Opinion Articles

Defence Reviews: strategic and otherwise

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In November 2015, the House of Commons was presented with a defence review and a call to arms in successive weeks. The review enhanced hard, soft, and invisible power days before all – but most controversially the former – were deployed. Defence reviews can trigger, or react to, crises, but rarely accompany them; financial crises are another matter. For all their military import, defence reviews are irregular, and a revealing instance of the state engaging in extemporised planning.

The nine since 1945 are of particular interest as the period has been one of perpetual activity: March 1968 to March 1969 was the only twelve-month period* in which a service person was not killed on active duty. Defence reviews seek to establish the parameters of these situations, but are often far from the dispassionate assessment of means and needs that they are presented as being. Little is ring-fenced, though now the budget is, adding another recent restrictive precedent on government action. Ashton Carter, US Defense Secretary, said that the Pentagon “appreciates the UK’s decisions to invest in a broad range of capabilities” but it is precisely the attention paid to the appreciation of the Pentagon – even to the extent of including it in deliberations – that has incensed critics of British defence, and indeed security, policy, critics who now and for the first time find themselves in charge of HM Official Opposition.

The first two defence reviews after the war were landmarks. The 1957 (Duncan) Sandys’ Review had the benefit of being the first of the new post-imperial settlement, coming as it did the year after Operation Musketeer – AKA the Suez Crisis – demonstrated how Britain’s reach no longer exceeded its grasp. Taking a clean sheet almost literally it embraced missile technology and prioritised US-co-operation: the US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement followed the following year and within four the nuclear partnership which endures, and on which the Commons will vote this year.

Framed by a financial, rather than a political, crisis, Denis Healey set in motion what was effectively a rolling review between 1965 and 1968, and better known geographically than eponymously: it ended British permanent deployments ‘East of Suez’. Worse was to come: in the context of what the Prime Minister feared was be "possible wholesale domestic liquidation" the next review, in 1975 under Roy Mason, was conducted, with inevitable cuts. It was immediately followed by another financial crisis and further cuts.

The contradictory impulses of the Thatcher governments – seeking to constrain public expenditure whist responding to a Soviet military build-up – produced the model myopic review fortunate in that it was overtaken by events before its consequences could be felt. The 1981 NATO-preoccupied Nott Review irritated the Navy as much as Sandys’ upset the RAF, and was one review that could be said to have triggered a crisis, one that Operation Corporate resolved by regaining the Falkland Islands, something that would have been much harder, if not impossible, even a year later.

The collapse of the principal challenge to western security almost overnight occasioned what might be called a defence response rather than a defence review. Tom King’s 1990 Options for Change was conceived of as something of a “peace dividend” and one cashed hastily. Within six months the Gulf War, and the following year the Yugoslav Wars, had begun, with large UK deployments. In 1994 Malcolm Rifkind oversaw what was less a response than a rearrangement, along predictably retrenched lines, in Front Line First.

A change of government after eighteen years occasioned the review generally best-regarded. George Robertson’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review emphasised rapidity, flexibility and mobility through tri-service joint structures tested by Operation Telic, the most contested deployment since Suez. In its immediate aftermath was Geoff Hoon’s Delivering Security in a Changing World, a review in a minor key.

Liam Fox’s more vaunted 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review was a reactive affair, necessitated by financial crisis which meant eight per cent cuts overall and capabilities that Michael Fallon felt need to reinstate. Fox blamed the previous government, and its part-time head (that there have been almost annual changes in Defence Secretary can hardly have abetted long-term thinking).

If the SDSR had been reactive, 2015’s National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review was part corrective. Marking considerable increases in equipment, it also broadened the response spectrum by integrating the role of the National Security Council, increasing spending on the BBC World Service and British Council, and increasing staffing at GHCQ, MI5 and MI6.

Responding to it was the first leader of a party of government since George Lansbury who it is only a moderate exaggeration to suggest would ideally not want to have defences to have to review. Labour’s current leadership reflects longstanding opposition to the very assumptions upon which defence reviews have been based, and has the support of the party membership, if not of its own defence team.

2015’s tactically minor but politically major extension of British involvement in Syria soon served to overshadow some of these issues, but if not quite overtaken by events, the extent of UK commitments means that the MOD will hope no crises crop up elsewhere. Whether state-based or non-state-based threats are envisaged, both have increased, and the context of the 2015 review – rapprochement with Russia, the ISIL nuclear threat, and terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels – may be sufficient to overcome Iraq-induced public scepticism; 2016 will bring another, but this time one the public will decide for itself.

* CORRECTION: This article was amended on 14/11/16 to accurately reflect the record of deaths in active service. '1968 was the only year' was amended to 'March 1968 to March 1969 was the only twelve-month period'.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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