Select Committee on Defence Eighth Report


The Documents

52. As we have noted above, since the discontinuation of the annual Statement on the Defence Estimates, and the subsequent decision not to publish an annual Defence White Paper, the annual reporting cycle no longer offers the opportunity for the government to restate in detail each year its defence policy. We expressed regret about on this in our Report last year.[149] In particular we were concerned that apparently small changes in policy might go unreported and that, taken over a period of years, the cumulative effect of such changes might be considerable.

53. In its response to our Report last year, the government proposed to publish an annual 'memorandum on defence policy'. On 7 February 2001, just a few hours before we took evidence from the Secretary of State, the Department published two documents. The first, Defence Policy 2001, is a short essay updating the general policy underpinning the 1998 Strategic Defence Review.[150] It summarises both current defence policy and the outcome of a 'strategic reassessment'[151] which the Department undertook in 2000. The second document, The Future Strategic Context for Defence,[152] is rather more detailed and—

    ... represents an update of the analysis which underpinned the SDR Policy Framework¼ [and] seeks to extend the assessment, where possible, to cover a period of 30 years'.[153]

This second, longer analysis is, however, introduced by an opening 'lesson from history', warning that—

    Accurately predicting the future course of military events is a tricky business.[154]

It also carries a warning that it is not a statement of government policy.[155]

54. We welcome both documents for the additional background information which they provide. Technically, however, they fall outside the annual reporting cycle and there is no promise that they will be produced on an annual basis.[156] The Department told us in response to our last Report on the annual cycle that they expect to publish a full-scale Defence White Paper every 3-4 years or once in a Parliament.[157] However, the Secretary of State commented in his evidence to us on 7 February—

    I think it is fair to say the policy document is perhaps something that the Committee might find helpful on a regular basis ... [this] is an area where I would be grateful for your views ...[158]

We will return to this invitation to comment below.

The Process

55. Like the SDR, the reassessment which informs these two publications was not conducted solely in-house, but involved a number of external authorities.[159] Unlike the SDR, details of these external contributors are not provided in even the most general terms. We applaud the Department's willingness to engage in a debate on these matters and to involve those outside the Department in the development of their thinking; we also recognise that the scale of the reassessment was almost certainly substantially less than that involved in the SDR, and that the external input was probably accordingly less. However, in opening up the debate in this way, it would be useful to learn more about the nature of this external opinion, and the wider intellectual trends, sources and current debates which inform the MoD's own synthesis.

56. It is not entirely clear what factors prompted this reassessment of the SDR's conceptual base, for example the extent to which it was prompted by perceived changes in the security situation. We would welcome, in its response to this Report, an explanation of the long-term strategy of the MoD for conducting such reviews, their likely timing, and the extent to which they will be open to external inputs.

Policy Shifts

57. In his covering letter to the Chairman, the Secretary of State suggested that the documents were directed at 'the informed defence community'. We invited the Secretary of State to judge whether members of this shrinking band of brothers would be able to detect any major or nuanced shifts in defence policy on reading them. He responded—

We noted above two areas where we ourselves did detect a shift in policy—a movement of the boundary for PFI/PPP arrangements closer to the front line,[161] and in policy on disposal of surplus estate.[162] Perhaps the most significant development brought out in the essay, and the most significant policy shift since the SDR, is an increased emphasis upon the role of the European Union in crisis response operations, and in particular the 'Headline Goal'[163] determined at the Helsinki European Council in December 1999 (upon which we reported last year).[164]

The Defence Missions and Policies

58. Defence Policy 2001 lists five priorities in defence policy, all of which are consistent with the SDR:

59. We also note a useful simplification ('clarification') of the defence missions.[165] These are now defined under eight headings as follows:

    A: Peacetime Security. To provide forces needed in peacetime to ensure the protection and security of the United Kingdom, to assist as required with the evacuation of British nationals overseas, and to afford military aid to the civil authorities in the United Kingdom, including military aid to the civil power, military aid to other government departments and military aid to the civil community.

    B: Security of the Overseas Territories. To provide forces to meet any challenges to the external security of a British Overseas Territory (including overseas possessions and the Sovereign Base Areas) or to assist the civil authorities in meeting a challenge to internal security.

    C: Defence Diplomacy. To provide forces to meet the varied activities undertaken by the Ministry of Defence to dispel hostility, build and maintain trust, and assist in the development of democratically accountable armed forces (thereby making a significant contribution to conflict prevention and resolution).

    D: Support to Wider British Interests. To provide forces to conduct activities to promote British interests, influence and standing abroad.

    E: Peace Support and Humanitarian Assistance Operations. To contribute forces to operations designed to prevent, contain and resolve conflict, in support of international order and humanitarian principles, and to contribute to efforts to deal with humanitarian crises and disasters.

    F: Regional Conflict and Crisis. To contribute forces for a regional conflict (but not an attack on NATO or one of its members) which, if unchecked, could adversely affect European security or which could pose a serious threat to British interests elsewhere, or to international security. Operations are likely to be carried out under the auspices of the UN or relevant regional security organisations.

    G: Regional Aggression against NATO. To provide forces needed to respond to a regional crisis or conflict involving a NATO ally which calls for assistance under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty.

    H: Strategic Attack on NATO. To provide, within the expected warning and readiness preparation times, the forces required to counter a strategic attack against NATO.

60. These missions represent a sensible reorientation of defence priorities given that the United Kingdom and its NATO allies do not face the prospect of direct aggression against their territories for the foreseeable future. Missions A, B, G and H remain vital and inescapeable commitments for UK defence policy, but for the coming decade, the concentration of effort will mostly be on defence missions C, D, E and F, where there is still a great deal to be specified and where a number of difficult resource questions are likely to arise.

61. Mission C, Defence Diplomacy, was a new mission articulated in the Strategic Defence Review in 1998. It gives a useful and usable overview of existing activities in the fields of arms control, non-proliferation and confidence and security building measures; outreach; and other diplomatic activities in which the MoD and the Armed Forces play a prominent part. In drawing together the activities involved in these three military tasks[166] the Defence Diplomacy initiative attempts to add coherence to a number of diverse activities and gives more political prominence to their achievement.[167]

62. Nevertheless, there is, as yet, little activity one could point to that would not anyway have taken place and little evidence of new resources devoted to Defence Diplomacy to increase its overall impact. The Secretary of State, the Permanent Secretary and the Policy Director noted some modest increases,[168] but also noted that the review of Defence Attaché posts had resulted in a net increase of just one.[169] These are, however, early days for Defence Diplomacy and the mission is, by definition, a long-term policy. Perhaps the most important innovation within Defence Diplomacy featured in the MoD paper is a cross cutting review on conflict prevention—

    MoD, FCO, and DfID all have a major interest and role in conflict prevention and crisis management ¼ the MOD will work with the FCO, DfID, Treasury and Cabinet Office to develop detailed arrangements for implementing this new approach under the supervision of the Cabinet Ministers concerned. This will mean setting joint objectives and priorities for action and pooling resources from which agreed priorities will be funded¼ we believe that this new way of working across Departmental boundaries will enable the government to make an increasingly effective contribution to conflict prevention.[170]

63. This initiative may provide a useful test of the efficacy of the Defence Diplomacy mission, since conflict prevention will require a great deal of work to specify what it will mean in regional conflict and crisis and how it should be pursued. Not least, conflict prevention can only be properly pursued through a process of "joined up government" and will provide a test of progress towards a more coherent external security policy. We comment below on the new 'conflict prevention budget'[171] but, so far, the initiative appears to be progressing slowly. We hope our successors will be looking for evidence that the new budget, and the Defence Diplomacy mission, do indeed represent a "new way of working across Departmental boundaries".

64. Both defence missions D and E loom large in our present defence policy, and reflect the prominent role that British forces play in contributing to world order. It is becoming evident, however, that playing these roles comes at a higher price than might have been anticipated. In particular, they raise major questions of concurrency for UK forces. Our experience in such operations over the last decade has shown how easily a medium level military operation can then become a small, but open ended, operation that may have to be pursued simultaneously with other small operations. This is expensive, creates overstretch in particular specialist areas, and runs the risk of draining the forces of capabilities that could be required at short notice for more major operations. Concurrent, small operations where the UK cannot hand over responsibility to other military forces, or appropriate civil agencies, have become a source of stress on operational resources which should not be underestimated.

65. Contributing forces to operations designed to 'prevent, contain and resolve conflict', as set out in defence mission E, raises some difficult issues. The key question is how to integrate peace support operations into a clear strategy of conflict prevention. The most productive approach will be to concentrate on preventing the next conflict, where conflict has already occurred in some way: breaking into a dynamic of violence in order to stabilise a situation which has already become a manifest crisis. Defence Policy 2001 stresses the importance of efforts to prevent conflict 'occurring in the first place, to reduce the impact of conflict and to develop post-intervention strategies to resolve the underlying causes of tension.'[172] The actions of UK forces in support of IFOR and SFOR in Bosnia after 1995 provide a good example of a 'post-intervention strategy', forestalling and perhaps preventing, a return to war.[173] But this is a rather particular version of 'conflict prevention', which can only be short-term and, while helping to create the conditions in which they can be tackled, does little to address the underlying issues. As described in Defence Policy 2001, the concept is extremely challenging.

66. Defence mission F, to respond to regional conflict and crises where they may pose a threat to European security, represents the largest, most likely, military contingency UK forces may face in the near to medium term. As crises in the Gulf, Africa and the Balkans have demonstrated, regional instability can be extremely difficult to contain and may require large, multi-national deployments of personnel and equipment to gain leverage either to support threatened allies or to help generate some local stability. The existence of war-fighting capabilities are essential to the UK and its allies in such circumstances. Equally important, however, are the capabilities of the UK and its allies to deploy appropriate headquarters in regional conflict and crises, capable of commanding war-fighting operations. The number of headquarters that NATO could deploy which are capable of combined, joint operations out of the NATO area, and which are able to work effectively with other elements of an international response, are very limited. Though the UK's Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) has been shown to work well, and under UK command the ARRC has proved itself as an operational HQ, the UK cannot be expected always to take the lead. The lack of sufficiently capable headquarters on the part of our European allies is a serious matter for concern, given the increasing importance of the regional conflict prevention and crisis management defence mission. This, of course, is an issue which will have to be addressed in the context of the EU's European Security and Defence Policy.

67. Under the heading of 'Wider Security Interests and Conflict Prevention', the Department identifies its priorities outside Europe as lying in North Africa, the Gulf and the Middle East.[174] Despite the omission of Sub-Saharan Africa from this list, one of the most high-profile UK interventions of the past two years has been its support of the elected government of Sierra Leone. Whether this intervention suggests that the listed priorities relate more to the scale of operation the government might be prepared to contemplate, or more to the scale of the perceived threat to our security, is not clear. The Sierra Leone operation was undertaken outside the context of either NATO or the EU, and we note the reference to the developing EU crisis management capability in this context. As the Policy Director suggested obliquely to us in evidence on this topic on 28 March,[175] the European force could increasingly come to be seen as an instrument whose main application will be outside the NATO area.

149  Second Report, Session 1999-2000, op cit, paras 9-16 Back

150  Ministry of Defence, Defence Policy 2001 (MOD: 2001) Back

151  Defence Policy 2001, para 3 Back

152  Ministry of Defence, The Future Strategic Context forDefence (MOD: 2001) Back

153  The Future Strategic Context for Defence, para 2 Back

154  ibid, p 2 Back

155  ibid, para 5 Back

156  Q 157 Back

157  Seventh Special Report, Session 1999-2000, op cit, Annex para 14 Back

158  Q 157 Back

159  Defence Policy 2001, para 5 Back

160  Q152 Back

161  See para 23: The MoD is considering a PFI for airfield support services, including fire services (HC Deb, 27 April 2001, cc 412-414w) Back

162  Para 24 Back

163  Defence Policy 2001 paras 16-19 Back

164  Eighth Report, Session 1999-2000, European Security and Defence, HC 264 Back

165  Defence Policy 2001 para 29 Back

166  Military Tasks 16, 17 and 18 Back

167  MOD Policy Paper No. 1 Defence Diplomacy, para 9 Back

168  QQ 220-222 Back

169  Q 223 Back

170  MOD Policy Paper No. 1 Defence Diplomacy, para 11 Back

171  Para 97 Back

172  Defence Policy 2001, para 12 Back

173  See for example our First Report, Session 1997-98, Peace Support Operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, HC 403 Back

174  Defence Policy 2001, para 23 Back

175  HC (2000-01) 390-i, Q 53 Back

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