The Defence Green Paper hints at more cooperation with Europeans as the way forward, but a need for short-term cuts may damage the coherence of defence outputs before the defence review is completed.
By Trevor Taylor, Professorial Fellow, RUSI
Much of the debate about the defence review to date has revolved around possible cuts in force structures and equipment programmes. These are rather tangible aspects of defence which can be easily addressed after a catching headline. However, the real hard choices that the UK must face are not in the first instance about which projects should be cancelled and what personnel reductions should occur in the armed forces and civilian bureaucracy. They are about the aspirations of the UK to shape its external environment, the areas of self-sufficiency which are deemed needed, and the acceptability of specific dependencies or inter-dependencies, with the risks that they bring. Judgements on these topics need to be explicit and overt, so that they can be assessed by the UK public and then used to guide the allocation of resources. The Introduction in particular to the Ministry of Defence's Green Paper exposes the importance of these topics without offering too much guidance.
It is clear that neither of the leading political parties is ready to contemplate a UK that is significantly less involved in international security affairs: the Green Paper asserts that 'this Government believes that the UK's interests are best served by continuing to play an active global role, including through the use of armed force when required.' The Conservative Party's Green Paper A Resilient Nation released in January stresses the links between foreign and defence issues and domestic security and does not doubt the UK's continuing 'readiness to play a part far beyond our borders, strong support for our Armed Forces, the character of our fighting men and women, [and] the strength of our defence industries and technologies.' The MoD Green Paper too argues that 'domestic security cannot be separated from international security' so this point appears to have become British conventional wisdom.
When it comes to the dependencies and inter-dependencies that are acceptable, the Government Green Paper perhaps hints that European links, where the UK deals with players of similar size, might be easier to manage than American ties. In the very important Introduction, which aims to set the agenda, it properly asks the questions: 'do our current international defence and security relationships require re-balancing in the longer term' and 'should we further integrate our forces with those of key allies and partners'? In a situation of dependence, one side can disrupt the other, but not vice versa. With inter-dependence, one side can disrupt the other, and the other can reciprocate. The title of the Green paper, 'Adaptability and Partnership', signals that future defence will be more about working with others, and at least implies a question of whether the UK can aspire in the Twenty-first Century to be a 'partner' (with its implications of equality) of the US. One the other hand, in the main body of the Green Paper, there is an extended paragraph (1.22) stressing the benefits the UK enjoys from its US relationship. Intriguingly there is no mention of the gains that the US receives (surveillance sites, re-fuelling and transport facilities, and use of UK sovereign territory) from its relationship with the UK or of the costs the UK may pay for its benefits. The Conservative Green Paper avoids any commitment to closer reliance on the US, but stresses the need to strengthen NATO as the most important security body.
To look forward, it is necessary first to look back and to consider this paragraph from the 2003 White Paper, Delivering Security in a Changing World:
'The most demanding expeditionary operations, involving interventions against state adversaries, can only plausibly be conducted if US forces are engaged .... Where the UK chooses to be engaged, we will wish to be able to influence political and military decision-making throughout the crisis.... The significant military contribution that the UK is able to make to such operations means that we secure an effective place in the political and military decision-making processes. To exploit this effectively, our Armed Forces will need to be interoperable with US command and control structures, match the US operational tempo and provide those capabilities that deliver the greatest impact when operating alongside the US' (3.5)
Will the forthcoming defence review maintain this reasoning and aspiration in the light of events since 2003 in Afghanistan and Iraq? The onus should be on those who seek the continuation of this aspiration to demonstrate how the UK has been able to influence the shape of the Iraqi and Afghan campaigns.
Finally, there is the question of whether the Green Paper and the post-election defence review will come too late to shape British defence capability because, by the time the review is completed, some major cost-cutting measures may need to be taken. If the MoD is expected to save money in the short-term, it will abandon things according to a large number of criteria: the MoD has apparently identified more than a dozen and this writer has come up with at least nine high level considerations.
Activities and projects will be harder to abandon the more they are marked by the following considerations (and easier to give up if they are not):
- Clear support for the current effort in Iraq;
- Much public money already invested/sunk;
- High penalties associated with the cancellation/modification of a contract;
- A long-term contract in place;
- Strong political support from an individual branch of the armed forces;
- Key to the maintenance of a wider military capability;
- Key to the maintenance of a wider industrial capability;
- High impact on employment and wealth in politically important areas;
- Significant for an important foreign policy relationship
Arguably also large projects could be more vulnerable than small ones, since with one big decision the MoD can find more money than it can with even a significant number of small ones.
With many projects and activities scoring highly on at least one and perhaps more of the above criteria, decision-making cannot be straightforward. But things that rely on money not yet committed and short-term contracts will be particularly vulnerable If the MoD is required to make significant cuts in the short term, the result is likely to be an incoherent defence effort that the eventual defence review will struggle to rectify.
1. Ministry of Defence, Adaptability and Partnership: Issues for the Strategic Defence Review (London: HMSO, 2010) Cm 7794, Para 10
2. Conservative Party: A Resilient Nation , p.11
Professorial Research Fellow
Defence, Industries and Society