would have been considered a tired common-place if written over most of the last two hundred years, today it is of real significance after a decade when there has been serious debate about whether the country should even aspire to be a global player.

As a piece of civil-service staff-work, the document must be acknowledged as outstanding. It ranks amongst the most balanced and comprehensive reviews conducted by a leading nation in recent times, and makes a serious effort to articulate a strategy after realistic consideration of the threats the nation faces and of the ways and means we can muster to counter them.  Compared to SDSR 2010, it is not so painfully obvious that budgetary concern is the over-riding subtext.  This is perhaps symptomatic of one of the least glamorous but possibly most important developments in the British national security world in the last decade: the improvements in the decision making architecture and unity of effort, gradually implemented with projects as varied as the establishment of the National Security Council; the establishment of Joint Force Command; the relocation of the single-service chiefs back to their respective HQs; and reformation of painfully inefficient defence procurement.

As we predicted after the election, the Prime Minister has been making much of the UK’s unique commitment to hit both the NATO two per cent defence and the UN 0.7 per cent international aid spending targets.  In the SDSR we see an interesting new plan to channel 50 per cent of DfID aid specifically to countries in danger of instability.  This is but the most prominent announcement from amongst a range of measures which seem to be attempting to synergize all the levers of state power behind the security agenda.  It will be interesting to see how, next year, the revised CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy evolves in light of this trend.

To use the rather tired language of inter-service rivalry, the RAF are the clear ‘winners’ with the addition of P-8 Martime Patrol Aircraft (MPA); C-130J Hercules to be extended in service; two extra squadrons of Typhoon brought out of storage; and an operational squadron of F-35 earlier than previously mooted.  However, these headline ‘gains’ prove the perfect illustration of the parlous baseline against which improvements are judged.  As recently as 2006 the RAF boasted nineteen operational fast-jet squadrons verses the nine squadrons apparently envisioned under ‘Joint Force 2025’.  Another sorry observation is the snail-like pace of replacing high-tech capabilities after they have been hastily cut: it seems unlikely that the ‘prioritised’ MPA fleet, essentially being brought off-the-shelf from Boeing, will be fully operational before 2020.  Despite this, we detect a strategic emphasis towards airpower: understandably, with aerial strike and reconnaissance having great utility against both the terrorist and ‘re-emerging’ conventional state threats the SDSR identifies.  The corollary is that the UK is evermore strategically yoked to the Pyramid of Cheops-like project of F-35 and the extraordinarily long timeline until they are deployable in any number.

It is perhaps worth remembering that RAF and Royal Navy crews are currently co-located with US Marine Corps (USMC) personnel, developing their skills on the first three British-purchased F-35s.  We feel that when taken in the round, the SDSR nudges the UK Armed Forces towards reflecting the concept of the USMC: an essentially expeditionary force focused on littoral deployments from navy vessels with a Joint (RAF-RN) air group, and overall, a relatively high ratio of fighting troops compared to ‘rear echelon’ combat service support.

For the Army, the absence of further cuts and the prospect of a period of stability will be welcomed.  However, in the absence of much detailed information, we assess that the loudly trailed announcement of two ‘new’ Strike Brigades is the most unfortunate example of spin and political opportunism within the paper.  The Force 2025 graphic suggests that the current, Force 2020 Reaction Force (the Army’s higher readiness, deployable, division-strength formation) could see one of its three armoured infantry brigades convert to ‘Strike’ while one of the seven infantry brigades from the current lower-readiness Adaptive Force is bumped up to ‘Strike’ status within the Reaction Force.  All in all, this appears like fairly small-beer to all but the most conscientious army staff officer, although it does allow the possibility of a very strong divisional level deployment in the same ball-park as the 53,000 troops who took part in the 1991 Gulf War.  There are many doctrinal questions to be answered, not least to what extent Strike Brigades replace or complement the current ‘theatre entry’ 16 Air Assault and 3 Commando Brigades.  The headlines that these ‘new’ formations will be able to ‘instantly deploy anywhere in the world to counter terrorism…with 500 new Ajax vehicles’ appears to be entirely spin, taking advantage of defence-illiterate newspaper editors.  Ajax is a reconnaissance vehicle which will, at most, only be issued to one unit (the formation reconnaissance / light cavalry regiment) per brigade along with odd reconnaissance platoon.  At around 40 tonnes, our heaviest C-17 transport aircraft would only be able to carry one Ajax at a time, making air deployment of large numbers unlikely, hardly lending it to ‘instant’ deployment.  Similarly, we have yet to learn what special ‘terrorist fighting’ capabilities Strike will bring to the party beyond that possessed by any reasonably high-readiness military formation.  The cynic might think the concept has been fore-grounded to provide the Army with its ‘big announcement’ while playing to public concern about the recent ISIS terrorist atrocities.

As was reflected in the share prices of leading UK defence manufacturers on the day of SDSR’s release, this is a decent review for industry.  The commitment to SMEs taking a bigger slice of the Defence procurement pie continues with real possibilities for successful bids to take part in the T-26 frigate programme.  While we hear that BAE Maritime are sorely disappointed at the truncation of the initial T-26 order from thirteen to eight, it is likely an astute strategic move for the Government to commitment incrementally.  The move of the remaining five proposed vessels to a ‘light frigate’ category to be re-bid for is likely primarily to maximise export potential, with the number of countries in the market for ‘full-fat’ T-26 looking limited.  The Government would be as delighted as industry to be able to announce the first major British warship exports in a generation and a more ‘budget option’ offering could actually boost UK jobs if it appeals to less industrially developed customers who would not be able to insist on their own yards undertaking most of the build, and are instead made at British facilities.  We think it would be surprising if the eventual Light Frigate is anything other than made by BAE on a T-26 hull.

The quiet horror-story of the review was the news that MoD civilian staff are to be slashed by a further 30 per cent.  This is a remarkable degradation following the 2010 cuts, and results in the stories we hear from serving uniformed staff officers that they feel they are often being asked to do the jobs of two or three people.  Morale, especially of the surviving civilian staff, could well become MoD’s strategic weakness over this parliament.  On the plus side, service contractors, especially with security vetted staff, are likely to see more and more opportunities.

A year ago few UK defence watchers could have predicted such an apparently optimistic SDSR in 2015.  Yet context is everything, and the improvements are to a severely degraded and tired force.  Capability gaps are being plugged and, perhaps more importantly, the Forces and public can feel that the Government has a sane, realistic, and achievable vision for national security.  The next five years looks set to be a time of consolidation.  With the critical two per cent spending commitment in place, it is possible that having just crossed the watershed from decline to growth in 2015, in SDSR 2020 we might see a genuine renaissance in the defence of the realm.

Published: Wednesday 25 November 2015

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