SDSR poses wider questions about UK's global role
In the past two days there's been a flurry of briefing about the Strategic Defence and Security Review: the issue of Trident is reported to be back in the balance; a Labour MP has discovered 1.5bn worth of contracts are already signed on the aircraft carriers, and another briefing predicts a sharp cut in the number of uniformed personnel.
This flurry of briefing is no accident since it is becoming clear to those leading the process that there's an absence of informed public debate about the choices on offer, nearly all of which are painful.
I've been speaking to various interested parties on the usual basis. Here's a summary of where I think the process is leading, and how it's being viewed by people on the inside of what Eisenhower might have called the "military-industrial complex".
First, there's widespread unease - acknowledged within the MoD - at the speed of the SDSR. The only upside of the high tempo is seen to be that it limits the window of uncertainty for service personnel. Apart from that very few see it as ideal that Britain is having to take decisions that will impact over a 20 year timescale in a period of 6 months.
Second, it is pretty universally acknowledged by those close to the process that this is a "Treasury driven" review: the over-riding imperative is to cut the budget and to close the implied £35bn black hole between spending commitments and the current defence budget.
Third, and here is where we begin to get beyond the bleedin' obvious, there's a whole new part of the defence and security agenda that is struggling to get a look-in to the process, concerning new security threats and the hi-tech means to combat them. Two years ago the IPPR, with the help of various ex diplomats and soldiers, drew attention to these threats in its own contribution to the defence policy debate: energy security, food security and the UK's vulnerability to cyber-attack.
Those involved in the technologies and research effort to counter all this are frustrated because it is "invisible" within the debate, and in addition does not have a ready made general, air marshall or admiral to defend it according to the Queensberry Rules of inter-service fisticuffs.
The argument goes that, since the threats to the UK have diversified and become unconventional, spending has to increase on anti-terror, intelligence, electronic surveillance and the hardening of Britain's economic infrastructure against everything from computer hackers to electro-magnetic pulse bombs that could take down the National Grid. (Coincidentally an intelligence source has briefed today that the allegedy murdered intelligence officer Gareth Williams was working on a system to defend Britain's banks against cyber attack).
Fourth: Trident. The word on the street is that the favourite option among those being considered is to delay the replacement of the submarine fleet. However there is a strong lobby in the defence community that wants the submarine/ballistic missile upgrade cancelled and replaced by alternative methods of delivery. This surfaced two days ago, with a briefing that the National Security Council has the possible scrapping of Trident on its agenda.
Fifth: The aircraft carriers and their aircraft. There is a strong coalition of forces now that would see these scrapped: some because they see the decision to commisson the two carriers as an unwise "political" decision by Gordon Brown; some because they see the creation of a one-time-use only facility to bolt the carriers together at Rosyth as denuding the rest of the UK's naval shipyards, especially on the Clyde, of resources and manpower; others because they see the estimated cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that's supposed to fly off the carriers ($112m per airframe and rising) as another disaster in the making.
On top of this, given that the USA has cancelled not one but two attempts to commission a new fleet of land combat vehicles, Britain's attempt to do likewise - the so called Future Rapid Effect System (FRES) - looks vulnerable.
Then you have cyber warfare - which covers everything from satellite controlled drones to monitoring attempts by China to hack into Whitehall's computers. The UK is running fast to catch up with both its allies and its potential enemies on cyberconflict capabilites, and this costs money and expertise.
Finally, another theme that's emerging from the discussion is that the sheer number of life-changing injuries as a result of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars poses the question whether the UK should not create a US-style veterans' administration and commit to looking after injured servicepeople directly, for the rest of their lives, rather than as now handing out compensation and then directing them into the NHS, social services etc. This idea has a lot of traction among former service chiefs.
The problem with the list above? It's a list of options - it's not a strategy.
People inside the complex are all too well aware of this, and that in addition it's not subject to wider public debate.
Eisenhower's famous speech on the emerging power of the US military and its industrial suppliers contained the following suggestion which, despite the small size and social footprint of the UK Armed Forces, is worth remembering:
"We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together." (President Dwight D Eisenhower, 1961)
Which brings me to the last unspoken theme of the SDSR. If you did try to align Britain's defence and security forces, and its defense industry, to the UK's actual position in the world you would be faced with having to admit some hard facts.
The UK's ability to project diplomatic power and its economic importance have diminished. This is what no prime minister can stand up and say out loud but it is barely challenged in the private discussions I've been hearing around Whitehall.
That being a fact, say defense insiders, you have two choices: become a penumbra of the US military or seek much more active collaboration with the serious military powers of Europe (ie France, primarily). A third option - not supported by anybody within this circle of insiders, but occasionally mulled over - would be to go down the route of Sweden or Switzerland and design your conventional forces literally for the physical defence of your territory only, and for maximum integration within civil society, and then switch the budget to countering the new security threats.
If you go down the route of further inter-operation within Europe, then it makes sense to start buying equipment off the peg from European-based consortia and not, as now, constantly trying to be in with the Americans on the development of their increasingly space-aged kit.
You also have to confront another hard choice: is the British military to be primarily designed for expeditionary warfare or not?
If it is, you have all kinds of models to choose from but the US Marine Corps, where ships, tanks, soldiers and aircraft operate within one command and culture, is probably the most tried and tested. Canada, which fused its army, navy and airforce into one command structure in the late 1960s is seen as a model to avoid. I am told that there is no enthusiasm within the UK government to do anything radical about creating a unified structure - however it seems likely that the MoD will try and reform the existing forces to make it more easy for them to inter-operate on these kind of operations.
However, the scope for expeditionary warfare is inevitably going to be reduced if you keep the Trident upgrade, keep the other major platforms that have been ordered, and go ahead with the aircraft carriers and the F-35s. So something has to give. Because, to re-iterate, Bernard Gray's report for the MoD found a £35bn gap between budget and spending commitments even before the 10% cut expected to come out of the Spending Review on 20 October.
** Obviously this post, written on the basis of unattributable discussions, only analyses the options realistically being considered within Whitehall. Don't shoot the messenger if I have missed out a more radical option you prefer, or a different set of opinions about defence and foreign policy. I'm just trying to give a snapshot of the briefing and discussion that's actually going on.