Press Association

SDSR and the path to transformation

Author: Robert Dover

The government has to address the long-standing and fundamental need to match resources to the roles it asks Britain’s armed services to fulfil

The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) may come to be seen as a genuinely transformative moment in British defence history. Far from the piecemeal salami-slicing of Options for Change (1991), Frontline First (1994) or even the Strategic Defence Review (1998), the 2010 SDSR does five radical things. 

First, it has irreversibly connected security and defence as a single concern. Second, it has entrenched a principle of supporting fewer equipment platforms, and that in the future the UK will seek greater cooperation and collaboration with French and American defence industries. Third, it has further reduced the financial platform that defence sits upon (from 2.2 per cent of GDP down to two per cent). Fourth, it looks set to introduce many more market-based measures into the defence community. Finally, it has placed the effective control of the important decisions in defence into the hands of the Cabinet Office. 

It has been far too easy for media and academic commentators to pour scorn on the SDSR as somehow constituting a betrayal of the defence community, and the ordinary reader of national newspapers must, by now, be suffering reader fatigue from the weight of this sustained criticism. A lot of this criticism is unfair: after all, those writing the Review were merely working within the framework allowed to them by the Treasury, Cabinet Office and the political leadership. 

As a result, the framers of the SDSR argue that they created the best review possible in the circumstances. But also the criticisms put forward by the commentariat have not seen fit to produce reasoned alternatives to the original SDSR nor to try and assess what might be made of the settlement delivered in 2010. 

The closed nature of the SDSR left the three Services to argue their respective cases through selective public moments, such as talks at Chatham House, IISS and RUSI, and via the less seemly route of leaks to the media. This lack of Service input into the Review and the magnitude of the October 2010 announcement seem to have struck all three Services dumb. 

It can be argued strongly that there has been a general failure within the military to appreciate the magnitude and permanency of the reforms being made, a failure to appreciate the potential reduction in the UK’s wider world role, and a failure to provide a unified vision of an alternative to the SDSR proposals. This essay will try to focus on where the challenges to implementing the SDSR now lie and how the Army might best engage positively with the existing settlement. 

The challenges  

The cuts to manpower and equipment lines that were announced in the SDSR have been pored over by expert commentators and pundits alike, and there is little need to go over them again. What has not been commented on yet is what these cuts represent. It can be argued that these are indicative of the sort of linear scaling that has been allowed to become prevalent in British defence thinking. The shift in balance from scientific, technical and military staff to generalist civil servants in Main Building in the mid 1990s allowed the conflation of the concepts of capacity with capability. This is highly significant in defence terms because this encourages the application of linear scaling to reductions in defence. 

In essence, the logic of linear scaling is that, if one scraps an equipment line, or changes its numbers (capacity), then the military effect (capability) of such a reduction is proportionate with the numerical change. But, in fact, this is not the case - capacity is merely one element of military capability. The UK’s military capability has degraded more rapidly than the linear loss of capacity suggests, and the MoD should urgently consider alternative ways of measuring their possible capabilities. 

Furthermore, this reduction of military capabilities has been compounded by the decision in 2010 to abolish the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Commitments) (DCDS(C)) post, which addressed what scenarios are on the horizon, and what capabilities will be required to meet them. The DCDS(C) was the MoD’s main consumer of government intelligence, and it would be worth considering that the restoration of this post is in the light of the connection of security and defence, and also in enabling the MoD to plan and prepare for shocks in the international system, such as we have seen in the Middle East recently. 

So, the effects of linear scaling and the loss of DCDS(C) amount to a challenge to the strategic function of the MoD and the armed forces. But these cuts are only problematic in the light of a failure to understand Britain’s changed role in the world, changes that were flagged by the government in opposition and by the SDSR announcements. 

The charge that Libya-like operations did not feature in the SDSR are entirely to be expected, and it is the military action against Libya that has opened the floodgates for critics of the SDSR, and made it possible for them to declare the Review in need of revision. The tensions that Libya causes for the SDSR settlement can be expected to be resolved when British involvement in that theatre ends, or if substantial British involvement
in Afghanistan ends prior to the 2015 window.