Pre-SDSR 2010

First published: 4th May 2011 | Dr. Duncan Redford

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Whatever the outcome of the cutting process there are a number of factors that should be considered. First, the degree to which Britain is prepared to allow key capabilities to be met by allies. Of course, it can be argued that since 1966 at the latest Britain has been reliant on one ally – the USA – but this review will ensure that certain capabilities will have to be met either in part or in full by one or other of Britain’s European NATO and EU allies. This means a great deal of political effort will be needed to build real trust with Britain’s EU and NATO allies to ensure that they support Britain and vice versa, even on matters of national rather than EU interest. It will also take a great deal of political bravery to face the hostile headlines when the capabilities Britain will be relying on allies to provide are announced and even worse headlines if in a crisis they don’t.

Therefore, given the scale of the cuts – up to 25% – mooted in the UK’s defence structures, whatever force structure and strategic posture that is adopted, some capabilities will have to be met by European NATO members (EurNATO) or EU allies. As a result, assuming the political trust is manufactured to allow such levels of defence interdependency, the fundamental question should be what capabilities Britain can contribute best to EurNATO and the EU, especially what areas Britain is strongest in but where the EU and European members of NATO are weak? Concentrating British defence activities in these areas will maximise the British influence in European defence and foreign policy issues and ensure that the EU can act on a global scale if it so desires.

Overall, some very broad brush statements can be made about what areas in quantitative terms European members of NATO are weakest or strongest, where the UK’s forces represent a significant slice of such capability. At its simplest – and no doubt completely unsurprisingly – EurNATO is very strong in land forces (total manpower 1,339,466), reasonably well off with air defence, strike, and combat air support fixed wing fast jets, far less well provided with strategic air transport, while it is weakest in long-range land attack missiles, strategic nuclear forces and maritime forces. Of course what is a significant single nation contribution to EurNATO forces is highly subjective, but an eighth (12.25%) would be a reasonable starting point. This means that the UK should avoid cutting (and should even consider increasing if at all possible) British capabilities in these areas some of which are politically unpopular, or militarily unfashionable, or just expensive: for example SSBNs, aircraft carriers and the FF/DD force. Conversely other areas could be cut while still maintaining influence within NATO and the EU for, as table 1 shows, they are not necessarily a significant contribution, such as the RAF fast jet, SSN and MCMV forces.

Table 1. Selected UK unit types and the % of NATO totals.[1]

Unit type

Number in UK service

% of EurNATO total
















land based AEW/AWACS












land based AD/ Strike/ FGA/ FGR aircraft






British army manpower



Of course, such simple statistics can be misleading; take the EurNATO SSN/SSK force. European members of NATO provide 75 SSNs or SSKs, so on the surface it seems the 8 UK SSNs are a minor contribution – only 11% of the total. However, there are only 14 SSNs in NATO navies, the reminder of the 75 EurNATO submarines are short ranged and relatively low speed/endurance SSKs. If SSNs alone are considered then the Royal Navy’s SSN force is 57% of the total available to EurNATO – a very significant contribution. Even more important is that the British SSN force is the only European force equipped with the Tomahawk land attack cruise missile, making the Royal Navy’s SSN force a highly potent political weapon for Europe; clearly such a force should not be cut. At the same time the British AAW FF/DD contribution is highly suspect, relying as it does on 6 obsolescent if not obsolete Type 42 destroyers; fortunately six Type 45s are under construction which will maintain Britain’s ability to contribute to and shape EurNATO/EU maritime AAW capabilities.

Therefore, considering only the quantities involved, rather than the quality can be misleading if not dangerous, particularly as assessments of quality are highly subjective. In all three areas of defence activities, sea, land and air, some EU/EurNATO members have different equipment scales, some equipment is not as capable as others in the same category, some equipment is obsolescent, some armed forces still rely on conscription, others are still slowly adjusting to all professional forces, or have less robust training regimes. All of this means that a Frigate, MCMV, Air Force Squadron, infantry battalion, or combat service support unit is not necessarily the same across Europe. This is a considerable worry – or should be – for any state that is considering cutting its armed forces to the point where it might have to rely on an ally’s qualitatively inferior forces in order to meet shared or national foreign policy objectives. So Britain should – but probably will not – expend a great deal of political effort getting allies, who like Britain want to send defence dollars elsewhere in their national budgets, to address their own defence shortcomings in order for British – and EU/EurNATO – conventional forces to remain credible (and the EU/EurNATO should have been doing the same to Britain). This need for qualitative similarity, it must be admitted, is the weak link if not fatal flaw in British and EU defence inter-operability and interdependency.

Quantitative issues notwithstanding, it is clear that the areas that could be safely cut are the British army – especially the infantry force, the RAF’s fast jet fleet and the Royal Navy’s MCMV force. On the other hand the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers (current and projected), FF/DD force, SSNs, amphibious forces, the RFA’s ability to support long distance maritime operations, the RAF AEW aircraft, strategic transport aircraft, air to air refuelling aircraft, and support helicopters should be protected, if not augmented. Unfortunately, the SDR isn’t just about making an effective contribution to NATO or the EU, or even restructuring the UK’s armed forces for the next 20 or 30 years, it is also about reducing the size of the UK’s defence spending.

What is the worst case outcome from the strategic defence and security review? A difficult question to answer; there are so many possibilities which lurk under the heading of ‘worst’. There is one outcome of the SDSR that ticks many of these possibilities – that of adopting a posture based on a single strategic scenario.

The worst possible strategic posture that could be adopted is one that has huge media currency and has been dominating the all too infrequent mainstream press coverage of British defence issues – land-based counter-insurgency. If this posture were adopted it would see token cuts to the British Army, with the bulk of the £7 to £12 billion pa cut falling on the RAF and particularly the Royal Navy (RN).

Although the replacement aircraft carriers will have to be completed or have the MoD suffer punitive cancelation charges, the retention of them would be pointless in this case as not only would their sale, one to India and one elsewhere (perhaps France), would raise some money, but ending fixed wing carrier aviation in the RN and relying on Italian and Spanish CVSs and, above all, the French carrier force, would also allow the ending for British involvement in the F35 programme; it would also allow the Sea King ASaC Mk 7s also to be disposed of without replacement. Cutting the F35 project could save in the region of $17 billion/£10.75 billion. It would also seriously impede the EU’s ability to project any power beyond its borders while ensuring that Britain would be hard pressed to meet its overseas defence obligations, unless these were renegotiated by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office concurrently with the SDSR process.

Heavy cuts to the Type 22/23 force must also be expected as it would be politically damaging to dispose of the new Type 45s at the same time as getting rid of the two new carriers. With only 17 Type 22s and Type 23s and a total FF/DD force of just 23, expect post SDSR levels to fall to perhaps 10 Type 23s and 6 Type 45s. Cuts to the MCMV force would also occur, but more significantly, the amphibious force would also take a major hit – perhaps losing the LPH HMS Ocean as it will be due for replacement in the next few years and one or possibly both Albion class LPDs, with the military lift relying on the RFA manned Bay class LSDs. If this were to occur, the Commando Helicopter Force would almost certainly face severe cuts as there would be very limited deck space for them to operate from and with such a cut in amphibious capability 3 Commando Brigade might also be at risk of cuts.

The middle case in our worst/best scale would probably be one where the traditional salami slicing of capabilities takes place. This would mean that although capabilities might be retained, they may well be so small as to be insignificant or even prove difficult to maintain in the long term. However, for better or worse, Dr Liam Fox has ruled out this approach, suggesting a more wide-ranging and potentially radical defence review.

The best outcome from the SDSR is one that combines cuts with restructuring and re-equipment. For this reason it is the least likely as only by investing in the armed forces in this way can Britain develop credible and deployable forces that are smaller and cheaper but still flexible enough to survive the certain strategic shocks that will be faced over a twenty year period. At the same time, such restructuring and re-equipment will ensure that Britain’s contribution to the EU’s armed forces and those of NATO’s ensures that the United Kingdom retains significant prestige and influence within these organisations by filling well known capability gaps. The best way of meeting these requirements will be to concentrate on maritime forces, particularly blue-water, power projection capabilities, while air forces concentrate on strategic and tactical airlift as well as battlefield mobility.

So what would the best case force structure look like in order to meet the demands of being able to operate globally and be flexible enough to mitigate against strategic shocks? There will still be significant and emotive cuts, but ones if Britain works with her alliance partners will have a minimal effect on British defence and the alliances to which Britain belongs. The Navy will need to cut its FF force down to 12 in order to release resources for meaningful numbers of a C2/C3 type multi-role ship that can form the basis of a new MCM force as well as a large, capable OPV – a Meko 100 type vessel or similar – for operations other than high-intensity war fighting.

The British army, will, unfortunately, have to bear the brunt of the cuts given its unbalanced force structure. In order to bring the teeth arms into alignment with what can be realistically supported by the current combat support (CS) and combat service support (CSS) units a major reorganisation is needed. This means a cut of around 18 infantry battalions (approximately 11,340 men) – all of which are light role units with limited battlefield mobility and firepower, and that lack CS and CSS units to keep them in the field and operational. The British army will still need and have 6 armoured brigades and 16 Air Assault Brigade, but the question needs to be asked to they need to be ‘square’ units of 4 battlegroups, or worse still the Future Army Structure’s monster units of 6 battlegroups but apparently with no additional artillery, engineer and other support units, or can a 3 battlegroup ‘triangular’ formation that can be ‘squared’ with additional Territorial Army units in the event of a major confrontation provide sufficient operational flexibility while still preserving skills and regeneration capability? Or put another way – why does it need an army of over 100,000 to produce two weak armoured/mechanised divisions and an air assault brigade – say 50,000 strong all told? Finally, does the British army need the regular capability to support operations at 750 kms from a base? Can a shorter logistics chain be used? Can the 2nd and 3rd line logistics support be civilianized in the manner of the RFA, or delivered in another form?

The RAF too, in our ‘best’ scenario will face cuts. If a maritime based strategic posture is to provide the flexibility and strategic reach needed over the next 20 years or more, then the viability of some units comes into question, particularly the RAF regiment. If air power is to be provided in the main from the new carriers and the amphibious force (no matter what colour uniform the pilots wear) then the need for ground based airfield defence tails off. In this regard, all the RAF regiment squadrons could be cut; a saving of about 1,000 men. At the same time, the Joint NBC regiment could be removed from the regulars – a cut of 244 personnel. Hard questions will also have to be asked about the Typhoon project – late and massively over budget – both in terms of numbers purchased and above all its utility and value for money. There also seems to be overlap between the capabilities of the Expeditionary Air Wings (EAW) and the typed RAF stations and squadrons that provide the aircraft. If the basis of RAF deployable airpower is to be the EAW then does the RAF squadron and parent base need the current levels of operations planners and intelligence support?

There will also be major restructuring of defence procurement and the civilian sectors of defence, commercial-off-the-shelf purchasing will be the norm, even for major items of equipment – the days of Britain gold plating designs or producing bespoke equipment will be over. Furthermore, the days of prestige European collaborative projects that seem to suffer innumerable delays and cost over-runs will have to stop.

In terms of the structure, organisation of the armed forces and the administration of defence, nothing more than a complete re-evaluation will be needed. In order for defence to be able to administer itself better for less money, almost a bottom-up review of every administrative function will be needed rather than just seeking the traditional X percent efficiency savings. By effectively starting again not tweaking existing structures and lines of authority, massive saving in administration and command and control personnel could be made. It will provide the vehicle for shifting responsibility downwards and removing large numbers of senior officers and their posts. After all, does it really need a wing commander to control 12 or 16 RAF aircraft, could not a squadron leader do the job, especially as in the recent past the commanders of naval and army air squadrons have been the equivalents of squadron leaders? Why have Commodores in command of the Navy’s shore establishments when they used to be commanded by Captains? Why does London need a military district with a major-general in charge of it, could this not be done by the regenerative formations? Does the effective planning of defence activities need three single service staffs, an MoD central staff, the staff of the Permanent Joint Headquarters, a civil service secretariat, the defence logistics organisation and a massive procurement organisation?

A radical reform of the administration of defence would also allow the re-orientation of corporate cultures away from single service prestige goals (the Eurofighter/Typhoon perhaps?) to ones that may well be single service rather than jointly operated, but contribute significantly to ensuring the maximum deployable force with the maximum inherent flexibility. This corporate pursuit of balanced forces rather than the domination of one element (such as fast jets) will be the key to the UK being able to retain a measure of independent action while effectively contributing to an alliance structure; the concentration on the defence output at the single service and joint level, rather than the internal politics and corporate culture within each of the services.

There are, however, areas that need enhancing if the British armed forces are to be able to provide the support that such a flexible response strategy requires on a global scale. First, the LPH, HMS Ocean, needs to be replaced; it is fast approaching the end of its life and the LPH concept is not as capable as LHD designs. To this end two Canberra type LHDs should be purchased, with the added bonus that these ships will also be able to fulfil the role of Primary Casualty Receiving Ship thanks to the hospital included in the design. By building two LHDs one will always be available for operations, while the other is in maintenance, and providing training support such as that currently provided by RFA Argus – eliminating the need to replace the Argus. Such a project will cost in the region of £1.8 billion pounds. Consideration should also be given to replacing the Commando Helicopter Force’s Sea Kings with Osprey V22 tilt rotor aircraft to maximise the air assault capabilities of the amphibious force and replacing the Lynx AH7/9/Wildcats of 848 Squadron with AH64 Apache helicopter gunships. Second, the fleet wide fit of land attack cruise missiles needs increasing, preferably by retaining some of the T class SSNs in service. An SSN fleet of 10 vessels will ensure that sufficient TLAM SSNs are available to cover a number of contingencies as well as intelligence gathering and the direct support of Task Groups and land forces ashore. Third, the RN’s ability to operate globally at the C2/3 level needs to be enhanced – this will mean new MCMVs which will hopefully share the same hull and basic superstructure as a new OPV/corvette that will be able to operate as a front line unit in all operations other than high intensity war fighting, but still provide a ‘2nd rate’ combatant for major conflicts. Fourth, in order to maximize the value for money of the new carriers, they should be fitted to operate the F35C variant – not the STOVL F35B; doing this will also reduce the aircraft unit cost by $25 million. At the same time, such alterations would allow the operation of E2D Hawkeye AEW aircraft and C2 Greyhounds for carrier onboard delivery operations – both essential to ensure the investment in the carrier force is maximized and these ships and task groups supporting them can operate at their full potential. Furthermore, to ensure that there will always be a ready supply of aircraft capable of operating from the carriers, consideration should be given to cancelling the Typhoon and replacing it (and the GR4 Tornados and GR9 Harriers) with the F35C at a 3 to 2 ratio for front line aircraft giving a homogenous and genuinely swing-role fast jet force with reduced training and logistics costs. This could take the front line strength from just over 170 fast jets plus reserves and operational conversion units to 108 F35Cs in 9 squadrons (plus reserves and a single operational conversion unit), all of which could be used to support the Fleet Air Arm if required. Fifth, the RAF strategic airlift capability needs significant enhancement. The military A400M is running late and costs are rising – it should be replaced on a one for one basis with C17 Globemaster III aircraft which would provide a far superior military lift than the A400M. At the same time the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft project has generated some worrying criticisms of the PFI arrangement, the cost – £10.5 billion – and the capability of the aircraft; this should be revised and if necessary aborted with the aircraft purchased under more traditional arrangements. Sixth, the numbers of medium and heavy lift battlefield helicopters need to be increased urgently and the opportunity should be taken to produce a homogenous medium helicopter fleet based on the Merlin. Seventh, the British army’s armoured/mechanised brigades will need re-equipment – for example the ‘Bulldog’ FV432 armour personnel carrier dates from the 1960s. This does not mean that the main battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles will be scrapped as they will still be needed. What it means is that a wheeled counterpart to the tracked elements will be needed to provide these 6 brigades with sufficient flexibility and ensure they are air portable. To this end, 3 brigades/9 battlegroups worth of the Piranha/Stryker LAV type vehicles will be needed – one brigade equivalent for training, the second stored near a suitable airhead (or in use on operations) and the third stored near a suitable embarkation port (or in use on operations). This will mean that the armoured brigades could be deployed entirely as heavy armoured units, or as lighter mechanised units, or as a mixture of the two as dictated by operational circumstances, or indeed leave their vehicles behind and operate as light formations. Eighth, the British army’s helicopter gunship capability needs to be enhanced. The AH64D Apache has shown its usefulness in Iraq and Afghanistan and the number of Lynx AH7/9/Wildcats should be reduced in favour of increased numbers of Apaches. Ninth, under the army’s logic that 6 units allow 1 permanently deployed, the number air assault brigades should be doubled from 1 of 4 battlegroups to 2 brigades with a total of 6 battlegroups. This will also ensure sufficient light air mobile forces to provide follow on forces for an amphibious operation or vertical envelopment launched by the Royal Marines. Tenth, an additional Royal Marine Commando battlegroup is needed. Currently, one of 3 Commando Brigade’s commando battlegroups is earmarked for fleet use in addition to the Fleet Protection Unit. As a result, an army battalion has been seconded to 3 Cdo Brigade to ensure it has a minimum of three battlegroups under its operational command. Replacing the army battlegroup will enhance the cohesiveness and flexibility of the brigade by ensuring all elements are amphibious and air assault capable. Of course, spending on new equipment will be a hard sell to the treasury, but much like the proposed reforms to the UK’s welfare system, a small short term increase in spending may result in lower long term costs and a more effective system.

The SDSR will also have to consider the ability to regenerate forces which cannot be neglected within the forthcoming strategic cycle. Indeed, one of the ways to preserve some knowledge of capabilities that cannot be justified within regular force structures is to transfer them to the volunteer reserve sector and the best case SDSR result will be one that reforms, restructures and re-equips the volunteer reserve forces of all three services. This means that the reserve forces will, depending on service, have to carry out two tasks that may not be entirely complementary – acting as the initial regeneration tool in the event of a major and prolonged conflict or very severe strategic shock while at the same time, being able to provide little used capabilities to the regular forces for contingency and short term operations.

To take an example of potentially little used capabilities that might be moved to the reserve forces consider, the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR). In this scenario the RNR could again become specialists in mine warfare operations with a new generation of MCMVs based on a shared hull with a corvette/sloop sized vessel. After all, the Royal Navy’s MCMV capability is just under 8% of the European members of NATO’s mine warfare forces. Therefore, moving some of this capability to the reverses will protect UK skill levels while not having a major impact on EU/NATO forces levels. An RAF option would be the wholesale transfer of regular RAF Regiment’s ground defence capabilities to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force (RAuxAF) on the basis that most if not all expeditionary air power will be delivered from a maritime base. Indeed, the RAuxAF could be greatly enhanced to again provide aircrew and aircraft to supplement a smaller regular force. In particular, it could be relatively easy to build up reserve forces capability in helicopters and multi-engine strategic airlift – even if the re-establishment of RAuxAF operational squadrons equipped with Merlins, Airbuses, or Hercules aircraft is too much for either the MoD establishment (or more likely the Treasury) to bare. The Joint army/RAF NBC reconnaissance regiment could also be moved from a regular to reserve basis. The TA too, could be used to preserve low priority capabilities. One area that immediately springs to mind is the current logistics capability of supporting a divisional sized formation at 750kms from a main supply base. Such a capability, for such a large formation, is not one that will often be used – hopefully – especially if the general strategic posture leans towards sea-basing and operating on land from the sea in order to reduce political and military exposure. To this end, any reduction in the capability to support an armoured brigade, rather than a division, at a distance – say to 500kms – could be offset by rerolling and enhancing the number of TA Royal Logistics Corps units.

The regeneration of forces for a major conflict on the other hand presents a different set of needs. It is unlikely that the RNR or the RAuxAF given the structure of the regular forces and the training requirement provide a long-term regeneration capability. The Territorial Army (TA) on the other hand could play a significant role not only in keeping low priority capabilities alive for the army, but also in the rapid regeneration and support of the British Army, in the manner that it has done in Iraq and Afghanistan where complete TA units have been deployed, but also been used to bring regular formations up to strength before deploying. However, with the need to reduce the British Army post SDSR, the TA could have an enhanced role. If, for example, the six regular armoured/mechanised brigades are reduced to a ‘triangular’ structure of two infantry battalions and one armoured regiment, then with a small increase in numbers the Yeomanry regiments within the TA could be used to ‘square’ these brigades to a two infantry, two armoured basis. Furthermore, if the some of the TA units were used in this fashion, it would also be possible to establish composite regular/TA units, especially within the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, Royal Logistics Corps and RAMC units, whose regiments allocated to the regular armoured/mechanised brigades would each need additional sub-units to support this additional fourth battle-group in each brigade. At the same time, there is no reason why the TA could not provide complete brigades or even a divisional headquarters to ensure that the overall strength of the British Army is capable of initially meeting the manpower demands of a major conflict. However, some areas could be cut even in an enhanced volunteer reserve structure. Given the lack of a credible direct threat to the UK within the current strategic framework, the TA’s national defence regiments – notably in the Royal Signals – could be cut.

Nor should an enhanced or even enlarged volunteer reserve forces mean substantial additional costs. Much of the equipment – especially for the RAuxAF and TA would come from the drawdown of regular units in the army and RAF. Yes, there will be maintenance and training costs, but for the TA much of the equipment they will be training on will be the same as the regulars and hence can be included within these maintenance schedules. It may well be argued that cascading surplus equipment to reserve formations will only store up procurement problems for the future, but the current equipment has been paid for – it may as well be used in some form or another. Furthermore, even if the cascade of equipment to the reserve forces means that a re-assessment of their needs and roles occurs within the next ten years, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The UK’s reserves need to be strategically relevant if they are to be able to recruit; a regular re-assessment of what they do, how and with what equipment is preferable to the possibility of irrelevance. At the same time, transferring low priority capabilities and roles to the reserve forces will reduce the regular manpower and as the reserve forces are not pensionable, reduce the MoD’s pension liabilities.

The SDSR there presents the UK with an opportunity as well as a problem. It just remains to be seen if the coalition government, as well as the politicians, senior officers and civil servants within the MoD are people of vision or not.

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