Last Post for a Global Power

Britain’s Strategic Defence and Security Review is cutting vital parts of the armed forces. It must be changed before events change it for us

Defence Features Global Governance International
Flightless Bird: The Coalition's Defence Review has seen Harrier jets scrapped

Closing the Commons debate on the French Treaty on November 2, the Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox declared: “We live in a world in which our national and overseas interests are likely to be threatened in more places and by more people than at any time in the past.” That being the case, the idea of a deliberative process that reviews all risks and threats to national security, translates them into priorities and then into capabilities, is to be welcomed. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked this time. 

The Commons Select Committee on Defence says that the process leading to the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) is deeply defective. In informed circles, the SDSR is coming to be seen as the least coherent and most risky defence review of modern times: a successor of the ill-fated Nott Review of 1981, only worse. This review threatens to cut capabilities in ways that will be lost forever. Like the Nott Review, it will not stand. Either events will overtake it, or a courageous decision will be taken to revisit and rescind the most dangerous elements before it is too late. I hope for the latter.

To help this, I shall explore further the unprecedented warnings given by Lords Boyce and Inge, the former Chiefs of the Defence Staff, by Lord Craig, former Chief of the Air Staff, and a line of former Defence Secretaries and other experts in the SDSR debate in the House of Lords on November 12. In that extraordinary debate, the Government’s decisions were comprehensively savaged. But many episodes in this story, not only this one, are extraordinary.

To be clear, I am no enemy of the Coalition. I firmly support its commitment to dealing with the fiscal incontinence of the Blair and Brown governments. But neither deficit reduction nor the difficult short-term preoccupation with Afghanistan should drive a strategic defence review. A strategic review is an act of government unlike any other. The silent principles of national security — the deep structures of geopolitics and enduring British geostrategic interests seen in that frame — should drive a strategic review. And exactly the opposite of that has happened. How so? 

There are clues. On November 27, in his West Dorset constituency, the Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin explained frankly that in his opinion the only justification for building two large aircraft carriers was to maintain jobs in shipyards, and that the Chiefs of Staff had told the National Security Council that by choice they would not buy them either. As a taxpayer, I do not understand how this can be acceptable. Continuous carrier operations I can understand; dispensing with carriers and enlarging the rest of the surface fleet I can understand; but the present decision to do neither, I do not. Mr Letwin added that there were no votes in defence and that the Coalition had done as much as it could in a “politically hopeless” area. Furthermore, he expressed his opinion that money spent on the aid budget to address the causes of conflict (assuming that aid money does that, which is a bold assumption poorly supported by evidence) is better spent than on armed forces. Senior officials in the MoD share Mr Letwin’s view on the value of aid over armed forces; one told me so, in terms on November 29. Yes, the SDSR was rushed. But, as the views of Letwin and the MoD officials indicate, its problems are not just a product of haste.

The SDSR, and the National Security Strategy on which it claimed to be built, have both gone off pretty quickly since being first displayed on the Whitehall fishmonger’s slab. There have been strenuous efforts to shut down discussion of this fact, which have only had the opposite result. The more this realisation is denied, the worse will be the damage to reputations and, more importantly, to the status and the security of the country. They are also unsafe for the Government politically and for the Prime Minister personally. 

Margaret Thatcher famously observed of her close adviser William Whitelaw that every Prime Minister needed a Willie. She might have added that every Conservative Prime Minister needs an aircraft carrier — and as David Cameron reportedly observed, this means a carrier that carries fully operational warplanes and armaments, when at sea. What does an aircraft carrier, or a naval task force actually do, if you possess them? Sometimes, rarely, they go to war; but most of the time, militarily, they do nothing in anger. Nothing — but with the latent, poised capability to do everything

Latent, poised capability creates an aura of power; and the Royal Navy is the prime national expression of Britain’s global military influence. But SDSR has slashed it. Lord Guthrie (a soldier) comments, “The Royal Navy’s surface fleet is now smaller than at any time since the reign of Charles II. Our small surface fleet of 19 frigates and destroyers will not be enough to meet the many worldwide tasks and to act as escorts for carriers. As an aside, when I was Chief of the Defence Staff and needed a frigate off the coast of Sierra Leone, the same ship had two commitments at the same time. Unbelievably, it was guarding the Falkland Islands and chasing drug dealers in the West Indies.” 

As Fox correctly said, we are surrounded by bad things waiting to happen to us. That they do not occur is neither luck nor accident. The authors of the NSS and SDSR do not seem to understand this elementary truth, relearned in blood in successive generations. Conventional deterrence is about making sure that bad things don’t happen, and conventional deterrence is an inextricable intertwining of military capability and perceived determination to use it if necessary. Bluntly, the SDSR weakens both. 

To return to the threat to the Prime Minister: luckily for Mrs Thatcher, she had two aircraft carriers when she needed one. In the South Atlantic, they saved her premiership. Mr Cameron is about to run the risk of having none, not anywhere. Knowingly or not, the SDSR authors have declared a de facto Ten-Year Rule at a time when, as Lord Boyce said in his speech to the Lords, to do so is an enormous gamble with the nation’s security. “In the short term,” the SDSR authors wrote, “there are few circumstances we can envisage where the ability to deploy airpower from the sea will be essential.”

Of this, Lord Boyce commented: “What a desperate expression of hope over bitter experience. The people serving on the National Security Council must have been asleep for the past decade or so. We have no problem today because we have no emerging crisis. That can change in days…” And so it did. Already the Korean shelling incident has provided the first strategic shock since SDSR where the option of a naval task group would have been handy. 

For technical military reasons, the SDSR authors may have given up essential capabilities for ever. With that affected knowingness familiar to all university teachers of those “winging” it in defending an under-prepared essay, they declare that they (meaning we all) will “take a gap” in Carrier Strike. 

But this is not an undergraduate essay crisis. And in my direct experience, it is being discussed among core Conservative voters in Middle England: in the village shop, in the barber’s chair and particularly after the Remembrance Day service, in a constituency similar to Letwin’s. Plainly, we meet different sorts of people. The ones I meet were at first bewildered. But scrapping the Harrier in particular has crystallised that bewilderment first into suspicion and now into anger. The anger bleeds across via the sudden and puzzling French Treaty into that related issue, so toxic in the English heartlands for Cameron, which is the rolling, imploding finale of the “EU” episode in Europe’s history. Why needlessly accept such damage?

Once the full incoherence of the SDSR was public, a group of senior retired naval commanders (Lord West, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Julian Oswald, Vice-Admirals Blackham and McAnally), felt obliged to protest on behalf of serving officers at the single most dangerous cut. It now appears that the scrapping of Ark Royal and its Harriers was inserted at the very last minute, when Sir Jock Stirrup, the former Chief of the Defence Staff and Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, Chief of the Air Staff, went to the National Security Secretariat to reverse the scrapping of the Tornado strike aircraft which the RAF bitterly disliked. 

I understand that one argument deployed was that only the Tornado offered a contribution to possible near-future new coalition operations. The RAF rushed to decommission the Harrier force. It is all a prime example of what has gone so badly wrong with the NSS/SDSR exercise. For the more you examine it, the more strategically and financially perverse it is. Lord Astor, the Parliamentary under-Secretary of State for Defence, confirmed in the House of Lords that to retain the Tornado alone and (as Lord Craig, an airman, put it) “to squander the Fleet Air Arm’s future in the fixed-wing carrier role”, will cost several billion more over a decade than to retain the judicious mix which we have preserved hitherto.

The Admirals’ letter to The Times on November 10 provoked an unprecedented retort from the five Chiefs two days later, telling everyone to shut up and get with the programme. Who ordered whom to write such an ill-judged rebuke will eventually become public. These things always do. But its effect was to force the current Chiefs, and especially General Sir David Richards, the new CDS, to drink a poisoned brew that they did not mix, handed to them in the Stirrup cup. 

And it compromised the Chiefs’ authority in an unprecedented and vulnerable manner. It set them up to be rebuffed the same day in the Lords’ debate. 

In his equally notorious leaked letter to the Prime Minister last September, Fox (correctly again) wrote: “This process is looking less and less defensible as a proper strategic review and more like a super CSR (Comprehensive Spending Review)…We do not have a narrative that we can communicate clearly.” Unless it is understood why the SDSR was not and could not be any such thing, but only a cuts exercise, and why the NSS is such a lamentable piece of work, we shall be at risk of repetition of these errors. Nor has SDSR succeeded as a cuts exercise, even as it has amputated limbs of British military capability. The SDSR plan is still unfunded to the tune of more than £1 billion a year, in the view of informed commentators on the economics of defence procurement.

Shortly before the NSS and SDSR were published, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) published its first Inquiry of the new parliamentary term. It chose to examine the most pertinent question possible: “Who ‘does’ national security?” The committee’s astonishing finding was that nowadays no one “does” strategic analysis. What matters most for SDSR is that it found the strategic assessment methodology employed to be unsafe. 

This is the country that was once peerless in showing the world how to assess its strategic interests. That skill was displayed in Viscount Castlereagh’s celebrated State Paper of May 5, 1820, which surveyed the world after Napoleon’s defeat with an acuity which ensured that its guidance served us well for decades. It can be studied in A. J. Balfour’s innovative 1903 Committee of Imperial Defence, which undertook to “survey as a whole the strategical needs [of the Empire], to deal with the complicated questions which are all essential elements in that general problem and to revise from time to time their previous decisions, so that the Cabinet shall always be informed.” It accomplished by intellectual force what the flaccid National Security Secretariat prose, listlessly extrapolating, fails to do today. 

The National Security Strategy, the basis of the SDSR, employs the “ends/ways/means” formula, common in military campaign planning. State the end; define the way; prescribe the means. But the NSS cannot credibly state our ends. Its statement is bland to the point of meaninglessness. Then Paras 3.6-3.10 and Annex A of the NSS explain the National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA) methodology. It was adapted from a methodology used for civil emergencies-discrete, so-called “tame” problems, that may be complex but which are amenable to containment and solution. It also shows a diagram which we are told does not correlate wolf currently thought to be near/nearer/nearest the sledge with priority and with money, but which in practice does just that. The choice of template and the discussion of method demonstrate no awareness, such as we find in (for example) the Australian government’s published thinking, of the central challenge for modern strategic analysis. This is to have both the eyes and the mind open to spot and correctly identify what Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns”. Perversely, the SDSR claims greater certainty than it is prudent to do because its analysts’ eyes and minds are closed to the unexpected. It deals in “known unknowns”. Citing past surprises — the Falklands, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait — Lord Inge warned: “We have not been good about predicting the future, so we have to have that range of capabilities.”

One important omission is therefore that there is no analysis “fit for purpose”. Nor is there an answer to the question “who are we?” which we must know before we can specify our Ends. What the PASC documents here is equally distressing. The “UK” in question is not a place that Castlereagh, Balfour or Churchill would have recognised. Smuggled here are huge assumptions about the gradual subsuming of our sovereign powers into multilateral entities of presumed power, benignity and longevity: all contestable. 

Most contestable and most cited are the UN and the EU, where a harmony of British interests with those of continental European powers is presumed, flying in the face of history and current experience. The refrain from SDSR authors and advisers is that Britain is now a regional power with some global interests. The idea of British global influence is now mere rhetoric, they think. This is the jolly view of globalisation on the road to cosmopolitan civility, with aspirations for strengthening international law, which has colonised much of Whitehall. In contrast, I see globalisation as increased cyber, financial and material networking, within the bleaker reality of a decreasingly policed international space. This is the great intellectual divide of our times in describing international affairs. The defence and security choices that each analysis recommends are very different.

In short, the worldview of the civil service authors of the SDSR is little changed from that which they proffered in the Brown government’s Defence Green Paper last year, which flowed from many of the same minds. And it does not sit well with the Foreign Secretary William Hague’s Palmerstonian aspirations for British foreign policy. 

What should we make of this, the consequence of a generation-long narrative of self-denigration? Here is what Shakespeare had to say in Richard II:

This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,

Dear for her reputation through the world,

Is now leased out — I die pronouncing it,

Like to a tenement or pelting farm:

England, bound in with the triumphant sea

Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege

Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,

With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:

That England, that was wont to conquer others,

Hath made a shameful conquest of itself. 

Notice Shakespeare’s mordant anticipation of the Lisbon Treaty. Candidly, Castlereagh’s great State Paper of 1820 is a better strategic guide for British policy today than this limp National Security Strategy which we now know did not frame the cuts but, rather, was a belated fig-leaf of respectability.

If Palmerston, geopolitics and prudent uncertainty had informed the SDSR, as they should have done, there are cuts that should not have been made. Type 22 frigates should be kept in commission. Likewise the Nimrod MRA4 anti-submarine warfare aircraft, HMS Ark Royal and Joint Force Harrier. Of these, the last cut is the most urgent to reverse, because the RAF is destroying the force as fast as it can, and with it the aura of power. Captain Jerry Kyd, the last commander of the Ark Royal, was quoted as observing eloquently that the “glowing embers” of naval fixed-wing aviation were all that was left. These are actions that void Hague’s Palmerstonian words. Actions speak louder than words. 

SDSR is formally incoherent on all these key topics. It states categorically that there is a strategic requirement for a future carrier strike-force. It then announces the withdrawal of the present aircraft carriers and their aircraft. Of this Lord Inge said: “I find it extraordinary that if the carrier is so critical to the future of our defence and our maritime capability, Her Majesty’s Government are prepared to get rid of our present capability and wait 10 years for its air and carrier replacement.” 

During these ten years, a range of skills will die. The personnel involved will leave the Service. Carrier operations, both the pilots and the deck crews involved in the difficult ship/aviation interface, in the specialised skill of commanding aircraft operations at sea and the maintenance of aircraft in the unforgiving environment of the sea, will vanish. As nations trying to acquire carrier capability are finding — for Britain is eccentric in its trajectory of reductions — such skills are only painfully learned. SDSR also prescribes a minimum credible nuclear deterrent. The crux of credibility is the invulnerability of the submarine platform. Yet as well as reducing the numbers of submarines and frigates available to protect that platform, SDSR dispenses with the Nimrod aircraft which provides highly specific defence for our submarines, as well as other important covert functions. “An extraordinarily bad decision,” says Lord Inge. In Viscount Trenchard’s words, “the decision to scrap the Nimrod project is completely incomprehensible and wasteful, as £3.8 billion has been spent on the project to date and the fourth aeroplane out of nine is now being painted.” It seems eccentric to dispose of a unique capability so close to its full realisation, and inconsistent with the stated importance of the nuclear deterrent and of counter-terrorism. Another example: SDSR stresses cyber-threats yet deletes frigates which can be unique and potent sovereign long-range data collectors.

Why has this happened? The most convivial explanation is “cock-up”. The National Security Council is acting as a telephone exchange, not a source of autonomous thinking. The SDSR was a university essay crisis that ran off the rails. Not inconsistent with that is the second: that it was flawed by a “scales of analysis” error. 

As the Chief of the Army, General Richards wrote a paper showing convincingly why armies face what he called a “horse and tank” moment. Recently, he has elevated that analogy to the strategic plane, where it is no longer a sufficient explanation, only a necessary part. 

Surely, he and the new MoD Permanent Secretary Ursula Brennan should not be bound to an exercise which they did not shape or conduct and which is so widely criticised? Let them be allowed to start again, well founded and on their own account.

The third explanation is increasingly heard. I would prefer not to believe that policy might contain it, because it is deaf and blind to the fundamentals of British national interest and strategy as I understand them, although consistent with the narrative of the fading nation-state and benign multilateral replacements. This suggests that coincidence is indeed cause. It says that the Coalition government wants no expeditionary operations on its watch. Therefore the best way to ensure this is simply to take away the key enabling capabilities of amphibious operations, maritime air power and an adequate surface fleet to undertake them. The British Army today cannot be other than a projectile fired by the Royal Navy, as the great naval strategist Sir Julian Corbett described it a century ago in his Principles Strategy. Nothing can change that reality, unless it is intended to give up our sovereign independence of action.  

And that outcome is exactly what the SDSR, as it stands, has done. Furthermore, that is exactly how it is being read by some of the brightest people in the Armed Forces. These actions also tell the world that Britain is effectively signing off as a serious strategic power. Is this really what was intended? Is that really what the country wants?