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After a year in which cuts and economies have dominated the public agenda on defence, and when defence procurement has been under the spotlight, we are moving back into the realms of strategy for the next twelve months. This is partly a matter of bureaucratic process. The government is committed to the next Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2015 and it will be sandwiched, as the last one was, between a General Election and a likely Comprehensive Spending Review in the autumn of 2015. This is not an ideal way to conduct regular reviews but that is the current political logic which will be difficult to escape.
This means that all the strategic thinking behind the next review will have to be done during 2014, probably in the second half of the year. This must include the financial strategy behind the UK’s defence and security, and the economic expectations for the country after 2015.
In his recent speech to RUSI, the Chief of Defence Staff put the financial element in the strategic equation very starkly. A real terms increase in the budget would be needed after 2015 to avoid the prospect of the UK fielding ‘hollowed out’ forces, he said, where personnel cuts left the platforms incapable of operating properly. In particular, the Royal Navy was now down to a manning level that raised the spectre of a navy with forces on paper that would be less capable than they should be. It was a structural problem the next defence review must address explicitly.
RUSI has long pointed out that it is necessary to make some heroic economic assumptions for the 2015-2020 years if defence is to deliver the ‘Force 2020’ balance of military capabilities that was envisaged in the last review of 2010. Many cynics argue that the next review is, of necessity, a steady-as-you-go process given the work that is still ongoing to re-orientate defence policy and that, in any case, Whitehall’s ability to do genuine strategic thinking is very limited. Financially-driven reviews, they say, are given a patina of strategy with a series of slogans rather than real strategic engagement.
This view is unfair on policy-makers who could argue that their essential strategy in recent years has been precisely to avoid a national financial meltdown that would make the defence budget largely irrelevant, and that to maintain as many defence capabilities at whatever numbers are now affordable is a perfectly good strategic response to the situation the coalition government faced in 2010.
Even so, the numbers that were offered then, the hiatus over which type of aircraft to design aircraft carriers for and the reform of defence procurement which was envisaged, have left a lot to be desired in the three years since. If the essential strategic priorities were unavoidable in 2010 the implementation of them has not reflected well on political or civil service leadership.
Nevertheless, if the next review is inclined to be an exercise in continuity, the international environment may demand more radical choices. The drawdown from Afghanistan at the end of the year will put the emphasis back on the ‘security’ element in the defence and security package. The end of the main ISAF mission in Afghanistan will raise questions over the stability of the country thereafter and the potential of it again to become an incubator and haven for Islamist terror directed against the West.
Strategy in a Changing International Environment
This is happening while terrorist radicalisation in the Horn of Africa increases steadily and while the civil war in Syria opens up deep fault-lines across the Levant. Security chiefs in the UK anticipate an upturn in terrorist pressure arising from all these sources sooner or later, and this dynamic may be reflected in the work of the next SDSR. RUSI monitors terrorist activity directed at the UK from all these sources and researches the techniques of counter-radicalisation abroad. If the military mantra of ‘forward defence’ – to engage hostile forces as far as way from the homeland as feasible – is to apply to the UK’s defence and security across the board then the counter-terrorist forward defence strategy should involve some important funding and deployment decisions in the next SDSR.
Intimately connected to this, the UK also stands on the threshold of strategic re-orientations in its current defence thinking. If the relationship with the US is still paramount for UK security then it will have to be pursued in ways that differ from those of the past. The US does not feel obliged to become militarily involved in European security to any great extent and has re-orientated its strategic gaze towards Asia.
The US, however, is unable to disengage strategically from the Middle East, notwithstanding its prospects of energy self-sufficiency in the near future. US leadership in Middle Eastern politics may currently be very uncertain but Washington’s need for strategic partners is greater than ever. The stark fact for the UK is that if it wants to stay close to the US as a strategic partner on the world stage it will have to re-engage more directly with the states of the Gulf and perhaps further afield and may also find itself committed in some way to stability operations in the Eastern Mediterranean or North Africa.
As RUSI’s research has indicated throughout 2013, the UK may find itself having to engage at a deeper security level both within its own neighbourhood and also outside it – the old dilemma of balancing ‘Greater Europe’ with ‘East of Suez’. This may not be as alarming as it sounds since such military commitments are not of the form they might have taken thirty or forty years ago. RUSI’s research outlines the problems and possibilities for UK strategic thinking in addressing this tension. Current research concentrates of what ‘Balkanisation’ across the Middle East might involve, how a greater commitment to the Gulf might emerge, and how UK military and security capacities could be deployed to best advantage making full use of the ISTAR assets that it is now developing.
Nevertheless, research indicates clearly that there is evidence of a structural disconnect between the military capacities available to the UK for the next ten to fifteen years and the strategic logic of maintaining a military partnership with the United States. It is not that this constitutes a series of circles that cannot be squared; more the fact that the UK might have to react much less traditionally to future security challenges as they develop.
RUSI’s research suggests that however Whitehall officials view the defence budget in 2014, and since the Autumn Statement, it now looks relatively more vulnerable to further cuts than before, some of the international trends will make a steady-as-you-go SDSR difficult to envisage. The financial discontinuity with the assumptions made in 2010 is too great and the drawdown from Afghanistan will not necessarily give the military the breathing space that was anticipated to refashion itself into Force 2020.
The coming year is likely to be a period of strategic soul-searching with less of a margin for error than was the case even in 2010.