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SDSR 2015: The Return of Ambition

Written by Wyn Rees.

The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2015, announced on 23 November, marked a change in the defence debate.  Ambition on defence returned to the Conservative government. A series of announcements overturned the former impression of the UK as a shrinking military actor. These announcements included a new maritime patrol aircraft, two Army strike brigades for expeditionary operations, new ‘Protector’ drones and additional funding for Special Forces and cyber capabilities.

This Review was a contrast to its forerunner of 2010. The SDSR of that year was driven by the prevailing wave of austerity in which swingeing cuts were inflicted on the armed services. Reductions were made in personnel, in the combat aircraft of the Royal Air Force as well as in the surface fleet. Since the 2010 Review there has been a diminished UK role within the world. The UK wound down its role in Afghanistan in 2014, refused to engage in Syria in 2013 and left the Ukraine crisis to be handled principally by the leaders of Germany and France. Even allies as close as the United States expressed fears that the UK was in retreat.

Perceptions of decline have helped to galvanise the government to be bolder in the 2015 Review. Other factors have included a deteriorating security environment. The Russian annexation of Crimea and its intervention within Ukraine raised the spectre of the potential for inter-state conflict in Europe. In addition there has been the upsurge in activity by the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq. The attacks in Tunisia and Paris have convinced the UK of the need to join the American-led coalition in attacking IS in Syria.

Yet caution needs to be exercised in case the impression of renewed defence vigour becomes exaggerated. First, some of the measures announced in SDSR 2015 merely redress weaknesses resulting from the hollowing out of the armed forces by SDSR 2010. For example, the purchase of nine Boeing P8 maritime patrol aircraft just fills a gap that was left by the cancellation of the earlier Nimrod programme. Similarly, the decision to extend the life of two squadrons of Typhoon aircraft reflects the strain that has been imposed on the Tornado fleet by constant operations in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq.

Second, the boost to defence spending is limited and the additional capabilities will be modest. The second strike brigade is composed of only 5 000 personnel , consistent with a strategy in which the UK relies for its overseas punch on  aircraft and drones rather than manpower. No substantial uplift in numbers of personnel was announced by the government.  Furthermore, the Review only committed the country to purchase eight new Type 26 frigates rather than the 13 that had been envisaged. UK armed forces will be equipped with impressive military platforms in the future but their small number will constrain the tasks that can be undertaken.

Lastly, gaps will remain in the UK’s military capabilities. The two Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers will not have operational Lightning II squadrons before 2023, whilst Warrior infantry fighting vehicles and Challenger main battle tanks will not be replaced for years to come. This will leave substantial periods of time before new capabilities are brought online. In the meantime, uncomfortable questions remain as to what would happen if crises were to arise.

The 2015 SDSR returns a measure of confidence to the UK’s armed forces. The UK has, and will continue to possess, first class military capabilities and personnel . Yet it is thinly spread and could easily be over-extended. That remains the tension at the heart of our defence policy.

Wyn Rees is a Professor of International Security at the School of Politics and International Relations. This articles forms part of the Center for Conflict, Security and Terrorism (CST) coverage of the 2015 Security and Defence Review. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

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