Defence Review shows no signs of strategic thinking

Fiscal restraint can be a good thing: properly handled it forces people to determine what is essential and what is not. This, however, requires making choices, something which the government has shown that it is reluctant to do. The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) shows no signs of strategic thinking but plenty of signs of bureaucratic compromise – at the highest level between the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence (MoD), at a lower level between the MoD and the three armed services, and lower still between the various branches within the various services – so as to share the pain as equally as possible among everybody regardless of need.

In an ideal world, force structure (and thus budget) would flow directly from a government’s determination of its defence strategy, which in turn would flow from that government’s analysis of its interests and the threats to those interests. This has not happened. In an effort to pretend that structure is indeed following strategy, the government published a National Security Strategy (NSS) one day before the SDSR. Unfortunately, however, the defence structure and budget outlined in the latter bears no relation to the analysis contained in the former.

According to the NSS, “we face no major state threat at present and no existential threat to our security, freedom or prosperity”. This statement largely eliminates the need for most of the armed forces. The NSS then lists three “tiers” of threats (or “risks” as the document bizarrely calls them) to British security. But the military forces proposed by the SDSR correspond mainly to tier three risks, which are in most cases extremely unlikely. The tier one threats, which are deemed the top priority for British security, are said to be international terrorism, cyber attack, international military crises, and major accidents or natural hazards. What these have to do with the armed forces is not made clear. Meanwhile the SDSR’s response to the threat of terrorism, cyber attacks and natural accidents is to build an aircraft carrier without any aircraft, six new air defence destroyers, and seven new hunter killer submarines, as well as to promise to renew the strategic nuclear deterrent. Rarely, if ever, has defence policy been so spectacularly out of kilter with the official analysis of the nation’s security needs.

In the introduction to the NSS, the Prime Minister calls for “a radical transformation in the way we think about national security”, but the SDSR then produces an almost entirely conventional military response to security problems. If the government honestly believes its own strategic analysis it would recognise that military power is almost irrelevant to Britain’s security needs. This would allow it to make serious cuts in defence spending far beyond those envisioned in the SDSR, and so make Britain more secure while saving the taxpayers billions of pounds in unnecessary expenditures.

9 thoughts on “Defence Review shows no signs of strategic thinking”

  1. Posted 21/10/2010 at 10:50 | Permalink

    I agree with the contention that the SDSR was more to do with a bureaucratic compromise rather than any strategy-led approach. However, I fundamentally disagree with many of the points made in this post.
    Firstly – ’security’ threats and the force structure of the armed forces are only ever tangentally related. (I’m not saying this is necessarily ‘right’ but it is the case, or we would really only have a gendarmerie and a few patrol boats). The principle role of armed forces is concerned with power relationships between states. Although free marketers like myself may find this unpleasant to accept it is the case – although I don’t wish to sound like a naive Realist, which I am not it…

  2. Posted 21/10/2010 at 10:56 | Permalink

    …clearly reflects the status quo for all states from the US to Russia. Whilst this relationship may not resolve itself into actual conflict, it is this set of circumstances which provides a rationale (whether we support it or not) for armed forces which has relatively little bearing on how we may actually deploy them. Nuclear weapons merely represent the most obvious example of this.
    Secondly there are a few points which might mitigate against the author’s view of armed forces. Foreign policy is rather unlike domestic policy in the relationships between actors – states are unlike individuals. There is a paradoxical relationship – making oneself weaker makes others stronger or more likely

  3. Posted 21/10/2010 at 11:00 | Permalink

    …to be so. Would we really like the Chinese or Russians to be the global top dog? And should we just rely on the US or France (!) to provide us with military forces? Armed forces must be thought of more in a role of upholding the global system of trade, property and capital flows – which is uniquely favourable to an international trading nation like the UK. Although this might seem tangentally related to the armed forces, it could be seen it what would occur if the military power of the Western allies were removed from the board – something would fill the vacuum and we might not like what that was very much.
    Lastly, I’d pick up on the author’s focus on the Navy rather than the other…

  4. Posted 21/10/2010 at 11:09 | Permalink

    services. Why not discuss the grossly expensive, short-range Eurofighter (useful against what threat by his token?) or 100,000 soliders (again, what for? and where will they go if there is no sea or airlift capacity anyway?) – so why don’t they and all their pension, wage, housing and medical costs get a mention I wonder? Personnel is by far the largest expense in the MoD’s budget after all.
    For my own view, I’d like to see the UK’s armed forces as something like the US Marine Corps with a bit more naval and airlift capacity. So a far smaller and more deployable Army and the RAF reduced to airlift and battlefield support (Navy provides fast jets etc from the carriers) a balanced fleet…

  5. Posted 22/10/2010 at 16:56 | Permalink

    This is another case of scientism: over-estimation of our ability to manage highly uncertain risks in a mechanistic way. Defence spending is necessarily blind, in response to threats that are conceivable but not presently visible and certainly not mentionable. We have to equip ourselves to deal with the world as it will be in 10-20 years time, when the equipment is in operation, not as it is now and in the immediately foreseeable future. We have no idea what the threats will be then, so we have to equip ourselves not to defend against specific threats, but to be able to defend against the widest range of threats to our interests.

  6. Posted 22/10/2010 at 20:42 | Permalink


    Your argument would entail having everything and provides no logic for choosing one thing over another: why choose aircraft carriers over tanks? why choose anti-aircraft destroyers over anti-submarine frigates? etc. It also provides no logic for what level of spending one should have – why spend x amount rather than y? If the answer is we don’t know the future, then any amount of spending and any structure is as logical as any other. But when one makes choices, eg build aircraft carriers but eliminate tanks, one is in fact making a decision about the future, one not saying we don’t know what the threat will be, and so these need choices justifying.


  7. Posted 24/10/2010 at 02:41 | Permalink

    Paul, That’s a straw man. Recognising our ignorance and giving ourselves the most effective and adaptable force we judge that we can afford is not the same thing as saying that we should have everything. Following the alternative logic of tooling up for the current identified threats would require a team of computer experts for the cyber threat (see Bill Gates’ comment on breakfast news last week), a bigger budget for MI5, 6 and co for the terrorist threat, more Royal Engineers (or maybe sub-contract the work) for the natural threat, perhaps some VSO-style body for international assistance, and (as you say) disband the rest of the military because Britain faces no “existential threat”.

  8. Posted 24/10/2010 at 03:05 | Permalink

    That would be a betrayal of any government’s first duty.

    There are many things that the Government shouldn’t just do more efficiently, but shouldn’t do at all. Defence is at the other end of the spectrum. Even before the CSR, while still involved in the latest of a series of engagements, defence was at its lowest proportion of GDP and of government spending since the nineteenth century, apart from a couple of years in the depths of appeasement. Now we are below even those years, with planned spending that is unsuitable for (a) the main perceived threats (as you say), and (b) any unforeseen existential threats. I simply believe we should spend more, not less, on conventional capability.

  9. Posted 01/11/2010 at 10:36 | Permalink

    […] think we should be cutting wherever we can. There are some government activities on which I think we should be spending more […]

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