Defence review analysis: Britain’s military in retreat

This is not a reshaping of Britain’s military capabilities, but a shrinking. Defence does not mix well with austerity.

By Alex Stevenson

You don’t need to delve far into the strategic defence and security review (SDSR) to appreciate quite how much of a scaling-back this represents for Britain’s armed forces.

After a decade in which the military has been pushed beyond breaking point in Iraq and Afghanistan, the government has now accepted its armed forces can only do so much.

Never before have two letters been so significant. The armed forces can conduct an Afghanistan-style operation. At the same time two “non-enduring” interventions are possible. “OR”, the review states, three non-enduring operations can take place at the same time – but only if there isn’t a major deployment on at the same time. “OR”, it adds again, a one-off intervention like the Iraq invasion can take place.

It couldn’t be more clear: these simply can’t take place at the same time.

As has been heard in company boardrooms across the land in recent years, the strategy is one of ‘retreating to a position of strength’.

This is most obvious when it comes to the size of the brigade force available for the largest deployment. There are currently 10,500 soldiers in Afghanistan. In a similar future conflict, Britain will only be able to provide 6,500.

The cuts go much, much further, of course. In addition to the overall personnel numbers falling by 17,000, and the 25,000 civilian staff cuts at the Ministry of Defence, Britain’s military is suffering losses at every level.

HMS Ark Royal is the biggest casualty, being withdrawn from service four years sooner than expected. The RAF loses the Harriet jump jet. The Navy loses four frigates between now and 2015.

Even the Army doesn’t escape. Its battle tank capacity will be slashed by 40%, while heavy artillery is cut by around 35%.

Then there’s Britain’s status as a nuclear power. The government has decided to reduce what it views as a minimum credible deterrent, from the 160 warheads currently available to just 120. Will everyone around the world agree that minimum credible level has been maintained?

These are the headline cuts, the ones that will make tomorrow’s newspapers. It might not surprise you they go much further.

Look, for example, to industry and infrastructure spending, where over £1 billion of future spending could be cut over the next ten years.

Or to accommodation for armed forces, which has been hidden inside an ongoing review. This is “looking at whether there is scope to refurbish armed forces’ accommodation from efficiencies within the Ministry of Defence”.

Or, finally, to the reserves, whose future will now be the subject of a six-month review. For some, at least, the waiting goes on.

These cuts are not as bad as many pundits feared. We are not, as one put it, ‘Belgium with nukes’. Nor are we standing our ground, either. Britain’s defence establishment is in retreat.

So much of the focus is about the next few years it’s difficult to remember that this review was supposed to be taking a 40-year perspective on Britain’s defence.

David Cameron struggled to shake off accusations in the Commons that the SDSR has not been dominated by the current fiscal climate. It’s no coincidence this was the speech in which he announced the MoD’s budget has been cut by eight per cent, for example.

As the leaked letter from Liam Fox revealed, the defence secretary worried that the review was being seen as little more than a “super comprehensive spending review”.

Politicians may have missed a trick, but the way round this is by referring to the bigger picture.

Those headlines in tomorrow’s newspapers will talk about the cuts outlined above – and avoid the hugely significant fact that this was a security as well as a defence review.

Yesterday’s national security strategy, which ranked 15 kinds of threats this country faces, demonstrated what many policy wonks have understood for a long time: that protecting the country is no longer simply a matter of having the most soldiers, tanks and planes.

Cybersecurity has joined terrorism, natural disasters and an international military crisis like Afghanistan in the top tier of threats.

The sheer number of the other risks, less significant in terms of either likelihood or impact, gives cause for thought, however.

A Chernobyl-style radioactive disaster, an attack on the Falklands, energy disruption, a chemical or biological terrorist attack, disruption to Britain’s satellite communications – even a “large scale conventional military attack on the UK by another state” – the list goes on.

If you’re looking for something positive to take away from this defence review, you can at least be reassured that the government is acting to do something about all of these.

Cybersecurity alone now has £650 million of new funding to address the challenges of the online world.

Border security has received a boost. Intelligence services and counter-terrorist policing will not suffer funding losses. More aid spending, up to £300 million, is being diverted to conflict prevention. A national space security policy will be drawn up.

“The concept of national security in 2010 is very different to what it was ten, or 20, let alone 50 or 100 years ago,” David Cameron and Nick Clegg wrote yesterday. The “brutal certainties of the Cold War” are, indeed, over.

This broadening of the defence and security agenda is a welcome one – but it’s clear the new focus on wider security headaches doesn’t compensate for the losses which will now be suffered by the armed forces. Ministers seem to know this; the review’s section on ‘risks’ reveals their real assessment of the cost of the shift.

“We recognise that we will be undertaking major change, while conducting a challenging operation,” it notes.

“The cumulative impact will impose major strains upon personnel and organisations.”

One official briefing journalists earlier insisted that “we pack a pretty good punch”. But are we to continue punching above our weight? These are hard times for Britain’s military.