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UK cost-cutting review shrinks military capacity

Despite Prime Minister David Cameron’s claim that the outcome of the United Kingdom’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), announced in mid-October, does not represent ‘strategic shrinkage’, the overall result for Britain’s armed forces will be to reduce their capabilities. This broadly reflects a decline in the UK’s relative economic strength and in its consequent will and ability to play a major role in international security. The outcome was also in line with that of previous rounds of defence cuts in that, while many major capabilities were ‘salami-sliced’, few key elements of military capacity were altogether eliminated. A major assumption underlying the SDSR – deriving from a Future Character of Conflict study by the Ministry of Defence, as well as public statements by Foreign Secretary William Hague – is that, two decades after the Cold War’s end, the nature and extent of future international security challenges is more uncertain than ever. In an unpredictable world, it makes sense to retain the broadest possible range of capabilities.

The fiscal predicament inherited by the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government which took office in May provided the main rationale for the changes that the SDSR prescribed for defence procurement and the armed forces’ capabilities. The previous Labour government’s over-commitment of the defence ministry’s forward spending had accentuated the problem for the incoming administration, which estimated previous unfunded commitments at £38 billion ($61bn).

Strategy versus cost-cutting

The review announced substantial cuts in defence spending, which is set to fall by 8% in real terms by 2015 – the 2010–11 budget is £32.9bn ($52.9bn). The resultant contraction in military capacity will reduce the nation’s ability to project military power and influence internationally. The government had promised a far-reaching, even radical, reassessment of security challenges and how they might best be met, and there were indeed some important new elements, including a major emphasis on the role of the intelligence services in protecting national security. There was stress on the dangers posed by cyber threats, with £650 million allocated to tackling this challenge. The SDSR also protected the UK’s overseas aid spending, while directing that more be spent on conflict prevention and stabilisation. However, the SDSR was essentially a budget-cutting exercise which degenerated into inter-service rivalry as each of the three military branches lobbied the prime minister and the Treasury in support of what they claimed were vital capacities. Nevertheless, important strategic choices were implicit in its outcome.

In the medium term, the SDSR will substantially shape the armed forces’ future structure, referred to as ‘Future Force 2020’. The government decided to keep long-term programmes including new aircraft carriers, Astute-class nuclear submarines, and the purchase of a significant number of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs) from the United States. It also ring-fenced the nuclear deterrent, though it deferred until 2016 a decision to modernise it with new submarine platforms. These choices reduced the funds available for other elements of military capability.

A key assumption underlying the SDSR was that, over the coming decade, while discretionary military action against other states could not be ruled out, the UK and its interests were unlikely to face direct threats from state adversaries. This, alongside the coalition government’s decision that British forces would remain heavily committed to the war in Afghanistan until 2015, helps to explain why the SDSR imposed less stringent short- and medium-term cuts on the British Army’s force structure than on the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.

Smaller expeditionary force

Nevertheless, beyond Afghanistan the SDSR provides a rationale for reducing Britain’s capacity for expeditionary operations. ‘We will be more selective in our use of the Armed Forces’, it says, ‘deploying them decisively … but only where key UK national interests are at stake; where we have a clear strategic aim; where the likely political, economic and human costs are in proportion to the likely benefits; where we have a viable exit strategy; and where justifiable under international law’. The review sees greater future emphasis on preventing security problems from escalating into conflict, and provides for an intervention force of up to 30,000 personnel, only two-thirds the size of UK forces deployed to Iraq in 2003.

The army’s personnel strength will be reduced by 7,000 to roughly 95,000 by 2015, and the number of deployable brigades will be cut by one to five. Ultimately, though, following the near-inevitable military withdrawal from Afghanistan – probably within the next five years – the army may need to reduce its personnel strength significantly as it adjusts to its new, smaller order of battle. Maintaining the army’s cutting edge beyond 2015 will require substantial investment in equipment, including upgrading some of its Challenger main battle tanks and Warrior infantry-fighting vehicles, as well as fielding new reconnaissance vehicles and the long-delayed Future Rapid Effects System family. The SDSR identifies army equipment requirements, but is reticent about numbers required. 

The navy will have to accept significant cuts resulting from spending commitments to the £5.2bn aircraft-carrier programme and Astute-class hunter-killer submarines, which are now coming into service. The strategic rationale for retaining the carrier programme, beyond political concerns for the future of shipbuilding in Scotland, is not entirely clear. But the costs to other naval programmes will be considerable. In the first place, the navy’s existing flagship light aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, has been immediately decommissioned, and amphibious capability will be reduced with the decommissioning of a landing ship and the mothballing of a larger ‘landing platform dock’. A further light carrier will be placed in reserve; one will remain in operation as a helicopter platform. The Harrier strike aircraft (operated jointly by the navy and air force) will be retired in 2011. In addition, four Type 22 frigates will be decommissioned early in 2011, reducing the total number of escorts (destroyers and frigates) to 19. As a further cost-saving measure, the first of two new, much larger Queen Elizabeth-class carriers will only enter service in 2020 (rather than 2016), meaning that there will be a gap lasting approximately a decade in the navy’s ability to deploy fixed-wing combat aircraft. And when the new carriers are ready, the SDSR has decided that their combat capability will be considerably smaller than originally envisaged. Only one of the ships will be made readily deployable, and will normally carry only 12 JSFs rather than the ‘up to 36’ previously planned, though with additional helicopters (which could support amphibious operations) on board. The other aircraft carrier will be held in reserve, or perhaps sold. The navy’s personnel strength will be reduced by 5,000 to 30,000.

The number of JSFs purchased will be reduced in line with the aircraft decision, and they will be the conventional F-35C carrier version rather than the Advanced Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing variant, a change which may please the air force but will require that the deployable new carrier is equipped with catapult systems and arresting gear. The air force will suffer other cuts, as well as seeing its personnel reduced by 5,000 to 33,500. The fleet of Tornado GR4 strike aircraft will be reduced from eight to five squadrons. And in a decision which has provoked much controversy in defence circles, the Nimrod MRA4 aircraft programme (which has cost £3.6bn) has been cancelled just as construction was nearing completion, which will leave the UK without a maritime patrol capability after the current version of the Nimrod is withdrawn. Unmanned aircraft, which are being examined under the Scavenger programme, are expected to play a significant role in the future air force. A multinational programme involving other European countries is expected to provide new reconnaissance platforms able to operate at long-range over land and sea. In the longer term, a combat-type unmanned aircraft could be in service by 2030 or 2035. But these unmanned systems remain only at the early stages of development.

International implications

The UK is not alone among Western states in reducing defence spending and military capacity in response to recent economic adversity. It would be politically unsustainable for defence to escape significant funding reductions when there was no clearly identifiable direct military threat to Britain, while other areas of public spending suffered major cuts. The UK’s key ally, the US, has indicated that it understands the Cameron government’s predicament, and seems content that the UK will maintain its military commitment to Afghanistan, keep its defence spending above 2% of GDP (thus setting an example to other European NATO partners), maintain ‘full-spectrum’ armed forces (including Special Forces), continue its wide-ranging intelligence collaboration with Washington, and press ahead with modernising its nuclear deterrent (which is important to Washington because of the UK's financial contribution to its Trident missile programme). For its part, the UK will become rather less able to conduct independent military operations, and more dependent on cooperation with allies. In the first place, this means the US. And while the Cameron government and its defence secretary have a doctrinal aversion to pursuing defence collaboration through the European Union, much closer bilateral military cooperation with France – in many ways, the UK’s military ‘twin’ – has been heralded by a wide-ranging declaration at a summit between Cameron and President Nicolas Sarkozy on 2 November.

In places, the SDSR uses the word ‘global’. However, the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) and the mini-SDR conducted in 2003–04 were quite clear that the UK’s capacity to mount military operations beyond the ‘core regions’ of Europe, Africa and the Middle East was extremely limited; the armed forces’ limited strategic lift, and lack of global bases and pre-positioned equipment and supplies, would greatly constrain any but token UK deployments. Notwithstanding the government’s declared interest in enhancing the UK’s defence and security links in Asia, the cuts foreshadowed in the SDSR can only undermine the UK armed forces’ already limited capacity to deploy further afield than Afghanistan. Some Asian governments may also note the striking contrast between their own ambitious defence programmes and the UK’s military contraction.

It could have been worse

Despite the painful adjustments that will be necessary as the armed forces – particularly the navy and air force – adjust to their new force structures, there has been some relief in British defence circles that capability reductions were not more swingeing. The cut in defence spending was less than that suffered by most other government sectors. Most major military capabilities remain intact, if trimmed. Rumours that the SDSR would delete the navy’s amphibious capability and possibly merge the Royal Marines (the navy’s own infantry troops) with the army’s Parachute Regiment proved erroneous. The army retains substantial deployable combat forces based on its innovative multi-role brigades including heavy armoured units. The air force retains two key combat aircraft fleets – Typhoon and for the time being Tornado – and looks forward to receiving more than 100 carrier-capable JSFs, not to mention A400M transport aircraft and A330-200 in-flight refuelling tankers. Britain's armed forces will remain a powerful deterrent to military aggression against the country and its interests, and they will still possess significant capacities for international deployment, including the capacity in some circumstances to ‘knock the door down’– in other words, to intervene in the face of opposition, though the ability to conduct such operations independently may have been reduced.

Statements by the prime minister and military chiefs indicate that achieving the force structure and capabilities envisaged in the SDSR for 2020 will require growth in the defence budget in real terms from 2015.The detailed costing of the new force structure was not complete by the time the review was published. And Defence Minister Liam Fox’s desire to reform and reduce the size and cost of his ministry must await the work of the Defence Reform Unit, which will not be complete until mid-2011.One important point in the SDSR was that there will be another review in 2015, with further such exercises at five-yearly intervals. These will allow for the reconsideration of defence and wider security plans in light of evolving economic and strategic circumstances. In some areas, the SDSR allows for significant future adjustments to the decisions announced in October. For example, if circumstances demanded and government finances permitted, the second carrier could still be brought into service. However, the converse is also true: if economic growth remains weak and the international environment remains benign, further cuts in defence capability cannot be ruled out.

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