The Eight Reasons Why the UK’s Strategic Defence Review Must Not Savage Its Military

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The Eight Reasons Why the UK’s Strategic Defence Review Must Not Savage Its Military

Every decade or so, Britain conducts a full-scale review of its defense arrangements. The aim of the review is, self-evidently, to make sure that Britain is adequately defended over the coming years.

You might think that the best way to go about a risk assessment for Britain as a whole would be, like risk-assessments in any other area of life, to assess the potential risks to Britain and its interests, and then decide what the government needed to spend to guard against them.

But however obvious that might seem, it is rarely what actually happens.

In practice, Strategic Defence and Security Reviews (SDSR) are all too rarely about keeping us safe, and all too often about saving us money. In this respect, the SDSR the government is currently undertaking looks more egregious than ever.

The Treasury explicitly and shamelessly mandated the review to find savings of 20 to 40%, to be completed in time for the Spending Review on October 20th. To make matters worse, it also asked the Ministry of Defence to take into account spending on Britain´s nuclear deterrent, which has traditionally been paid for by the Treasury, not out of the defense budget. No attempt was made, it seems, to even make this year’s Review appear to be an intellectually honest assessment of forthcoming risks to Britain, and what should be spent to defend against them. The Review is, sadly, a cost-cutting exercise masquerading as an assessment of what Britain’s world role should be.


But that is not the only reason it is deeply flawed.

It is also too short-termist. If you are trying to assess potential risk for the next ten years (as the SDSR must), it is no good basing your calculations on only those threats we have seen in the previous five. Thinking that spending on defense should be based only on foreseeable threats is the most dangerous kind of short-termism. Few of the wars Britain has ever engaged in, and none of the five wars since 1997, were foreseen. Nobody in 1981 expected to be fighting the Falklands war in 1982, nobody in 1989 expected to be fighting the Iraq war in 1990, and before the Second World War, Britain’s low defense budget was justified on the basis that so long as a major conflict could not be envisaged within ten years, defense spending could be kept low. When the Second World War broke out, this short-sightedness nearly resulted in catastrophic defeat and caused Britain to need to borrow heavily from the United States, as defense spending shot up to 60% of GDP. It was the falsest of false economies. When the previous SDSR was carried out, in 1998, cyber warfare was not yet on the Defense Community´s radar. Now it is a credible threat, which has done serious damage to other nations.


Still, some cuts must be made.

Certainly, there is broad agreement that we will not be able to pay for everything that the Labour Government planned to buy. We cannot afford to. The National Audit Office has calculated that if we bought everything Labour planned to buy until 2020, the Defense budget would be ₤36 billion short. Clearly, we will have to make cuts to what we planned to buy.

It is also clear that the Ministry of Defence’s acquisition structure is inefficient and too expensive. Most procurement projects take longer to build, and turn out to be much more expensive, than planned. Part of the reason is the political constraints on pulling the plug on projects once commissioned, however wrong the initial estimates are.

There is also broad agreement that Britain no longer needs to keep 19,000 troops in Germany.

Eight Dangers

Equally, though, there are eight important reasons why the SDSR must not cut too much.

Firstly, industrial capability and know-how is irreplaceable. Once Britain loses it, we cannot get it back. Secondly, we also have to be able to continue to enforce international rules and abide by existing commitments, and to play our part in keeping the peace, and keeping our word to those allies with whom we have treaty arrangements, such as NATO.

Thirdly, it must not be forgotten that the Forces have already suffered over recent years with real terms cuts which have led to insufficient funding for forces’ housing; inadequate medical care; cancellation of training exercises; lack of equipment; low pay for the junior ranks; and worst of all: avoidable casualties.

Fourthly, The Ministry of Defence has already predicted that conflict over resources is likely to escalate. In its document ‘the Future Character of Conflict, it predicted that by 2029, control over resources will “increase the incidence of conflict,” as world population rises to 8.3 billion. Boundary disputes, such as in the Arctic, Gulf of Guinea and South Atlantic will “become inextricably linked to securing energy supplies.” I do not believe that interstate war will necessarily rise — we now have better mechanisms for resolving international tensions multilaterally than at almost any point in the past. However, it would be foolish not to acknowledge the potential dangers to our interests of these threats. And certainly, with the US official National Security Strategy Document predicting that climate change is likely to be a major driver of tension and perhaps conflict in the world in unforeseeable ways, any Strategic Defence Review would be foolish to expect the threats to our safety in 2020 to much resemble those we can list today.

Fifth, we must not restrict ourselves from being able to meet future challenges, wherever they arise. In future decades we may well be worrying about Asia and the West Pacific. The Navy has in recent years conducted exercises with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, India, Bangladesh, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. Should we suddenly deny ourselves the chance of strategic influence in a region of increasing strategic importance?

Sixth, the UK military has already suffered precipitous decline over previous decades. Twenty years ago defense spending was 4% of GNP, now it has fallen to 2.6%. This long-term trend has tangible repercussions. In 1964 we had 413 warships. Today we do not have three quarters of that number, not even a half. We actually have less than a quarter.

Or take the army. We do not have enough troops. As of late 2008, the British armed forces could count on 173,270 trained men and women. That was 3.2% below the official requirement. Most battalions were 10-20% short of the numbers they need. When you take into account those troops who are unfit to deploy immediately in Afghanistan, whether because they are having a well-earned rest after a tour in Iraq, or because they are recovering from injuries, the figures are even worse. Many battalions are as much as 42% under strength.

Underfunding of the UK armed forces has left a skeleton of what was once a feared and formidable force. Last year’s rebuff to our military chiefs, who wanted to send 2,000 more troops to Helmand, was sadly all too symbolic.

Seventh, a decline in military capabilities means a decline in importance in world affairs. For centuries, Britain has been able to stand proud of the strength of her forces. They have been the foundation for our global power and our position as a preeminent power in world affairs. For the last sixty-odd years we have maintained an enviable relative GDP, a seat on the UN Security Council, and nuclear weapons.

Cutting the forces cuts our world political clout. Our UN Security Council seat becomes ever less defensible. At the same time, by weakening our own military capabilities, we would weaken the value of our alliances, and thus our friendship. With a seriously weakened military, come 2020, why should a young democracy in Iraq, for example, seek our friendship over that of, say, Iran or India? What could we offer? With a seriously weakened military, come 2020, if Pakistan splintered and its nuclear arsenal hung in the balance, what could we contribute to defend ourselves from its falling into the hands of groups tied to the perpetrators of 9/11? When we weaken ourselves militarily, we weaken ourselves politically.

But perhaps the most damaging aspect of our weakening value as a military partner is to our alliance with the US. There is mounting evidence that the US no longer takes the UK seriously as a military partner. When I met General Casey, the US Chief of General Staff, at the Aspen Summit a few months ago, he said explicitly that looking at declining defense budgets, he was concerned about Europe, and particularly the UK, as a future partner.

Eighth and finally, we need to defend our food and energy supplies, and the world trade which assures the quality of life which we enjoy. Britain is an island. Most of what we eat and much of the energy we consume comes from sources beyond our shores. Both depend on international shipping and airways. The same is true of trade. More than 90 per cent of the value of our trade (and 95 per cent by volume) is carried by sea.

In my lifetime, and in the lifetime of most Britons, neither our food nor our trade or energy supplies have been seriously threatened. But this lulls us into a false sense that plentiful food and energy from international sources is just the ‘way of the world.’ It is not. For most of history, international transport has not been secure or safe. It has certainly not been the way of the world. It is, in fact, the hard-won achievement of centuries. It relies on norms and enforceable international laws which rely, in turn, on states’ ability and willingness to enforce them.

The fact that the system has worked in recent memory prevents us from appreciating how fragile it really is. Only this February, oil exploration company Desire Petroleum, drilling 60 miles north of West Falkland, was the beneficiary of military protection. HMS York, a type 42-destroyer patrolled the seas nearby, HMS Sceptre, as well as an 1,000-strong military detachment on land, were reportedly joined by a Swiftsure-class nuclear powered submarine, sent to the Falklands from southern Africa as a warning to Argentina not to make any threatening moves towards the company´s operations.

Nor is it just new energy exploration which needs protecting. “People have no idea that by 2012 their lights will be staying on because of liquid gas arriving in Milford Haven daily,” Sir Jonathan Band, the First Sea Lord, reminded us in a recent interview. Then there is the rise in international piracy in recent years. Much of our trade has to pass through “choke points” on global sea routes where it would be vulnerable to attacks from pirates if it were not for naval protection.

There is a justified feeling in the military and defense community that if money can be found for bank bailouts, it can be found to pay for the continued security of our energy supplies, food supplies, and international trade.


In short, cuts will have consequences. They will deprive us of industrial capability which we may never get back, stop us from keeping our word with our friends and from enforcing the rules which protect us, and continue to expose our men and women in the field to needless harm. They will weaken us going into any war for resources, withdraw us from the strategic picture in Asia for a generation, and push our ailing military prowess into yet more decades of decline. It will undermine our position in world affairs, and hurt our ability to protect the safe passage of the heat and light we take for granted, the goods we buy at the supermarket, and the food on our plates. It would, in short, be folly.

Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post.

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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