The Strategic Defence Review: After Helmand

After the UK General Elections, the promised Strategic Defence Review needs to be developed on the basis of the likely outcomes in Afghanistan. It may be essential to have a genuinely radical solution to the defence crisis where the three services would each need to commit themselves to a single mission and a unified doctrine.

By Anthony King, University of Exeter

It is difficult to conceive of more difficult circumstances in which to conduct a Strategic Defence Review (SDR). The Review will have to find ways of cutting defence spending at a time of multiplying strategic challenges. Britain faces the threat of China and Russia while the problem of failing states, ethnic violence, civil war are likely to become more serious - not only abroad but in the UK and Europe.

In addition, the SDR will also have to consider the current campaign in Afghanistan. For the Army, Afghanistan represents the future. The Army see Afghanistan as the war which requires a long-term commitment, demanding a revision in national strategy, military doctrine, defence budget allocation and procurement. For the Army, even if Afghanistan is resolved, the future is likely to be characterised by Helmand-like conflicts; Britain will be involved in securing unstable regimes globally. Indeed, even if inter-state warfare returns, it will be defined by smaller-scale dispersed fighting for specific strategic points or resources of a kind not dissimilar to current stabilisation operations.

The Royal Navy, worried about the threat of this land-centric conflict to the future of maritime forces, sees Helmand as an important but temporary campaign. In the future, the Royal Navy anticipate that maritime threats to trade routes by piracy and by Chinese and, perhaps Russian, naval power will present an unignorable challenge to British interests. A key role for the Royal Navy in the coming decade will be policing strategic choke points and sea-lanes like the Straits of Hormuz. Sea-power will remain vital.

Whether the Army or the Royal Navy is correct, the SDR surely needs to be developed on the basis of the likely outcomes in Afghanistan. While significant military presence is likely in Afghanistan for probably a decade, the current commitment of the armed forces is unsustainable for much longer. Indeed, President Obama and General McChrystal have explicitly announced that 2010 is the decisive year in Afghanistan. If the surge is successful, the intensity of fighting will fall significantly by the end of this year and British troop numbers will be able to be reduced by the winter of 2011. Of course, should no demonstrable progress be made by December 2010 or should the current situation worsen, then British troops may be forced to withdraw - perhaps much sooner. Failure is possible in Afghanistan. However, the probable outcome is that the situation in Afghanistan will be represented as sufficiently favourable that troops will be begin to be drawn down by the end of 2011.

If the Afghan mission is broadly successful, then, the UK and its allies are likely to have the political and military appetite for stabilisation operations of the kind which the Army envisages in the coming decade. Such operations will prioritise land forces and the preference for strategically deployable and tactically mobile joint brigades, evident in Helmand, will be affirmed. The increasing importance of the Special Forces, 16 Air Assault and 3 Commando Brigades is likely to continue.

Yet, even in this scenario, the Royal Navy should not be irrelevant. For industrial reasons alone, it seems certain that the Royal Navy will be awarded its aircraft carriers to the infuriation of the Army. Yet, with forethought, these carriers could fulfil a valid strategic function. Maritime forces are also likely to be crucial in deploying and sustaining Britain's deployable brigades; few areas of operation are as far from the sea as Afghanistan. The carriers might be adapted for this role. Instead of traditional twentieth century carriers projecting conventional airpower, it might be more fruitful to think of these ships as platforms for UAVs and helicopters. The major expense of the aircraft carriers is not the ships themselves (which will cost about £4 billion each) but the development, training and maintenance of planes and aircrews. UAV carriers, by contrast, seem to maximise the Royal Navy's ability to counter both state and non-state maritime threats while supporting the Army (and Royal Marines) ashore; all at much reduced cost. Crucially, with ever growing interdependence between states and their armed forces, the SDR needs to consider what capabilities would be most useful and appreciated by our allies and, above all the US. UAV carriers and a few capable, joint brigades could fulfil that function most efficiently.

In order to develop this force posture, the current practice of merely sharing the defence cuts evenly across the services is sub-optimal. A genuinely radical solution to the defence crisis seems essential. One of the most professional and efficient military forces in existence today is the United States Marine Corps. The Marine Corps consists of 190,000 personnel who unite around a single mission to deliver unified maritime, land and air capabilities. At a similar size, the British armed forces could do worse than take the US Marine Corps as a model. The services would each need to commit themselves to a single mission, a unified doctrine while sacrificing irrelevant or non-essential capabilities. Of course, such a radical unification is likely to be impossible. In reality, Britain's armed forces will continue to be riven by factionalism and the SDR will be a political compromise representing the worst of all possible worlds for each of the services. The slow decline of Britain's armed forces is the most likely outcome of the SDR.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


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