UK defence – repeated mistakes?

HMS Iron Duke in AntarcticaAs the UK general election draws nearer, the political parties are positioning themselves to complete a Strategic Defence and Security Review within a few months of a new government entering office.

The 2010 version of SDSR was criticised for being published too quickly and the speed with which the next document will be produced is expected to make the same mistake.

Sir Nick Harvey MP, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for defence, told a meeting of the Independent Defence Media Association (IDMA) that he expects a ‘quick and dirty’ SDSR in 2015 and that this has been forced by the schedule for the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) that will decide what government departments get to spend.

Unfortunately the timing of the CSR does not give time for a proper defence review to be completed, which should be in the mid-term of a Parliament. But it has to be completed so that the Ministry of Defence has something to take to the Treasury to argue for in terms of their budget demands.

The recent 2% GDP for defence that has been debated recently will not be achieved unless new money can be found. With this background, Harvey believes that there are some difficult decisions coming up that will be equally as significant as those in 2010 as the MoD cannot afford the Force 2020 programme under current projections. It might be affordable with the 2%.

The Labour party agrees, believing that the UK is at a crossroads and has to decide what it wants to do in the world and what its presence will be. A senior defence spokesperson told IDMA that the National Security Strategy that will be released prior to the SDSR this year will have to define Britain’s future role and it will need more than just the ‘refresh’ recommended by Prime Minister David Cameron.

Conservative defence representatives so far have been unwilling to speak to IDMA.

There is a consensus that both Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers will be deployed. How and when remains to be seen, but both Labour and the Lib Dems are committed to an interventionist posture centred on carrier strike and an amphibious capability, the latter of which Harvey said is ‘essential’.

However, there is divergence on the nuclear deterrent where the Liberal Democrats can see savings by ending the continuous-at-sea-deterrent (CASD) posture. They would cancel the Successor SSBN programme on which about £1 billion has already been spent.

Instead he proposes five more Astute-class SSNs built one every 30 months over 25 years to stabilise the production run of one class of boat. Successor is expected to take up 35% of the defence budget from 2018-2029. However, Labour is committed to preserving CASD and will look at how that is provided most cost-effectively.

For the Reserves Labour and the Liberal Democrat will look again at the projections. It is unlikely to reach 30,000 and Harvey believes it might be better to lean back into increasing regular numbers. It all depends on what the reserve force is expected to do.

On industry, Harvey wants to focus on high-end technology and high value systems and accepts that warships and less high value work may be conducted overseas. Labour is opposed to any such notion and will preserve UK warship building in all forms, particularly on the Clyde where Scotstoun and Govan are expected to merge with the support of the unions.

Ultimately Labour believes that there will be additional funding available because the way they will run the economy with fewer cuts. Although it won’t be 2% it will be more than current projections and provide additional headroom and try to generate more mass in platforms.

Overall both Labour and the Liberal Democrats agree that de-politicising the defence debate is best to bring in other parties to discuss the issues during the review and maybe in some areas to involve close allies in the process.

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