The Strategic Defence and Security Review: a Critique

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

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1.0. Executive Summary

2.0. Introduction

3.0. The political aspects of military force in a democratic society

4.0. Strategic incoherence? Matching the SDSR statement to The Force structure

5.0. An Eccentric Force Structure? Corporate culture and strategic needs

5.1. The Royal Navy

5.2. The British Army

5.3. The Royal Air Force

5.4. Harmony – the hidden problem

6.0. Adding value to alliances?

7.0. The reserve forces: the regeneration game

8.0. Procurement and management of defence

9.0. An alternative vision

10.0. Conclusions

11.0. Recommendations



1. Executive Summary.

This paper critiques the recent SDSR statement on the future shape of Britain’s Armed Forces.

The decision to consider the wider security implications rather than concentrate on pure defence matters is correct and welcomed.

The Review of defence issues is compromised by its failure to consider defence matters in full: there is no consideration of the part to be played by the volunteer reserves; a reform of the offshore and coastal protection; the reform of the Ministry of Defence and its satellite organisations; or the validity of using defence procurement as a proxy for an industrial policy, whose costs should not be borne by the defence budget.

There is a fundamental mismatch between the strategic aspirations of the Review and the forces it considers will meet these aspirations.

The force structures proposed by the SDSR are so at odds with the strategic aspirations of the Review as to place Britain’s Armed Forces in danger of irrelevance in the face of an uncertain and shifting global security environment.

There is no clear and unambiguous statement of an over-arching strategic posture that can guide force structures and doctrinal development.

The SDSR, in effectively implying that Britain’s Armed Forces are to be configured to (re)fight the land counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan only, fails to recognise the political and practical impossibility of repeating these types of operation elsewhere in the world.

There are significant cuts to Britain’s ability to project power at a global level.
There are no cuts to the defence commitments that Britain has to meet.

Overstretch of the Armed Forces, especially the Maritime Forces, is now more, not less, likely as a result of the SDSR process. Harmony rules differ between the services and must be equalised.

The cuts outlined in the SDSR document are in the areas where Britain could exert the most influence within the EU and the European members of NATO. The SDSR cuts therefore do nothing to support or strengthen the alliances Britain will be depending on for its future wider security.

Given the aspirations of the SDSR statement, the logical strategic posture is one that leans far more towards the maritime domain than British armed forces have done in the recent past or than is envisaged by the force structures proposed by the SDSR.


2. Introduction.

The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) is the first assessment of British defence needs since the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR). Given the legacy of underfunding by the previous government, a full and exhaustive survey of British defence needs and how they can best be met is welcome and long overdue. However, the history of defence reviews is not a happy one for the British. The Reviews have frequently been seen not as a means of reconciling British defence needs with the best strategy and resources needed to meet them, but as a means of reducing defence spending, often without reducing the defence commitments or considering the political as well as strategic implications of those commitments and what reductions in capability will mean. For example, the 1966 Healey Defence Review, which scrapped the Royal Navy’s fixed-wing carrier programme in favour of land-based airpower, was as much about reducing defence spending as it was about finding the right strategic posture to maintain British influence East of Suez. The 1968 decision to withdraw from East of Suez came about because of the 1967 financial crisis. The 1981 Nott Review concentrated on the central front of NATO, while failing to consider the political ramifications of an attack on Britain’s interests and dependencies beyond the NATO area – the result was that Britain had to fight over the Falkland Islands or its reputation in the world would have been worth nothing and the government would have fallen.

This does not mean that defence can, or should, be considered in a security or political vacuum. Defence capability rests on the ability of a country to be able to afford it; for Britain the economic constraints on defence spending have been a fact of life since, at least, the rearmament programmes of the 1930s. Yet, a balance has to be found between safeguarding the economy and meeting wider defence and security needs. This paper will examine the SDSR statement to see if it either reflects a realistic appreciation of Britain’s defence needs, or is a piece of political sleight of hand that seeks to reduce spending without a sound consideration of the consequences.


3. The political aspects of military force in a democratic society.

When considering whether the SDSR is strategically coherent, relevant and matches the requirements set out in the NSC strategy statement, or whether it is a lost opportunity that lacks strategic flexibility, mobility and coherence across all three Services, there is one issue that underpins the whole process – that of political realism. As the threat, or use, of armed force “is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means”,[1] then the political aspects of armed force are vital. Quite simply, for military force – either the threat, or actual use – to be effective, it needs political and domestic support. Without political and domestic support, effective armed action, or the threat of it – conventional deterrence – in pursuit of government policy is impossible.

Unlike every post-war review of defence needs and funding, the SDSR has taken place whilst Britain has been actively engaged in long-term military operations that generate significant casualties and mediaattention. Indeed, Britain has been involved in continuous, relatively high intensity military operations since Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001. The amount of political and domestic support for these operations is, however, questionable. Britain’s involvement in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 was immensely divisive domestically and internationally;[2] her continued involvement in Afghanistan has also been questioned by much of the population.[3] Indeed, Britain’s continued involvement in Afghanistan is clearly so bound up with the political fortunes of the coalition government since it announced that UK combat forces would be withdrawn by 2015 – the year that it stated it will next go to the polls.

The political realism of the types of conflict the SDSR statement is preparing for is therefore of paramount importance. There is no point restructuring Britain’s Armed Forces to fight certain types of operation – such as land counter-insurgency operations similar to those carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan post-2003 – if, due to political and domestic issues, such actions merely lose the government the next election; in such a case, no government would embark on that line of action. Unfortunately, the political realism of the SDSR decisions is not considered by either the NSC strategy statement or the SDSR statement. As such, the restructuring of the Armed Forces away from a genuine capability for strategic flexibility and mobility to one focused on land counter-insurgency operations, supported solely by land-based fast jet close air support of the sort carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan post-2003 is highly questionable. It is highly unlikely that, given the domestic and international legacy of Britain’s involvement in these two conflicts, a future British government would carry out any such operations. So, why base the UK’s Armed Forces’ strategic posture on an event that would likely be improbable?

Nor must it be assumed that any continuation of the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the USA will depend on any adherence to American foreign policy. As Britain’s non-involvement in Vietnam showed, the ‘special relationship’ can survive such policy disagreements – especially if Britain provides the leadership and capabilities within the EU and wider Europe that ensure its voice is worth listening to and its support worth cultivating.


4. Strategic incoherence? Matching the SDSR statement to The Force structure.

The National Security Strategy (NSS) statement published on 17 October 2010 sets out the aims of the SDSR process:

• To ensure British forces in Afghanistan have the equipment they need;

• To begin to bring the defence programme back into balance;

• To enable Britain to retain the best and most versatile armed forces in the world – and better equipped to protect British security in an uncertain world.[4]

Furthermore, the NSS statement presents a welcome and long overdue attempt to consider British security as a whole government function, rather than just a matter for the Ministry of Defence. Despite this holistic view and the necessarily broad approach to security that this engenders, the NSS statement still makes a number of assertions regarding the sort of roles and threats the Armed Forces specifically will have to face. To this end, the NSS statement included in its initial framing strategic discussion the requirement to “maintain the defensive and offensive capabilities to deploy armed force to protect UK territory from hostile action and to meet our commitments to our allies”.[5] The NSS document also makes a number of significant statements, notably:

• There is no major state threat to Britain;[6]

• Britain is to play a major role in shaping international institutions and alliances such as NATO and the EU;[7]

• That the tier 1, 2 and 3 threats must shape the SDSR.[8]

Within the SDSR statement, it is clear that a number of issues have to be addressed. Primacy in the guiding rationale for the SDSR is the success of current operations in Afghanistan.[9] Whether anything resembling success – the establishment of a stable, non-extremist Islamic state – is highly unlikely. The Taliban’s insurgent forces are currently able to rest, re-equip and support themselves not only from within much of Afghanistan, but also from across the border in Pakistan and, undoubtedly, in Iran as well.[10] These reservoirs of safe havens for the insurgents will ensure that whatever the short-term outcome of military, political and reconstruction operations in Afghanistan, both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and its constituent Islamist terrorist groups will be able to resume operations against the Afghan government. Indeed, with the proximity of safe havens in Pakistan and support from elements within the Pakistani and Iranian governments, military and general population, the only way to ensure the stability of Afghanistan and the reduction of the Taliban threat and influence in the region will be to treat Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran as an inter-related problem. Political support, however, for such a drastic widening of operations in the region is so unlikely at present as to be viewed as impossible to achieve. Possibly the only way forward is a political deal with the Taliban that sidelines Al-Qaeda, but this may well be very hard to achieve in practice and still could result in the establishment of a hard-line Isalmist state with the potential to cause as many regional problems as it might solve.

What the SDSR fails to make clear are the very obvious limitations of Britain’s control over events in Afghanistan. The current UK land force is but 4% of the total NATO-Afghan security forces; this figure will drop to 2% when the Afghan forces build to their planned strengths. This relatively small British force – an enhanced single brigade – is covering just 1/3rd of 1 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. On any sensible strategic analysis, that one province, Helmand, would not appear in the top five priority provinces in Afghanistan. It follows, therefore, that, notwithstanding the huge amount of political and strategic capital invested by UK in Afghanistan, the British Armed Forces are essentially a relatively minor component in a campaign over which they have no real control, and whose tempo will continue to be largely dictated by the implacable drum beat of the US domestic political cycle.

It would be wrong, however, to consider that the SDSR is solely concerned with the maintenance of British Forces in Afghanistan. The role of alliances in safeguarding British security is also emphasised.[11] Conventional deterrence, as well as nuclear deterrence, are highlighted as a key issue, and are combined very significantly with Britain’s involvement with collective security institutions.[12] Indeed, such is the importance attached to the credibility of British contributions to alliances such as NATO that the SDSR argues that such an approach requires Britain to:

• Focus on what the MoD judges to be of the greatest utility to Britain’s allies as well as the UK;

• Broadly retain a full spectrum of capabilities;

• Maintain collectively the ability to reconstitute or regenerate capabilities;

• Invest in key technologies to ensure regeneration at an appropriate technological level.[13]

The flexibility of the Armed Forces’ capabilities and the maintenance of a broad spectrum of capabilities are also seen as highly important, as are geographical reach and the capability to engage in high intensity operations as needed.[14] Also of interest is the declaration that “We will maintain our ability to act alone where we cannot expect others to help”.[15] More specifically, the SDSR statement declares that the Armed Forces will be balanced, flexible, adaptable, rigorously prioritised on pragmatic decisions based on needs, use the minimum number of different equipment fleets to provide quality and effectiveness, and be expeditionary in character.[16]

Apart from the emphasis on the need for flexible and adaptable forces, the SDSR does not include any explicit statement about the broad strategy to be followed: there is no outline of which maritime, land, or expeditionary strategic posture best meets these criteria. While it can be inferred from the emphasis on balanced, flexible and adaptable forces that strategic mobility and flexibility are predicated on a maritime strategy, the review also infers the adoption of a land-centric counter-insurgency strategy for the foreseeable future – given the stress placed on support for on-going operations in Afghanistan. Without a clear, unambiguous statement of the strategic posture the government feels best meets its analysis of future – rather than current – operations, there is the danger that the disparate and divergent aims of the corporate cultures of the three Armed Services will inhibit the creation of an effective defence and security policy backed by a coherent force structure. Furthermore, the SDSR draws back from assessing what size capabilities generated by a medium-sized power such as Britain should be.

Most importantly, the SDSR also does not indicate how defence commitments can be cut; it concentrates only on what capabilities will be reduced or abolished completely. Without any reduction in operations or their geographical spread, any attempt to eliminate over-stretch, which the SDSR claims is one of its main concerns, will be impossible. Indeed, the cuts to capabilities may actually make the over-stretch, especially for maritime forces, even worse than it is at present.

The SDSR and the NSS also show the multiplicity of agencies involved in home security. There is the risk that with many different agencies involved in the direct security of Britain from terrorist attack, the relative complexity and divided institutional structures may slow a response and allow gaps in coverage to appear. Only strong political and administrative oversight can ensure that the focus of these different agencies is maintained. To take the UK coastline and its security as an example, it is currently extremely porous with the MoD, Home Office, Treasury and other government departments all playing a part through agencies such as the Armed Forces, the Police, the Border Agency, the Coastguard and the Customs wing of Her Majesties Revenue and Customs. In addition, there is now the PFI company which will be operating the Search and Rescue provision in the future in place of the Fleet Air Arm and RAF. All of these institutions and agencies will potentially be playing a part, alongside environment agencies in the case of accidents and disastrous levels pollution as the result of a maritime incident.

It can be seen, therefore, that there is a broad coherence between the policy laid out in the NSS and the aspirations of the SDSR statement, particularly the emphasis placed on adding value to alliances. The means by which the SDSR attempts to meet its own principles and goals, however, undermines the whole process, as it does not produce a strategic posture to frame procurement and other defence activities, provide the appropriate force structures – flexible, adaptable, balanced, and efficient – or reduce the overstretch it considers vital. Nor do these proposed changes in force structures add value to alliances.


5. An Eccentric Force Structure? Corporate culture and strategic needs.

One of the more worrying aspects of the SDSR is the readily apparent fact that decisions have been driven more by corporate culture than a cold, hard assessment of future strategic needs. The Armed Services have been able to indulge in preserving aspects of their current force structures that venerate their traditions as well as reinforce their corporate culture and image. Such a corporate response was only to be expected, given the possible scale of the cuts, but it ensured a highly partisan approach to Britain’s strategic needs based on which Service had managed to dominate and control the media and political debate. In the weeks and months before the SDSR was published, there was a succession of stories in the media pushing a short-term focus on current operations in Afghanistan over the longer-term political and strategic environment in which the Armed Forces would have to operate. These factors have been exacerbated by the inexperience of the new coalition government and divisions within it, preventing the development of a comprehensive and coherent posture by the Ministry of Defence that met the criteria set down by the NSC strategy statement (published only the day before the SDSR announcement).

In such a context, any marrying-up of the force structures with Britain’s strategic needs must be considered to have occurred by accident, rather than design. The end result of this process has been a force structure that does not meet the aspirations of the Review. Moreover, given the concentration on cutting maritime power projection assets at all levels of naval activity, while the RAF and Army receive far less severe cuts to capabilities or manpower, the Review resembles the 1981 Nott Review. Comparatively speaking, the Nott Review had a clear strategic posture and was politically achievable – support for the central front of NATO – unlike the SDSR process.


5.1 The Royal Navy.

Of the three Services, the Royal Navy is the one whose corporate culture most closely matches the broad framework of the NSC strategy statement. For hundreds of years, the multiplicity of the Royal Navy’s peacetime and wartime tasks was supported by the corporate belief that this variety of naval operations was best met by a balanced fleet capable of global reach – one that could cope with a number of strategic, operational and tactical problems or threats by ensuring there was a mix of capabilities without a preponderance of any one. A balanced fleet allows a spread of threats to be dealt with, rather than concentrate on only one aspect of naval operations – such as trade, defence, mine warfare, or maritime policing activities.[17] As a result, strategic flexibility and mobility form the foundation of the Royal Navy’s corporate culture; if left to its own devices, it will usually generate force structures that reflect this culture. Its corporate culture – its default strategic setting – is, therefore, very close to both the letter and spirit of the NSC strategy statement.

The SDSR has stated that a number of naval equipment programs will go forward – although perhaps not at the same speed or size. The two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, will be built. The Type 26 project to replace the remaining Type 22 Frigates and, in time, the Type 23 force, will go ahead, but with an in-service date after 2020. The Type 45 programme of 6 ships will be completed. The SDSR has also put forward a number of capability or numerical cuts to naval aviation associated with the aircraft carrier force, the amphibious force and the Frigate and Destroyer (FF/DD) force. Taken as a whole, the SDSR force and capability reductions are not as severe as had been widely suggested in the media, but the naval force structures proposed by the SDSR do not, in either the medium or long-term, provide the mobility and strategic flexibility that lies at the heart of the NSC strategy statement and the aspirations of the SDSR itself. Furthermore, The SDSR failed to consider the confusing collection of agencies that are concerned with the protection of our fisheries, oil-rigs and wind farms as well as the porosity of our coasts and ports to smuggling and terrorist action. There must be a case for placing these agencies under one authority so that any action when needed can be quickly and correctly taken. There is also a case for keeping Search and Rescue under naval control as these assets can be used for ship inspections while providing the naval aircrew with active shore jobs when not at sea.

5.1.1 The Aircraft Carriers: Under the SDSR, the Government plans to scrap immediately HMS Ark Royal and either dispense with HMS Illustrious or convert her to a commando carrier role only. The Harrier GR9 force, since the 2006 decision to get rid of the Sea Harrier FA2, the – only aircraft currently able to be used on both the existing CVS aircraft carriers and the new Queen Elizabeth class – is also to be eliminated. This will leave Britain without any form of maritime air power for air defence or power projection until 2020. Expert estimates are that it will take considerably longer – possibly to 2030 – to rebuild a naval or maritime fast jet force due to the fact that the current aircrew and support staff are not likely to remain in the Service following the disappearance of the Harrier force.

A naval carrier force cannot be rapidly improvised from RAF sources, as they lack the culture, training and experience to operate from aircraft carriers, even if suitable aircraft were available.[18] Furthermore, the delay in the in-service date (2020 rather than 2016) that has to be imposed in the programme due to the decision to fit catapults and arrestor gear to the new carriers is extremely pessimistic. The carriers could be in service by 2016 but it seems that political expediency, rather than sound procurement and strategic decisions, carries the risk that the delays will further inflate the cost of the project. It is not necessary to delay the aircraft carriers until the F35C becomes available in 2020 (current estimates suggest the F35C will enter US Navy service about 2016, contradicting the logic of the SDSR report). Even if the F35C were delayed until 2020, it would still be possible either to have HMS Queen Elizabeth enter service with the Harrier while HMS Prince of Wales enters service later with catapults, arrestor gear and the F35C or another naval aircraft, or to continue with the conversion to operate conventional naval aircraft, but without politically inspired delays by leasing an interim carrier air group of US Super Hornet F18E/Fs.[19]

The SDSR accepts the ‘hard’ and ‘soft power’ arguments as well as the strategic rationale for maintaining a carrier strike capability based on British defence needs.[20] To tolerate such a massive capability gap for over 10 years undermines the whole point of the SDSR and is a further example of the aspirations of the SDSR for flexible and adaptable forces being at odds with the forces prescribed by it. At the same time, to argue that the government “cannot foresee circumstances in which the UK would require the scale of strike capability previously planned”[21] is so disingenuous as to be deliberately misleading.

The SDSR Report is supposed to be preparing for uncertainty, yet in such an uncertain strategic environment it is considered that there is no role for aircraft carriers before 2020. Any operation that takes place outside the reach of RAF aircraft based in Britain will require a properly equipped aircraft carrier on hand. Until 2020, where there is no guaranteed land-based air superiority, the Amphibious Force could not be used at an acceptable risk. In the same vein, it would seem imperative that both aircraft carriers are retained, albeit with one in refit or extended readiness; to sell the second vessel would again undermine the capability of the Amphibious Forces. As an example, if the runway at Mount Pleasant in the Falklands were rendered unusable, reinforcement by air would be impossible and the reinstitution of air superiority could only be achieved by carrier-borne fixed wing aircraft.

Even where land-based air power may be available, the use of a carrier would promote greater air tasking flexibility, and avoid weather issues – such as the ones that grounded RAF aircraft flying in support of NATO operations in Kosovo in 1999. Furthermore, if positioned as off an area of interest, an aircraft carrier has the potential to offer much higher sortie rates and time on task for its aircraft, giving vital additional close air support for land forces, than more distant land based aircraft operating from major bases such as Ascension Island or Diego Garcia – if the USA permits operations from these airfields. An aircraft carrier can also ensure that the maximum available force is deployed at the minimum cost. By being able to position itself close to the scene rather than rely on distant fixed airbases, the cost in resources and the logistics footprint of a carrier based operation can be substantially less than a land based one. As the aircraft from a carrier would have shorter transit times than more distant land based air assets, not only will the sortie rate be higher for a given force level, but the costs in terms of fuel will be lower and there will not be a requirement for separate land based air to air refuelling assets which would further increase the logistics and personnel requirements as well as the financial cost. In the case of conventional naval aircraft like the F18 or F35C, buddy-buddy air to air refuelling is also possible, vastly increasing the range of the carrier strike – and its ability to deter, coerce and strike – without the provision of additional air assets. As the USN is demonstrating with the its carrier-based close air support for NATO forces in Afghanistan, the strike carrier adds a significant force multiplier to the tool kit available to the Commander on the scene and politicians at home.

5.1.2 The Amphibious Force: The amphibious force has had a dramatic cut in capability, most notably in reducing the size of the required embarked military force to be supported. Previously, this was a brigade level formation with supporting arms and units. Under SDSR, this has been reduced to being able to land and support only 1,800 men – a commando battlegroup and supporting units.[22] This raises the fundamental issue as to what size of formation should a medium-sized power such as Britain be capable of producing. It is noticeable that the size of formation to be generated from Army resources is a brigade – both the so-called multi-role brigades and 16 Air Assault Brigade.[23] The question, then, is why should Britain not produce a brigade level amphibious capability, given its ability to loiter off-shore with no host nation support, act as a base for raids, or secure a lodgement for larger or long-term operations, or ensure that the forces constantly exposed to attack on land are minimised by basing much of the supporting units at sea.

The SDSR makes no attempt to explain why an integrated brigade level amphibious capability that uses organic helicopter assault supported by landing craft from over the horizon as its main mode of operations is less important than a land-based helicopter-borne air assault brigade that not only requires host nation support to operate, but also depends on a great deal of strategic, non-organic, airlift in order to get its helicopters (also non-organic), equipment and personnel to the area of operations. The decision to reject a strategically mobile and flexible amphibious brigade in favour of a less strategically mobile air assault brigade is, again, not in keeping with the aspirations of the SDSR report.

As a result of the decision to reduce the amphibious capability one of the Royal Navy’s two LPDs – either HMS Albion or HMS Bulwark – will be placed in extended readiness and one of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary manned Bay class LSD(A)s will be disposed of. In some respects, although the placing of an LPD in extended readiness will have a profoundly negative effect on the flexibility and rapidity of response available to the Government in fields from disaster relief to high intensity operations, it will be a return to the situation in the 1980s and 1990s when only one out of two of the previous generation of LPDs was immediately available for any operation or exercise. More serious in terms of amphibious capability is the plan to dispose of one of the new Bay class LSD(A)s. It should also be remembered that the actual military lift required from the Bay Class project demanded five vessels.[24] Only four were procured by the previous government, the drop in capability being taken as “risk”. Unlike the decision to place an LPD in extended readiness, this will mean an irrevocable and permanent reduction in Britain’s ability to project power, as well as engage in the ‘softer’ expression of power and influence building, such as disaster relief.

The SDSR also proposes disposing of HMS Ocean, Britain’s only commando carrier (LPH) and replacing it with the CVS HMS Illustrious, depending on whether Ocean is in a worse condition than the Illustrious. Such a proposal, if implemented, will further reduce Britain’s amphibious capability. HMS Ocean is a purpose-built amphibious ship: it has passageways, ladders, accommodation, and dining spaces that are designed to cope with supporting and moving large numbers of troops to their assault stations. HMS Illustrious does not. Until the difference between a ship designed for amphibious assault and one that is not is recognised, it is hard to appreciate the enormous difference in operational effectiveness that these design features facilitate. More importantly, HMS Ocean is able to load/unload the vehicles for the embarked military force (EMF) direct from/to a jetty via a loading ramp. The design of HMS Ocean also incorporates the space needed to store these vehicles, the EMF’s arms, ammunition and stores and the means to get them to either the fight deck or to the four Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel (LCVP) that HMS Ocean also carries as efficiently as possible; HMS Illustrious does not. Nor does HMS Illustrious carry any LCVPs.

It must be considered that the cost of converting HMS Illustrious to a satisfactory commando carrier/LPH, given the scale of internal modifications needed to support and accommodate an EMF of the size of a commando battle group efficiently, plus its support units, will be as much as replacing HMS Ocean entirely. Significantly, the Royal Australian Navy is procuring two vessels similar in role and design to HMS Ocean (but with a significant increase in landing craft capability and the size of the EMF over that developed for HMS Ocean) for a combined cost of £1.8 billion. It would, therefore, be reasonable to expect that the UK could build an identical vessel to those ordered by the Australians for £900 million. If two vessels were built, it would ensure that a commando carrier – unlike at present – will always be available to support HMG policy. Such an action would also, at a low overall cost, significantly increase the UK amphibious contribution to the EU and the European members of NATO and thus the ability of the UK to influence security and foreign policy within these institutions/alliances.

5.1.3 The SSN force: The SSN force was originally to have been reduced from 12 ‘S’ and ‘T’ Class boats to 8 ‘A’ Class boats; the SDSR has reduced the ‘A’ Class build to 7, with a concomitant reduction in availability and flexibility. Of the 7 boats, only 2.3 will be available for operational tasking at any one time, which includes task group operations, cover for the nuclear deterrent, intelligence gathering and special operations. This situation will lead to further overstretch and generate heavy pressure on trained personnel who are already in short supply and in danger of approaching critical mass.

5.1.4 The Destroyer and Frigate force: Under the SDSR proposals, the Frigate and Destroyer force is to be reduced to 19: 6 Type 45 Destroyers and 13 Type 23 Frigates. The reduction in surface ship numbers throws into question the ability of the Royal Navy to cover the range of commitments it currently has to meet. Quite simply, one warship cannot be in two places at once. At the same time, the ability of the RN to generate sufficient naval power to protect and support either an amphibious task group or a strike aircraft carrier task group from such low numbers of surface ships is questionable. Furthermore, the presence of RN Frigates and Destroyers operating around the world provides a potential rapid response to disasters and crises, as well as supporting defence diplomacy. With low number of ships, these ‘soft’ power and influence roles are compromised by the SDSR – the very roles it emphasises as being of greater importance.

The loss at a stroke of 20% of the destroyer and frigate force is little short of catastrophic in the face of 6 current operational commitments and the requirement for other national tasking in the form of national and international exercises, task group training and operations and ship visits in support of foreign and trade policy. This represents yet another significant loss of operational flexibility. Of the 6 destroyers and 13 frigates remaining after the SDSR cuts, 2 destroyers and 4.3 frigates could be generated for operations. Ignoring the likely gaps due to defects in an ageing and overworked force, this number of vessels is barely enough to cover existing operational commitments let alone other national tasking. When considering the effects of cuts in vessel numbers, the following points should be borne in mind:

• In simplistic terms, in order to generate one fully operational warship for up to 90% of the time, it requires: 3 vessels of the same type: with one being in refit or deep maintenance; one training to reach operational status or in transit to its duty station; and the third on operations. If only two vessels are retained with one at extended readiness, the operational vessel will be available for less than 50% of the time.

• The tempo of current operations by a Frigate/Destroyer force, which is already recognised as overstretched, leads to more ship stopping defects, which further complicates the force generation equation. Any reduction in hulls without a commensurate reduction in operational commitments would serve only to exacerbate this fact.

• Operational time could be increased with multiple crewing, but only at great cost.

• Frigates and destroyers have distinct, but complementary, capabilities and – except for patrol tasks, presence or deterrence – are not interchangeable.

5.1.5 ‘Small and cheap’ versus ‘big and expensive’ Frigates and Destroyers:

SDSR states that “The Royal Navy was locked into a cycle of ever smaller numbers of ever more expensive ship”.[25] This statement has clear parallels with the concerted pre-SDSR campaign by senior serving and retired Army officers who argued that the Royal Navy only needed “small cheap ships” to carry out maritime constabulary duties, such as the enduring anti-piracy stabilisation operations off the coast of Somalia and within the Western regions of the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.[26] On the surface, such a claim is attractive: the idea that all a Navy’s future needs can be met with a large number of small corvettes or off-shore patrol vessels might appear helpful. One of the most significant problems any Navy faces in maritime counter-insurgency operations is numbers of platforms. Smaller, cheaper ships seem, therefore, to be the answer. Additionally, they will push command responsibility down the ranks, rather than allow it to creep up with a few larger frigates, destroyers and other vessels.

Unfortunately, smaller ships mean reduced range and endurance. They can also mean reduced sea-keeping in bad weather and poorer habitability for the crew – a key factor in the effectiveness of the vessel. Even if it is actually possible to use the ship’s weapon systems, the crew will be tired and unable to work at the high tempos that ‘low intensity’ operations require for anything other than short periods. More importantly, small ships mean reduced capabilities: modern weapon systems need space – even the sort needed for just maritime counter-insurgency and constabulary operations – and helicopters are essential. For maritime counter-insurgency operations, the ability to accommodate an embarked force of Royal Marine Commandos up to troop strength or Special Forces will also be a necessity. Speed will also be needed to catch suspect vessels if an embarked helicopter is not available. The vessel, even for maritime counter-insurgency, will also need a gun – at least a 76mm – a number of close range guns (20-40mm) for self-protection, radars, data-links, a global communications fit, and able to work in temperate and topical water, which means air-conditioning. All of these factors reduce the scope for reductions in the size of a suitable vessel.

Small does not necessarily mean cheap. Only about 10% of a ship’s cost is down to the steel that goes into the vessel. Big, cheap vessels – given the space needed for the equipment that they will require to do their jobs – are a more realistic proposition. ’Cheap’ is a relative measure; the bulk of the costs of a modern warship go not only into the weapons but also to the sensors and the communication equipment. Even in a counter-insurgency/constabulary vessel, skimping on the electronics would be a false economy and might even render the ship useless for maritime counter-insurgency operations. The key to maritime operations, from counter-insurgency upwards, is maritime domain awareness. To achieve this, a naval force needs radars, helicopters, electronic warfare equipment and data links to track vessels, which, when blended with intelligence, would allow the identification, surveillance and targeting of suspect vessels. The insurgent vessel would then have to be stopped, probably by force. Maritime domain awareness is dependent on the use of high specification technology. These high specification ships also give navies the opportunity to fight a maritime insurgency, such as an asymmetric war, in their favour, which is surely a better way forward than operating at the same technological level as a potential insurgent.

A more realistic answer to why there are smaller numbers of larger, more expensive ships has to do in some measure with the inefficiency of the MoD procurement process and the use of expensive British-built equipment. A solution to the ever-increasing cost of less-capable British warships is undoubtedly that shown by the German MEKO family of warships over the last 20 years that uses common hull designs, containerised common weapon and sensor systems that not only allow greater design flexibility, but also afford easier upgrades during the life of the ship and greater economies of scale. Britain is used to designing and building purpose-built – bespoke – warships; but if it wants cheaper ships that still maintain the capabilities needed to ensure tactical, operational and strategic flexibility and mobility, it will have to move to accepting commercial, generic designs such as the MEKO family or the Franco-Italian FREMM (28 units on order or under construction for the French, Italian, Greek and Moroccan navies). It should not get involved with collaborative multi-national bespoke projects on the European model (such as the abortive Project Horizon, Common New Generation Frigate, or NFR90 projects) that have frequently failed to deliver cost savings or, even, the envisaged equipment. Instead, Britain should look to procuring ships that can be built where the price is right, and not necessarily in domestic shipyards.


5.2 The British Army.

The British Army’s culture is very much based around the regimental system. Any threats to the ‘Regiment’ provoke a vociferous response by retired officers and the Regimental Associations. At the same time, the division of the Army into regiments and corps divides the corporate identity and culture, with the teeth regiments and corps – especially the infantry and cavalry – rather than those from the combat support and combat service support, exercising a considerable influence on its structure.

Whereas the Regiment forms part of the culture surrounding the structure of the Army, it is not the basis of the Army’s strategic culture. Instead, since the end of the Napoleonic War, the strategic emphasis of the British Army has not been on mounting a field army, but on raising large numbers of infantry battalions to carry out imperial policing roles across the British Empire. Indeed, the very regimental structure of the Army was designed to support this Imperial policing role. In 1882, the Cardwell Reforms to the regimental system ensured that a significant infantry force was produced for internal security tasks within the Empire. As a result, the British Army has a legacy of an unbalanced force structure, much of which has not been provided with the support arms, logistics and other support to enable it to be deployed in anything other than in the most benign counter-insurgency environment. Such an emphasis in the Army’s force structure and tasking continued well into the latter half of the Twentieth century.

In 1959, the combat-ready portions of the Army (essentially the British Army on the Rhine) numbered 55,000 out of a total of 259,536.[27] The following year, over 100,000 soldiers were stationed in garrisons across the Middle and Far East. [28] Only with the withdrawal from East of Suez after 1968 was there a significant reduction in the number of units involved in internal security or garrison commitments. Significant numbers of infantry battalions, however, still exist within the British Army’s order of battle, which do not have sufficient battlefield protection, mobility, firepower, logistics, medical, signals, engineer, artillery or armoured support to allow them to be used in anything but the most benign environments or in non-combat lines of communication roles. As a result of this corporate culture, which prefers a force of unsupported infantry, the British Army has no tradition of following a balanced force structure that preserves genuine strategic flexibility. At the same time, the strategic mobility of the Army’s combat formations is limited, as it currently relies on host-nation support to allow the establishment of its logistic chain within a theatre of operations. Reorientation from one theatre of operations to another is, therefore, a time-consuming and expensive business.

Under the SDSR statement the British Army is to lose one multi-role brigade, about 40% of its Challenger 2 main battle tanks and 35% of the holdings of AS90 155mm self-propelled guns. The 16 Air Assault Brigade will remain in its current form as a high readiness intervention capability.

5.2.1 Size and Structure of the Army: One of the greatest disappointments of the SDSR is its failure to address the unbalanced size and structure of the Army. Under the SDSR proposals, only 60,000 of the Army’s personnel strength will be in combat formations (5 multi-role brigades and the 16 Air Assault Brigade), leaving 35-37,000 for ‘corps’ or ‘divisional’ units, such as air defence and the single MLRS regiment (on which the SDSR justifies the reduction in the number of artillery pieces), training, 2nd and 3rd line support and logistics tasks and Headquarters. That up to 37% of the Army’s strength will not be in permanent, formed, supported, deployable combat formations is not merely a source of concern but more especially a significant waste of money. This is not to say that training, support, logistics and headquarters staffs are not important – they are – but that there is an imbalance between deployable units and those supporting them.

This imbalance is thrown into stark relief when it is considered that the tri-service effort in Afghanistan is approximately 10,000 men (with many support personnel coming from the RAF and Royal Navy). When 3 Commando Brigade does one of its regular tours in the theatre of operations, the Royal Navy effectively has provided the bulk of the combat forces as well. By using the Army’s own logic, the presence in Afghanistan can be sustained by a total tri-Service force structure of only 50,000. Put bluntly, what is the rest of the Army – that 35,000 strong cohort – for? Does it need to be so big?

Looked at from another direction, the imbalance is equally clear. Pre-SDSR, the British Army had the capability to form 46 battlegroups; post-SDSR, assuming the disbandment of a single multi-role brigade of 6 battlegroups, the total should be 40 battlegroups. However, the British Army only has engineers, medical, signals, 1st line logistics and artillery units to support between 26 and 30 battlegroups. At least 25% of the total number of battlegroups the British Army could form is therefore not usable, except in the most benign (and therefore unrealistic and inflexible) peace-keeping scenarios. Even then, given the lack of logistic and medical support, these units would not be able to be deployed for long on peacekeeping operations. It is not possible to rob supporting units from the deployable formations as this would impact on the training, rest (and retention figures) of any unit that was re-tasked and also mean that the deployable formation, which has lost its combat support or combat service support, would not get the training it needs or be available for either enduring or short-term operations. In short, the Army’s unbalanced force structure does not promote flexibility or adaptability in the short, medium or long term.

5.2.2 Multi-role Brigades: The 2005 Future Army Structure (FAS) has done nothing to address the structural imbalances within the British Army, except at a most superficial level. The FAS has created 6 ‘multi-role’ brigades, which can form 6 battalion-sized battlegroups, rather than the previous 3 or 4. By increasing the number of battlegroups without increasing the full range of combat support and combat service support to these brigades, these formations have in effect been hollowed out. From certain viewpoints, the FAS can be seen as a means of protecting light role infantry battalions from scrutiny over their utility and future. Such hollowed-out brigades are thus multi-role in name only. The question also remains as to why separate armoured infantry, mechanized infantry and light role infantry are needed. Mechanised infantry units may have the protection and mobility of an armoured infantry battalion, but lack firepower – hence the utility of a unit equipped with Warrior Armoured Infantry Fighting Vehicles (AIFVs). Light role battalions lack even the most rudimentary protection and rely for their mobility either on air assets, unarmoured vehicles, or walking; the firepower of such a battle group is far less than that generated by an armoured infantry unit. This is not to say that light role infantry units are not needed. The intention here is to point out that these are not multi-role units and that, as a consequence, the multi-role brigade is fatally undermined by the over specialisation of its constituent units.

It is not clear from the limited information available on the FAS why it is impossible for an armoured infantry unit to act as a light role unit through the simple expedient of leaving its Warrior AIFVs behind and using helicopters for transport or going on foot. There are also questions as to how a brigade staff would command and control such an enhanced force effectively, especially when operating in a counter-insurgency mode over a very wide area. Given the limitations of the multi-role brigades created by the FAS and endorsed by the SDSR, the focus for land operations is not so much a balanced capability able to work across the spectrum of military operations, but more one that instead is solely configured for enduring land counter-insurgency operations of the type discussed in section 3 of this paper, and highly unlikely to gain political approval.

5.2.3 The role of the Army: The emphasis on land counter-insurgency operations is most clear from the SDSR. By ignoring the political problems and a lack of appetite for embarking on another enduring land counter-insurgency operation – and admitting that operations in Northern Ireland are unlikely, as are those against Russia because of NATO’s increased strategic depth – the Review fails to explain what the future role of the British Army will be. The only possible exception is in the extremely vague aspiration for a more ‘expeditionary’ force. This, however, is not backed up by the post-SDSR force structures of the other two Services. So what will the Army be doing? Assuming that a realistic set of scenarios can be developed which allows for the political legacy of the Iraq and Afghanistan operations, where and what will the Army be doing when carrying out these scenarios? The most plausible areas are probably North Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf. If so, how will the Army get there? If the answer is by sea, then there are significant concerns. Not only has the Royal Navy’s ability to transport the Army, get it ashore where it is needed, support it while it is there, and return it to the UK after the intervention is over, been curtailed, but its ability to project power in support of wider land operations has also been compromised.

At the same time, the running down of the Royal Navy’s surface escort ships means its ability to protect the Army’s transports and merchant vessels carrying the logistics support against interdiction, either by state or non-state actors operating in support of hostile elements ashore, or as part of a wider maritime insurgency campaign against western shipping, trade and energy interests, is again severely curtailed. The lessons from the losses of Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram and even the Atlantic Conveyor during the 1982 Falklands conflict, or the impact of Somali piracy against merchant vessels since 2000, is that an army and its logistic support at sea without sufficient naval protection is extremely vulnerable. If air support is intended as the means of transport and support, then over-flight, basing rights, access to airfields and the limited lift of the RAF’s strategic air transport aircraft – individually and collective – and that of the battlefield helicopter force become vital, areas to which the RAF has not traditionally paid much heed.


5.3 The Royal Air Force.

The most junior of the three armed Services, the RAF’s corporate culture has been conditioned by a number of factors: its need for institutional survival; the perceived indivisibility of airpower; and the importance of strategic bombing. From its inception on April Fool’s Day 1918 until 1969, despite the legacy of the Battle of Britain, the driving force within the RAF corporate culture has been strategic bombing – the idea that through airpower alone an enemy could be forced to capitulate and surrender. So strong was the bomber mentality in the inter-war period that the RAF had to be ordered in 1937 and 1938 to concentrate more on fighter defence than on preparing a bomber offensive.[29]

After 1962, when the Royal Navy was given the future control of the strategic nuclear deterrent and, especially after 1969, when full responsibility for the nuclear deterrent was assumed by the Polaris submarine force, strategic bombing was re-cast as low-level strike. For this, the GR1 Tornado was designed, specifically against theatre level targets such as communication links, bridges and enemy airfields, rather than battlefield close air support. Like maritime support, battlefield close air support also had traditionally received little attention from the RAF. The focus on fast jet operations, especially those involving low level strike (although the Typhoon seems to be focusing RAF attention on air-to-air engagements given the woeful air-to-ground capability of that aircraft), has resulted in maritime reconnaissance, strategic transport, battlefield helicopters and, even, specialist close-air support aircraft, such as the Harrier, are not of particular importance to the RAF corporate culture. Furthermore, any concentration on these unfashionable areas that do not involve low-level strike or air defence undermine the rationale for an independent RAF as they reduce the RAF’s role to that of an enabler for maritime or land operations, rather than enhancing the centrality and indivisibility of airpower as a separate institution.

The idea that airpower was ‘indivisible’ and that in order to get the best out of it, it should be controlled by a central ‘air-minded’[30] authority such as the RAF, and not the Army or the Royal Navy, was also of significant importance in the RAF’s corporate culture. The desire to control all air assets complements the need for institutional survival as a factor of its corporate ethos. The Army and the Royal Navy have both reacted badly to losing control of their air assets; the Navy, in particular, fought a vicious inter-service battle with the RAF in the inter-war period over the control of the Fleet Air Arm. Both the Army and Navy also complained bitterly during the Second World War about the RAF failing to support their operations because it was so focused on strategic bombing.

The result of these disputes has been that the RAF frequently considered its institutional survival is at stake. For example, in the early to mid-1960s it seems that a combination of the Royal Navy gaining responsibility for the nuclear deterrent and the development of a maritime-based strategy for operations East of Suez led the RAF to consider that its survival was at risk. This led to the bitter inter-Service arguments over the cancelled CVA-01 strike carrier and the end of traditional fast jet aviation in the Navy, the after-effects of which are still being felt in inter-Service relations today. The RAF’s institutional insecurity has, in turn, encouraged it to repudiate vigorously any suggestion that it surrenders any control of air assets and to try to reassert control of air assets such as those within the Fleet Air Arm that have escaped from its embrace (the fate of Joint Force Harrier being a case in point, or the future of the Commando Helicopter Force), all of which further fuels inter-Service mistrust and suspicion.

The SDSR statement proposed scrapping the Harrier force and maintaining the Tornado (and subsequently the Joint Strike Fighter, F35C) as well as the Typhoon as the two types within a reduced fast jet fleet. The Puma helicopter is to have its operational life extended, while the Merlin HC3 is to be fully marinised. At the same time, an additional 12 Chinook helicopters will be purchased. The C-130 Hercules will be replaced by 22 A400M aircraft and 14 dual-purpose tanker/transport aircraft will be acquired, while the Nimrod MRA4 will not be purchased.

5.3.1 Tornados versus Harriers: The decision to scrap the Joint RN/RAF Harrier GR9 force in favour of retaining the Tornado GR4 is arguably the most perverse of the force restructuring decisions taken under the SDSR.

Even when the SDSR’s focus on current operations in Afghanistan, rather than requirements in the medium- to long-term is considered, the decision to retain the Tornado instead of the Harrier is deeply flawed. The Tornado has already demonstrated its inferiority to the proven Harrier performance in support of ground forces in theatre. The Tornado GR4 is not suited to the high altitude of Kandahar airfield (3,000 feet) or to the higher air temperatures experienced during the majority of the year (the Taliban fighting season). Two aircraft have already been lost on the runway because of associated engine performance limitations. As a result of the Tornado’s performance limitations in hot and high operating environments, its normal weapons payload on a close air support mission is less than that carried by the Harrier GR9. The Tornado’s response time to requests from ground forces for urgent close air support is markedly less than that of the Harrier (30 minutes to take off as opposed to 10 minutes) – unnecessarily placing ground forces at risk. Furthermore, if the Kandahar runway is partially blocked for whatever reason (an aircraft crash, the placement of enemy munitions, etc) the Tornado can neither take off nor land – thereby denying ground forces any possibility of receiving close air support.

Although the Tornado is fitted with the Storm Shadow cruise missile, this weapon is not designed for close air support: it is a stand-off weapon to ensure the launch aircraft does not have to attempt to penetrate an enemy air defence area. This should also cast doubt on the Tornado’s retention in service when sea, land and air launched cruise missiles are a better way of carrying out long-range strike missions and which do not require a high performance launch aircraft. The ability to deploy a shorter ranged stand-off weapon, such as the Storm Shadow, is therefore less useful in the Afghanistan theatre and provides no significant advantage within the wider defence environment.
The RAPTOR reconnaissance equipment that the Tornado carries is no more useful than the equivalent Harrier reconnaissance pod, because the real-time data link download to ground forces capability it is not available to units on the ground (they do not have the right equipment). The Tornado’s availability for tasking in Afghanistan is approximately 75% whereas Harrier tasking availability stands in excess of 95% – reducing the likelihood that air support will be on task where and when it is needed, again putting British ground forces at greater risk. Conversely, the Harrier does not suffer from any of these Tornado limitations and provides a much more reliable and effective service to our British forces on the ground in theatre.

The Harrier performance in theatre has been much applauded by Britain’s allies. This is not so for the Tornado. Whilst the Tornado GR4 theoretically outranges the Harrier is seems clear that the operating conditions in Afghanistan have reduced both the bomb load of the Tornado and its radius of action to the point where any paper advantage the Tornado has evaporated. Just as importantly, the more widespread use of stand-off missiles and air-to-air refuelling, range is a less significant attribute for land-based aircraft operating in the strike or close air support roles than in the past. Flexibility in basing and the ability to operate from bases other than well-equipped land-based airfields are more significant.

By scrapping the Joint Harrier force, all fixed wing maritime airpower has been abandoned as the Harrier GR9 equips both the Fleet Air Arm strike squadrons as well the RAF’s close air support of the army squadrons. By choosing a solely land-based strike aircraft that can only operate from major airfields against one that can operate from improvised airstrips within the immediate battlefield area, from traditional fixed airfield sites or from aircraft carriers, the SDSR clearly goes against its stated aim of providing flexible, adaptable forces suited for a more expeditionary posture.

The cost comparisons also make the decision to retain the Tornado hard to understand. The remaining in-service cost of the Tornado GR4 will be £7.5 billion,[31] plus the cost of the upgrade programme[32] for the aircraft at £1.1 billion: resulting in a total of £8.6 billion. In contrast, the remaining in-service cost of the Harrier GR9 would have been £1.1 billion. It is also tactically and strategically appropriate for the operations envisaged by SDSR up to around 2023, when the F35C should be in service in some numbers. There is also a significant difference in support requirements and costs: the Tornado detachment in Afghanistan requires nearly twice the number of ground personnel and aircrew (24 pilots and navigators and 144 maintainers) than the Harrier (11 pilots and 75 maintainers). The Tornado fuel load for a similar mission profile is 17,500lbs, compared with the Harrier’s 11,500lbs. Finally, the Harrier is cheaper in terms of its supporting force structure, as it requires just three squadrons to support the Afghanistan detachment; conversely, seven Tornado squadrons are required to deliver the same air effect.

Given the unsuitability of the Tornado for the type of operations envisaged by the SDSR in the short term, let alone the requirements for strategic mobility, flexibility and adaptability foreseen for the medium- and long- term, it has to be considered that the decision to scrap the Harrier to allow the Tornado to remain in service has more to do with narrow minded Service politics than the national interest.

5.3.2 Nimrod MRA4: The decision to scrap the Nimrod MRA4 leaves the UK with no long-range search, surveillance, reconnaissance or anti-submarine capability. Given the extent of the UK EEZ and that no other asset can begin to assume these tasks, this leaves a massive capability gap. Whereas the decision to pursue an indigenous aircraft replacement project, rather than joining the US P8 Multi Mission Maritime Aircraft project, can only be regretted as a result of the huge lost investment in the MRA4, there are, currently, no assets in the British inventory that can replace it. Fleet Air Arm helicopters do not have the range or endurance for the task and are, anyway, fully committed already. Furthermore, the Hercules transport aircraft does not have a surface search radar. This decision, as with so many from the SDSR, reduces, not enhances, flexibility and adaptability in the face of an uncertain strategic world.
5.3.3 Strategic Airlift: The decision to invest in 22 A400M military transport aircraft is, on the surface, a good one as a complement to the existing small force of C17 aircraft and as a replacement for the Hercules aircraft currently in service. The 22 A400M envisaged will be replacing 43 Hercules C130H and C130J transport aircraft.[33] The maximum lift of the Hercules force is 3,956 personnel; the maximum lift of the proposed A400 fleet is 2,552, 62% of the original capability. The A400M project is significantly delayed and running at least 25% over budget. Indeed, the manufactures, EADS, threatened to abandon the project in January 2010.[34]

There are significant concerns that the A400M will not be able to lift its designed load of 32 tons.[35] Far more significantly, the FRES SV vehicle project ordered between March and July 2010 is expected to weigh 42 tons, far beyond the lift capabilities of the A400M. As figure 1 shows, the A400M is relatively limited in range when operating at the upper end of its load capacity. The decision to procure the A400M, rather than a more capable tactical/strategic transport such as the C17, means a significant reduction in air transport. At the same time, by continuing to have two tactical/strategic transports in service (the C17 and A400M) there will not be any savings from having a homogenous fleet with its reduced training, support and logistics costs.

The decision to replace the aging fleet of Tristar and VC10 tankers and strategic transport aircraft is also to be welcomed. The 14 aircraft of the Future Tanker/Transport Aircraft (FTTA) will give a capability to lift up to 5,320 personnel. However, the cost and deliverables of the PFI deal have been questioned, concerns that have been ignored by the SDSR.[36] The £10.5 billion cost of the project for, at best, 14 (SDSR states up to 14 will be purchased) A330 multi-role tanker transport aircraft is enormous – especially as the 14 A330 airliners cost about £1.7 billion. The high cost and potential for poor value for money of the future tanker/transport project can be clearly seen when it is considered that this project is more expensive than the cost of the two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers and their air groups – a project that the government has been quick to condemn.

Despite the cost of the FTTA, air-to-air refuelling remains a major enhancement to air operations and is a force multiplier. Without it, as Figure 1 shows, the A400M will not be able to reach Afghanistan when fully loaded without landing to refuel en-route with the need for diplomatic host-nation support. Air-to-air refuelling is essential for British forces if they are to remain as flexible and expeditionary as possible, but only in an environment where air power is seen as a land-based rather than a more flexible sea- or land-based enabler. A lack of air-to-air refuelling will increase the need for host-nation support and allies willing to allow landing (and over flight) rights for refuelling, if there is no credible and effective maritime alternative to land-based air power. As it is, land/air mobile forces already have had to rely on considerable host-nation support in comparison to an equivalent sized force being transported by sea and operating from the sea.

5.3.4 Battlefield Helicopters: The announcement of the purchase of an additional 12 Chinook helicopters is, again, welcomed. Unfortunately, the SDSR does not contain any information as to the replacement of the ageing RAF Pumas or the Sea King HC4s of the Fleet Air Arm’s Commando Helicopter Force. Instead, it seems that the Puma service life is to be extended.[37] Reports post-SDSR suggest this is to allow the ‘marinisation’ of the Merlin HC3, which will replace the Sea King in the Commando Helicopter Force after which the Puma force will be retired. This suggests either that the Royal Navy will lose control of its own organic battlefield helicopters that support 3 Commando Brigade or that the RAF will suffer a major reduction in battlefield helicopter capability, as it will only have 52 Chinook helicopters dedicated to the support of 16 Air Assault Brigade and the Army as a whole.[38]

The reduction in battlefield helicopters is particularly lamentable. Given the historical low priority this type has been afforded by the RAF and the fact that there is a clear preference for light, relatively poorly protected infantry heavy forces (especially the inability of the A400M to carry the FRES SV), helicopters are the only way to give these formations the mobility and safety that will be needed in future conflicts. At the same time, a reduction in helicopter capability will severely restrict both the Royal Navy and British Army’s ability to develop flexible forces that can project power.


5.4 Harmony – the hidden problem

One often overlooked issue that contributes to the eccentric structure of the British Armed Forces is that of ‘Harmony’ – the amount of time a sailor, soldier or airman can expect not to be deployed on operations. Harmony guidelines play an important part in determining how much overall force is needed to produce a given level of operational activity or strategic posture. Unfortunately, the harmony guidelines for each Service are different, despite years of pursuing a ‘joint’, tri-service approach to defence; the SDSR has not made any proposals to equalise matters in this area.

Currently, Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel can expect to spend 60% of their time deployed, the Army and RAF only 20%. Matters are further confused by each Service using a different length period for its measurements: the Navy and Marines 36 months; the Army, 30 months; and the RAF 20 months. At the same time, the maximum period an individual or unit can be deployed is also different between the three Services. The Royal Navy and Royal Marines work on 6 to 9 month deployments (up to a maximum of 660 days deployed for an individual within a 3 year period), the Army on a strict 6 month rotation (with a maximum of 415 days deployed in a 30 month period), the RAF on a 4 month deployment (with no more than 280 days deployed in a 24 month period).[39]

The operational and strategic impact is quite clear: the lower the amount of time available for deployment, the more units of force – the individual, or ship, or squadron, or brigade – are needed to keep one on an enduring operation. It is quite difficult to make exact comparisons between units from different Services, but it is possible to generalise that while it takes the Army and RAF 5 units of force to keep one on operations, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines use between 3 and 4 units of force to keep one deployed.

A more exact comparison, however, can be made using the maximum number of days an individual can be deployed in a given rolling period – 3 years. To take the difference between the Royal Navy – specifically the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) – and the RAF; in a rolling 3-year period, FAA personnel or a FAA squadron would be deployed for a maximum of 660 days under the Navy’s harmony rules. In contrast in a 3-year rolling period, RAF personnel or an RAF squadron could expect to be on operations away from its home base for only 420 days. This means that the RAF needs 36% more personnel or squadrons to produce the same level of deployable force as the Royal Navy’s FAA. If the difference between the Royal Marines and the Army is considered, the Royal Marines will be away from their base on operations for 660 days in a rolling 3 year period – the same as the rest of the Royal Navy; an Army soldier or unit would be deployed for, at most, 498 days. The result of this difference is that the Army needs 24% more personnel or units to meet the operational availability of a Royal Marine commando or individual Marine.

The fact that such wildly different “productivity” figures exist is worrying enough. The figures also mean that cuts in some areas of the Armed Forces will have a disproportionate impact on the force levels that can be generated, as the “productivity” of the three Services is different. Unfortunately, the Service that has the highest productivity also has suffered most in the SDSR cuts. As a result of this, the reductions in personnel and capability will be much more severe than the bare statistics included in the SDSR statement suggest. It is clear that these rules should be equalised; the Royal Navy’s model of 660 days in a rolling three-year period is an acceptable starting point, as the Navy’s rules have been proven to work with its own organic air and land assets. The level of corporate resistance from the RAF and Army to changing the harmony rules and accepting further reductions in their force structures as a result should not be underestimated.


6. Adding value to alliances?

Prior to the SDSR announcement, as Table 1 shows, Britain made a significant contribution to the European Members of NATO’s (EurNATO) capability, especially every aspect of the maritime domain except mine counter-measure vessels, together with battlefield support helicopters, air-to-air refuelling tankers and medium to long-range strategic airlift capacity. At the same time, the EurNATO members are strongest in fast jet and land capabilities and weakest in all aspects of maritime power project and influence (frigates, destroyers, amphibious shipping aircraft carriers and at sea underway replenishment/support vessels), strategic airlift capacity and air-to-air refuelling capability.

When the EU is considered, as opposed to EurNATO countries, these weaknesses are exacerbated first, by Turkey not being a member of the EU and, second, the wording of the German Constitution. The German Constitution prevents the use of German armed forces outside NATO territory without a specific Parliamentary resolution. This places severe constraints on where, when and how German armed forces can be used. For example, the current restrictions on German troops as part of the NATO ISAF operations in Afghanistan, prevent them from undertaking combat operations against the Taliban. As a result, Britain’s contributions to the ability of the EU to react militarily to threats outside the EU region is magnified.

Due to the force structure, membership and constitutional weaknesses of either the European members of NATO or the EU, Britain’s contributions provide the bedrock of several key strategic capabilities as well as strategic mobility and flexibility. These capabilities should ensure that Britain, if it chooses, could have a powerful voice in shaping security and defence policy within the EU and, to a slightly less degree, NATO.

The cuts in numbers and capabilities outlined in the SDSR Report threaten Britain’s ability to influence EU or NATO defence and security policy. Instead of preserving those contributions, which provide significant capabilities, the SDSR proposals will reduce them. As Table 2 shows, the cuts demanded by SDSR make significant changes to the capabilities available to the European members of NATO (and, by default, the EU). In particular, both out-of-area and power projection capabilities have received severe decreases, especially as these were already weak areas within both EurNATO and the EU. The ability of these organisations to deal with the global threats faced as a result of Islamist terror groups, non-state actors and ‘rogue’ states has been compromised. As a result, Britain’s ability to shape defence and security policy within these organisations in support of the UK’s national interest has also been harmed. The SDSR has done nothing to increase Britain’s value to either the European members of NATO or to the EU.

Table 1:
Britain’s pre SDSR contribution to the capabilities of the European members of NATO[40]


Number in UK service

UK % of NATO (European members only) total

Largest contributor (European members of NATO)

Ranking of British contribution

Carrier borne AEW aircraft





Strategic missile submarines





Nuclear powered hunter killer attack submarines





Ocean capable fleet underway replenishment and repair vessels





Amphibious assault ships (LPD/LSD types)





Air to Air refuelling tankers





ASW helicopters





Aircraft carriers

2 (+1 in ‘extended readiness’)




Helicopter ‘commando carrier’ assault ships (LPH/LHD types)




2nd =

Land based AEW aircraft





Strategic (medium/long range) airlift (personnel in one lift)



Germany (medium range capability)


Air defence frigates and destroyers





Support helicopters





Attack helicopters





Anti-submarine or general purpose frigates





Carrier strike aircraft[41]





Maritime Patrol Aircraft





Air defence/ strike/ offensive support aircraft[42]




3rd =

Mine sweepers and mine hunters





Army manpower






It also seems that the post-SDSR flurry of activity in developing bilateral defence arrangements with France confirms the view that the SDSR has failed to provide the capabilities needed to meet Britain’s longer-term defence needs. At the same time, by embarking on a series of capability cuts in those areas in which the French are primarily interested – aircraft carriers and amphibious forces for power projection – the SDSR has ensured that Britain will be negotiating from a position of weakness. The bilateral agreement with France commits neither nation to upholding the other’s national interest: the French can withdraw their forces if they so wish, thereby undermining Britain’s ability to ensure its armed forces have the capability to react effectively to all the threats outlined in the NSS.


Table 2.
The Impact of SDSR capability cuts on the European Members of NATO (EurNATO)[43]

Unit type

EurNATO total in service pre SDSR

% of UK contribution pre SDSR

EurNATO total in service post SDSR

Number in UK service post SDSR

UK % of contribution post SDSR

% cut in EurNato capability post SDSR

Nuclear powered hunter killer attack submarines







Amphibious assault ships (LPD/LSD types)




4+1 in extended readiness



Aircraft carriers







Anti- submarine or general purpose frigates







Carrier strike aircraft







Maritime Patrol Aircraft







Air to air refuelling







Army manpower







In particular, the Anglo-French agreement is unlikely to be enforceable or honoured over any requirement to fight for dependant territories. The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, when asked whether France would deploy naval forces to help Britain recover the Falkland Islands, stated that he would only deploy forces if French interests were at stake.[45] Nor will efforts at bilateral defence arrangements with France fill British capability gaps as a result of the cuts proposed by the SDSR. Any such arrangement is undermined by divergent national interests in a security environment characterised by the uncertainty and diverse nature of the different threats that may be faced in the next 10 to 20 years.

Of particular concern regarding the recent bilateral arrangements with France is the failure to recognise that the strategic environment is fundamentally different from other periods, when such agreements were being used to solve defence problems, such as during the 1900s with the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of 1902 and the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904. During that period, there was a clear single strategic threat to the signatories (Russia for Britain and Japan; Germany for Britain and France), which gave the treaties focus and purpose. With today’s diverse and uncertain threats, such clarity of purpose and synchronisation of national interest are missing. At the same time, the agreement is also put under pressure by the fact that the British have sought the agreement to fill holes in their capabilities left by a poorly compiled SDSR Review. Previously, similar agreements have allowed a reduction in defence commitments and a concentration on vital areas. The Anglo-French defence agreements, combined with the SDSR, allow for no such concentration on vital strategic issues as they have cut capabilities, but not commitments.

Furthermore, as the SDSR cuts have reduced essential British power projection and her out-of-area capabilities, the reality must also be recognised that Britain has been negotiating the new bilateral defence agreement with France from a position of weakness.


7. The reserve forces: the regeneration game.

The SDSR failed to consider the requirement and the ability to regenerate forces, except through a vague statement offering a six-month study into the future role and structure of the Reserve Forces.[46] Without any consideration of the capabilities that can and should be maintained by the Reserve Forces of all three Services, the SDSR analysis of the required regular force structure is fundamentally flawed. At the same time, the cursory manner in which the role of the Reserve Forces was addressed in the SDSR statement fails to take account that they have to carry out two tasks that, depending on the Service, may not be entirely complementary – either acting as the initial regeneration tool in the event of a major and prolonged conflict or very severe strategic shock, or, at the same time, being able to provide little-used capabilities to support the regular forces during a contingency and/or short-term operations.

If properly used, the Reserve Forces will be able to provide significant capability enhancements to the Regular Forces, either from providing little-used capabilities for specific contingency or short-term operations or by acting as the initial regeneration tool in the event of a major and prolonged conflict or very severe strategic shock.

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 counter-mine warfare operations with a new generation of MCMVs based on a shared hull with a corvette/sloop-sized vessel. The Royal Navy’s MCMV capability is just under 8% of the European members of NATO’s mine warfare forces. Moving some of this capability to the Reserves would protect and maintain UK skill levels, while not having a major impact on EU/NATO Forces’ levels. It would also provide the RNR with the focus, which was lost when the River Class MCMVs were disposed of in the 1990s.

An RAF option would be the wholesale transfer of the regular RAF Regiment’s ground defence capabilities to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force (RAuxAF) on the basis that eventually most, if not all, expeditionary air power will be delivered from a maritime base and that the protection of the airfield – the aircraft carrier – will not require a regular RAF ground force capability. Indeed, the RAuxAF could be greatly enhanced to provide aircrew and aircraft to supplement a smaller regular force. In particular, it could be relatively easy to build up the RAF’s 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 bear.

The Joint Army/RAF NBC Reconnaissance Regiment could also be moved from a Regular to Reserve basis as all Regular units (as well as those from the civil emergency services) have an organic NBC detection capability. The requirement for a permanent NBCreconnaissance, as opposed to self-detection and protection, role is therefore low. More importantly, the risk of transferring this capability to a Reserve footing would be small as it would still be available for rapid deployment within the UK in the form of the MoD’s standard procedures for providing military aid to the civil power.

The Territorial Army (TA) also could be used to preserve low priority capabilities. One area that immediately suggests itself is an increased reliance on Reserve Forces to continue to provide the current logistics capability of supporting a divisional-sized formation at 750kms from a main supply base. 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 re-rolling and enhancing the number of TA Royal Logistics Corps units.

The regeneration of Forces for a major conflict presents a different set of needs. On the one hand, it is unlikely that either the RNR or the RAuxAF, given the structure of the Regular Forces and their 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 providing the rapid regeneration and support in the manner that it has done in Iraq and Afghanistan, where complete TA units have been deployed. These units have also been used to bring Regular formations up to strength before deploying. 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.

Such an enhanced or even enlarged volunteer Reserve Force would not mean any 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. There would certainly be maintenance and training costs but, for the TA, much of the equipment they would be training on would be the same as the Regulars; this could be included within these maintenance schedules. It may well be argued that cascading surplus equipment to Reserve formations would only store up procurement problems for the future; but since the current equipment has been paid for, it might as well be used in some form or another. 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 the Reverse Forces do, and 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 would reduce the numbers of regular manpower and, as they are not pensionable, also reduce the MoD’s pension liabilities.


8. Procurement and the management of defence.

The SDSR contains little in the way of reforms to the bureaucratic nature of British defence management and procurement. Proposals are advanced within SDSR to rationalise the Royal Navy and Army regional organisations.[47] These are minor issues, however, compared with the wholesale reform of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Defence Procurement Agency and the Defence Logistics Organisation. Unfortunately, all that the SDSR says about defence reform is to promise a Defence Reform Review (DRR) to be completed by 2011.[48] It is considered that separating the reform of the MoD from the SDSR process fundamentally undermines the cohesiveness of the SDSR process, as changes suggested by the DRR may involve fundamental changes to the Armed Forces and therefore cannot be considered in isolation.

The SDSR also suggested that defence reviews will now be not more than 5 years apart.[49] This seems to be a sound proposal, as it will prevent the drift in policy seen under the previous government. There is also the very real risk that having defence reviews every 5 years will be a significant distraction for the MoD and the Armed Services, especially if there has been little or no change in the strategic assessment. More importantly, such a stream of regular reviews may be seen as camouflage for cuts demanded by the Treasury, rather than a realistic appraisal of Britain’s defence needs and the resources required to meet them. Such regular reviews, if cuts are seen as being the motivation for them, may well drive the Armed Services into highly unproductive and damaging bouts of inter-Service bureaucratic in-fighting, which will undermine their ability to work together effectively in a joint environment. As has been stated in section 6, regular reviews of the needs and role of only the volunteer Reserve Forces could well ensure that this vital area remaining relevant to the wider defence environment.

The SDSR has also highlighted the MoD’s inability to generate a genuine joint view of defence as distinct from competing single-Service views and corporate culture. There is a clear indication here of a serious breakdown in the manner in which the Ministry of Defence conducts its business. The decision to retain the Tornado over the Harrier is an immediate example of this practice, as senior RAF officers, including the then Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), requested private meetings with the Prime Minister and other senior politicians in order to argue for its retention. Clearly, the CDS failed in his duty to represent the views of all three Services equally and dispassionately. If the CDS cannot be relied on to set aside partisan single-Service attitudes and argue for what are the best strategic postures and equipment procurement decisions to meet government policy, then there is little cause for having confidence in the MoD as an institution.


9. An alternative vision.

Given the issues facing Britain’s future defence needs: the need for global mobility, flexibility to face a range of uncertain threats; the need to avoid casualties and long-term operations; the need to minimize the political and diplomatic fallout of operations in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, it is clear that a maritime strategy, based on the balanced force provided by the Royal Navy is the foundation on which a new tri-Service flexible strategic posture can be built. For many years, the demands of NATO’s central front ensured the British Army and the fast jets of the RAF dominated the defence agenda, while the maritime issues were largely played down. The world in which Britain’s Armed Forces are going to operate in future is very different to the Cold War. Britain’s Armed Forces now need to change their mindset – not necessarily the equipment they use – from land operations wherever they have been in the past, to operations focused on exploiting the sea to enable them to operate over the land as and when Britain chooses to defend its global and national interests.

A maritime posture, coupled with a clear and unambiguous maritime strategy involving all three Services will also provide a significant level of resilience against strategic shock. Both the NSS and the SDSR failed to address the global nature of instability at present and for the foreseeable future. There are currently three serious arcs of instability (see Figure 2) that could in the future require British intervention, either as part of an international force or as an independent state. The first arc of instability runs in a broad swathe from Afghanistan, through Pakistan and Iran, the Horn of Africa, across sub-Saharan Africa to West Africa. Within this arc are insurgences, civil wars, terror groups as well as failed and ‘rogue’ states. The second arc runs from Burma through the Indonesian archipelago and Philippines and out into Melanesia and Micronesia. Although less conflict-riven at present than in the immediate past, it remains an area of long-term concern and one which, through the Five Power Defence Agreement and its position across trade routes to China and Japan, is likely to pose a direct threat to British interests and obligations, should the strategic situation deteriorate.

The final arc of instability runs from Indonesia up through the South China Sea to China, Taiwan and North Korea. Competing unresolved claims over potentially oil rich Spratley islands in the South China Sea, and the actions of China and North Korea, suggest that this area may see further significant unrest, tension and conflict. Additionally, there are potential flash points in the South Atlantic over the Falkland Islands (oil) and within Central America that could involve British defence obligations to Belize as well as Britain’s residual requirements for the defence of trade, protection of offshore assets, the prevention of smuggling, as well as protection of its overseas territories and dependencies and support of the Commonwealth.

Any attempt by Britain, NATO or a ‘coalition of the willing’ to intervene in these areas in the manner of ISAF will run into problems if based primarily on land-based air power to an enable and support forces in theatre due to a lack of airfields and difficulty of over-flight rights. Currently, the UK only has unrestricted and unlimited access to four overseas airfields that could possibly act as forward operating bases for allied airpower to intervene in these areas: Gibraltar; Akrotiri in Cyprus; Wideawake on Ascension Island; and Diego Garcia. RAF Mount Pleasant cannot be counted as being a completely secure and dependable base, as the Falkland Islands are disputed and the possibility of hostile action against the airfield cannot be discounted. In order to intervene from any of these bases in support of an operation in the West Africa – sub-Saharan – Horn of Africa – Afghanistan arc, there would be a need for a massive air-to-air fuelling requirement (a weak area of the UK, EU and European members of NATO) plus a significant logistics problem in supplying fuel and munitions for any air assets, even before the issue of over-flight rights are considered.

Conversely, a maritime strike force would be able to position itself at the most advantageous operating position within the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean or Central Eastern Atlantic to maximize maritime air operations in any intervention along the West Africa – sub-Saharan – Horn of Africa – Afghanistan arc, while operating in the Eastern Indian Ocean and Western Pacific would allow air support for any interventions in the Far East. Furthermore, a naval force based on a strike carrier would be independent of many of the logistics problems when deploying land-based air assets to non-permanent overseas bases as the fuel and munitions required are already carried by the task force. The further East British interests extend, the harder it will be for them to be defended by land-based air assets. It should not be assumed that key potential regional allies such as Australia, Japan Malaysia or India would view Britain’s, or the West’s needs as necessarily in direct alignment with their own. A reliance on access to friendly airfields in these regions would not reduce the severe logistics problems that would accompany the deployment of a land-based air component.

A naval task force operating between 30° North and 30° South and able to project power out to between 1,200nm to 1,500nm (the nominal effective range of naval airpower with a limited buddy-buddy refuelling requirement for the strike) can cover all the potential and actual areas of instability and conflict along the arcs of instability shown. Only in a very few cases (Chad, the Central African Republic, Niger etc) would over-flight rights be required, as with current USN naval air support for Afghanistan. This demonstrates that maritime airpower delivered from a carrier not only has the strategic mobility to move to where it is needed and the endurance to stay on task, but also the range to be able to act both as an effective deterrent as well as a coercive force and to generate effective combat power.

Furthermore, a maritime strategic posture, as well as minimizing many of the political and diplomatic problems faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, would also strengthen Britain’s hand in its dealing with the EU and the European members of NATO. On the one hand, what difference will the British Army make to the EU or European members of NATO when they already have over 1.2 million soldiers under their command? Numerically, it would be very little. On the other hand, pre- SDSR Britain provided a massive proportion of the EU’s ability to operate outside the European region, especially in terms of naval and maritime forces such as the Royal Navy and Royal Marines. Investing in a maritime posture, backed by the RAF’s strategic airlift and an Army smaller and better balanced than at present, would strengthen the capabilities Britain’s Alliance structures with aircraft carriers, amphibious forces, destroyers, frigates, nuclear powered attack submarines, and cruise missiles – all the things Britain’s Alliance partners lack in sufficient numbers and operational experience.

There are, nevertheless, 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 lacks the landing craft capacity of an LHD design. To this end, two Canberra-type LHDs should be purchased, with the added bonus that these ships would also be able to fulfil the role of Primary Casualty Receiving Ship, due to the hospital facilities included in the design. By procuring two LHDs, one would always be available for operations, while the other was in maintenance and providing training support, such as that currently provided by RFA Argus – thereby also eliminating the need to replace the Argus. Such a project would cost in the region of £1.8 billion over 5 to 7 years.

Consideration should also be given to curtailing the Lynx AH7/9/Wildcat project for 848 Squadron and issuing the more capable AH64 Apache helicopter gunship, instead. The fleet-wide fit of land attack cruise missiles needs increasing, preferably by retaining some of the T Class SSNs in service. A SSN fleet of 10 vessels would ensure that sufficient TLAM SSNs were available to cover a number of contingencies, as well as provide intelligence-gathering and direct support of maritime Task Groups or land forces ashore.

The RN’s ability to operate globally at the C2/3 level needs to be enhanced – this would mean new MCMVs, which would share the same hull and basic superstructure as a new OPV/corvette and be able to operate as a front line unit in all operations other than high intensity war fighting, whilst still providing a ‘2nd rate’ combatant for major conflicts. This might, however, require a reduction in the FF force.

In order to maximize the value for money of the new carriers, they should be introduced as soon as possible with the F18E/F (preferably leased) as an interim air group until the F35C was ready for service around 2020. In order to ensure skills are maintained until the new carriers enter service around 2016, the existing two operational CVS and their Harrier aircraft should be kept in service.

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 the 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, about which the PFI arrangement has generated some worrying criticisms, should be revised and, if necessary, aborted with the aircraft procured under more traditional arrangements. The RAF Regiment’s role should be transferred to the volunteer Reserves, as should the Joint NBC Reconnaissance Regiment.

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. The Tornado should be disposed of and the Harrier GR9 retained in service until around 2016. A replacement for the expensive Nimrod MRA4 needs to be found as a matter of urgency and should probably be based on a commercial off-the-shelf purchase of at least 12 of the US P8 Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft.

The British Army’s armoured/mechanised brigades will need re-equipping – 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 should be scrapped, as they would still be needed. What it means is that a wheeled counterpart to the tracked elements would be needed to provide those 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 would be needed – one brigade’s worth 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 would mean that the armoured brigades could be deployed entirely as heavy armoured units, as lighter mechanised units, as a mixture of the two as dictated by operational circumstances, or, indeed, leave their vehicles behind and operate as light formations. This would not mean a significant additional cost, as the FRES UV (utility/armoured personnel carrier/infantry fighting vehicle) project is earmarked under current plans to go ahead – but at an unspecified point in the future. Operating a an equipment fleet of just 3 brigades worth of additional wheeled Piranha type vehicles would present a significant saving on fully re-equipping 5 multi-role brigades.

The multi-role brigades would have to be restructured, bringing the armour and infantry battlegroups into balance with the combat service and combat service support units needed to keep them operational. The command and control of battlefield helicopters in support of the 16 Air Assault Brigade would have to be analysed to see if a more effective structure were possible. 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.

The volunteer Reserve should be restructured and re-equipped to widen the roles they carry out as well as providing a regeneration capability and a reservoir for rarely-needed skills and capabilities, as discussed in section 6.

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 might well result in lower long-term costs and a more effective system. This is especially relevant as there are significant manpower savings that could be made within the Army and RAF sectors, as well as savings through scrapping the Tornado (estimated at £8.6 billion and restructuring the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport project (current cost £10.5 billion). At the same time, a restructuring of the MoD, procurement and logistics operations would also present further major opportunities for savings.


10. Conclusions.

The SDSR is a Defence Review that held much promise but is, on the whole a missed opportunity. The opportunity to consider security in its widest sense, rather than from a more narrow defence viewpoint, is welcome; but on balance, the defence aspects of the Review reflect poor strategic and decision-making within the MoD and the new National Security Committee. While the strategic aspirations of the SDSR – strategically mobile, flexible, adaptable forces – are laudable, the force structure designed to meet these aims lacks cohesion and credibility.

Furthermore, as with all British post-1945 Defence Reviews, the SDSR fails to consider the political realism of the posture it advocates. Essentially, the political legacy of the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions are such that the likelihood of their being repeated in the foreseeable future is slim to non-existent: yet, this is the exact eventuality that much of the SDSR force structures prepare for. This position was created and compounded by the Review’s failure to state clearly and unambiguously the strategic posture to be followed, which, in some cases, has allowed corporate culture, rather than strategic need, to drive the final outcomes of the review process.

The Review outcomes are further undermined by the incompleteness of the defence aspects of SDSR. There is no consideration of the role of Reserve Forces, which historically Britain has made less use of than many other comparable states. This means that the Review is fundamentally flawed, as there is no consideration as to what capabilities may actually be preserved by transferring all or part of them to the Reserves. Furthermore, the lack of any detailed consideration of the role of the Reserves in regeneration of defence effort or support of short-term interventions ensures that a less-than-comprehensive view of defence activities, roles and capabilities is achieved. There is also no consideration as to how reform of the MoD and its satellite organisations and agencies can improve efficiency or reduce costs. Finally, there is no consideration of the domestic defence industrial sector or the policy towards it and the impact that this has on the cost-effectiveness of defence procurement.

The lack of consideration of the MoD ‘Harmony’ guidelines is also of great concern. The fact that the Review fails to acknowledge the different productivity rates of the three Services as a result of these harmony rules helps to undermine the Review. It is also of concern that despite many years of joint operations, the Armed Forces still operate such widely different rules that have a major impact on the force structures required to support operations.

At the same time, whilst the SDSR attempts to reinforce the importance of Britain’s alliance membership, it is undermined by cuts to her most significant contributions, rather than the least important ones. Efforts at subsequent bilateral defence arrangements with France will not fill those British capability gaps as a result of the cuts proposed by the SDSR. Any such arrangement is undermined by divergent national interests in a security environment characterised by the uncertainty and diverse nature of the different threats they may be faced in the next 10 to 20 years.

Having Armed Forces is not an end in itself. What is important is what they enable a nation to do – through the threat, or use of force, bend another state to its will. Does that SDSR make it more likely that Britain, if required, could bend another state to its will either as part of an alliance or by acting independently? It does not. The force structures proposed by the SDSR are so at odds with the strategic aspirations of the Review as to place Britain’s Armed Forces in danger of irrelevance in the face of an uncertain and shifting global security environment.

It is clear, however, that the aspirations of the Review could be met very effectively if a maritime posture were adopted. Such a posture would involve further cuts and restructuring of all three Services, especially the RAF and Army; but would also need capability enhancements, predominately within the Royal Navy and RAF, and, to a lesser extent, the Army, to ensure that the Armed Forces are as mobile, flexible and adaptable as the SDSR demands. Such capability enhancements need not be unduly expensive. It may even develop far greater longer-term savings in procurement, support and manpower costs than the current force structures advocated by the SDSR.


11. Recommendations.

It is recommended that:

• Britain adopts a maritime posture as the best meaning of providing flexible and strategically mobile armed forces to face the uncertain threats of the next 20 years.
• That the emphasis being placed on land counter-insurgency operations is reduced; Afghanistan is important, but it is a short-term issue and should not distort medium- to long-term strategy and procurement.

• That for the Defence Review to be effective, it must include all aspects of defence activities, including the volunteer Reserves and the management of Defence itself.

• That the role and position of the CDS is reassessed, given repeated failings by past holders to place defence interests as a whole over the partisan interests of a single Service.

• That the new aircraft carriers entry into service as conventional take-off and landing vessels is expedited with the Harrier or an interim carrier air group of F18E/F aircraft – pending the introduction of the F35C in numbers around 2020.

• That a brigade level amphibious capability is maintained, including organic helicopter support.

• That one, preferably two, LHD-type ships are purchased to replace HMS Ocean.

• That the value for money of the £10.5 billion FTTA project is examined.

• That the Harrier GR9 is retained in service and the Tornado GR4 withdrawn as this will provide a larger cash saving and increased operational flexibility.

• That the C17 is purchased in place of the A400M.

• That the capability gap caused by the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 is addressed as a matter of urgency through the involvement of the UK with the US P8 Multi-mission maritime aircraft.

• That harmony rules are equalised to ensure the same levels of productivity across all three Services.

• That the size and balance of the British Army is re-assessed in the light of the unlikelihood of the political acceptability of further enduring land counter-insurgency operations in the manner of Iraq/Afghanistan and the primary need to adopt a maritime posture.

• That a full review of the offshore and coastal protection organisation is undertaken.



[1] C. Von Clausewitz, trans. & eds M. Howard, P. Paret, On War(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 605.

[2] BBC news ‘Polls find Europeans oppose Iraq war’, dated 11 Feb 2003, accessed on 27 Oct 2010; BBC news ‘”Million” march against Iraq war’, dated 16 Feb 2003, accessed 27 Oct 2010; ‘60% think Iraq war was wrong, poll shows’, dated 20 Mar 2007, accessed 27 Oct 2010; Anon, ‘Majorities of the Americans and Britons Believe the War in Iraq Was a Mistake’, AngusReid Public Opinion Poll, dated 26 August 2010.

[3] Anon, ‘Opposition to Military Mission in Afghanistan Reaches 60% in Britain’, AngusReid Public Opinion Poll, dated 20 Oct 2010.

[4] Cmd 7953, A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The National Security Strategy (London: HMSO, 2010), p. 6.

[5] Cmd 7953, p. 9.

[6] Cmd 7953, pp. 15.

[7] Cmd 7953, pp. 15, 22.

[8] Cmd 7953, pp. 27-31.

[9] Cmd 7948, Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review, (London: HMSO, 2010), p. 9

[10] CBS News, ‘US: Iran Transferring Weapons to Taliban’, dated 12 June 2007, accessed 27 Oct 2010.

[11] Cmd 7948, p. 10, 16, 17.

[12] Cmd 7948, p. 10, 16, 17.

[13] Cmd 7948, pp. 16-17.

[14] Cmd 7948, pp. 10, 17, 18.

[15] Cmd 7948, p. 17.

[16] Cmd 7948, pp. 17-18.

[17] MoD, The Fundamentals of British Maritime Doctrine (London: HMSO, 1995), pp. 161-2.

[18] Pheonix Think Tank, Flying from our new carriers – the RN or RAF ethos (2010).

[19] Pheonix Think Tank, A better option for Britain’s security (2010).

[20] Cmd 7948, pp. 22-3.

[21] Cmd 7948, p. 23.

[22] Cmd 7948, p. 21.

[23] Cmd 7948, p. 24.

[24] NAO, Ministry of Defence Major Projects Report 2007: The Landing Ship Dock (Auxiliary) Project (London: HMSO, 2007), p. 10.

[25] Cmd 7948, Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review, (London: HMSO, 2010), p. 4.

[26] See also Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). ‘Shared Responsibility: a National Security Strategy for the UK’. The Final Report of the IPPR Commission on National Security in the 21st Century. June 2009. London: IPPR. pp. 14, 50 (Recommendation 15).

[27] Memorandum on Army Estimates 1961-62 (London: HMSO, 1961), p. 9.

[28] House of Commons Library Research Paper No. 93/91, pp 4-6 and Cmd 124, paras 12-16.

[29] N. Gibbs, Grand Strategy vol I (London: HMSO, 1976), pp. 548-50, 558-9.

[30] The current 4th edition of AP3000, British Air and Space Doctrinestill makes much of the need for ‘air mindedness.’

[31] Mod DOC Audit.

[32] Engine £650 million, fatigue life £207 million, rear seat training £243 million.

[33] Military Balance 2010 (London: IISS, 2010), p. 171.

[34] Hollinger, P.; Clark, P., & Lemer, J. ‘Airbus threatens to scrap A400M aircraft’, Financial Times, 5 Jan 2010.

[35] ‘Airbus A400 Military Transport reportedly too heavy and too weak’, The Local, dated 12 Jan 2009, accessed 1 Nov 2010.

[36] A. Gilligan, ‘Defence Review: A £10.5 billion bill for planes that can’t fly in a war zone’, Daily Telegraph, 15 Sept 2010, accessed 1 Nov 2010.

[37] Cmd 7948, p. 31.

[38] Current RAF support helicopter numbers are 40 Chinook HC2/2A, 28 Merlin HC3 and 34 Puma HC1. The Royal Navy operates an additional 37 Sea King HC4 and can call on another 15 Sea King HAS5 utility/ support helicopters. Military Balance pp., 170, 171.

[39] Cmd 7799, Armed Forces Pay Review Body: 39th Report – 2010(London: HMSO, 2010), p. 7 n. 3.

[40] Figures calculated from Military Balance 2010 (London: IISS, 2010).

[41] Does not include RAF manned Harriers as the aircrew may not be aircraft carrier qualified.

[42] Not including training variants.

[43] Figures calculated from Military Balance 2010 (London: IISS, 2010) and Cmd 7948.

[44] Until 2020 at the earliest.

[45] Daily Telegraph, 3 Nov 2010, p. 1.

[46] Cmd 7948, Security Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence Review, (London: HMSO, 2010), para 2.A.12.

[47] Cmd 7948, pp. 22, 25.

[48] Cmd 7948, p. 33.

[49] Cmd 7948, p. 9.

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