Ignore the detail of the leaked letter from Fox to Cameron regarding the sorry state of the SDSR, the single most important conclusion to draw is that once again a British government is endangering the Armed Forces by creating a new strategic direction and then refusing to fund Defence at a level sufficient to drive the vision.
This is not helped by differences of opinion in how an “Adaptable” Armed Forces should be configured.
An excerpt of that letter is quoted below:
“Frankly this process is looking less and less defensible as a proper SDSR (Strategic Defence and Strategy Review) and more like a “super CSR” (Comprehensive Spending Review). I am very grateful to Peter Ricketts and Jeremy Heywood for the help they have given officials who have worked strenuously to bridge a gap that is, financially and intellectually virtually impossible. I am concerned that we do not have a narrative that we can communicate clearly. On 22 July the NSC endorsed the ‘Adaptable Britain’ posture because we decided that it was impossible to predict what conflict or global security scenarios may emerge in the years ahead. That meant ensuring the maintenance of generic defence capability across all three environments of land, sea and air – not to mention the emerging asymmetric threats in domains such as cyber and space –with sufficient ability to regenerate capability in the face of these possible future threats were it required.”
At the time of the SDR 98 the Defence budget occupied 2.7% of GDP during a period of rapid economic growth, it was a stretch, but if this budget priority coexisted with continued growth then the vision was indeed viable. This was not to be case however; the Defence budget slipped from 2.7% of GDP in 1997 to 2.2% in 2008, then the recession arrived which killed the economic growth that allowed for capability cost growth, and finally the poorly funded war in Afghanistan was paid for by hacking yet more chunks out of the Defence budget in December 2009. In short, SDR 98 isn’t happening now and was never truly sustainable.
The result has been exposed in the Gray report where we learn that the Defence budget is underfunded by 10% each year for the next decade already, to which we must add 10% Treasury imposed cuts, on top of which must be added a further circa 5% cut from forcing the acquisition costs of the Trident replacement into the Defence Budget.
As RUSI noted in the fifth FDR paper; Capability Cost Trends, we no longer have the option of operating as a US-lite mini superpower, capable of sovereign & strategic power projection across a broad spectrum of capabilities. We must now choose.
The NSC considered three possible basic strategic postures for Britain: ‘vigilant’, ‘adaptable’ and ‘committed’. The first would lower ambitions considerably, while the third is broadly equivalent to the ambitions of SDR98. The chosen option was the middle ground, given that the former was deemed unpalatable and the latter unaffordable, and it essentially commits Britain to being a force in the world, i.e. heavily involved in geo-politics though over a much smaller spectrum and with greater input from multilateral partners.
These three postures correlate surprisingly well to the RUSI doctrines from their first FDR paper:
0) The SDR 98 – i.e. we maintain our ability to operate as a US-lite mini superpower, capable of sovereign & strategic power projection across a broad spectrum of capabilities, an example of which would be the continued ability to conduct enduring theatre level operations out-of-area, and mount medium scale assaults via amphibious in conjunction with expeditionary forces.
This is the NSC Committed posture
1) The Global Guardian Doctrine – i.e. we maintain our ability to mount large scale theatre level operations out-of-area, examples of which would be Desert Storm and Afghanistan, including protracted COIN operations.
This is the NSC Adaptable posture
2) The Strategic Raiding Doctrine – i.e. we maintain our ability to mount medium scale assaults via amphibious/naval capability in conjunction with rapid-reaction/expeditionary forces, examples of which would be the Falklands Conflict and Sierra Leone.
This is the NSC Adaptable posture
3) The Contributory Doctrine - i.e. we would lose any possibility for national autonomy for intervention operations, as we would be dependent on other nations for the capabilities that had been surrendered, but we would concentrate on specialist capabilities and command and control of coalition operations. We would be in a similar position to 19th century Britain with its colonial levies; able to provide C4ISTAR or specialist functions to multinational operations.
This is the NSC Adaptable posture
4) The Gendarmerie Doctrine - i.e. we lose all ambition to high intensity warfare outside of our own national borders, and capable only of providing light weight peace-keeping forces for multinational operations. We would be in a similar position to Belgium or Denmark.
This is the NSC Vigilant posture
Where the RUSI doctrines and NSC postures differ is on the matter of sovereign capability, or Great Power status, for while the Committed posture clearly does represent sovereign & strategic power projection the Adaptable posture chosen is more flexible in that it concerns itself with principally with strategic capability.
However, both Cameron and Hague have made it quite clear that they reject the assumption of the all-party Green Paper (and the IPPR report) that Britain will in future only engage in serious war fighting as part of a coalition, so essentially they are admitting that of the three potential doctrinal variants of the “Adaptable” posture only Global Guardian and Strategic Raiding doctrines are serious options. The Contributory doctrine is clearly desirable, the ability to act as a multilateral spine around which theatre-level operations can be conducted is useful to EU ambitions within NATO (europe), and also the wider coalitions-of-the-willing that are deemed to be a feature of future geo-politics, but it remains an adjunct to sovereign British capability.
The key to the problem here is again found in the fifth RUSI FDR paper; the absolute warning against trying to remain both a maritime and a land power for trying do so on a budget of £35 billion will require that both be so watered down that neither will represent a strategic capability, which would be fine if we were happy to remain a Contributory power but that option is supposedly off the table anyway. Sadly, this is exactly the situation we find ourselves in for Cameron is focused on Afghanistan and the US desire to retain a partner to shoulder the burden of future COIN operations, whereas Fox is looking beyond Afghanistan and instead opting for a more narrowly focussed sovereign capability designed to meet Britain’s ‘local’ interests around the globe.
The result is that the Prime Minister is leaning towards a land-centric doctrine such as RUSI’s Global Guardian, whereas the Defence Secretary is sympathetic to a maritime doctrine similar to RUSI’s Strategic Raiding, and all parties are becoming increasingly aware the compromises are resulting in exactly the kind of fudge that the fifth FDR paper warned against. Unless one side gives way we will end up with an army unable to sustain division sized operations of enduring character, a Navy incapable of projecting power into the onto land and over the littoral environment, and an Armed Forces poorly configured to act as a multilateral C4ISTAR spine around which to build multilateral operations.
Graphic illustrations of of the nature of the fudge that Think Defence also warned against include:
An Army that will on current suggestions shrink to 95,000 personnel, with the probable implication that the number of deployable combat brigades will shrink from nine to six (including the RM brigade), how is this force structure capable of sustaining large scale theatre level operations out-of-area? Global Guardian if properly implemented would probably require land-forces totalling closer to 120,000, capable of maintaining ten combat brigades and thus sustaining a division in theatre persistently.
A Navy that will on current suggestions shrink to 30,000 personnel, which will get to keep its carriers given that they have become totemic but see the Amphibious Reaction Group (ARG) gutted and the escort fleet decimated, how is this force structure capable of deploying, inserting, and sustaining a medium scale intervention on foreign territory, how is it even capable of protecting the HVA’s as they transit to theatre? Strategic Raiding if properly implemented would require an amphibious fleet capable (at surge) of brigade level operations, an escort fleet of 24 high-end war fighters, and three expeditionary brigades in rotation to provide a permanent capability to intervene in short term operations.
An Airforce that will lose many of the expensive surveillance and intelligence assets that provide the high level support to British 2star operations allowing them to dominate a theatre of war in addition to sanitising the ingress and egress points of the Trident boats, and more generally an Armed Forces that are not configured to act as C4ISTAR spine around which allied combat units can be plugged-into.
This is a political disaster which threatens to be catastrophic for Britain’s Armed Forces and the fault must be laid at Cameron’s feet, if he wants a land-centric strategic doctrine he shouldn’t have put Fox in charge of Defence, having done so he must back him or sack him.
There are only four possible outcomes from this struggle:
1) Fox wins – Cameron won’t be happy but the Armed Forces survive as a useful force.
2) Cameron wins – Fox gets the sack but the Armed Forces survive as a useful force.
3) Osborne wins – A fudge is sought that will wreck ambitions of sovereign & strategic power projection. *
4) Osborne loses – Sufficient Treasury funding is found to bridge the Afghanistan mission but Fox gets his way.
The first two would be satisfactory, the third would be a tragedy, and the fourth would be ideal, but unless someone backs down we are headed towards the third. The great sorrow is the dishonesty of this squalid political bickering, because if the NSC didn’t want to pay for an “Adaptable” posture they should have just opted publicly for “Vigilant”.
This blog still cleaves to the view that from a capability point of view either Global Guardian or Strategic Raiding are suitable, however the other side of the coin is will and that is where it believe the latter doctrine has the edge, for the voting public has little stomach for fighting wars that are perceived to be both nasty & protracted and essentially other peoples follies.
And this is what they called a policy-led, and not a treasury-led, Strategic Defence & Security Review?
* possibly a little harsh on Osborne, for I don’t believe he harbours any malice for Defence, but he certainly harbours no sympathy either.