Home / Cultural Heritage under Threat / Back from the brink: Britain’s 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review

Back from the brink: Britain’s 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review

December 28th, 2015

By Dr Rowan Allport – Senior Fellow

The publication last month of Britain’s National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (commonly referred to as SDSR 2015) marked the culmination of a process that had arguably been ongoing since the days following the release of the previous SDSR in 2010. Despite years of dire predictions that anticipated further savage cuts in the name of reducing the UK’s budget deficit, the final document saw the Ministry of Defence (MoD) allocated a real-term increase in funding. But the contrasts to the deeply flawed previous review went far beyond simple financial resources. Although a significant number of details are still to be clarified, and there seem likely to be a number of nasty surprises in the proverbial small print, the path laid out by SDSR 2015 should be able to begin to restore the UK’s hard-power capabilities and standing.

In retrospect, it was UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision at the NATO Wales conference in September 2014 to urge fellow member states to meet the NATO target of spending two per cent of their GDP on defence – whilst embarrassingly avoiding committing Britain to maintaining that expenditure level itself – that saw the final form of SDSR 2015 begin to be set. Prior to the May 2015 General Election, Cameron had no intention of protecting UK defence spending. But in the aftermath of an unexpected outright election victory, the right-wing, pro-military backbench Conservative MPs on whom Cameron’s slim parliamentary majority depended smelt political blood, and – in concert with elements of the UK’s press and military establishment – launched a push for Britain to maintain its defence spending at two per cent of GDP. When this effort melded with both lobbying from the US for the UK to set a good example to other NATO members and ongoing crises in the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe, the pressure on the British government to honour the principal it had articulated in Wales the previous year became irresistible.

In July 2015, UK Chancellor George Osborne announced that Britain would indeed continue to spend two per cent of its GDP on defence. However, it quickly became apparent that this pledge came with major caveats, the most prominent being that elements of the budget for civilian intelligence agencies would in the future be counted towards ‘defence’ expenditure – a move that would significantly dilute the spending rise that achieving the NATO target would require. This change comes on top of other recent alterations to how defence spending is defined, which have included the addition of peacekeeping funds, pension payments and elements of cyber security expenditure to the NATO-declared spending total. But the decision to grant the MoD even a modest budget rise at least allayed fears of further cuts, with some predictions from early 2015 suggesting a ten per cent fall in defence spending had been a possibility.  If this sounds manageable, it has been estimated that as a result of the eight per cent defence spending decrease enacted in SDSR 2010, the UK lost twenty to thirty per cent of its conventional combat power. It is not hyperbole to suggest that further cuts on this scale would have essentially ended the UK’s role as a meaningful international military actor.

The remit of SDSR 2015 covers areas ranging from energy security to diplomacy. However, for the sake of manageability, I will focus here on only the components under the auspice of the MoD. Financially, this department will receive a 3.1 per cent real term funding increase between 2015/16 and 2020/2021, with the overall spend increasing from £34.3bn ($51bn) to £39.6bn ($59bn) during the same period. SDSR 2015 also contains a pledge to increase spending on new equipment over the next ten years from the planned £166bn ($247bn) to £178bn ($265bn).

Examining what this is intended to translate into in practice in the realm of defence, it is clear that one thing that SDSR 2015 cannot be accused of is a lacking of ambition. In relation to power projection, the most striking shift has been with regards to the scale of the force the UK expects to be able to field in the event of a major conflict. SDSR 2010 pointedly stated that Future Force 2020 (FF 2020) would be expected to be capable of only deploying 30,000 personnel overseas – around a third less than the number involved in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (46,000). SDSR 2015 drastically reverses this decision: by 2025, it is intended that the new ‘Joint Force 2025’ (JF 2025) will be able to field an expeditionary force of 50,000 personnel, including a three-brigade heavy/medium division, a maritime task group and an air group.

When not engaged in high-intensity warfare, the range of tasks the Armed Forces will be expected to embark upon has remained relatively static. As with FF 2020, JF 2025 will – in addition to supporting peacetime tasks such as the provision of UK air defence – be capable of sustaining one medium-scale enduring operation and multiple smaller operations of a varying nature. However, one notable new addition to the formal list of required tasks is that of defence engagement, with training teams and mentoring being explicitly highlighted. Defence engagement – a task which can range from overseas personnel exchanges with allies to diplomatic meetings – is, of course, nothing new to the Armed Forces. But if any of the diverse current set of conflicts in which the UK has an interest have a common theme, it is that of actors who are hostile to British interests taking advantage of weak internal state security. The advance of ISIS in Libya and Iraq, Boko Haram in Nigeria and Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine were all in large part made possible by the dysfunctional armed forces of those countries. UK military training teams are already present in Iraq, Nigeria, Ukraine, (as well as Afghanistan), and it looks likely that Libya will soon join this list. By making defence engagement a core, funded task of the MoD for the first time, Britain has acknowledged what is arguably the key security lesson of the last half-decade.

In addition to overseas tasks, the UK military will now be expected to contribute up to 10,000 personnel to help with managing a major domestic security crisis – double the previous requirement and in line with the French deployment in response to the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015. How sustainable such an operation would prove is open to question, but these new provisions at least set out a contingency plan to provide large-scale armed support to civilian police in an emergency. However, perhaps more pertinent to anti-terrorism efforts, both at home and abroad, has been the decision to double spending on UK Special Forces equipment over the next decade.

Looking at the individual armed services, it is relatively clear that the RAF has emerged from SDSR 2015 in the best condition. In relation to fighter aircraft, the situation is mixed. The number of Typhoon squadrons will be increased from five to seven, with (it is to be presumed) older models of the aircraft to be retained in service longer.  However, the much publicised pledge to buy 138 F-35B aircraft over the course of the programme is broadly meaningless, as production will last decades (well beyond the scope of SDSR 2015). Furthermore, the claim within the review that it provides for an ‘additional’ F-35B squadron (two rather than one) is essentially an outright lie: the initial pair of front-line F-35B squadrons to be formed were named over two years ago. Fundamentally, a total of nine fighter squadrons will still leave the UK with a potentially inadequate force when accounting for the tasks at hand.

Nevertheless, beyond the fast jet fleet, the situation is far more positive. Over twenty Protector UAVs will replace the existing ten Predator aircraft, and current ISTAR assets including the R-1 Shadow, R-1 Sentinel, E-3D Sentry and R-135W Rivet Joint will remain operational. The RAF has been unexpectedly allowed to keep fourteen C-130J Hercules aircraft in service, despite plans for their disposal in 2023. The fixed-wing transport fleet will additionally consist of A-400M Atlas, C-17A Globemaster and Voyager tanker/transport aircraft; with Chinook and Puma helicopters in support. However, arguably the most commented upon SDSR 2015 development with regards to the RAF has been the decision to purchase nine P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft to mitigate the gap left by the scrapping of the Nimrod MRA4 programme in 2010. Whilst it is currently unclear when the aircraft will enter service – there has been talk of the UK ‘jumping the queue’ in order to have the P-8s delivered more quickly – it does at least mean that the embarrassing spectacle of Britain having to ask its allies to hunt for Russian submarines in its own waters will come to an end in the foreseeable future.

For the Royal Navy, SDSR 2015 proved to be a relatively neutral affair. What had been previously expected to be a major decision in the review regarding the fate of the second of the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers was actually announced a year earlier at the NATO Wales conference, when David Cameron revealed that both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales would enter service. This decision was intended to grant the Royal Navy the ability to always have a carrier ready to deploy. More broadly, SDSR 2010’s plan for a fleet of nineteen escort ships and seven nuclear powered attack submarines has been preserved, as was the size of the amphibious landing force and Fleet Air Arm – although the number of mine countermeasures vessels is to be cut from fifteen to twelve.

Future construction decisions, however, raised more controversy: the planned buy of new Type 26 frigates was cut from thirteen to eight, with the stated intent being to supplement them with a yet-to-be-designed ‘light frigate’. Additionally, whilst the fate of the programme to replace the UK’s Trident missile-carrying submarines with four new vessels was never in question, SDSR 2015’s decision to further delay their entry into service by five years (following a similar move announced in SDSR 2010) presents serious questions as to how long the current Vanguard-class can safely remain operational. Across the fleet, personnel levels also remain a major concern: it was reported that during the build-up to the review’s publication, the Royal Navy had asked for 2,000 additional sailors. In the event, it only got 400.

However, amongst all the talk of fighter squadrons and aircraft carriers, it is perhaps the Army that will see the most radical shift in what is expected of it. Structurally, the headline Army reform of SDSR 2015 is the plan to form two new ‘strike brigades’, medium-weight formations designed for rapid deployment. This plan has significant potential weaknesses: these units will not be ready until 2025, and although details of the structure of these formations are yet to be fully worked through, it seems possible that in converting/downgrading one of the current three armoured infantry brigades into a strike brigade (the other strike brigade will come from upgrading a current light infantry brigade), the Army could end up losing a third of its tanks and heavy artillery. But on the more positive side, the addition of an extra medium brigade to the Army reaction force should hugely increase deployability.  During a post-SDSR 2015 question and answer session in the House of Lords, Defence Minister Earl Howe stated in no uncertain terms that the plan was to restructure UK ground forces “so that by 2025 we will be able to deploy a division comprising two armoured infantry brigades and a strike brigade, in addition to our high-readiness forces of 3 Commando Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade.” Taken at face value (always dangerous), the land force projection capability outlined by the minister represents a significant enhancement of previous provisions. However, serious deficiencies in the support available to Army combat units – most notably in the realms of signals, logistics and engineering – will have to be rectified if timely and large-scale ground operations are to become a reality. The Army is now embarking on review of its structure – tentatively entitled Army 2020 Refine – in order to attempt to calculate how to deliver what is required.

At the other end of the scale, the Army will also be taking the lead in defence engagement, with at least two infantry battalions to be reconfigured to support the training and capacity enhancement of allied forces. This will mean that the overseas support role will, for the first time, have specific dedicated units. More broadly, overall regular Army strength will remain at 82,000, with a target of an Army Reserve of 30,000 trained personnel still the goal. Also as before, the planned withdrawal of the Army from Germany will be completed by 2020.

There is, of course, far more to the security provisions outlined under SDSR 2015 than that listed above. Additional announcements include plans to publish an updated counter-terrorism strategy in 2016, a doubling of investment in efforts to enhance cyber security, funding for additional intelligence personnel, and even new resources for the BBC World Service. However, rightly or wrongly, it is the more traditional hard power component of these reviews that observers take greatest note. But more than that, it is not only the basic content of the document that is important, but also the tone it takes. Certain elements of SDSR 2010 read as if the Government had outsourced the drafting of UK security and defence policy to Eeyore. In contrast, the new review puts forward an optimistic, engaged and outward-looking impression. Such a shift will not go unobserved by the UK’s allies, who have (with good reason) expressed their concerns with regards to Britain’s attitude to global security engagement.

Being realistic, it is unlikely that SDSR 2015 will age well: with the good news released in a blaze of publicity, the negative aspects are likely to quietly drip out over the coming months. As demonstrated by the ludicrously protracted debate over air strikes in Syria, care must also be taken not to ignore the deeper issues with regards to transforming the UK’s security and defence capability and theoretical intent into action. But recovering from the setbacks of recent years was always going to be a process, not an event, and the broadly positive outcome of this review is a crucial step. Although Britain may not quite be back, it is back from the brink.


Prior to SDSR 2015’s publication, the Human Security Centre published its own Alternative Defence Review, which can be viewed here.

Image: MoD/Crown copyright 2008 (link)

About Rowan Allport

Dr Rowan Allport is a Deputy Director who leads the HSC's Security and Defence team. Rowan holds a PhD in Politics and a 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 ‘Fire and Ice: A New Maritime Strategy for NATO’s Northern Flank’ report. Rowan's publication credits include articles and commentary in Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, The Hill, DefenseOne, RealClearDefense, The Strategist, UK Defence Journal, Politics.co.uk and The National Interest. He has previously worked as a lobbyist for the Whitehouse Consultancy in Westminster, and as a Senior Analyst for RAND Europe's Security, Defence and Infrastructure team.