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Many questions remain about the direction of UK defence reform

Commentary, 13 August 2010
Defence Policy, UK Defence, Europe
Following the Secretary of State for Defence’s speech on the future of UK defence, how many more questions have been raised than answered?

Following the Secretary of State for Defence's speech on the future of UK defence, how many more questions have been raised than answered?

By Professor Trevor Taylor for Liam Fox MP


The Secretary of State's speech on 13 August signalled some important aspirations but raised some significant questions: it seems that what was absent from the speech is as important as what was included. After a ritual attack on Labour's handling of defence, the speech of the Secretary of State for Defence on 13 August was divided into two parts, the first dealing with the Strategic Defence Review to be completed in the autumn and the second addressing a reform approach for the MoD to be finalised by September 2011.


As far as the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) is concerned, the Secretary of State made no direct mention of the strategic deterrent issue, where his disagreement with Chancellor George Osborne has been publicly observed. However, he did speak of the priority of 'the immediate threats to our national security', at a time when a threat that would justify a response by the Trident system is happily remote. Taken with his observations about the relevance in an uncertain world of being able to regenerate capability, the speech could, if necessary, be used in the future to justify operating something less than the continuous at-sea-deterrent (CASD) which is currently maintained. This is, however, no assurance that the words were intended to play that role.

Interestingly and understandably, the speech signalled a move towards threat-based defence, with capabilities being defined and prioritised in terms of their relevance for particular threats. This is a contrast with the 1998 Strategic Defence Review with its focus on generic capabilities. Back then, the UK lack identifiable adversaries but its forces had regularly been called on unexpectedly to undertake  a variety of missions. Today anti-Western forces are much more visible, alongside the dangers of terrorism which loom ever larger.

Balancing the long and short terms

The Minister's preference is to put in place a long-term programme and it is worthwhile to quote his exact words with regard to what he called the '2020 option':

'It means looking ahead to the end of the decade and deciding what we want our armed forces to look like at that time based on the foreign policy goals we have set ourselves, our assessment of the future character of conflict and anticipating the changes and technology that we will need to incorporate.'

The question which is raised, however, and which is recognised in the next paragraph in the speech, is whether the necessary focus on the demands of today, which include the Afghan campaign, will take meaning away from any long-term scheme for the development  of UK forces. How compatible is the paragraph cited above with the Secretary of State's words immediately afterwards?

'The National Security Council has agreed that the overarching strategic posture should be to address the most immediate threats to our national security while maintaining the ability to identify and deal with emerging ones before they become bigger threats to the UK'.

Ideology vs practicality

A further dimension to this issue, not mentioned at all by the Minister, is that 75% of next year's budget is already committed in contracts with companies and employees.  The cuts to be made will have to come from the remaining quarter of defence expenditure. In order to balance the books, spending will be significantly reduced where it can be, rather than where it would be in a world free of contractual obligations. The maintenance of defence coherence and the overall readiness levels of forces will be a real challenge, especially once priority is given, as it will have to be, to units deployed or deploying in Afghanistan.

The Secretary of State spoke of 'a world where the moral climate demands precision weaponry and where the battlespace increasingly embraces the unmanned and cyber domains'; an observation with which few might quarrel. The issue of course is that precision weapons and unmanned systems are not necessarily found in the bargain basement section of the defence market and, as is recognised, the current equipment programme is heavily over-committed.

Questions raised

Moving to the defence reform process that is to be implemented over the coming year, there are some obvious questions:

In terms of the three pillars (Policy and Strategy, the Armed Forces, and Procurement and Estates), how much will the armed forces be set up and provided with a budget as a collective (joint') entity,  or will they continue to be treated as three separate fiefdoms? Will the Top Level Budget structure be organised largely on a single service or on a capability basis?

Where will some significant elements of the MoD current structure fit in? Will the Joint Supply Chain, which supports equipment and people in theatre and which is currently part of Defence Equipment & Support, be treated as part of the Armed Forces pillar or the Procurement & Estates pillar? Where will the Capability Sponsor, with its responsibilities for the specification and prioritisation of requirements and capability planning and delivery be located? Will it be seen as a Policy and Strategy function or an Armed Forces activity?

Will defence be able to find an individual with the capabilities needed to direct such a large and diverse area as Procurement and Estates for a salary similar to that of the Prime Minister? The Government has clearly experienced difficulty in securing the services of a suitable person to replace General Sir Kevin O'Donoghue, who holds no responsibility for the defence estate.

Is the MoD ready to reduce its central oversight, monitoring and assurance of processes undertaken throughout the department and to simplify its procedures so that things can happen quicker, for less expense and with less broad consultation?


The emphasis on defence reform means that the SDSR is accepted as being an initial stage for defence change rather than some kind of closure for uncertainty. Nothing that the Secretary of State has said signals that major decisions have been taken, other than that real reductions in programmes and aspiration will be needed. He claimed that the success of the SDSR should not be judged in the short term but after five or ten years. George Robertson has been known to say that the review he led in 1997-98 was a success because it has always been referred to as the Strategic Defence Review. Had it been a failure, he has observed, it would have been known as the Robertson Review. Time will tell how the 2010-11 change in MoD will be informally designated.


Trevor Taylor
Professorial Research Fellow, Defence, Industries and Society

Trevor Taylor is Professorial Research Fellow in Defence Management at RUSI, where he heads up a research programme in Defence,... read more

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