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Libya and the Illusion of the SDSR

 By Alexander Crothers

On the 19th October 2010, the recently installed coalition government published the results of its Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR); setting in motion a process that would fundamentally change all aspects of UK defence. No less than five months later, UK forces were committed to a prominent position in the international effort concerned with intervening in the escalating Libyan crisis. Gaddafi’s death in October 2011 marked the conclusion of operations and allowed much self-congratulation on a ‘job well done’. Indeed Sarkozy and Cameron were treated like heroes when they set foot on Libyan soil. This triumphalism only served to mask the fact that the RAF was severely stretched and that victory could only be declared because the meaning of victory was poorly defined from the outset. If the SDSR is analysed alongside the campaign then it becomes achingly clear that it lacked in one critical area. Strategy! Furthermore, it’s hard to argue against the case that the review was just an excuse to drastically cut military capability in the name of austerity.

Although the Arab Spring undoubtedly presented the UK Government with an unpredictable and complex environment, their reaction to it lacked a clear strategy. The UK and France led the international effort that resulted in the UN authorising military action under its 2005 Responsibility to Protect framework; formalising protection of civilians as its strategic goal. A no-fly zone was quickly established that curtailed the free movement of Gaddafi’s forces and shielded besieged civilian areas from their brutality. But firstly a Gaddafi-offered ceasefire was rejected and then NATO sorties began supporting rebel advancements; neither of which contributed to the protection of civilians. Implicit murmurings of regime change soon became the mission’s stated objective.

Despite the experiences of both Iraq and Afghanistan the UK Government failed to appreciate the danger of regime change, assuming that the rebel movement would step in with legitimacy and authority. Libya has little industry, a small middle class, no history or experience of democracy and, due to its tribal system, no sense of homogeneous national unity: all key to establishing a new stable democracy. Had the Government appreciated these issues it might have forecast the lawlessness, violence and instability that characterises post-Gaddafi Libya and concluded that this was not the best method of guaranteeing civilian protection. Additionally, it would have been able to measure this against its policy aim of ensuring regional stability. There is evidence to suggest that the free flow of militants and weapons south from a lawless Libya forced France’s 2013 intervention in Mali, in which the UK played a minor part. 

An unsure and constantly changing strategy makes conducting military operations challenging at the best of times, but the RAF was being asked to do this while the SDSR significantly shrunk the service and removed whole capabilities. The retirement of the Harrier meant that the UK had no naval strike, forcing sorties to be conducted from distance which significantly lowered their payload and shortened their loiter time (particularly crucial when enforcing a no-fly zone). A brand new fleet of surveillance aircraft was scrapped just before entering service, so gathering the sufficient data to target properly became problematic; while poor serviceability of aging Air-to-Air refuelling and Airborne Early Warning fleets had a restraining effect on the tempo of operations. The SDSR assumed that all future major operation would be conducted as part of a coalition, and as such any gap in UK capability would be compensated for by others. But the risks inherent in this became clear when political differences rendered many NATO members hesitant or unwilling to provide the assets needed to fully support the mission. Despite the US’ public adoption of a ‘back seat role’, the mission was wholly dependent on its support in critical areas.

During the initial stages of the uprising there was an asymmetry between the military capability of Gaddafi’s forces and that of the rebels. It would take time for the rebels to arm themselves and reach the level of military competence required in order to succeed. Coupled with the open ended nature of the UN resolution it was foreseeable that any military intervention would require time. Yet the RAF grew increasingly concerned over the length of the operation and was not in a position to support it indefinitely. Stores began to run out, including its supply of munitions, which had to be replenished by the US. There was no spare capacity to rotate deployed personnel and the deployment of certain positions was hurting its force generation. Had Gaddafi not been captured when he had – an entirely reasonable scenario – then the RAF would have been forced to seriously consider its continued involvement.

In order for the SDSR to be considered strategic it needed to ensure that the UK’s ambitions on the world stage were well defined and focused; and to clearly demonstrate how the military would be used to achieve them. The size, shape and capabilities of the armed forces needed to be matched to the policy goals expected of them. Unfortunately Libya proved this not to be the case: the UK entered the conflict without really knowing what it wanted to get out of it and without the necessary resources. Only a combination of luck, US support and Gaddafi’s capture saved these deficiencies from being brutally exposed, hiding them behind a veneer of success.  The danger is that politicians refuse to see it that way and instead insist that Libya validates the conduct of the review. The consensus among military commanders is that the UK’s armed forces as we know them – a powerful, self-sufficient and expeditionary tool of policy – survived the SDSR, but only just. However, another such review looms large in 2015, the results of which are anticipated with trepidation.

 Alexander Crothers is currently studying for an MA in International Relations

Image credit: Royal Air Force

Published inConflict & Security

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