Select Committee on Defence Eighth Report



42. In 1993, a further 'mini-review' took place. The Secretary of State said in his introduction to the 1993 Statement on the Defence Estimates that—

    ... changes over the last 12 months led me to conclude that a number of further adjustments, both enhancement and reductions to the force levels and capabilities of the armed forces, are now appropriate. These adjustments ... include an increase in Army manpower, improvements to our amphibious capability and the Army's anti-armour capability, and further investment in transport aircraft and support helicopters; as well as reductions in our anti-submarine warfare capability and the number of aircraft provided for the air defence of the United Kingdom.[112]

The Defence Committee was not impressed. What was described as an 'increase' in Army manpower was in fact a partial restoration of previously announced cuts. Despite the Committee's earlier warnings[113] the Upholder class submarines were to be withdrawn before they had all entered service.[114] The Royal Naval Auxiliary Service was disbanded [115] and the Royal Naval Reserve lost all its remaining ships, including the remainder of its minesweeping capability.[116] Although the 1993 Statement on the Defence Estimates did, for the first time, deliver a welcome analysis of the defence programme and strove to make clear how the force structure related to the military tasks that flowed from the three roles, in its report on the 1993 Statement on the Defence Estimates the Committee commented—

    Careful reading of SDE 93, which is subtitled 'Defending Our Future', produces very little idea of which national interests are to be defended and where, in what order of priorities, and in the face of which anticipated threats or dangers ... In the absence of explicit governmental arrangements for formulating a national security policy, it would be idle to expect the presentation of even the bare bones of such a policy to Parliament ... But experience in this Parliament, particularly but not exclusively in relation to the former Yugoslavia, has already heightened the interdependence of foreign and defence policy, and the inappropriateness in many circumstances of the conventional division between them ... some means should be found of providing Parliament with an opportunity to debate a rounded statement of the Government's security policy goals, as well as the resources it is proposed to devote to attaining those goals.[117]

These words again have a familiar ring. The question of whether the SDR provides this 'rounded statement of the Government's security policy goals' is one which we address later in this report.


43. The 'mini-review' of 1993 was followed almost immediately by the announcement of a further "major review" in the Budget Statement on 30th November 1993.[118] On the following day, the Secretary of State outlined his proposals in evidence to the Defence Committee as follows—

    Expenditure in 1996/97 will be 4.2 per cent lower in real terms than the previous plans for 1995/96 ... To accommodate the reductions ... we will need to take a ... radical approach. My firm goal is ... to achieve the necessary savings without reductions in front line levels ... I have therefore set in hand a ... new and major study ... of how the Ministry of Defence conducts its business ... The purpose will be to ... ensure that every penny which is spent is absolutely essential for the support and operational effectiveness of our front line forces, and to enable our Armed Forces to discharge their military tasks and commitments properly, to the full and with formidable military capability ... We are determined to maintain a proper balance between commitments, capabilities and resources, and we will continue to adapt our force structure to the changing strategic environment.[119]

Figure 3

1994 Defence Costs Studies: Main Proposals

  • the establishment of a new Central Staff to replace the Defence Staff and Office of Management and Budget set up by Michael Heseltine in the mid 'eighties[120];

  •  a reduction in the single service HQ staff and a reduction in MoD HQ personnel from 5,200 to around half that number;

  • the formation of a Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) at Northwood;

  • the restructuring of Land Command;

  • the merging of all research and development and most testing functions into a new Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA)

  • the collocation of Procurement Executive (PE) staff at Abbey Wood;

  • reorganisation of financial management;

  • reorganisation of management of the MoD estate, maintenance functions and stores and spares;

  • the downgrading of the Rosyth naval base;

  • the establishment of a new tri-Service Joint Staff College;

  • reorganisation of the recruitment services;

  • reorganisation of defence medical services with further integration into the National Health Service;

  • reorganisation of MoD Police and guarding services with further civilianisation.

44. The Defence Cost Studies were bound up with the programme of 'Fundamental Spending Reviews' then being undertaken across government [121] in a parallel to the way in which the SDR was the MoD's contribution to this government's Comprehensive Spending Review.[122] The results of the study were announced to the House on 14 July 1994[123] together with an accompanying document setting out the proposals in more detail. The main recommendations were as shown in Figure 3. A considerable number of other minor recommendations relating to support services were also made. Overall, these changes were designed to produce, after the increased cost of front line enhancements, eventual estimated net annual savings of £750 million.

45. The Territorial Army was also subject to further review ,[124] the final results of which were announced on 6 December 1994.[125] The review continued the transition of its role from infantry to combat support. It authorised the formation of 26 new units in various corps, whilst reducing Territorial Army infantry companies from the 109 companies announced under Options for Change to 87. Some of these new units were in supporting roles, but they also included a significant expansion of the yeomanry. The TA were also given the new role of providing the Army's nuclear, biological and chemical defence regiment (a move subsequently reversed under the SDR). The Reserves pool of 4,500 was removed and the TA's establishment reduced to 59,000, a decision which, we were told, owed as much to political as to strategic considerations.[126]

46. At the same time a number of major procurement decisions were announced, as set out in Figure 4.

Figure 4

Defence Cost Studies: Major Procurement Decisions

  • new nuclear attack submarines (Trafalgar Batch 2), further Type 23 frigates and seven Sandown minehunters;

  • two Landing Platform Dock amphibious assault ships (LPDs) to replace Fearless and Intrepid;

  • 259 additional Challenger 2 tanks;

  • a mid-life update of 142 Tornado GR1 aircraft to GR4 standard;

  • procurement of submarine-launched conventionally armed Tomahawk cruise missiles, and a possible conventionally armed stand-off missile (CASOM) for the RAF.

47. The Defence Committee gave qualified approval to the overall strategy and some of the detail of the proposals in Front Line First[127] but warned—

    The details of implementation of the broad proposals ... will be crucial and their effects will be felt for many years. We look forward to the time when sufficient funds are available to rebuild our defence forces to the level required for our national security.[128]

The Committee followed-up the detailed recommendations which gradually emerged in a series of reports on individual studies. In April 1995 the Committee warned—

    The reductions in the Defence Medical Services are on a relatively dramatic scale ... these reductions may have gone too far and too fast ...[129]

Less than two years later, in a further strongly-worded report the Committee concluded—

    The Defence Medical Services are not sufficient to provide proper support to the front line ... and show little prospect of being able to do so in the future. A choice would have to be made between sending troops without proper medical support or only sending the limited number of troops who could be supported. Defence Costs Study 15 [on medical services] has not enhanced the front line but has seriously impaired it.[130]

We consider the proposals of the SDR for the enhancement of Defence Medical Services later in this Report (see paragraphs 199-201). On the proposals relating to other support services, the Committee, in its report on the 1995 Statement on the Defence Estimates, reiterated its concern at 'the apparent inability of the MoD to reduce its civilian workforce in line with Service personnel numbers'.[131] The Committee was also cautious in its view on the proposals relating to police and guarding services. It expressed particular concern over reductions in the RAF police, and also was of the opinion that the decision to withdraw MoD Police from some Royal Ordnance Factories had been premature. The Committee was sceptical about the ability of the civilian police to provide an adequate armed response if needed. It also recommended that the process of contractorisation of guard services should be halted until an adequate regulatory system for such services was put on a statutory footing.[132] More generally, the Committee expressed scepticism about the rationale underlying certain changes.[133] In relation to the plans for further redundancies amongst Service personnel it asked for the benefits of stability to be 'balanced against the often small financial benefits arising from change'.[134]

Overview of the Historical Context

  Figure 5

  Defence Reviews since 1945








The Sandys Review

The Healey Review

The Mason Review

The Nott Review

Options for Change

The Rifkind Mini-Review

Defence Costs Studies: Front Line First

48. From 1945 to 1990, governments reviewed their defence strategy roughly every 10 years. Since then, as the preceding narrative makes clear, the defence budget, the Services and the civilian and support services have been subject to an almost continuous period of review. Reviews have responded to the lessons of war, economic pressures and changes in the strategic environment, especially the pressures of the Cold War. We can see elements of a pattern to 'reviews' over the last 40 years or so. The first element of this pattern is inconsistency. The Reserves have been cut and enlarged, have been allocated new roles, have had them withdrawn, and have had them reimposed. The Navy has been cut, the cuts have been slowed or reversed, the cuts have been reimposed. The RAF has been cut dramatically, sometimes on the promise of better equipment, and has waited and waited for new aircraft. Options for Change removed several teeth, and Front Line First shortened the tail. Undermanning has continued while recruitment services have been cut. Some of these changes have been strategically justified, others financially-driven. Inconsistency is not necessarily inappropriate to a changing world: for example, Options for Change delivered what was widely expected to be a 'peace dividend' from the end of the Cold War, and established a force structure that has proved fairly durable. But since its inception, the Defence Committee in its successive embodiments has complained that the details of our force structure and defence posture have rarely been framed within a convincing and well-thought through assessment of our strategic needs and national and international interests and obligations. The Committee has consistently sought from government such a fundamental statement of objectives and principles. The SDR is intended to be a serious attempt to provide a coherent policy framework for defence planning and budgeting. If it succeeds in doing so, it will be a welcome refutation of the apparent lessons of recent history.

49. There are, however, some consistencies in the history of the last few decades.[135] Manpower has been on a steady downward trajectory, as has defence spending as a proportion of GDP (though with occasional blips), continuing the prevailing downward pressure on all aspects of spending and ever-increasing demands for improved 'efficiency' which have characterised almost the whole history of peacetime defence policy in this century. It has not always been evident, as our predecessors repeatedly made clear, that the demands on the armed forces have been reduced proportionately to the defence budget. Our predecessors have regularly had to report that these reductions have been driven through ahead of any new thinking about the demands that can and should be placed upon the Armed Forces. The SDR is an opportunity to match capabilities and force levels to commitments and to devise a framework for keeping these in balance in a changing world. The degree to which it achieves this aim will be the fundamental criterion by which its success must be judged.

50. There have been other prevailing trends. Reviews have tended to be conducted in great secrecy, and sometimes at breakneck speed, in an effort to stifle dissent or to muffle criticism. On occasions, Ministers have deliberately sought to keep different parts of the MoD in ignorance of what other parts are doing. The planning assumptions have rarely been exposed to public scrutiny before the decisions based on them have been announced. The House of Commons Defence Committee has consistently complained that it has been denied access to information which would enable it to offer a judgement on the soundness of the decisions based on that information. This has, inevitably, led many to speculate that these decisions were indeed not based on dispassionate analysis but political expediency or administrative convenience.

51. More generally, all governments have been committed to NATO as the cornerstone of the UK's defence and security policy, and have maintained close connections with the United States. Some governments have claimed to place greater reliance on the strategic nuclear deterrent than others, although declarations of changes in strategic posture have not, in the past, generally fed through into any significant changes in the arsenal. There has been an increasing emphasis in declared strategy (with occasional reversals) on greater flexibility and mobility of the armed forces. Even before the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the UK was becoming increasingly committed to greater manoeuvrability and the use of reserve formations rather than static defence. However, as our predecessors have continually pointed out, actual decisions have often been inconsistent with this declared strategy. Logistics, and measures for sustainability after initial action, have been lacking. The SDR is a considered attempt to demonstrate that the chosen strategy has been followed through into the proposed force structure. We consider below whether it has succeeded.

52. One of the key lessons of history is that few reviews have delivered on the commitments made about new equipment or increased personnel. The Armed Forces have traded cuts against the promise of 'jam tomorrow'. They have often been disappointed. Every review has been promised as the herald of a new era of stability in defence planning. This also has rarely been delivered, though whether events, bad faith or self-deception are to blame, we shall not try to judge. The SDR once again promises a new dawn. If the government's promise of an era of stability in defence planning to be ushered in by the SDR is to carry any conviction, this Committee, and members of the Armed Forces, will have to be convinced that it embodies a sound strategic basis for incremental change and a capacity for adaptation to the unpredictable circumstances of the next 10-15 years.

112  Cm 2270, Defending Our Future: Statement on the Defence Estimates, July 1993, p 5 Back

113  Eighth Report, Session 1992-93, op cit, paras 26-37 Back

114  Cm 2770, para 607 Back

115  Not all of the members of the RNXS were lost for good. Some 2,000 former members of the RNR and RNXS joined the Maritime Volunteer Service, a civilian but uniformed organisation designed to perpetuate maritime skills in order to continue and develop their skills. The Maritime Volunteer Service has recently been officially recognised by the Royal Navy. Back

116  HL Deb, 6 December 1995, cc75-76w Back

117  Ninth Report, Session 1992-93, Statement on the Defence Estimates 1993, HC 869, para 2 Back

118  HC Deb, 30th November 1993, c928 Back

119  Sixth Report, Session 1993-94, Statement on the Defence Estimates 1994, HC 68, Q 138 Back

120  Which might be seen as the final stage of the process begun by the Hartington Commission in the 1890s, see Strachan, RUSI Journal, June 1998, p 4 Back

121  HC Deb, 27 June 1994, c403-4w Back

122  See para 381 Back

123  HC Deb, 14 July 1994, cc1169-1190 Back

124  HC Deb, 14 July 1994, c1173 Back

125  HC Deb, 6 December 1994, c703-4w Back

126  Q 2715 Back

127  Eighth Report, Session 1993-94, The Defence Costs Study, HC 655 Back

128  ibid, para 42 Back

129  Fifth Report, Session 1994-95, Defence Costs Study Follow-up; Defence Medical Services, HC 102, para 22 Back

130  Third Report, Session 1996-97, Defence Medical Services, HC 142, para 21 Back

131  Ninth Report, Session 1994-95, Statement on the Defence Estimates 1995, HC 572, para 73 Back

132  Eighth Report, Session 1995-96, Ministry of Defence Police and Guarding, HC 189, pp xxviii-xxix Back

133  Second Report, Session 1994-95, Defence Costs Study Follow-up; Naval Stores Proposals, HC 87, para 24, Third Report Session 1994-95, Food Supply to the Armed Forces, HC66, para 15 Back

134  Second Report, Session 1994-95, op cit para 4 Back

135  George and Watson, Country Studies: United Kingdom, Jane's NATO Handbook, 1991-92, pp 319-323 Back

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