Select Committee on Defence Fourth Report


1. Following the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York on 11 September 2001, the Government began a reassessment of the analysis of the security threats facing the United Kingdom which it had published in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR). That re-assessment focussed on the threats posed by international terrorism of the kind which had been behind the attacks on the United States, that is international terrorism with a global reach. The result was A New Chapter to the Strategic Defence Review, published in July 2002. That document promised a further Defence White Paper in 2003, which would 'cover more comprehensively the range of Defence issues'.[1] In December 2003, the Government published Delivering Security in a Changing World (subsequently referred to as Delivering Security).[2] The Defence Committee conducted inquiries into, and published reports on, both of these white papers.[3]

2. In our report on Delivering Security, we were critical of its lack of information on the practical consequences of the revised policy analysis, in terms of force structures, equipment and personnel:

    The lack of detail in the White Paper has been much commented on, with descriptions such as "good light reading", but "no real meat" typical. In the House of Lords, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie was disappointed:

      Although I approve the thrust of the White Paper… I have serious concerns. It does not attempt to go into detail…it is, as it stands, a bland document and lacks detail. It is full of buzz words and platitudes—flexibility, force multipliers, network enabled capability. What does it actually mean? Everybody gives me a different answer.

    In this inquiry we have attempted to answer that question, but have found, like Lord Guthrie, a lack of clarity in the document itself and the explanations offered by ministers and MoD officials. We are disappointed that a policy document that could have far reaching implications has been presented with little or no detail on the relevant procurement decisions, funding questions or likely changes in force structures and consequent effect on personnel.[4]

Lessons of Iraq

3. Although Delivering Security built directly on the SDR of 1998 and the New Chapter to the Strategic Defence Review of 2002, it also drew heavily on experiences of operations, for example those in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and, in particular, Iraq. Operation Telic, as the British deployment to Iraq is known, was originally a large scale operation and therefore beyond what should be expected of the Armed Forces 'as a norm'. Nonetheless it was in many respects the most testing of recent operations and has unsurprisingly led to the identification of many lessons for the future across the whole range of operational activities. We produced our own comprehensive report on the Lessons of Iraq[5] and we have drawn on that and on our work on the continuing operations in Iraq in this report.

The Future Capabilities statement

4. On 21 July 2004 the Secretary of State made a statement in the House of Commons setting out a series of proposals for restructuring and equipping the Armed Forces to enable them to meet the policy priorities identified in Delivering Security. The proposals were also published in an accompanying White Paper, Delivering Security in a Changing World: Future Capabilities[6] (subsequently referred to as Future Capabilities).

5. These proposals have excited substantial interest and debate. By choosing to divorce the policy proposals from their force structure and equipment consequences the Government put itself on the back foot in the debate that followed the Future Capabilities announcement. As a consequence that debate has focussed overwhelmingly on the reductions in manpower, reduced platform numbers and delays to some equipment programmes rather than on how to reshape the UK's Armed Forces for the tasks they are most likely to face in the new security environment. We concluded in our report on Delivering Security that a proper assessment of the Government's proposals required that both the policy analysis and the practical decisions flowing from that analysis be considered together. In this report that is what we have tried to do.

6. In broad terms the Future Capabilities proposals contained the following three elements:

  • The paying-off or withdrawing from service earlier than previously announced of equipment no longer required;
  • Confirmation, with or without amendment, of existing procurement programmes;
  • Rebalancing of forces in each of the Services (a) to meet the security challenges identified in the analysis and (b) to reflect decisions on equipment.

No new equipment programmes were announced. Although the amendments to existing programmes overwhelmingly represented reductions compared to previous plans, the purchase of the currently leased C-17 transport aircraft (plus one additional aircraft) was announced as were unspecified enhancements to Special Forces.

7. It is a paradox of the Future Capabilities proposals that, at a time of year-on-year real terms increases in the defence budget, they are dominated by reductions in equipment and personnel. And those reductions do not take place in an environment of acknowledged over-provision (save in certain very specific areas), but rather at a time when the Armed Forces, at least in their conversations with us, claim to be operationally stretched and physically under-resourced. We return to this issue below.

8. The implementation of the proposals, again in broad terms, will, according to Future Capabilities, take place in two stages. Firstly over the short to medium term (roughly the next two or three years) the equipment that is no-longer required is planned to be withdrawn and the principal changes to force structures will be introduced. Secondly over the longer term (from around the end of the decade) major items of new equipment, delivering enhanced capabilities across all three Services, are planned to enter service.

9. This picture considerably over-simplifies the product of a very large number of often inter-related decisions. Typhoon for example is expected to have an initial operational capability (albeit in its air defence role) before the end of the decade.[7] Nonetheless it illustrates an important assumption under-pinning the proposals, that recent technological advances coupled with a perceived reduction in a number of conventional threats allow reductions in capability now. According to MoD, some military tasks have become less important (eg NATO commitments which were determined by the Cold War), others may require less effort (eg anti-submarine warfare) and others can now be performed by fewer better equipped forces (eg air defence of deployed forces).

10. But neither Delivering Security nor Future Capabilities itself concluded that there is likely to be a significant increase in the overall threat in the foreseeable future. Against that level background all three Services will see a step change in military capability, between roughly 2010 and 2020, with the introduction of major equipment improvements, such as the Type 45 Destroyers, the new Carriers and the Joint Strike Fighter, the Astute class submarines and the FRES medium weight land capability. As we have previously stated, we agree with much of the policy analysis in Delivering Security. We welcome the Government's commitment to modernising the Armed Forces and to equipping them to face the security challenges of the future. Inevitably much of the analysis in this report focuses on areas where we still have concerns or questions.

Our response

11. As we anticipated in our report on Delivering Security, the statement on future capabilities filled out the detail of that white paper's policy proposals. It contained the most important set of decisions on the organisation and equipping of the Armed Forces since the SDR. Recognising this we immediately launched this inquiry into the proposals.

12. We began by taking evidence from the Secretary of State, the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Permanent Secretary at the MoD in September 2004. We then held evidence sessions with each of the three Service Chiefs in turn. Central to the proposals is a focus on increasing deployability by strengthening support capabilities, including crucially logistic support. We therefore also took evidence from the Chief of Defence Logistics.

13. In a statement to the House of Commons on 16 December 2004, the Secretary of State announced further decisions about the future structure of the Army. In particular he set out how the previously announced reductions in the number of infantry battalions and the parallel move to larger regiments of two or more battalions would be implemented. In the light of this announcement we held a final evidence session with the Secretary of State and the Chief of the General Staff in January 2005. We are grateful to all those who gave evidence to us and also to those who took the trouble to write to us during the course of this inquiry.

14. We have discussed the Future Capabilities proposals with a wide range of service personnel of all ranks whom we have met on various visits both within the UK and abroad since July 2004. In particular we visited Iraq in December 2004, Cyprus in January 2005 and Northern Ireland also in January 2005.

15. We are also grateful for the assistance of our Specialist Advisers, Mr Paul Beaver, Professor Michael Clarke, Rear Admiral Richard Cobbold, Air Vice Marshal Professor Tony Mason, and Brigadier Austin Thorp.

1   Cm 5566-I, Introduction Back

2   Cm 6041 Back

3   A New Chapter to the Strategic Defence Review, Sixth Report of Session 2002-03, HC 93, and Defence White Paper 2003, Fifth Report of Session 2003-04, HC 465 Back

4   HC (2003-04) 465-I, paras 34 and 35 Back

5   Lessons of Iraq, Third Report of Session 2003-04, HC 57 Back

6   Cm 6269 Back

7   Q 100 Back

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