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Britain’s Strategic Defence and Security Review

Poornima Subramaniam is Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • November 25, 2010

    The timing behind the setting up of a National Security Council (NSC) could not be better for the United Kingdom. In an environment of severe financial crisis, it was widely known that Britain's desire to maintain high defence spending and huge forces but with little utility was really the case of a turkey voting for Christmas. Consequently, there have been a series of important events in the UK starting with Prime Minister David Cameron setting up the NSC. Lessons from the efforts of the British military in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to have led to the establishment of the National Security Council and it would not be difficult to guess where the inspiration behind this kind of a system comes from. This American-style division led by a National Security Advisor is expected to identify the British security needs and coordinate with all other departments in order to respond to them efficiently.

    It has been a challenge for the Coalition government to create a solid security strategy for a country that has experienced sudden demands from its forces abroad, natural calamities like the flooding in 2007, a nuclear weapon system nearing its end, and all this in the middle of a financial deadlock. The NSC released two key crucial documents last month: The National Security Strategy followed by the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), both titled ‘Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty’. These documents have assessed the threats that Britain currently faces and outlined their planned responses. The SDSR has been long awaited since the last such review was done in 1998 and the same was only briefly revisited in 2003.

    The SDSR has finally moved out of viewing national security from a Cold War standpoint. The risk assessment currently is short-sighted as the SDSR is expected to be reviewed every five years. The threats have been assessed and categorised in three tiers based on a comparison of two probabilities - plausible impact and likelihood. The risks of highest priority (tier 1) include those that are high in both probabilities. They are international terrorism, cyber-attacks, international military crisis and natural hazards. This kind of a threat assessment is comprehensive and well-timed considering that London is preparing for the 2012 Olympics and the importance of terrorism and cyber-attacks magnify.

    The National Security Strategy is guided by finances rather than a strong policy. Britain has rightly estimated that an economic deficit is equal to a security deficit. This builds a sort of an economic model for national security, which obviously means more than just promoting British business across the world; there are cuts to be made to best utilise the Defence budget. The SDSR has planned the transition of personnel which includes the reduction of 5,000 people from the Royal Navy, 7,000 from the Army, 5,000 from the Royal Air Force, 25,000 from the MOD civil service and finally, a 25 per cent reduction in non-frontline personnel including those in the headquarters, support roles, defence equipment support.

    One main reason behind the anticipation of the SDSR was that it was expected to take a decision about Britain’s submarine based nuclear deterrent. Their renewal and replacement has been a controversial topic given that they would end their working life soon. The replacement is no doubt very expensive but HM Treasury would not be releasing funds and the burden falls solely on the Ministry of Defence. The SDSR has a brief section on this, determining that it would retain its continuous ‘submarine based nuclear deterrent’ and would replace its submarines, though with ‘sufficient investment’ it can function till the late 2020’s and the new class of SSBNs would be delivered in 2028. However, it has stated that the Trident D5 delivery system would not need to be replaced till the late 2030’s. It has also been announced that the nuclear weapon stockpile would be reduced to a maximum of 180.

    Though this brings a closure to the debate on whether or not the Trident programme should be renewed, many questions still remain unanswered leading to new confusion. It is yet to be ascertained as to what the exact cost of the replacement would be and whether different alternatives for a nuclear deterrent should be weighed as to the number and the kind of submarines. It is apparent that a clear answer to all of this would only be available in 2015. At this stage it seems to be a hasty and a half-hearted announcement without a concrete policy. This decision is not as surprising as it is dramatically important. It is not surprising considering that the recent NATO strategic concept stated that, ‘As long as nuclear weapons remain a reality in international relations, the Alliance should retain a nuclear component to its deterrent strategy.’ Besides there is enough reason to believe that the decision on the Trident programme is not completely independent as it depends on the interest of the USA as well.

    The SDSR has already stirred a debate in terms of the choice of cutting down on defence personnel and instead spending on a nuclear deterrent that the UK almost does not require considering it is under the NATO security system and that a nuclear programme does not deter any of the Tier 1 threats. However, the decision to cut back on forces while at the same time deferring the spending on the Trident programme comes out as a smart decision for the time being while the economy is being tested severely. Besides, even military operations in the Falklands or Afghanistan would not need as many people as are currently employed.

    There are three things that can be concluded from the review. Firstly, it shows a remarkable shift in the strategic thinking of UK from that of the Cold War frame to a more independent contemporary assessment. In previous years Britain has released Defence White Papers and Security Strategies along the lines of ‘Britain in a Changing World’ or in an ‘Interdependent World’ but they were mostly focussed on the policies of the NATO, and working with allies against conventional rather than newer non-conventional threats which are more relevant to UK. There is also a shift in policy direction from the intent of having a grandiose military and defence posture to maintaining a small, efficient and an economically sustainable force. This shift in thinking also implies that the UK has changed its self-perception and that the present coalition government has realised its position in the world in terms of the function of its forces and capabilities to respond to threats. The very change in their priorities implies that one could expect positive and practical outcomes in subsequent policies.

    Secondly, the decision on the Trident programme seems to be hazy in terms of its intent and its future. For one, it has known for a long time now that the deterrent is not needed though it would be very difficult to phase it out. The decision now has been made but the follow-on assessment on the kind of submarines, costs and longevity should materialise at the earliest since 2015 could prove to be late. It is estimated that a new submarine would take about 17 years to be ready and also there could be sufficient objections expected from non-proliferation lobbies and the international community about the fact that building a new nuclear deterrent would undermine Britain’s moral obligations under the NPT. On the positive note, it has been a good decision to defer the spending for later as the MOD would be draining it finances at present.

    Finally, the Strategy and the SDSR have approached UK’s security environment vis-à-vis capabilities effectively. But that been said, this could only be treated as a first draft as there is more work needed in terms of policy implementation and effective utilisation of budgets. This document seems to have pushed most of the difficult assessments to 2015. The review answers the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘when’ of UK’s security problem but has not yet addressed the question of ‘how’ the response strategies would be implemented. Thus, more effort and work need to be put into the details of follow-on decisions. The NSC and the SDSR have both been effective as a starting point.