PS21 Report: Beyond the SDSR


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  • Process likely to become rapidly politicised, tied to procurement decisions already made.
  • UK still fundamentally uncertain what role it wants to take in the world.
  • Confusion over balancing great power threat from Russia and broader priorities such as terrorism.
  • Challenges in adapting to changing nature of warfare, globalised/technology-rich world.
  • Retention, career structure a major challenge.

On July 29, 2015, the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21) held a discussion on the UK Strategic Defence and Security Review to be published this autumn.

Please feel free to quote from the report below citing PS21. Contact if you wish to reach any of the participants.

London: 29 July 2015

Chair: Peter Apps: executive director, PS21

Patrick Bury: former Captain, British Army Royal Irish Regiment, now PhD candidate at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute

Philip Thicknesse: former head of futures, UK Defence Concepts and Doctrines Centre

Tom Bruxner: former British Army officer, Defence Concepts and Doctrine Centre

Josh Arnold-Forster: former special advisor to John Reid MP, defence secretary 2005-2006, now strategic advisor at Hanover

Bob Judson: retired Air Vice-Marshal, Royal Air Force, previously Director Joint Warfare and Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Operations)

By its nature, the SDSR will suffer from both high- and low-level political interference both from the individual services and top of government. Already, Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments on spending more money on drones and special forces risks prejudging the process. The level of resources available for the offence has already been set in stone by the Treasury. None of these problems are new.

Thicknesse: My first Defence Review was 1981 when I was in HMS Fearless. [That ship] was deleted by the review and yet we found ourselves fighting in the south Atlantic some three months later. One is scarred by that experience.

For me, you can always get really good guidance from [Prof Lord] Peter Hennessy, who produced 10 rules for defence reviews. I won’t produce all 10 but here are a couple: they are quickly overturned by events; governments find it difficult to sustain the logic of their own reviews; they are inevitably underfunded; they happen when the balance between commitment, capabilities and resources are lost; and they are constrained by capability decisions taken immediately beforehand — in this case, carriers, maritime patrol aircraft, F35 etc. This has set the scene for what is going to be a deeply frustrating and absolutely un-strategic defence review. Fasten your seatbelts.

Bruxner: I worked as part of the DCDC Futures Program until the early part of this year, specifically on paper on the Future Operating Environment in 2035 which was in theory one of Defence’s context for the SDSR. What struck me very quickly is how politicised the process was, even down to the lowest level.

Because the review included Security and Defence, its remit is now so wide that it includes most Whitehall departments. This makes it harder to come to any meaningful conclusion and increases the intra-governmental politics of the product because government departments wish to defend their own pots of cash. This is mirrored within Defence where inter-service rivalry is stronger than ever, despite the Levene Reforms.

For those in the MOD contributing work for the SDSR, there is really very little room for any freethinking because you get told very clearly by the chain of command what you are required to say and if you don’t provide that, it gets discarded.

At the end of the day, the politicians making the decisions are often driven by the relatively local political concerns which often trump genuine strategic imperatives.

Arnold-Forster: Politics is about the art of the possible and all defence reviews always have to take into account the fact that there are actual jobs that politicians take a close personal interest in. The great thing about the defence budget is that it doesn’t have to follow EU competition legislation and so national governments can hand out contracts however they want — and Ministers will take advantage of this.

Still, I’m prepared to defend politicians to this extent — they are trying to react to the way in which they think the world has changed. Some will have the best of intentions and some will have the worst.

For more than a decade, the UK military has seen the world almost entirely through the prism of Iraq and Afghanistan. In terms of logistics and some of the technical capabilities, it now stands well behind developments in the private sector.

Bury: Just sitting there as a civilian, you find yourself going: “hmm, I’m not sure if this were DHL we’d be doing things in the same way”. The cross-organisational knowledge can be very limited. You get the sense that they don’t have the deep specialised, more professional knowledge base.

To address these, the UK military establishment needs to look at some of its preconceived systems, particularly the rank structure, pay at the speed with which personnel particularly officers are rotated through jobs.

Bury: Do we need to rotate people every two years? This debate has been going on for ages — but it is knowledge destroying. You need experts to be rapidly deployable. Officers get posted for 18 months and as soon as they get to actually know what they’re doing they get moved on.

The speed of military decision-making — primarily using the OODA (observe, orientate, decide and act) loop — is now much slower than many of those used by adversaries. The military has simply not moved at the speed of technology.

Bury: We are still teaching officers in Sandhurst to go through their “seven questions” and come up with a plan. The point is that if you’re an insurgent group you can do this on Whatsapp. This process can be very, very slow in comparison to what our adversaries are using.

They need to change the mentality. Just throwing it out there, you could have a personal display unit on your wrist that really speeds things up.

Fundamentally, many of the strategic decisions facing Britain go well beyond that which can be tackled by the MoD alone.

Judson:  Fundamentally, the challenge we face is the government-level rhetoric about U.K.’s aspirations of the world. We have dramatically shrunk our presence but not our mission. That generates the tensions that have been described. I don’t think that’s going to go away. Fundamentally, we have to square that circle, though, cutting our cloth according to our means. We’re not being honest about what our means are allowing us to do.

Thicknesse: It’s a national choice. The number one question is about our membership of the permanent five in the Security Council. There are costs and benefits to belonging but can you imagine any prime minister saying they no longer want to be a part of it?

The broader implications of the 2013 parliamentary vote against military action in Syria are not yet clear.

Bruxner: It seems to be a bit of a game changer. Whether or not it’s permanent is to tell. Whilst in theory the PM can still exercise Royal Prerogative, it does seem to have become a norm that Parliament is consulted before we deploy anywhere. That creates a very strange dynamic, which is very difficult for Defence planners.

The modern media environment can generate demands to act — for example, over the #bringbackourgirls campaign in Nigeria or the hunt for missing Malaysia airliner MH373. The world, however, remains a large place and getting out and doing things at that distance can be expensive and challenging.

Fundamentally, the UK still does not believe it faces any existential threats. As such, it is in a very different position to countries such as Japan or Sweden which identify one overwhelming threat such as China or Russia.

With Russian submarines and aircraft challenging UK territorial airspace and waters, there is a range of opinions as to how seriously the UK should take Moscow compared to other potential threats.

Arnold-Faster: It’s very interesting. It’s worth looking at the Treasury documents because the Treasury is saying that Russia is potentially a much bigger risk for our prosperity than global terrorism. They are looking at the potential for energy supply disruption, loss of investment in Eastern Europe etc.

Russian submarines have continued to probe the waters off Scotland, home to the U.K.’s nuclear deterrent submarines. More broadly, Ukraine complex has showcased both the levels of conventional firepower Moscow is willing to use as well as its less conventional capabilities.

Thicknesse: While we lazily took the peace dividend, the Russians didn’t. They have retained a small cadre of extremely professional nuclear submariners whose job is to probe and to see just how close they can get.

Arnold-Forster: They also have a whole contingent of various special capabilities and they are using them all the time. You look at eastern Ukraine and you see people for whom this is their second or third conflict on behalf of their Russian masters. These people don’t see the distinction between wartime and peacetime. It is a continual struggle.

The conflict in Ukraine has involved the use of heavy artillery — 120 mm, 155 mm, thermobaric. We don’t know whether our infantry can withstand that kind of bombardment now

While both the Ukraine and ISIS wars show the growing importance of social media, PSYOPS and “indirect approach” to warfare, they have also showed the importance of fighting on the ground.

Bruxner: At the lower level, it is still pretty conventional. The black arts/black ops informational message is going on at the operational and strategic level. I’m worried generally about the UK taking the message from recent years that actually all we need to do is put up the right message on Twitter and we won’t need to fight at all. I think this is a fantasy similar to Liddle Hart’s ‘indirect approach’ which thought there was always a way around the flank. I think war will always involve fighting and much of it will still be attritional.

Actually, what Russia is doing is demonstrating that there is real benefit to being actually there on the ground and digging trenches. Informations operations are supporting this.

The war with ISIS has also demonstrated the limits of British capability — something which so far has barely entered the political discussion.

Bury: To my mind, you have a 30 year war in the Middle East and the question is whether you want to get involved in that the problem. Can we really control the second or third order events if we get involved? What can we shape? Are we better just containing certain areas?

With more capable adversaries, the UK is simply not used to facing that kind of conflict against significantly well trained and equipped nations.

Judson: Russia is one of those, North Korea is one of those and Iran might become one of those. We do not have current practice or skills and capability against really capable enemies. We’ve been very good for a long period of time now at engaging in conflicts where there is a relatively benign environment where we could operate with air supremacy very quickly. You don’t face a high attrition rate against you.

We have a government rhetoric that says we can go in and do anything we want, whatever we want. That’s just misplaced. Against a high end opponent, to suggest that we could do it even in coalition is questionable.

Indeed, the whole way in which the UK views its strategic approach to the rest of the world is open to question.

Arnold-Forster: I’m sure Cameron wakes up and thinks: “what am I going to do about North Korea?” But he doesn’t seem to have the machinery to think about that in a particularly coherent way. There is no Imperial General Staff examing in depth and detail what’s going on in the world.

This, in some respects, is little different to the days of the British Empire — which was itself described as being “acquired in a fit of absence of mind”. What is different now is that Whitehall often believes it has a role to play in events that the rest of the world simply does not see.

Still, the long-term future is unknowable and therefore no British government — for now at least — is likely to seriously be willing to abandon the nuclear deterrent.

Thicknesse: It’s a very political thing… which Prime Minister is going to cite this thing off and go down in history as the man or woman who opens us up to some ghastly threat in 30, 40 or 50 years.

The total cost of the Trident successor through its life is something like £97 billion. The budget for the NHS this year is 114 billion. HS2 (the high-speed London-Birmingham rail link) is something like 50 billion. In those terms, Trident costs nothing.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, there is a growing challenge of retaining good quality personnel, both officers and enlisted.

Thicknesse: I think there are enough people seduced by the idea of adventure to join the services so recruitment is probably not that big a problem. Retention is.

The services are hampered by highly centralised pay policies so all of them have found it impossible to retain certain skills. In the Navy’s case, nuclear engineers haemorrhage into the civil nuclear program. The Royal Navy is the only organisation training: nuclear engineers in the country. I don’t see how these services can break the dead hand of the Treasury to get the freedom to pay people what it takes — we have always been hampered by this relationship between rank and pay.

And yet it can work: sometimes the highest-paid officer in many military units is the doctor and people understand that.

Bury: The military has some innovative leaders now, certainly General Houghton (CDS) and General Carter (CGS). They’ve picked up in terms of getting a higher number of females, they’ve picked up that that’s one of the issues they need to address if they’re going to recruit and retain. They are looking at flexible hours. If you’re battering away on a keyboard, do you really need to be in barracks?

I think we also need to look at some kind of GI Bill (mimicking the US legislation which entitles those who serve as enlisted men for several years with financial support to go to university).

In some fields — cyber, transport, health services — the “sponsored reserve” model whereby personnel become military during times of conflict or crisis may work. In others, it may struggle.

Report by Peter Apps. Transcript by Claire Connellan and Rhea Menon.

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