Harry Malins: We need an armed forces that is fit for purpose

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Latest strategic defence review must take today’s threats into account.

WHEN the coalition came to power in May 2010, it undertook an immediate Strategic Defence and Security Review, designed to set the direction for our armed forces over the next 10 years. The SDSR which emerged six months later was seen by many as a rushed exercise. Its critics claimed that the review put deficit reduction first and the armed forces second.

The SDSR placed a bet on the decade from 2010-20 being one of relative stability, with no major threat to the UK and no interventions in the mould of Iraq or Afghanistan. Among the most visible casualties of the review were the UK’s aircraft carriers, maritime patrol aircraft and Harriers, not to mention the planned reduction in the size of the armed forces by more than 30,000 personnel by 2020.

From our vantage point in 2015, the risk taken in 2010 looks even greater than it did at the time. The last five years have seen the Arab Spring; the rise of the so-called Islamic State; a Russian bid to reclaim past territories which has seen increased incursions into UK air space by Russian bombers; the decline of NATO defence spending and other developments too numerous to mention.

The point is not just that the world looks less stable now than it did in 2010, but also that it is a very different one. It is for this reason that we need a different SDSR – not one that is driven by financial considerations and rushed through over the summer, as appears likely to happen all over again.

It is promising that in his July budget, George Osborne committed to meeting the NATO target of spending at least two per cent of GDP on defence every year of this Parliament. However, this is not enough in itself. The risk is that any increase in defence spending will be more a result of changed accounting rules than because we are spending more on the equipment, manpower and services needed to ensure the defence and security of the realm.

As I wrote in a recent report for the Bow Group, it’s not so much the size of the defence budget, but what you do with it that counts.

This is why the Bow Group has recommended a number of practical steps to ensure that the 2015 SDSR, which the government launched in May and plans to publish in the autumn, is fit for purpose.

Perhaps the most important is that there must be absolute clarity on the UK’s objectives and how the SDSR will contribute to these. The SDSR should be led by our national security strategy, and not short-term financial considerations.

The SDSR must also be based on an understanding of how decisions will impact on the UK’s industrial base and operational sovereignty – we must retain the essential skills and expertise needed to provide our armed forces with the best equipment available and to maintain a technical edge over potential adversaries in the long term. It will be impossible for industry to maintain these skills if the wrong programmes are cut for short-term financial gain.

To make sure that we get these points right, consultation with stakeholders including academia, allies, industry and MPs is essential. A series of interviews with key stakeholder groups undertaken by Roland Berger Strategy Consultants in 2014 found that consultation in the last SDSR was limited, and that a number of sources of valuable opinions and data were therefore ignored.

The interviews also suggested that the 2010 SDSR was rushed through, with much of the work undertaken when key people were away for their summer holidays. Publication this time should wait until 2016 to ensure sufficient time for the analysis required, rather than rushing out a glossy PR document over the summer.

It would be unrealistic to suggest that any defence review could be undertaken in a financial vacuum. A blank cheque for the MoD is neither realistic, nor desirable. Rather, there should be a discussion between the Treasury and MoD on resource requirements and availability, and robust analysis to demonstrate exactly where savings may be found and where we must make money available.

There are numerous organisational barriers to effective defence planning within Westminster and Whitehall which must be addressed over the medium-term. However, a good starting point would be to get the process right for this strategic defence review – our armed forces, doing their jobs in a more unstable world, deserve as much.

Harry Malins is a senior consultant at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, and a part-time War Studies PhD candidate at King’s College London.