Select Committee on Defence Eighth Report



The Committee's Inquiry[1]

1. The Strategic Defence Review (SDR) arose from a commitment in the Labour Party's 1997 election manifesto[2] that it would—

    conduct a strategic defence and security review to reassess our essential security and defence needs. It will consider how the roles, missions and capabilities of our armed forces should be adjusted to meet the new strategic realities. The review we propose will be foreign policy led, first assessing our likely overseas commitments and interests and then establishing how our forces should be deployed to meet them.[3]

The Secretary of State described its purpose as "to give the Armed Forces of this country a coherent and stable planning basis in the radically changing international and strategic context of the post-Cold War world".[4]

2. This Committee agreed, as soon as it was formed in July 1997, that its prime task in the first session of its existence would be to shadow the government's SDR with a view to reporting to the House on its contents soon after it was published. Before the White Paper was published we held 12 formal sessions of evidence at which we examined the Secretary of State for Defence,[5] the Secretary of State for International Development,[6] the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office,[7] former Chiefs of Staff and other retired senior officers,[8] and academic and other outside commentators.[9] We held two sessions of evidence with representatives of the Territorial Auxiliary Volunteer Reserve Associations (TAVRAs) and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) specifically on the reserve forces.[10] This oral evidence, together with written evidence, submitted before the publication of the White Paper, is published in Volume II of this Report. We also met informally and privately with the former Chiefs of the Defence Staff, Lord Bramall, Lord Craig and Lord Lewin; the current Chief of Defence Intelligence, Vice Admiral Alan West; the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Jonathan Band, the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, Air Vice Marshal Tim Jenner; the Assistant Chief of the General Staff, Major General Mike Willcocks; the Chief of Joint Operations in charge of the Permanent Joint HQ at Northwood, Lieutenant General Sir Christopher Wallace; and the Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Programmes), Rear Admiral Nigel Essenhigh together with the Assistant Under Secretary (Systems), Mr Trevor Woolley. We were also briefed by the Conflict Studies Research Centre on issues relating to the former Soviet Union. We twice visited the MoD's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) at Farnborough and its Procurement Executive (PE) HQ at Abbey Wood. We also visited British Forces stationed in Northern Ireland and Germany, 5 Airborne Brigade HQ at Aldershot and the Royal Marines, including elements of 3 Commando Brigade, at Devonport. We attended a demonstration by all three arms of the reserve forces at the Duke of York's Headquarters. We were also briefed by Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials on arms control issues. We also visited BAe's Eurofighter production facilities and Tornado GR1 midlife update facility in Warton, and the GEC Marine (VSEL) shipyard in Barrow, where we saw HMS Ocean (the Landing Platform Helicopter carrier) and HMS Vengeance, the fourth and last Vanguard Class submarine, under construction.

3. The Committee also spent four days in Washington DC, where we held discussions with the Deputy Secretary of Defense and other officials and military personnel at the Pentagon;[11] with officials of the State Department; the Central Intelligence Agency; the United States Marine Corps; and other organisations, including members of the National Defense Panel,[12] representatives of the RAND Corporation and representatives of the National Guard. We visited NATO HQ in Brussels in connection with this inquiry and with our Report on NATO enlargement, published in April.[13]

4. We have published four other Reports this session which relate to significant issues connected with the SDR. These included a report on Peace Support Operations in Bosnia following a visit to British Forces stationed there in November,[14] a Report on the future of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency[15] and a short report on the Reserves Call-Out Order 1998.[16] We also produced a joint report with the Trade and Industry Committee on Aspects of Defence Procurement and Industrial Policy.[17]

5. Following the publication of the SDR White Paper[18] on 8th July, we held a further eleven evidence sessions at which we examined the Secretary of State for Defence (twice);[19] the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office;[20] the Chief of Defence Staff;[21] the First Sea Lord;[22] the Chief of the General Staff;[23] the Chief of the Air Staff;[24] the Minister for the Armed Forces and the Vice Chief of Defence Staff;[25] the Minister for Defence Procurement and the Chief of Defence Procurement;[26] members of the Advisory Panel on the SDR appointed by the Secretary of State, Sir Michael Alexander, Sir Timothy Garden and Mr John Rose;[27] and representatives of the Council of the Territorial Auxiliary Volunteer Reserve Associations[28]as well as many other officers and officials including some who had previously appeared before the Committee at earlier stages of the inquiry. This evidence, together with written submissions received after the publication of the White Paper, is published in Volume III of this Report.

6. We thank all those witnesses who have given oral and written evidence. In particular, we are grateful to all those at the MoD who made themselves available to the Committee at short notice after the White Paper was published. We would also like to record our thanks to our Specialist Advisers who have assisted us on this inquiry: Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Alcock; Professor Michael Clarke of the Centre for Defence Studies, King's College, London; Rear Admiral Richard Cobbold, Director of the Royal United Services Institute; Professor Keith Hartley of the Centre for Defence Economics, University of York; Major General Andrew Keeling; Dr David Kirkpatrick of the Defence Engineering Group, University College London; and Major General Peter Sheppard.

The Aims of the Inquiry


7. Our analysis below will suggest that a distinction can be made between the inescapable core objectives of UK defence policy, such as protection from direct attack, and a range of broader objectives over which the UK has some choice. These broader objectives are concerned with NATO, the Western European Union (WEU), the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the UN and other world-wide developments in which the UK might have an economic, political or security interest. We will be asking whether the SDR provides a robust framework for thinking about UK defence policy, prioritising objectives and setting them within the context of constraints and alternatives.

8. The objectives of UK defence policy are to provide defence outputs in the form of protection, deterrence, security, peace-keeping, crisis management and, in the final analysis, a war-fighting capability. We shall consider the effect of the proposals of the SDR on these defence outputs. We will be asking whether the UK would be made more vulnerable or the UK's interests would be more seriously threatened as a result of any proposals for the reduction or restructuring of certain forces.


9. A major constraint on our choices about the UK's defence posture is the defence budget and its buying power. The UK's pursuit of its defence objectives will be constrained by the resources available and the number of military personnel who can be employed and the equipment which can be purchased within that available budget. There are two obvious pressures on the defence budget. First, defence spending has been falling and may continue to fall in real terms and as a share of GDP. Second, the unit procurement costs of successive generations of many types of equipment have tended to rise significantly faster than the general rate of inflation, which results in an inevitable fall in the numbers of each type of equipment which can be afforded.[29] The combination of these pressures means the MoD has faced and will continue to face difficult choices, some of which are likely to require consideration of whether to sacrifice some commitments or capabilities in order to bring the two sides of the equation into balance; those will continue to give rise to pressures for a search for alternatives, some of which might have to be quite radical. We shall be looking at the evidence of where such trade-offs have been made in the SDR.


10. Making these difficult choices demands a thorough debate of the alternatives. Such choices have to balance the objectives of defence policy against the costs of alternative objectives and alternative means of achieving them. Inevitably, some of the alternatives might be less effective, but with a limited budget they might be the only affordable method of maintaining some degree of military capability. Future technological change may also create new possibilities and opportunities which might require a restructuring of the UK's Armed Forces. But military means are not the only way in which to ensure security for the UK. Political, developmental, cultural and trade diplomacy are important instruments with which we can pursue the UK's interests and the wider interests of the international community in a stable world order. We shall examine the extent to which the SDR has addressed the problem of integrating defence policy into the pursuit of the government's wider security objectives.


11. Choosing between these alternatives has implications for the UK's continued ability to maintain 'strong defence'. The Secretary of State defines strong defence as 'being able to deliver on what it is as a country you say you want to do' and in his introduction to the SDR tells us that, 'The British people ... want, indeed expect, the Government to provide strong defence.'[30] He may be right: for example, a poll in 1994 showed that 61% wanted the government to hold or increase spending on defence.[31] But while the British public may well be ready to shoulder global responsibilities appropriate to the country's resources and its many international links, it is less clear that they support committing to military capabilities a share of the nation's blood and treasure which they see as disproportionate. Strong defence might be defined as the provision of an all-round military capability with modern air, land and sea forces able to deter potential enemies at minimum cost. The Secretary of State says that it is not necessarily expensive.[32] A smaller defence budget or rising equipment costs, or the two combined, might however mean that the UK has to sacrifice some of its traditional defence capabilities. But strong defence requires Armed Forces with the capability of fighting in a range of conflicts from high-technology and high-intensity to low-intensity warfare or peace support operations ('operations other than war'), as well as Forces which are at a high state of readiness for responding to crises in different parts of the world. "Essentially", the Secretary of State told us, strong defence—

    ... boils down to whether you can actually do something in defending the country, or in promoting the country's interests, whether it be in peacekeeping or elsewhere, and win.[33]

We will be asking whether limited defence budgets might mean that the UK has to forego some of these aspects of strong defence.

12. A key aspect of strong defence is whether the UK will continue (as the Secretary of State puts it) to 'make a difference' in the world. It can do this by maintaining Armed Forces with the capability for world-wide power projection. This requires modern Naval forces with the capability of operating world-wide without host nation support; a modern Air Force with the refuelling and transport capability for the rapid world-wide deployment of combat aircraft, troops and their equipment; and an Army capable of operating, including fighting, almost anywhere in the world, although the Secretary of State candidly admits—

    The Strategic Defence Review is not going to try and design a whole variety of capabilities to deal with every conceivable threat that we might face ... because you would require an infinite amount of money to do it.[34]

We shall seek to examine some of the costs and benefits of the continuation of the UK's world-wide military role . The benefits might include power and prestige, as well as economic benefits in so far as some trade follows the flag. The costs are reflected in what governments since 1945 have seen as the need for the UK to maintain a defence budget which is higher than the average level of the UK's major European allies, who are also among its main industrial competitors in world markets.


13. However, all these ambitions will be imperilled unless we can recruit and retain the numbers and quality of personnel needed to enable the Armed Forces to deliver on these tasks. The MoD has more often than not fallen short of its manning targets over the last decade. We will be looking closely at the proposals of the SDR to overcome the problems of recruitment and retention in the UK's Armed Forces.

14. Before we address the Strategic Defence Review itself, we begin by seeking to place it in a wider historical context, and try to give some sense of how we got to the point from which the SDR had to start.

1  In the footnotes to this Report, references to oral evidence are indicated by 'Q' followed by the question number, references to written evidence are indicated by 'Ev' followed by the page number, references to the White Paper on the Strategic Defence Review, Modern Forces for a Modern World, are indicated by 'Cm 3999' followed by a paragraph number; references to the volume of Supporting Essays to the White Paper are indicated by the Essay number and paragraph number; and references to the MoD's 'Factsheets' on the SDR are indicated by 'Factsheet' and its title. Back

2  Q 101 Back

3  New Labour Because Britain Deserves Better, p 38 Back

4  Q 101 Back

5  QQ 101-189 Back

6  QQ 587-675 Back

7  QQ 1248-1324 Back

8  QQ 302-425 Back

9  QQ 190-301, 1181-1247, 1406-67 Back

10  QQ 501-585, 1106-1180 Back

11  See eg the Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review, May 1997, Secretary of Defense, Washington Back

12  See eg Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st Century Report of the National Defense Panel December 1997 Back

13  Third Report, Session 1997-98, NATO Enlargement, HC 469 Back

14  First Report, Session 1997-98 Peace Support Operations in Bosnia and Herzeogovina , HC 403; see also debate in the House, HC Deb, 17 June 1998, cc 300-322 Back

15  Sixth Report, Session 1997-98, The Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, HC 621 Back

16  Fifth Report, Session 1997-98, The Reserves Call-out Order 1998, Etc., HC 868 Back

17  Seventh Report, Session 1997-98, Aspects of Defence Procurement and Industrial Policy, HC 675 Back

18  Cm 3999, Modern Forces for a Modern World Back

19  QQ 1551-1674; QQ 2896-3027 Back

20  QQ 2800-2895 Back

21  QQ 1675-1833 Back

22  QQ 2131-2264 Back

23  QQ 2265-2488 Back

24  QQ 1834-1947 Back

25  QQ 2695-2799 Back

26  QQ 1948-2130 Back

27  QQ 2612-2694 Back

28  QQ 2489-2611 Back

29  Historically, unit procurement costs have increased, since 1945, at about 10% per year in real terms, i.e. a doubling of unit costs within seven years Back

30  Cm 3999, p 1, para 1 Back

31  British Social Attitudes, Eleventh Report, S.C.P.R Back

32  Q 1634 Back

33  Q 1634 Back

34  Q 1634 Back

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Prepared 10 September 1998