The United Kingdom’s SDSR Defence Review – identifying real options for change
The Strategic Defence and Security Review (or SDSR) underway within the UK Ministry of Defence has as its aim a full review of UK commitments, force structures and resourcing.
What started as a Defence green paper under the previous Labour Administration has entered full-blown review territory and following the extent of the UK deficit being revealed is being conducted to achieve all of the above with a substantial reduction in funding.
Given the Sir Humphrey response to political requests for cuts in departmental spending, "come up with three options of which one is completely unpalatable and the other two on close examination are the same". One would expect the reduction in resources to be of the 10-15% level rather than the 20-25% level mooted.
However, it is often been unofficially acknowledged that MoD was able to use it's accounting regime in such as way as to squeeze an extra billion out of budget, so any real cuts also need to encompass the lack of manoeuvre room for budgetary games.
The SDSR or SDR as some are referring to it in shorthand is in effect a 'Strategic Deficit Review' as much as a Strategic Defence Review. In addition the MoD case is due to be sent to Cabinet Office (assuming the successor DOPC structure) and thence to the Star Chamber for execution by the PM and Chancellor.
Unlike many earlier Reviews, it could be suggested that this one cannot result in a salami-slicing approach where in effect each of three armed services is given a number and their cloth is cut accordingly - a couple of tanks here, a frigate there and so forth. One apocryphal example of this was in 1990 where a group were directed to save a few hundred million and had a couple of hours to do to support the Minister. The exercise ended up with harassed officials looking for a Program closest to the number, in this case night vision. Following the war in the Gulf of 1991, the shortfall identified was in - night vision,
The SDSR review process needs to move away from optimising the British Army to re-fight the 1991 or 2003 Iraq war, the Navy the Falklands war of 1982 and the RAF the glories of Operation Desert Fox.
The future will not be like the past.
However, a little lateral thinking could go a long way. The hardest thing to cut in terms of actually doing it and realizing a fast return on the balance sheet are personnel numbers. This is the reason the equipment Program (invariably requiring government to spend on outside goods and services)
The number one challenge for the MoD is the nuclear deterrent. Renewal of the four Vanguard Class SSBN's plus the Trident warheads comes with a price tag in the order of some £20 billion ($30 US). However a clear alternative to designing a new submarine would be to build additional Astute Class hunter/killer submarines and forgo Trident for a nuclear tipped Tomahawk torpedo. Whilst lacking the range and having some vulnerability to intercept let's not forget that this is a political weapon primarily and if used and if only 1 in 4 hit the target it would still be a very high order of 'effect'.
Additionally, a force of Astute SSN/BN submarines would offer flexibility 100% availability as at least one would always be at sea.
For industry, a lengthened Astute Program would offer greater efficiencies (each successive boat being cheaper to build) and greater ease of maintenance with a single design being in service.
The second order question regarding large, expensive equipment programs already committed to is how to get the results of the balance sheet without risking contract termination - which would be devastating to the Defence industry.
Eurofighter could be re-rolled for service on the new aircraft carriers under construction absorbing some of the tranche 3 commitment and again offering basic commonality of airframe for manned aerial effect.
Part of the tranche 3 commitment could be sold on to another government with Saudi Arabia topping the list of obvious parties whom would be interested. Clearly this approach would end UK interest in JSF which is in the test stage, though prior to production.
Next on the list is some clever thinking regarding the carriers themselves. A few years ago there was discussion of the French ordering one of the designs as a second ship to work alongside the unhappy nuclear Charles de Gaulle vessel in some kind of 'euro carrier capability'
Why not sell the first of class overseas ? First of class vessels often are a learning curve and so why not get the first vessel off the balance sheet and enjoy better quality 2nd and 3rd vessels and realize some cost savings. In terms of whom would purchase, the Russian aircraft carrier was touted to the Indian and Chinese Navies. At the time of the Falklands conflict HMS Hermes was due to be sold to India and ultimately was as the Vikrant. that vessel must be close to the end of it's operational life for example.
The Royal Air Force I would suspect could be hard pressed to articulate why the Tornado GR4 is still needed in a period of austerity given that a number of the aircraft have been flown to the edge of their lifespan. A navalised Eurofighter also negates sadly the Harrier jump-jet. If only JSF was not bedeviled by the ITAR waiver issues with the US and inevitable cost-escalation. In terms of supply chain and excluding Eurofighter why does the RAF need so many stations ? Time for fast consolidation.
The Royal Navy also needs to forgo a Naval Base with Portsmouth the obvious choice. Although a deal of service accommodation was built there recently the fact is that Portsmouth real estate is far more valuable and there is a fundamental force protection issue given how busy the waterways are around the Solent.
In terms of the surface fleet the most pressing need is to move forward with a replacement Program for the Type-23 Frigate which is modular, small, punchy and plentiful in numbers. Hopefully the river class vessels can offer a better model than a cut down type 42 for the 'c1' capability need.
Major new investment in UAV's should be the winner. A smaller frigate should have dedicated UAV ASW capability reducing the need for Nimrod from the RAF.
Whilst sad, thinking the unthinkable as Herman Kahn once put it is no longer a luxury which can be pursued in the Club room or mess. It is essential and is needed right now.
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