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If the quinquennial process for strategic defence and security reviews (SDSR), introduced as part of SDSR 2010, were followed, next year would see a revision of the UK’s national strategy and the publication of SDSR 2020. However, given the political turmoil that has beset Whitehall since the electorate voted to leave the EU on 23 June 2016, it has become increasingly difficult to predict what the government might do this time next week, let alone this time next year. Nevertheless, now that the prime minister has finally secured a general election on 12 December, it may be possible to see beyond the recent political short-termism that Brexit has dictated and consider some of the longer-term decision-making to which the next government, of whatever cloth, will have to attend. The early confirmation of the intent to undertake an SDSR in 2020 and the agreement of an associated planning timeline should be high on that list, and it would be a much-needed peg in the ground for the defence and security community.
Since the 2017 general election, the UK government has undertaken both a National Security Capability Review (NSCR) and a Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) study. Some might argue that the work of the next SDSR has already been done. However, even a cursory glance at the outputs from these activities suggests otherwise. Academics from the University of Exeter, Catarina P Thomson and David Blagden, argued in a recent article for the British Journal of Politics and International Relations that an SDSR should ‘conduct comprehensive cross-departmental analysis of national security and defence needs in line with the National Security Strategy before setting/allocating resources via capability choices’. The cost-neutral NSCR did not do this, nor did the defence-focused MDP. Both reports recognised that the major challenges to the UK’s security had become more complex, intertwined and dangerous since SDSR 2015; however, neither addressed the effect that the development of these challenges might have on defence and security capability. Admittedly, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is currently pursuing a major transformation programme, which, at the macro level, is concentrating on acquisition, information, people and support. But this work is process-orientated with the aim of confirming the efficiencies demanded in SDSR 2015 and seeking significantly more, as well as updating the department’s high-level operating model. It is not in the military capability space.
One of the benefits of mandating a regular cycle of reviews is the ability to identify long lead-time analysis necessary to support the anticipated decision-making, and then schedule it appropriately. In other words, planning. Many can recall President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous claim that ‘plans are worthless, but planning is everything’. Fewer realise that he went on to assert that ‘the reason it is so important to plan [is] to keep yourself steeped in the character of the problem that you may one day be called upon to solve’. This wisdom was embraced by the MoD in its post-SDSR 2010 lessons-identified process, with a recognition of the need to start preparations for SDSR 2015 early. Although that review was not formally confirmed until the State Opening of Parliament on 27 May 2015, low-level preparation had been ongoing within the department since the beginning of the year.
A second advantage of early confirmation for the next SDSR is that it would allow sufficient time for an appropriate level of engagement with interested parties, such as those from industry, academia, think tanks and more. One of the strengths of the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, still highlighted by commentators some 20 years on, was its wide-ranging and comprehensive consultation element. The opportunity to take input from NATO allies at one end of the spectrum, concerned members of the general public at the other, and all points in between, would do much for the credibility of the next SDSR, in contrast to the recent NSCR that offered no opportunity for public consultation at all.
The 2010 and 2015 SDSRs commenced shortly after the general elections of the same year, with the outcomes published in October 2010 and November 2015 respectively. Keeping a similar, end-of-year aiming point for the completion of SDSR 2020 would allow almost 12 months for the review, which would provide plenty of time to meet the long-term planning and engagement aspirations outlined above. However, in his spending round announcement on 4 September, the chancellor, Sajid Javid, only confirmed departments’ budgets for a single year, promising a full, multiyear spending review in 2020.
Regardless of who wins the election, it is likely that the next government will want to complete its spending review in time for a spring budget in March 2020, and an end-of-year SDSR deadline would clearly not align with this timeline. In its latest report, the House of Commons and House of Lords Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy cautioned against holding an SDSR and a spending review out of sync, suggesting the likely result would be a rupture in the government’s newly introduced Fusion Doctrine. That said, to align SDSR 2020 with the probable spending review schedule would not allow sufficient time to generate the evidence base to support decision-making and would provide minimal opportunity for external engagement. This may lead some commentators to question its credibility, setting a dangerous precedent.
There is a solution. In his recent commentary on the 2019 spending round and the defence budget, Malcolm Chalmers suggested that, provided the enhanced 2020/21 budget allocation is treated as the defence baseline for future years, and further real-terms increases are awarded thereafter, the MoD should be able to fund the capability choices made in the 2015 SDSR. He also confirmed that, if the real-terms increase was maintained at around 0.5% per annum, it would, on plausible assumptions of GDP growth, allow the UK to maintain its 2% commitment to NATO well into the 2020s. To that end, if a 0.5% real-terms increase in the defence budget across the spending review period was confirmed at the start of the year, it would provide a viable financial baseline on which the SDSR could be planned and executed to an end-of-year deadline.
In the immediate aftermath of the general election, the next government may conclude that it has too many alligators close to its canoe to worry about the next defence and security review. That would be short sighted. Early confirmation of an SDSR in 2020 would provide positive direction to all relevant government departments to prepare comprehensively for a full review of national security, which would do justice to the real issues facing the defence and security community. While it is acceptable to afford your greatest risk your highest priority, concentrating on its mitigation cannot be at the expense of everything else – the security challenges to the UK have not gone away just because we are all fixated on Brexit.
Andrew Curtis is a retired Air Commodore and RUSI Associate Fellow in the Defence Industries and Society Programme.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Malcolm Mayfield
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.