Select Committee on Defence Eighth Report


The Fall of the Soviet Union, Options for Change and Front Line First


31. The international security situation and the role of NATO, the 'cornerstone' of UK defence policy, was radically altered by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the sudden but surprisingly peaceful disintegration of the Soviet Union within two years. Our predecessors sought to take stock of the implications of these events in a Report published in July 1990, which opened as follows—

    Recent events in Europe have profound and far-reaching implications for United Kingdom defence policy. Within the space of a few months in late 1989, the whole face of Europe was altered. The unification of Germany, and the withdrawal of the German Democratic Republic from the Warsaw Pact, are imminent. Most of the countries of Central Europe now have democratically elected governments. Soviet forces are due to be withdrawn from Czechoslovakia and Hungary by mid-1991. Hungary has given notice of its intention to leave the Warsaw Pact. At the same time, the progress of conventional arms control talks at Vienna offers the probability of verified destruction of large quantities of Soviet military equipment and substantial reductions in both United States and Soviet military personnel in Europe.[82]


32. On the same day that that Report was published, the Secretary of State for Defence made a statement in the House on the Options for Change studies that the MoD had been conducting since the beginning of the year. He introduced his proposals as follows—

As we see, the watchwords of flexibility and mobility were once again emphasised. The main conclusions of Options for Change are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Options for Change: Main Proposals

  • to retain four Trident submarines;

  • to reduce the air defence capability by withdrawing two Phantom squadrons;

  • to halve the forces stationed in Germany so that their reinforced strength would be two divisions rather than four;

  • to reduce RAF bases in Germany from four to two, and to end the UK's contribution to German air defence;

  • to maintain the UK's amphibious capability and air defence contribution to NATO's northern region;

  • to maintain three carriers; to reduce the frigate/destroyer force to about 40; a submarine flotilla of 12 SSNs (nuclear powered submarines) and four SSKs (conventionally powered submarines);[84]

  • to re-establish a strategic reserve division;

  • to reduce service manpower by 18% over about five years to an Army of around 120,000, a Navy of around 60,000 and the RAF of around 75,000.[85]

33. The government were insistent that Options for Change was a process rather than a one-off review. It was supposed to begin, as usual, with an analysis of the strategic environment, which, as usual, was not disclosed to Parliament.[86] However, in his statement the Secretary of State made no attempt to disguise the financial drivers of the process—

    I am taking steps to constrain expenditure within the agreed provision. Announcements have been made on aircraft. Consistent with our longer-term plans, we shall be easing back on Army recruiting and retiring early several ships and submarines, and making some other short-term changes to the programme ... We believe that the new force structures that we envisage can give us strong and reliable defences, in changing circumstances, and at an affordable cost.[87]

34. A week later, on 2nd August 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The UK's defence posture was again tested against reality rather than hypothesis. On the whole, the lesson of Operation Granby (the UK's part in the coalition operation in which international forces drove Iraq out of Kuwait) seemed to indicate that our Armed Forces could still deliver military success.[88] Two principal areas of concern, however, emerged from a study of the lessons of Operation Granby. The first was the vulnerability of ground troops and equipment in particular to chemical and biological weapon attack and the need for enhanced protection.[89] The second was evidence that the operation had stretched logistical sustainability beyond a safe level.[90]

35. The Defence Committee produced a series of reports on the consequences of the Options for Change process, perhaps the first sustained Parliamentary analysis of any defence review in the twentieth century. The consistent theme of their criticisms was that, despite protestations to the contrary, the proposals that emerged did not disclose a coherent underlying concept to inform the UK's choices about defence spending. On the Navy, the Committee concluded—

    For the past 10 years, Government policy has apparently been based on a mixture of approaches ... a theoretical preference for a smaller surface fleet, but a practical acceptance of a larger one ... In other words, we have been here before. Ten years ago, as a result primarily of financial pressures, the Government proposed a substantial reduction in the surface fleet and a greater dependence on submarine and maritime air power. This was followed by the hostilities in the Falkland Islands and a reassessment. In July1990, in response to a rapidly changing strategic environment, the Government proposed a reduction in the surface fleet, a significant cut in submarine strength, and maintenance of existing maritime air capability. These proposals have now been followed by hostilities. It is essential that, once again, Ministers review their proposals in the cold light of experience ...[91]

On the Royal Air Force the Committee concluded—

    With respect to the proposals for the RAF, we are ... increasingly concerned at the apparent security policy vacuum in which we are obliged to scrutinise them. Almost a year since NATO's London Declaration of July 1990 we still have little idea of what UK forces will be asked to do, or where, or when ... It is high time that Parliament was told of the broader context within which the proposed new force structures for the RAF are to be subsumed.[92]

And in its review of the government's July 1991 White Paper, Britain's Army for the 90s[93] the Committee remarked—

    There has however been nothing comparable [for the Navy and RAF] to the Army White Paper considered in this Report ... This piecemeal approach ... may have had some merit. But it has not made possible the sort of structured and wideranging debate we had hoped for, nor has it enabled those outside MoD to analyse in detail how far the proposals for the three Services are consistent. It has meant that attention has inevitably been concentrated on one often relatively minor issue at a time. Whatever the contents, we cannot judge Options for Change to have been a presentational success ... We look forward to the production ... of a coherent overview of the effects of the changes ... over the whole field of defence services.[94]

Figure 2

1992: The Three Defence Roles

  • To ensure the protection and security of the United Kingdom and our dependent territories, even where there is no major external threat.

  • To insure against any major external threat to the United Kingdom and our allies.

  • To contribute to promoting the United Kingdom's wider security interests through the maintenance of international peace and stability.[95]

36. In the 1992 Statement on Defence Estimates, some effort was made to provide a new conceptual framework for the force structure when the MoD formulated the 'three roles' of the armed forces as shown in Figure 2. The third of these roles, in particular, indicated the recognition of the move to a new post-Cold War strategy.

37. Options for Change also reviewed the roles of the Reserve Forces. The 1989 Statement on the Defence Estimates had described the wartime role allotted to the Territorial Army (TA) during the Cold War as—

    ... to provide 58,000 men in formed units as an integral part of the reinforcement of BAOR ... A further 29,000 TA soldiers (including the Home Service Force) and some 45,000 ex-Regulars would have home defence roles.[96]

The 1991 Statement on the Defence Estimates announced a review of these roles. The first casualty was the Home Defence Force, whose primary role during the Cold War had been to provide guard forces for lower-priority potential targets in time of war, thus releasing more highly trained units for other tasks. It was disbanded and its roles transferred to the Territorial Army. The new mission for the TA, designated as 'National Defence' was described as embracing—

    ... all tasks in support of military home defence (i.e. the direct defence of the UK), as well as within the wider framework of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps or out of area.[97]

However, those Territorial Army units assigned to Allied Rapid Reaction Corps in Germany saw a shift in emphasis away from teeth arms to combat support. As a consequence, the infantry were cut, with rifle companies being reduced by 34% from 164 to 109 and battalions from 41 to 36. Overall the Territorial Army was reduced from a notional strength of 91,000 to a peacetime level of 63,000 to be expanded in emergencies to 71,000.[98] The Defence Committee commented in its report on Options for Change and the reserve forces that —

    ... it is by no means axiomatic that a reduction in Regular forces should be accompanied by a cut in Reserve forces. Logic could, equally plausibly, have led the Government to maintain or even augment the TA's strength, taking advantage of a relatively low cost option for supplementing the Regular Army and providing a stock from which trained reinforcements could readily be supplied. In the event, the opposite approach was adopted. We were told that, as with the proposals for the Regular Army, decisions about the TA followed from a review of the threat faced by the UK and the extension of warning times ... MoD told us that "this is very much a strategy driven exercise". The total future strength of the TA seems to have been driven at least as much by demographic pressures ... as by strategy.[99]

38. The primary Cold War tasks of the Royal Naval Reserves (RNR) and the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service (RNXS) had been the manning of mine counter-measure (MCM) vessels, defence of ports and anchorages, and naval control of shipping.[100] In July 1991,[101] the MoD announced plans to reduce the Royal Naval Reserves by 1,200 from 5,900 and the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service by 150 from 2,850. Two of the Royal Naval Reserves' eleven River Class minesweepers (which were obsolescent) were withdrawn and many shore-based RNR units closed.[102]

39. Unlike the other reserve forces the Royal Auxiliary Air Force (RAuxAF) was expanded in the early 1990s, though only from 1,900 to 2,000. There was disappointment in some quarters that much sought-after flying roles for the Reserves did not materialize. Our predecessors had argued that—

    The prospect of a number of aircraft being held in active service... offers a long-awaited opportunity to put into practice the concept of an active flying reserve, comparable to the former Royal Auxiliary Air Force.[103]

However, following Options for Change the planned expansion of the RAuxAF was halted. A consequence of the RAF reorganisation was the disbanding of several reservist squadrons and those sections of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve with a war role were amalgamated with the RAuxAF. The result was a loss of 180 posts in the RAuxAF.[104] One new role was identified in the announcement. The RAuxAF was to fill around half of the posts in several Rapier-equipped, ground-based air defence squadrons. In addition to these posts, a unit was formed to train reservists who would man these squadrons.

40. In 1992 civil war erupted in Former Yugoslavia, and in May of that year the UK deployed a field ambulance in support of the United Nations UNPROFOR I force deployed there.[105] In September, as the war worsened, the UN mandate was renewed and enlarged in scope, and on 22 September a decision was announced to deploy a further 1,800 ground troops to UNPROFOR II (a figure subsequently raised to 2,600).[106] British ground forces were first deployed in Bosnia on 18 November 1992,[107] and have been deployed to the region ever since, rising to a maximum of 11,500 in UNPROFOR's successor implementation force (IFOR), and falling to 5,300 with IFOR's successor stabilisation force (SFOR).[108] When SFOR's mandate was further renewed on 20 June 1998, the UK committed itself to deploying 4,800 troops for a further 12 months.[109]

41. As the Options for Change process unrolled through 1992 and 1993, the Committee continued to question the assumptions (or, more precisely, the opacity or lack of assumptions) on which it was based. On the Army, it commented —

    ... the additional emergency tour tasks assumed by the infantry since the beginning of 1992, in Northern Ireland and Bosnia, have led to an unacceptable contraction of the emergency tour interval for infantry units, with serious consequences for individual service personnel and their families as well as for the Army's capacity to prepare for and carry out its primary wartime roles ... the increased use of non-infantry units in the infantry role to meet emergency tour commitments will threaten the effectiveness of those units in their primary roles ... these commitments are ... symptomatic of the pressures which the Army is likely to face on a constant basis in a future characterised by international instability and uncertainty ... the mismatch of the Army's resources and commitments looks set to continue ... [110]

And on the Navy—

    It appears self-evident to us that matching resources to tasks is becoming increasingly fraught, stretching both crews and vessels to unwise levels even during peacetime. It is evident that, in the event of full-scale war, the Royal Navy would be incapable of defending our sea-routes on which we depend for both trade and the movement of our Armed Forces. It is our view that this shortcoming poses a serious, and potentially fatal, threat to the long term security of this country.[111]

82  Tenth Report, Session 1989-90, Defence Implications of Recent Events, HC 320, para 1 Back

83  HC Deb, 25 July 1990, cc468ff Back

84  In fact the SSKs were built but had hardly entered into service before being withdrawn in 1993-in 1998 they were bartered to Canada Back

85  HC Deb, 25 July 1998, cc468ff Back

86  R Mottram, Options for Change: Process and Prospects, RUSI Journal, Spring 1991, pp 22-24 Back

87  HC Deb, 25 July, cc468ff Back

88  See eg Tenth Report, Session 1990-91, Preliminary Lessons Of Operation Granby, HC 287-I and Q 316 Back

89  Fifth Report, Session 1993-94, Implementation of Lessons learned from Operation Granby, HC 43, paras 17-35, and Cmmd 1981, Statement on the Defence Estimates 1992, Chapter 4 Back

90  Fifth Report, 1993-94, op cit, paras 89-192 Back

91  Third Report, Session 1991-92, Options for Change: The Royal Navy, HC 266, paras 40 and 41 Back

92  Fifth Report, Session 1990-91, Options for Change: The Royal Air Force, HC 393, para 44 Back

93  Cm 1595 Back

94  Third Report, Session 1991-92, Options for Change: Army-Review of the White Paper Britain's Army for the 90s, HC 45, paras 5 and 6 Back

95  Cm 1981, Statement on the Defence Estimates 1992, p 6 Back

96  Cm 675 Statement on the Defence Estimates 1989, p 28 Back

97   Fourth Report, Session 1991-92, Options for Change: Reserve Forces, HC 163 p 36 Back

98  The pool reserve was made up of untrained Reserves who were liable for training and call out in times of emergency. Back

99  Fourth Report, Session 1991-92, op cit, paras 17 and 18 Back

100  ibid p 55 para 8 Back

101  HC Deb, 24 July 1991, c703-4w Back

102  ibid p55 para 2 Back

103   Fifth Report, Session 1990-91, op cit page viii, para 12 Back

104  HC Deb 17 June 1993, c1014 Back

105  Fourth Report, Session 1992-93, United Kingdom Peacekeeping and Intervention Forces, HC 188/369, para 52 Back

106  ibid, para 52 Back

107  HC Deb, 30 June 1998, c131w Back

108  First Report, Session 1997-98, Peace Support Operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, HC 403 Back

109  HC Deb, 22 June 1998, cc690-2 Back

110  Second Report, Session 1992-93, Britain's Army for the 90s, HC 306, para 56 Back

111  Eighth Report, Session 1992-93, Royal Navy: Commitments and Resources, HC 637, para 59 Back

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