Select Committee on Defence Sixth Report

2  The Original SDR

5.  Following the General Election in the summer of 1997, the new Labour Government embarked on a Strategic Defence Review (SDR)—

    to reassess Britain's security interests and defence needs and consider how the roles, missions and capabilities of our Armed Forces should be adjusted to meet the new strategic realities.[9]

Its purpose was described by the then Secretary of State, in evidence to our predecessors, as being "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".[10] It was set the task of addressing the UK's defence requirements in the period up to 2015.[11] The review took over a year to complete and the SDR White Paper was published in July 1998.

6.  Our predecessors examined the SDR in some detail. Their report, published on 10 September 1998, was a wide-ranging and substantial commentary on the Government's work. Having set out the background to the SDR, it went on to examine security policy in a new world order. It then considered the strategy and force structure which that security policy would require and the equipment, personnel and funding which the Armed Forces would need to fulfil their tasks.

Strategic Realities

7.  The SDR was published in fulfilment of a Labour Party manifesto commitment to conduct a defence review to reassess Britain's security interests to meet the "new strategic realities". Central to these new strategic realities was the assessment that "there is today no direct military threat to the United Kingdom or Western Europe".[12] Instead there were a range of instabilities, both in Europe (e.g. the Balkans) and further afield. However, the SDR also identified a range of new risks "which threaten our security by attacking our way of life".[13] These included "new and horrifying forms of terrorism [which] can cause…dangerous instabilities".[14]

8.  According to the MoD, the SDR was "a foreign policy led review"[15]—

    The Review has been foreign policy-led and the first stage conducted jointly by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the MoD provided the policy framework for subsequent work. Its analysis and conclusions…were tested against a range of outside views…[16]

And as our predecessors noted—

    The SDR was intended to be foreign policy led. While regretting that there was no White Paper setting out foreign policy conclusions in advance of the SDR, we believe the final document and the security posture it enunciates demonstrate that it was indeed foreign policy led.[17]

However, given its primacy, it was strange that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and MoD refused then, and have continued to refuse, to publish this framework.

9.  The SDR led to a shift in thinking away from commitment-based planning and towards planning based on capabilities, with the emphasis on expeditionary operations. By defining the type of capabilities that the UK's Armed Forces should be able to sustain, the SDR hoped to provide a basis for prudent force planning and avoid excessive overstretch amongst the armed services. To this end, the SDR stated explicitly the number and scale of missions that the UK's Armed Forces could be expected to be able to conduct concurrently and sustain—the scale of effort benchmarks. These were that at any one time they could either deploy one "large" division-sized force, similar to that sent to the 1991 Gulf War, or two "medium"-sized forces, one equipped for war fighting and the other for peace-support operations.[18] Geographically, the SDR concluded that UK forces were most likely to deploy to Europe, the Mediterranean and the Gulf regions. These concurrency capacity objectives have been stretched on a number of occasions since the publication of the SDR, for example, during the Kosovo crisis when—

    Engaging in Kosovo risked bringing the UK to the very limits of, and quite possibly exceeding, the concurrency criteria set out in the Strategic Defence Review…without [the Territorial Army], making a significant UK contribution to an invasion force could not have even been contemplated.[19]

10.  The SDR also discussed the implications of its conclusions for future procurement policy and was candid in noting that—

    Military planners have sometimes been slow to recognise, and the procurement process slow to exploit, the opportunities offered by advances in technology.[20]

Under the heading of the "Revolution in Military Affairs", the SDR balanced the significant benefits of these technological advances against certain pitfalls including the "potential for multinational operations to become more difficult if compatible capabilities are not preserved".[21] In embracing new technologies, the UK would have to be careful to maintain its ability to operate with traditional European allies, while at the same time keeping up with a technologically innovating United States.

How the SDR Looks Post-11 September

11.  Overall, our predecessors concluded that the SDR had been conducted as an open and inclusive process and that it had been a positive advance in formulating defence policy for the future, providing a coherent framework for future planning. Their criticisms were focused on home defence, the lack of detail in discussing emerging threats under the heading 'asymmetric warfare' and certain of the assumptions underlying the document such as the role of nuclear weapons. Their report also noted that one of the risks (in a short list) to our vital national interests was—

The report also noted the lack of discussion of asymmetric challenges in the SDR, a lack of precision in discussing the trade-offs necessary to make the UK's Armed Forces more flexible and mobile, the need to deal with the problems of overstretch and over-commitment, and an absence of any consideration of the dangers of weapons of mass destruction being used against troops at home, or of liaison with civil defence facilities for the protection of the civilian population.[23] Subsequent events have clearly validated those criticisms.

12.  In its reply, the Government addressed the issue of home defence and argued that it had made an appropriate assessment—

    …Home Defence was considered carefully in the SDR, and the policy we have adopted reflects our assessment of the current and future strategic environment. The key aspect of that strategic environment is that the threat of direct conventional military attack on Britain has receded to a degree where the warning time for such an attack can be measured in years. Consequently, we have concluded that it is possible to shift the emphasis of our planning away from preparedness to defend against a military assault on the UK towards an ability to conduct expeditionary operations.[24]

13.  On nuclear weapons the Government noted the Committee's call for a clarification of the question of the strategic and sub-strategic role of Trident missile submarines and promised to identify a "suitable early opportunity" to do this. However, it failed to do so other than in a few "dribs and drabs"[25] and in its report on The MoD's Reporting Cycle 2000-01, the Committee noted "we consider that the government…needs to address this issue more squarely".[26] The MoD did not respond to this call in its response to that report.

14.  The SDR was followed by Defence Policy 2001 and The Future Strategic Context for Defence—both published in February 2001—which updated the analysis that underpinned the SDR's policy framework. The MoD committed itself to updating the Future Strategic Context for Defence every three or four years, in a process which would be "underpinned by a programme of strategic analysis of the future security environment" to be produced by the Joint Doctrine and Concepts Centre.[27]

15.  Defence Policy 2001 went even further than the SDR in placing the threat to the homeland at the lower end of the spectrum—

    We assess that, for the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that a direct threat to the UK could re-emerge on a scale sufficient to threaten our strategic security, whether through conventional means or weapons of mass destruction.[28]

Even in the Future Strategic Context of Defence, which sought to extend the SDR's assessment out to 30 years, the threat of asymmetric responses to conventional military capabilities merited only two paragraphs and terrorism only one.[29] No conventional military threats to the UK were judged likely over that period and home defence was barely mentioned. The then Defence Committee urged the MoD to set out clearly its thinking on asymmetric strategies at the earliest opportunity and warned that—

    While the UK may be regarded as well geared up to deal with traditional terrorist threats in general, new forms of terrorism and other aspects of asymmetrical warfare…may find us rather less well prepared.[30]

16.  The Committee also believed that the MoD's approach to the production of policy statements was not as helpful as it might have been, noting that—

    producing separate documents to be read in conjunction is not as useful a policy exercise, either for the MoD or Parliament, as producing a single document which integrates different issues and timescales.[31]

The Government did not accept this advice, saying its approach allowed for information to be transmitted more effectively.[32]

9   Ministry of Defence, The Strategic Defence Review, Cm 3999, July 1998 (hereafter SDR Vol 1), p 5, para 1. Back

10   Defence Committee, Eighth Report of Session 1997-98, The Strategic Defence Review, HC 138-II, Q 101 Back

11   SDR Vol I, p 6, para 15. Back

12   SDR Vol I, p 5, paras 1-3. Back

13   SDR Vol I, p 5, para 9. Back

14   Ibid Back

15   Q 2 Back

16   Ministry of Defence, The Strategic Defence Review: Supporting Essays, July 1998 (hereafter SDR Vol 2), p. 2-1, para 2. Back

17   HC (1997-98) 138-I, para 155. Back

18   SDR Vol 2, p. 6-2, para 5. Back

19   Defence Committee, Fourteenth Report of Session 1999-2000, Lessons of Kosovo, HC 347-I, para 308. Back

20   SDR Vol 2, p. 3-1, para 6. Back

21   SDR Vol 2, p.3-2, para 10. Back

22   HC (1997-98) 138-I, para 97. Back

23   HC (1997-98) 138-I, paras 406-414. Back

24   Defence Committee, Sixth Special Report of Session 1997-98, HC 138-I, The Strategic Defence Review-Government Response to the Eighth Report from the Defence Committee, HC 1198, para 29-30. Back

25   Defence Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2000-01, The MOD's Annual Reporting Cycle 2000-01, HC 144, para 73. Back

26   HC (2000-01) 144, para 73. Back

27   Defence Committee, Second Special Report (Session 2001-02) The MoD's Reporting Cycle 2000-01, Government Observations on the Eighth Report for Session 2000-01, HC 214, para 31. Back

28   Ministry of Defence, Defence Policy 2001 (February 2001), para 8. Back

29   Ministry of Defence, The Future Strategic Context for Defence (February 2001) paras 68, 86 and 87. Back

30   HC (2000-01), 144, para 74. Back

31   Ibid, para 77. Back

32   HC (2001-02) 214, para 37.  Back

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