Select Committee on Defence Eighth Report

Memorandum submitted by the Ministry of Defence on seminars held on the Strategic Defence Review



  Introducing the seminar, the Defence Secretary stressed the importance of generating a national debate on the Strategic Defence Review, and establishing a consensus on defence and foreign policy. The participants were invited to respond to the challenge of addressing a world that has been transformed in the last ten years. A wide-ranging debate ensured, the key themes of which are summarised below. The Foreign Secretary summed up at the end.


  There was general acceptance that both our national security and broader European security should continue to be based on collective defence provided through NATO. Some thought that the Alliance was moving away from a single strategic role and compared it to a multinational "corporation", capable of delivering a variety of security "products" through a range of variable coalitions for particular contingencies. The first phase of NATO enlargement was generally supported as a positive way to enhance security in Europe and a useful means to develop democracy in new and prospective members. Some feared that new members with struggling economies may be pressed in to purchasing inappropriately sophisticated equipment from the US. One option is to encourage them to procure more affordable capabilities from within their own region which could them positively benefit local economies.

Russia, Central and Eastern Europe

  There was general support for the programmes already underway to develop the UK's bilateral relations with Russia and Central and Eastern Europe through our engagement in training and exercises, and encouragement for this to develop further. However, some feared that this valuable opportunity could be lost if inflexible charging arrangements for training led to unreasonable costs.

  There was widespread agreement that the threat posed by Russia had diminished greatly, that the future of Russia could be viewed with optimism, and that every effort should be made to encourage the continued development of its democratic process and economic reforms. There was some concern, however, that NATO enlargement could have a destabilising effect and that power could return to hawks in Moscow if enlargement was not handled sensitively. Russia should accept that her present borders were a final and definitive limit to her sovereignty; we should recognise her need to remain seen as an important actor on the world stage. Ukraine was also seen as a linchpin for security in Eastern Europe.

American commitment to Europe

  There was debate on what degree of reliance we should place on US involvement in European security. Some expressed the view that we may yet see a gradual decline in the US military commitment to European security. Indeed, the US already looked to European partners more for their ability to burden share in global security issues rather than as allies in a region still in need of protection.

Wider Regional interests

  In discussion on possible risks outside Europe, it was suggested that the Five Power Defence Arrangement could involve us in a regional crisis in Asia-Pacific, should China become a threat to the region. Our economic interests and the pressures placed on the UK by the international community and Commonwealth members could lead to military engagement. Our withdrawal from Hong Kong has been widely interpreted as an end to our involvement in the Asia-Pacific region. This could be countered by enhancing our commitment to regional security arrangements and other forms of assistance should this be the perception.

Conflict prevention

  There was strong support for the development of instruments for conflict prevention and crisis management in addition to military intervention, such as diplomacy, the conditional management of aid, offers of training, assistance to civil structures and trade controls. More could be achieved if these efforts were co-ordinated both across Government departments and with European Union partners. Indeed, these broader instruments were equally useful post-conflict, together with our expertise in decommissioning and verifying arms control measures Effective policing post-conflict was also needed. As Bosnia demonstrated, peacekeeping was a highly specialised skill, in which British forces has proved to be most effective. We needed to ensure that ethical aspects of foreign policy were not just seen as negative options, such as the imposition of embargoes, but that we consider the positive steps we could take with others in making a better world.


  Many thought that we needed a common security effort directed at non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, through the development of a fissile material control regime, speedier progress in the implementation of nuclear arms reductions, controlling missile technology and the ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention. It was suggested that Russia and the US should be encouraged to stand down nuclear weapons from full alert, and that the medium nuclear powers had the opportunity to lead this initiative. It was also proposed that, in parallel with progressing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, confidence building measures by the medium nuclear powers (such as agreeing not to increase nuclear arsenals and providing greater transparency on fissile stocks) could contribute to a step-by-step move toward eventual nuclear disarmament, as could diplomatic efforts to encourage undeclared nuclear weapons states into the regime. This work should be supported by our military expertise in verification procedures. Research should continue to develop both passive and active counter proliferation measures in the Chemical and Biological Weapons field where verification had proved difficult. It was noted that Biological Weapons now posed a significant potential risk.

  Some believed that the nuclear age would continue, with the five declared nuclear weapons states maintaining robust nuclear weapon policies, albeit at lower levels. Russia seemed increasingly interested in sustaining its high readiness nuclear forces as its conventional strength diminished. Concern was voiced about China, with the suggestion that it be engaged in joint negotiations with the UK and France to reduce high readiness of nuclear forces, thus pre-empting any further nuclear build-up which might destabilise the Pacific area.

  Some concern was expressed that, while Britain retained a nuclear weapon capability, it would be difficult for us to persuade other nations not to acquire weapons of mass destruction. While it was accepted that it might not be possible to remove Trident completely, the Review should examine carefully what causes of conflict might force us to consider its use.

  In conclusion, it was suggested that arms control was important and did make a difference. It should not be viewed gloomily; a great deal could be achieved by 2015 given the right approach.

Security Trends

  We should not ignore the long term impact of environmental issues, particularly those with major destabilising effect, such as coastal populations threatened by rising sea levels, and resource shortages such as water, food and oil which could lead to massive refugee populations. These had the potential to become the major security risks of the future.

  International security policy should be developed to meet emerging transnational threats such as drugs and international crime; to do otherwise could result in direct threats to the UK. While organisations such as the UN might offer one route for developing controls, there was support for encouraging international organisations such as the International Chamber of Commerce or the Intentional Maritime Bureau to contribute to creating the correct mix of controls.

Britain's Role in the World

  There was a vigorous debate on whether it was possible, or necessary, to re-orient our role in the world, given our history, our language and our acknowledged professionalism which allowed us to work in parts of the world where others might be less welcome. Some suggested we might follow the "Swedish model" but there were risks in doing so. Perhaps of equal importance was Europe's perception of its role and how this matched the UK's aspirations. Greater burden-sharing could be achieved if we persuaded more European partners to adopt an outward looking view. It was also argued that Britain should accept that we will remain responsive to world events, invariably in conjunction with others, and that where crisis occurred in more distant regions we should look to other nations to lead a response while we assessed what level of contribution is appropriate. Finally, there was an observation that far from having a clear, policy-based rationale for when we would act, our approach appeared to be dictated largely by resource limitations.

Extent of UK Involvement

  In many cases our responses to individual security problems in the post-Cold War world will be a matter of political choice rather than a necessary response to some direct threat to our national security. Nevertheless, the new style risks affecting international security were likely to lead to more calls on British forces than in the past. We could no longer guarantee who we might operate with (i.e., we would operate within "coalitions of the willing"). More work should be done, before crisis or conflict, to encourage defined "coalitions" and thus ensure a more effective multinational response.

  Most felt that we could be under pressure to become involved in many crises as a result of our membership of NATO and P5 status, and public opinion (although this was often ill-informed, calling for involvement one day and withdrawal the next). Hence there was a need for greater public understanding of what our armed forces could reasonably be expected to do.

Low-intensity/high intensity warfare

  There was general acceptance of a requirement for high-intensity capabilities (the ability to conduct large-scale, intense warfighting against a similarly well equipped enemy), not least because it could not quickly be recreated; the real issue was how much was needed. Nevertheless there was a general support for shifting the balance of capabilities to meet the range of operations we were most likely to conduct, including peace support and peacekeeping. This included the requirement for specific training for these operations. It was suggested that the nature of high-intensity warfare might also need to be reviewed, including by making existing capabilities more suitable and available for rapid deployment.

  Even in the worst case of large scale conflict in Europe, future UK high-intensity conflict operations would be expeditionary in nature, and defence planners would need to improve the utility of our forces by seeking solutions that provided mobility, strategic lift, and forces with reach and maximum flexibility. It was also pointed out that the global arms trade has ensured that even "low-intensity" adversaries may have quite effective equipment.

Role Specialisation

  Although most felt that we must preserve those capabilities required to meet specific national security requirements, we could not do everything and there might be further scope for developing some complementarity of capability with our European allies. The Anglo-Netherlands amphibious force showed how this combined effort could improve overall capability.

Scale of UK Military Contribution

  It multinational operations, the quality of our contribution was often more important than the quantity, particularly when operating alongside the military strength of the US. When seeking an appropriate scale for our contribution, it was suggested that we look to Germany and France for comparison, and that we should encourage leading European nations to play a more active role in sharing the military burden of ensuring regional security through an expeditionary capability. Interoperability with close allies will be vital, particularly in information systems. For example, the new American co-operative engagement system (intended to prevent "blue on blue" engagements in fast moving land warfare) would be essential. We would need to examine which allies we expect to operate alongside and invest our modernisation to keep up with them.

Other Issues

  The MoD was encouraged to re-examine the role of the Reserves, which one commentator felt had long been seen as sacrosanct and too politically difficult to change. Force elements required exclusively for reconstitution of larger scale forces, to meet the re-emergence of a strategic threat to Europe (e.g., additional armoured forces), could perhaps be transferred to the Reserves.

  The need for good intelligence was recognised, particularly for conflict prevention when it could prove highly cost effective. Greater access to commercial surveillance technology will improve targeting by countries previously denied this information but may also improve open monitoring of arms verification.

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Prepared 10 September 1998