The short time-frame of the UK’s Strategic Defence Spending Review (SDSR) suggested a hurried cost-cutting exercise with scant attention paid to actual military requirements. It was however accompanied by a new National Security Strategy, by which the cuts could be said to be derived from changes in perceived threat and the UK’s planned responses – rather than the need to save money….
In the 1980’s, one of the many intellectual skills taught to trainee military commanders at the old Army staff college at Camberley, was the writing of combat appreciations, in which one laboriously listed all possible factors that might affect the Aim of one’s forthcoming operation, drew all possible conclusions, then devised all possible options, from which one selected the best course of action.
The Cold War had been ‘raging’ for almost four decades, so nobody had any first-hand knowledge of modern armoured warfare. The writing of combat appreciations became an political art-form in its own right; the ambitious staff officer desperate to reach conclusions which agreed with all the various strongly-held opinions of his seniors. The expression “situating the appreciation” was widely used to describe the process of carefully crafting the factors and options of these studies so as to arrive at the ‘right’ conclusions. I’m sure the Soviets were doing exactly the same thing – but I think we invented it!
However, as I discovered whilst researching my new book about the Gulf War of 1990-91, the UK’s mighty military machine could never have worked. The equipment was ancient and/or didn’t work: Britain’s Challenger tank had so many serious design problems that its engines and turrets would invariably break down after very short mileages. Even SA80, the basic rifle, jammed and would not work in desert sand.
Thankfully Saddam Hussein allowed the coalition six vital months to redesign and refurbish our tanks, and work out how to use them. By mid February, from the entire British Army of the Rhine, the UK had fielded just two properly equipped and manned armoured brigades plus artillery, leaving the rest of the UK’s armoured forces – seven brigades plus a lot of artillery regiments, literally wrecked – engines, turrets, tracks, even gun barrels, ripped out as spares. Despite the swingeing “Options for Change” defence cuts that immediately followed Gulf War One, many of Britain’s’ surviving tank units in Germany remained empty hulks on wood blocks for years after. Thankfully the Soviet’s Third Shock Army remained in Magdeburg – probably also on wooden blocks.
So, in this latest ‘Appreciation’ of UK defence policy and needs, one notices that there are explicit reasons for some cuts, whilst for others – an example halving the purchase of Chinook heavy-lift helicopters – none are given. Building two aircraft carriers, selling one, and keeping the other as an empty space for ten years is an illogicality for which there can be no sort of policy justification apart from saving money.
What Britain desperately needs is a proper top-down defence review, in which the long-running disgrace of MoD procurement and profligacy generally is very seriously addressed. This must lead to measures to modernise the MoD’s communications systems, increasing bandwidth, and aligning computing processes with those of the USA. The review must also integrate with the rest of the UK’s government structure, in the so-called “fusion centres” talked about with regard to counter-terrorist operations since 9/11.
One big decision is whether to retain the ability to take action outside any coalition, to protect the Falkland Islands for example. There’s a whole golf buggy-full of air, sea and land capabilities to be retained if this decision is taken – with equally important political, economic and diplomatic considerations.
If on the other hand, the UK’s future military actions are to be taken alongside the Americans, then as others have argued, we might focus our money and attention on the things we are considered to do particularly well – Special Forces, GCHQ, with perhaps the addition of cyberwarfare and remotely piloted air vehicles as new specialist subjects.
Cutting the numbers of infantry soldiers is totally irresponsible, but keeps happening in defence reviews because people are the most expensive budget item – which I suppose is the bottom-line litmus test of whether the appreciation has been situated.
But a proper evaluation of the UK’s national security strategy would take a very long time, requiring much consultation with many agencies, learned bodies – and soothsayers.
Its conclusion would not however in all probability be relevant, as it’s unlikely that monies could be saved, and probable that more would be required. But it’s so very much more expensive to lose a war…
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