Armed Forces Defence Imagery Crown Copyright / duotone

Lima Charlie: What Is A Defence Review And How Does It Work?

SDSR: From an end to National Service to the withdrawal of Far East troops to the latest review

Armed Forces Defence Imagery Crown Copyright / duotone

The British Government has announced that it has formally begun a major review into its strategy for defence and international security.

The project, that will be known as the Integrated Security Review, will take a comprehensive look at all of the UK’s strategic priorities, examine where its interests lie and work out what combination of soft power, intelligence and military hardware is needed to deliver this.

The timeline for the review is tight, with a full report due later in 2020, and it represents an ambitious opportunity to take stock of what the UK wants to do, and how the Armed Forces will be structured for the next five to 10 years.

Given all this, it is perhaps a good time to take stock on what a Defence Review is, how it works and what sort of work goes on behind the scenes in order to come up with the final review outcomes.

Since the end of WW2, the UK has held Defence Reviews on a relatively regular basis to take stock of changes in the international situation, changes to national finances or strategic position or to ensure that defence planning makes coherent sense.

Good examples of prior reviews include the Sandys Review in 1957 which ended National Service, or the 1966 review that committed to withdrawing UK troops from the Far East and cancelled the CVA01 carrier.

The reviews of the 1970s were financially driven by the parlous state of the UK economy at the time.

They resulted in major cuts to the military in order to make savings that helped adapt to new and much smaller budgets. 

In a similar vein, the 1980 defence review was ostensibly about appraising the UK’s strategic priorities for the new Government, but equally about making heavy reductions to an overheated equipment budget.

The most well-known review of the last 30 years was probably the 1990 one, known as ‘Options For Change’.

This review looked at what changes could be made to UK defence as a result of the end of the Cold War and where major savings could be made.

Army Battle Map of Otterberg in Germany DefenceImagery Duotone Crown Copyright

This included significant cuts to the British Forces in Germany and wider reductions in both equipment and headcount for all three services.

The review that probably had the most impact on the modern MOD though was the 1998 ‘Strategic Defence Review’ (SDR) which was launched by Tony Blair’s government shortly after it took office.

This review was the first one in many years to conduct a thorough analysis of UK strategic requirements and goals, and identify how the Armed Forces could support this.

The SDR is, to this day, regarded as probably the best defence review conducted since the Second World War in part due to its coherent approach, its willingness to look across defence at what needed to be done differently and finally it being far less about financial savings than some of its predecessors.

The SDR and its 2002 follow on known as ‘SDR New Chapter’ which was a response to the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, formed the basis of MOD planning until 2010.

During this time a lot changed, including operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus significant changes to the equipment plan.

When coupled with the wider global financial crisis in 2010, it was clear that significant cost reductions had to be made to the MOD to make the books balance.

The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) was notable for two things, firstly, it formalised that a new Defence Review would be held every five years to take stock on the UK’s strategic situation.

Secondly, it made massive cuts to the Defence Budget, which was nearly £38bn in the red.

In particular, this was a result of there being far more planned purchases in the equipment programme than could be afforded, meaning the only way to save money was to make widespread cuts.

patients chart in the operating theatre of a deployed Field Hospital in Jordan.  32 Field Hospital Crown Copyright

The review worked for the first time on an assumption of the so-called ‘Future Force’ which was the military that the UK wanted to have in 10 years’ time.

It assumed that the bulk of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq would be over, that the forces would have regenerated from this period of high-intensity operations and that new equipment would be entering service like the aircraft carriers.

In reality, the review either didn’t foresee or didn’t take into account changes to the global environment like the Arab Spring in 2012, the resurgence of Russia as a major threat to conventional security or the near-collapse of the Iraqi State and rise of ISIS.

The 2015 review was an attempt to take stock of the progress of 2010 and identify what if any changes needed to be made.

Relatively little changed, although approval was given for the purchase of equipment like the P8 maritime patrol aircraft, filling the gap left by the scrapping of Nimrod in the 2010 review.

Between 2015 and 2020, the MOD also conducted a series of mini-reviews to try to make savings in the defence budget.

Due to a combination of cost growth, foreign exchange rate problems and wider challenges, the MOD has spent much of the last five years struggling to make the books balance.

The 2020 review then is the first formal chance that has come about for several years to take a fresh look at defence and national security and work out what sort of armed forces the UK needs for the next 10 years, and more importantly, how to balance the books and ensure that it is affordable.

How Will The Defence Review Be Carried Out?

With the review team stood up, it is worth trying to understand how this work will be conducted and what is likely to happen.

This isn’t a straightforward process and a lot of work has to happen in a fairly short time.

The review has been created and will be led by the Cabinet Office.

This is the central department in Whitehall which is responsible for coordinating other departments work and ensuring that the machinery of government runs as smoothly as possible.

The National Security Secretariat in the Cabinet Office will probably be leading this work, bringing together a cross-government team of experts to help set direction, ask difficult questions and help lead how the review is run.

To start with, the work will almost certainly involve setting out a variety of questions that have to be answered to help define what the UK’s national security interests are.

For example, it is likely that cross-government departments will work to look at issues like what are the UK’s main strategic interests in Europe, Asia, Africa and beyond.

These groups will also look at wider thematic questions – for instance, what is the world likely to look like in the 2030s – will it be more urbanised, will climate change alter how security is carried out, how will population dynamics change and other very big questions.

This will be addressed by getting experts in these areas, think tanks and other academics to work with Government to come up with evidence-based trends and predictions to help understand what the world may look like.

It will also help set out a basic understanding of how the world has changed and try to work out what this means for future work.

This work will help determine what sort of security problems the UK is likely to face and how they may impact national security.

Cabinet Office SDSR Crown Copyright Defence Imagery

For example, some work may focus on the impact of organised crime on UK security, what risks would it pose, how could it threaten our way of life and what sort of potential impacts may occur if it isn’t properly checked.

By pulling together this understanding and assumptions work, it’s possible for the team to help build a truly cross-government consensus on where the most likely risks and threats to national security are, and to begin to understand what it is that the UK’s goals are in trying to address them.

For example, if the review identifies that a major threat is that of conventional war in Europe and state on state conflict, then it may look to identify goals to prevent this from happening.

So, this may include goals like preventing conflict from occurring, strengthening alliances that help reduce the risk of conflict, strengthening deterrence measures to send clear signals to potential opponents and so on.

The work is about understanding what the response has to be, and in very broad terms the effect that the UK may want to have.

In some cases, these goals are very clear and can identify one specific lead department to provide a response.

So, strengthening the diplomatic response will always fall to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), while wanting to improve the delivery of aid is likely to be a Department for International Development (DfID) responsibility.

But at times it can be quite difficult to work out who is the lead and who has a stake in these goals.

In Africa, for example, addressing the challenge of people migration isn’t just about stopping the mass movement of people which would be a Border Force challenge.

It’s about trying to improve the lives and economic circumstances of those impacted to prevent them from wanting to migrate (so arguably a Trade and Aid link).

There may be movements happening because of climate change that could be addressed through wider changes to emissions, which suddenly makes this an Energy & Climate change responsibility.

But, if the challenge from people migration is leading to an uptick in piracy because people are going to sea to earn money to feed their families then suddenly it becomes a law enforcement and even defence issue.

There is no clear lead for many of these goals, so it's important that Government is able to work effectively together to find out how different departments can operate effectively to help solve these issues.

Once both the threats and goals are understood, then it's time for departments to work out what their contributions are likely to be to meet these goals.

For the MOD, this is the point where the most traditional defence review work starts.

At this point, the MOD and all three Armed Services will be developing a range of scenarios to work out how they can best support a goal – what is the effect that Defence can have to support this goal and how can it best be delivered?

So, in the case of defending UK interests, it may be that the MOD identifies it can provide a mine warfare force in the Middle East to help support a range of national security goals there.

Soldiers Crown Copyright Defence Imagery

The work would then involve identifying the sort of missions the force would likely have to carry out, how many ships would be needed, the sort of wider support required (so people, logistical and other critical enablers) and then how long it was needed to remain operational for.

By working out this figure, it's quickly possible to start bringing together all the different tasks that defence needs to do and work out how many people, aircraft, ships and so on are needed to deliver this.

It may be quite complicated to try to work out how many tanks would be required to support deterrence efforts in Eastern Europe or how many aircraft are needed to provide air defence of the UK and Falkland Islands.

But by doing this sort of analysis and assessment, it's possible to start building a series of force packages that set out what the armed forces need to be equipped with to meet all the goals asked of themselves.

With these packages better understood, it’s also possible to then work out what the armed forces may no longer need to do, or may wish to stop doing.

For example, it may be the case that the Royal Navy identifies that it no longer needs certain ships to carry out specific missions, as either the reason for the mission has gone, or there are better ways of doing it.

At this point it's possible to create what is known as an ‘option’ to delete the ships from service.

The paperwork would set out the potential gains and losses from the measure and show what the net outcome would be.

So in 2010, the Royal Navy chose to scrap the Type 22 Batch 3 Frigates because it realised it needed to save money, that the ships were approaching the end of their lives and the wider potential savings in both people and other areas (such as cancelling maintenance contracts, being able to take the original Seawolf missile system out of service and so on) quickly added up to substantial savings.

By highlighting this, the decision was taken to accept this option and delete the ships from service.

Options are a brutal process and often very emotional for the people involved.

All manner of units, bases and ships will be examined ruthlessly with a view to possibly being scrapped.

While many of these options will not be taken, it is vital that the work is done to understand what the MOD could do to help balance off the twin goals of both meeting national security objectives and also helping balance the budget.

The reality of these reviews is that they are rarely just policy driven, and there will be a desire to find ways to save money wherever possible.

In the case of the MOD, which is already heavily over budget, it is likely that the Treasury will expect significant savings to be found from within the defence budget, realistically forcing major cuts to defence.

The challenge for planners will be to try and find a compromise which produces a balanced force that meets all the defence goals but also makes it financially viable as well.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds – particularly if there are pressure campaigns underway to prevent some options happening.

Many options under consideration are leaked during the process, in part to test opinion to see how the public would react if something was done, while others are done out of a misguided sense of loyalty to try and force a reaction from MPs and the media.

This often backfires as ministers judge that it’s easier to do something they’ve already taken the pain for than do something else which would only add more political pain.

That said, this will not stop the leakers though, who are likely to continue doing this until the review is completed.

Red Arrows over New York Crown Copyright Defence Imagery

The usual sorts of options that get leaked, regardless of whether they are true or not are ones like whether to scrap the Red Arrows, disband the Parachute Regiment or sell the Aircraft Carriers. Whether they are true or not is perhaps open to debate.

With all the options created, and a variety of costed force packages considered, the MOD is then finally able to work out what the state of the Armed Forces will look like and what jobs they are expected to do.

This work will be fed back into the wider review team who will have been taking submissions from a variety of Government departments, all of whom have been doing a very similar process.

The result will be a series of proposals that look at how the UK could do security, where it could invest resources and where it could stop doing things or do them differently.

These options will be considered, priced up and presented to senior ministers for their views.

In the case of the MOD, the final set of proposals created will represent the view of what the Armed Forces need to look like from now until around 2030 to be certain of meeting the likely defence challenges that the UK will face.

It is likely, although not certain, that the final package will probably result in a military which superficially looks like the current one, optimised to both work closely in a NATO environment and support operations overseas.

It is also likely to continue to commit to the nuclear deterrent, and to investing in the UK defence industry too.

It is far too early to predict specific numbers of aircraft, ships or tanks, but it is likely that there will be as much attention (and money) paid to new technology, cyber warfare and other operations as there is paid to the more traditional means of operations.

What this means for force structures though remains to be seen.

Cyber Security MOD Crown Copyright Defence Imagery duotone

While much of the attention is likely to focus on big ticket items like the military hardware, many other issues get considered too – for instance the role of industry, safeguarding the environment, how to consider the role of new security areas like cyber security and so on.

All of this will be considered in the round to try and get the best possible combination of outcomes that works for the UK as a whole.

It is likely that the MOD will be vying for funding alongside other departments too and whether the Government decide to invest more heavily in domestic security (and policing) or instead use some of the aid budget to fund military assets isn’t clear.

They may decide to enhance the diplomatic presence overseas but reduce the ability of the military to deploy in large numbers – all manner of different options and possibilities will need to be looked at before a final plan is agreed.

Finally, the review with the proposed mixture of goals, forces and capabilities will be put to the Prime Minister and Cabinet for approval before being presented to Parliament.

The outcome will be publicly announced and then implemented quickly afterwards.

The review this year will happen at a fascinating time for the MOD – with major changes having occurred over the last 10 years, it will be intriguing to see what proposals are made for the future force structures and how they may be implemented.

Without doubt defence cuts are likely, although it is far too soon to state what they may be or where the axe may fall.

The whole process will probably last for most of 2020, although it isn’t yet clear when any final decisions will be taken.

It is important to remember though that when the media suggests plans are in place for some cuts, to recall that these haven’t been approved yet.

Don’t believe that cuts are likely until the point that they are publicly announced.


* All images MOD / Crown Copyright.

This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.

This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.

Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.