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Enabling Intervention: Looking towards the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review

By Dr Rowan Allport, Junior Fellow

11th August 2014, Security and Defence, Issue 3, No. 4.

When the history of the current Coalition Government is written, probably their single gravest set of errors will be able to be summed up in four letters: SDSR. The October 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, thrown together in just five months, will go down in history as a textbook example of what happens when short-term financial and political considerations are allowed to undermine sound defence thinking. Soon, it will be time for another defence review: SDSR 2015. Whoever forms the next government – Conservative, Labour, or another coalition – will find themselves entrusted with decisions that will impact on not only the core security interests of Britain, but also the potential fate of millions of the planet’s most vulnerable people. It is the latter issue that  those who support the use of armed force as a last resort to protect and enhance human rights around the world should keep in mind during the debate that will accompany this review.

In order to understand the problems that need to be addressed in SDSR 2015, it is important to grasp the essentials of what the previous review deemed should be the capabilities of Britain’s Armed Forces, and the degree of reduction this represented over what had gone previously. Looking at the Defence Planning Assumption (i.e. what the government believes the military should be capable of doing) laid out in the 2010 SDSR, it is intended that the UK Armed Forces should be able to conduct:

  • an enduring stabilisation operation at around brigade level (up to 6,500 personnel) with maritime and air support as required, while also conducting:
  • one non-enduring (up to six months) complex intervention (up to 2,000 personnel), and
  • one non-enduring (up to six months) simple intervention (up to 1,000 personnel)

or alternatively:

  • three non-enduring operations if not already engaged in an enduring operation

or:

  • for a limited time, and with sufficient warning, committing all effort to a one-off intervention of up to three brigades (one division), with maritime and air support (around 30,000 personnel)

Superficially this appears impressive, and in comparison to all but a handful of other countries, it is. However, such capability levels still represent a significant step down from what was possible prior to SDSR 2010. Whilst peak efforts in Afghanistan saw 10,000 personnel deployed in the country as part of ‘enduring stabilisation’ efforts, the new structure will see the maximum sustainable number in any future such mission cut to 6,500. The initial invasion of Iraq saw 48,000 British troops involved, but a similar endeavour in the future will be limited to around 30,000. Any major war will also have to be patient: during a conference talk given on the topic of the new British Army, a senior general stated that an Iraq-style division-level operation would now take up to a year to put together.

SDSR 2010 and its subsequent supporting review of the Army’s structure is seeing the Army drastically reduced in size: from 102,000 personnel in 2010 to 82,000 by 2018. Whilst the plan is to partially plug the gap with an enlarged Army Reserve, this concept – even if successful – has its own downsides with regards to force readiness. All told, by 2015, the combat element of the British Army will consist of a single air assault brigade, three armoured infantry brigades (the Reaction Force) and seven infantry brigades (the Adaptable Force). Of the latter, only two will be deployable outside of the UK, and even then they will require many months of training to bring the Army Reserve component up to standard. Given that five brigades are required to keep one deployed in an enduring operation, it is clear that the Army is now down to the bare minimum required to conduct the type of missions we have seen in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. None of this even touches on the plight of the RAF and Royal Navy, both of which have been cut to levels not seen in living memory.

Of course raw numbers are not everything. But even with regards to smaller-scale, ‘non-enduring’ deployments, decisions were made in the 2010 SDSR that saved little money but had a massive impact upon capability. 16 Air Assault brigade, a light formation designed for rapid deployment and whose units spearheaded the intervention in Sierra Leone and Macedonia, led the way during the invasion of Iraq and commanded the first regular British troops on the ground in southern Afghanistan in 2006, is in the process of being effectively halved in size. Instead of a full brigade, it is now able to only deploy an Air Assault Task Force of around 1,600 personnel at reasonable notice. At sea, the review saw amphibious landing ships sold or mothballed, reducing the number of personnel that can be put ashore by the Royal Navy from a roughly 4,000 strong Royal Marine Commando brigade to a 1,800 man Commando group.  The impact of the latter was magnified by the loss of the Royal Navy’s strike carrier capability.

It is certainly true that those who wrote SDSR 2010 were faced with a number of genuinely difficult choices, some of which were horrifically painful, but financially necessary. It is also important to say that a small number of the most ridiculous (and cheapest to correct) decisions have been reversed. There are even some tentative signs that certain types of intervention capability may be being improved upon: last week saw the US Congress notified (as required by law) of the potential sale to the UK of sixty-five Tomahawk missiles, a purchase that would considerably increase the UK’s stockpile of the weapon. Friday’s naming of the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth also served to prove that there are bright spots in current developments. But more needs to be done to truly restore at least some of the intervention capacity that has been lost over the last four years.

The next SDSR will of course not only be informed by the requirements for military humanitarian intervention. Wider strategic considerations, principally with regards to UK home defence and Britain’s obligations to its partners in NATO and the wider world, will also be a driving factor. Whilst, for nearly a quarter of a century, this has actually proven a handicap to intervention-enabling sustained defence spending, given the perceived lack of direct threats, the situation in 2015 may see this reversed. Although the public tolerance for nation-building operations of the type seen in Afghanistan and Iraq has for the moment waned, events in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq have seen a resurgence in the more conventional security challenges to the UK, its allies and interests. Containment of Russia is now the post-Crimea order of the day in Eastern Europe, and whilst the likely US-Iraqi campaign to attempt to dislodge ISIS from the territory it has captured has yet to begin, should the operation fail, it is easy to see central Iraq and eastern Syria becoming a pre-2001 Afghanistan-type safe-haven for international terrorism. As recently as March this year, it seemed that further defence spending reductions were inevitable after the next election. Now, even based on just the most basic national security requirements, it is difficult to see how anyone advocating more cuts could avoid being sectioned under the Mental Health Act. That isn’t, of course, to say that they won’t happen.

It is desperately tempting to write a wish list of requirements for the next defence review, but it goes without saying that there is no proverbial magic money tree. Although the current government has made a promise of an small uplift in defence equipment spending after 2015, this could easily be cancelled out by cuts in other parts of the defence budget. Such a move must be countered at all costs. As a result, the most urgent part of SDSR 2015 – preventing further defence spending reductions – should, ideally, start even before the next election through putting pressure on the main party leaders to make manifesto pledges to keep defence spending above 2 per cent of GDP. Britain is currently one of only four member nations to meet this NATO minimum target commitment, and it is vital that this position is maintained – both for the sake of the UK’s own capabilities and as an example to others. Whilst arbitrary figures of GDP are an unwieldy way to allocate money, the dire situation and symbolic value of the 2 per cent figure make such an approach an attractive option. Although defence spending is low on the list of the priorities of the British public in general, the Conservatives in particular could benefit from such a spending pledge, given the drift of some of their more right-wing supporters towards UKIP.

If it proves possible to secure at least a static level of funding, then the deliberations over spending priorities can begin. There is of course a long way to go until any firm decisions are made, but that does not in any way mean that the debate is premature. Indeed, it might be wise to actually hope that SDSR 2015 turns out to be SDSR 2016: it took the then-New Labour government over a year to deliver the 1998 Strategic Defence Review following the 1997 election, and that policy document was praised as being one of the most coherent Defence White Papers since the war. Perhaps that is the best piece of cost-free advice anyone – whatever their perspective on defence matters – can offer to those in charge: this time, think it through properly.

Dr Rowan Allport is contactable at: rowan.allport@hscentre.org

Please cite this article as:

Allport, R. (2014) ‘Enabling Intervention: Looking towards the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review’. Human Security Centre, Security and Defence, Issue 3, No. 4.

About Rowan Allport

Dr Rowan Allport is a Senior Fellow who leads the HSC's Security and Defence team. Rowan holds a PhD in Political Science and an MA in Conflict, Governance and Development from the University of York, as well as a BA (Hons) in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the University of Hull. Specialising in strategic analysis and international security, Rowan's primary areas of interest lie in the defence issues in and around the NATO region, interstate conflict and US foreign policy discourse. He is also the lead author of HSC's recent The Two Per Cent Solution: an Alternative Strategic Defence and Security Review report. Rowan's publication credits include articles and commentary in The Diplomat, The Hill, DefenseOne, RealClearDefense, The Strategist, UK Defence Journal, Politics.co.uk and The National Interest.