The Green Paper - Premises for a Strategic Defence Review?

The Green Paper to the Strategic Defence Review highlights strategic premises which should be presented to the public in the run up to the General Election.

By Michael Codner,  Director of Military Sciences, RUSI

To quote Lewis Carroll the Defence Green Paper launched on 3 February is

" all my fancy painted her,

But, oh, how much besides!"

Its aim is among other things to begin to build a broad national consensus on key issues for the Strategic Defence Review (SDR). But the Paper provides more than background and key questions. It actually makes some big assertions and draws some conclusions. If the major political parties were to form a consensus that the Paper is a sound start for the Review process, they will have agreed to a number of key premises for the Review. 

The assumptions for the SDR include: legislation for cyclical defence reviews in the future; wholesale reform of the Ministry of Defence (and by implication and reference to increasing the clout of the Chief of Joint Operations, the Armed Services as well); and integration of the Defence Review into the National Security Strategy.

Let us set these aside and focus on the strategic premises that one can draw from the Paper which should be presented to the public in the run up to the General Election. They all contribute to answering the question: 'How much is the nation prepared to pay for defence?'

These strategic premises are:

  • 'Our Armed Forces protect our interests. We also use our Armed Forces as a Force for Good': So national interest not moral purpose is the priority
  • 'We must be able to undertake evacuation operations (over 12 million British citizens live overseas) and defence of the Overseas Territories on our own': So autonomous expeditionary capability that is independent of access agreements is an essential element of our force structure.
  • 'NATO is essential to conventional deterrence, reasssurance, and collective defence and a robust EU role in crisis management will strengthen NATO': So we need reliable partners to make sense of an affordable force structure.
  • 'We are more secure today than at most times in our history': So we need to sell an expeditionary strategy to the electorate because they will have to pay for it.
  • 'The UK has a stake in in the success of the international rules-based system should maintain an active global military role which complements our diplomatic efforts and enhances our influence on wider international developments': So we must maintain global influence.
  • 'Our economy is exceptionally open to trade with many parts of the world and relies on the free passage of goods, services and information' So we must have a major influence on protection of sea lines of supply
  • 'We must preserve the reputation of our Armed Forces' So we must see Afghanistan through with an appropriate and effective military contribution.
  • 'No relationship is more important than that with the United States and our relationship also increases our impact': But this assumption needs to be validated if it is to be a premise for a future national military strategy and greater military dependence on and integration with the US armed forces particularly in the light of evidence of lack of influence in the Iraq War. The potential for embroilment as in Iraq and Afghanistan and a future in which the interests and preoccupations of the US may be focused on the Pacific.
  • 'France offers the opportunity for even greater co-operation': So France is a potential first partner of choice.
  • 'We have to begin the process of renewal a minimum strategic nuclear deterrent because not to do so would effectively commit us now to unilateral disarmament': So, bearing in mind British aspirations to leadership in nuclear disarmament, paying for replacement of the Vanguard submarines has something to do with having something to bargain away in the future.
  • 'Go first, go fast and go home' has proved false from recent history': So we will not be able to rely on partners in the future to take their share of the burden as we did in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone. Afghanistan and Iraq are the rule rather than the exception although both: involved regime change: had dodgy political objectives in the case of Iraq and those for Afghanistan remain diffuse; and, were not fully supported by the obvious partners.

Individually these premises and the conclusions that one can draw all make sense.

There are however a number of internal inconsistencies in particular over our dependency on unreliable partners versus autonomy for national obligations: firstly in relation to our relative security as an island nation and secondly in relation to the financial premium the electorate will need to pay for an expeditionary strategy designed to deliver influence globally and over the US in particular.


Michael Codner

Senior Associate Fellow for Military History

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