Fiscal restraint can be a good thing: properly handled it forces people to determine what is essential and what is not. This, however, requires making choices, something which the government has shown that it is reluctant to do. The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) shows no signs of strategic thinking but plenty of signs of bureaucratic compromise – at the highest level between the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence (MoD), at a lower level between the MoD and the three armed services, and lower still between the various branches within the various services – so as to share the pain as equally as possible among everybody regardless of need.
In an ideal world, force structure (and thus budget) would flow directly from a government’s determination of its defence strategy, which in turn would flow from that government’s analysis of its interests and the threats to those interests. This has not happened. In an effort to pretend that structure is indeed following strategy, the government published a National Security Strategy (NSS) one day before the SDSR. Unfortunately, however, the defence structure and budget outlined in the latter bears no relation to the analysis contained in the former.
According to the NSS, “we face no major state threat at present and no existential threat to our security, freedom or prosperity”. This statement largely eliminates the need for most of the armed forces. The NSS then lists three “tiers” of threats (or “risks” as the document bizarrely calls them) to British security. But the military forces proposed by the SDSR correspond mainly to tier three risks, which are in most cases extremely unlikely. The tier one threats, which are deemed the top priority for British security, are said to be international terrorism, cyber attack, international military crises, and major accidents or natural hazards. What these have to do with the armed forces is not made clear. Meanwhile the SDSR’s response to the threat of terrorism, cyber attacks and natural accidents is to build an aircraft carrier without any aircraft, six new air defence destroyers, and seven new hunter killer submarines, as well as to promise to renew the strategic nuclear deterrent. Rarely, if ever, has defence policy been so spectacularly out of kilter with the official analysis of the nation’s security needs.
In the introduction to the NSS, the Prime Minister calls for “a radical transformation in the way we think about national security”, but the SDSR then produces an almost entirely conventional military response to security problems. If the government honestly believes its own strategic analysis it would recognise that military power is almost irrelevant to Britain’s security needs. This would allow it to make serious cuts in defence spending far beyond those envisioned in the SDSR, and so make Britain more secure while saving the taxpayers billions of pounds in unnecessary expenditures.