The SDSR was never going to be satisfactory, the perpetual wars during declining budgetary prominence was always going to result in a car-crash, and sure enough that crash arrived with the financial crisis in 2008. This has resulted was a lot of unsatisfactory decisions, mostly due to the (correct) commitment to the Afghan mission conflicting for the desire for a force structure for 2020 and beyond, but did we avoid making the difficult choices demanded by RUSI in the FDR paper; capability cost trends?
What that is recognisable can we pull out of the rubble?
The Afghan mission is a classic example of Rupert Smith’s “wars-among-the-people”, where enduring and dispersed insurgencies will require significant ground forces to dominate a theatre over an extended period. Ideological conflict to be a generational affair and will require sustained effort on a wide scale to prevent failed states becoming hot-houses for new threats to home security and national interests.
The easy option would be to cut-n-run, however this would wreck one of the two pillars that support British military action in support of Foreign Policy objectives. It is one thing to have the military capability for action, but the far more effective solution is to achieve ones objective by the mere threat of action, however that only works if allies and adversaries believe you have the will to fight. If Britain cut-and-run we would destroy the confidence of our allies have our support, and thus the support we can expect from them, just as it would destroy our capability to deter new threats to Britain’s security & interests, as our adversaries would drag us into unwanted wars such as the Falklands conflict.
So, whatever we intend to do in future and however that might require a change in structure today, we cannot simply abandon the capabilities that support the Afghan mission. If the mission were lost anyway then we would be subject to a similar loss of credibility, however this blog is quietly hopeful that the special forces whirlwind combined with the enduring local presence will eventually deliver an Afghanistan that is not a threat to Britain’s security nor too its interests. This is all that should be asked.
In broad terms the decision to restructure the army around five ‘presence’ brigades, and two rapid-reaction brigades, in addition to the commitment to carrier strike and significant amphibious capability, are strong indicators that the MOD favoured a doctrine closer to Strategic Raiding than Global Guardian, which will prove to be a difficult marriage with the Afghan responsibilities. Why so? If it had been the latter then there would have been no reduction in combat brigades, and reduction in troop numbers, for COIN wars are a numbers game and expensive rapid-reaction reaction brigades with all their attached logistical support would have been the first to go.
The Georgian war as a template of future conflict is characterised by regions subject to geopolitical ‘shocks’, thus encouraging states insufficiently wedded to the international system to renationalise their foreign policy and justify unilateral external action. The logical response is the British “manoeuverist approach” where freedom of the sea allows one to apply surgical force to an enemy’s critical weaknesses, rather than blunt force against the enemy’s main strength.
The key difference between the two is the need for a larger number of brigades, and the logistical tail to support them in persistent operations, versus a smaller number of brigades, with a larger maritime presence geared around supporting short-duration operations. Anything that does not fit explicitly into the two roles, past and future, has been deemed surplus to requirements and brutally sacrificed in the name of deficit reduction. Arguably, if the Afghan commitment had not dominated the previous nine years with the promise of a further five, or, if the chosen posture had not been rapid-reaction operations of limited duration, the SDSR might have produced a less bizarre result.
How is it bizarre?
Announcing an intention to cut the army by 7,000 in the short term, and a combat brigade in the medium term, at a time when we are committed to a nasty and protracted COIN war until 2015.
Announcing the replacement of the strategic deterrent, and yet cancelling the order for the maritime patrol aircraft that guarantee its independence of action, aircraft which have already been paid for.
Announcing the retirement of carrier strike and then committing to reconstituting it with a [single] carrier equipped with the most training/resource intensive CATOBAR variant of F35.
Announcing a future intention to reduce the broad manpower base that enables enduring operations as characterised by Afghanistan, and then limiting rapid-reaction forces to battle-group level only.
The first is recognition that political support, and electoral support, for another protracted and nasty COIN war is simply non-existent, and thus there is no point configuring the future of the Armed Forces capability for wars of a type Britain is unwilling to fight, it is a pointless waste of resource.
The second is recognition that effective strategic nuclear deterrents will be a massive drain on limited defence budgets in future, a fact weighing even more heavily on France, so we shall have to broaden our dependence beyond the US to our ‘new’ allies. The MRA4 did far more than sanitise the North Sea for Trident, but that was its raison d’etre.
The third is recognition that we have known for years that the Forces would require a decade to recover from running the Iraq and Afghan operations simultaneously for five years, and that even with the former now complete the burden of keeping 9,500 troops in Afghanistan till 2015 means that we are not going anywhere else, en-masse, until 2020 at the earliest.
The fourth is reinforcement to the third, the two rapid reaction brigades will not be tasked with anything more demanding than battle-group level operations, because there is nothing more to give for non-obligatory conflict.
If we accept that the 10% cut resulting from the Gray report should be added to the 7.5% departmental cut, in addition to the ~2% cut from the acquisition cost of the Trident replacement, then Defence saw a reduction in line with the average over other departments, and it remains a minor miracle that a more serious capability cull was not necessary!
The reduction in heavy armour and its withdrawal from Germany do not feature heavily in this narrative, because they were neither surprising nor controversial, and thus not indicative of any trend in future force structure evolution.
What does this blog wish to see from the 2015 SDSR, post Afghanistan and hopefully in a more benign economic climate?
First, to see rapid-reaction interventions via 3Cdo and 16AAB to be restored to Brigade level. The majority of the amphibious tonnage survived including one of the two LPH’s, three of the four LSD’s, and both of the two LPD’s (with one in mothballs).
Second, to see agreement that both Carriers should be brought into full service in order that Britain retains a permanent ability to generate a carrier task group in support of a rapid intervention. This begs the question over where the majority of the F35c end up?
There is plenty more that might be wished for but that is mere detail, what matters is sovereign and strategic power projection, and there is sufficient evidence that this is exactly the goal sought from the 2020 vision.