I may not share all of Professor Malcolm Chalmers views on the future for UK defence all of the time but I could hardly disagree with the main issues that he has raised in this latest and very interesting RUSI report of how delays in strategic and budget process decision making in relation to future defence policy and intention is undermining and damaging the credibility of UK armed forces and of the military reputation of the UK in the eyes of NATO allies.
In this latest report, ‘Decision Time – The National Security Capability Review (NSCR) 2017-2018 and Defence’, Professor Chalmers, who I have both known and respected for many years now, lays out what is clear to many defence commentators and those serving in the military – the very unsatisfactory position caused by indifference and delay in decision making process by government in respect of future defence policy and intention.
I do not challenge much if any detail within this latest RUSI report and I commend to those of you interested in the future of UK defence its reading.
Professor Chalmers talks of British Army capabilities remaining “overly fixated on numbers of full-time regular personnel” and that raw numbers should not be an issue. He talks about “pay restraints” that had been assumed as being part of efficiency savings and that “after seven years are no longer sustainable”
He reminds of the “inability to achieve personnel targets set in SDSR 2015, of the various planned equipment programmes” and importantly of the additional unexpected expenditure caused by the depreciation of sterling against the dollar since the Brexit referendum vote in June 2016.
Rightly Professor Chalmers suggests that the knock on effect of various strategy/policy decision delays appertaining to defence are damaging and that as a result, the reputation and perception of the UK military overseas is in danger of being eroded.
Distracted by amongst other things, Brexit and finding it increasing difficult to deploy levels of capability that it has in the past to support the international and NATO missions, perhaps we can all agree that the sooner the Government is able to complete the various reviews that impact on defence the better. But as I have done before, having lost so many high quality people out of defence over the past ten years, whilst I know well that some excellent and highly respected people remain, I question whether the MOD has all that is required internally to undertake yet another review in the form of what is being called ‘Modernising Defence Programme’ or MDP?
Some eight or nine months after the National Security Capability Review and the separate internal MOD review process began, defence is now to be separated out in the form of the ‘Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) process review. This review is, as far as I am aware, expected to be completed, agreed in principle and published ahead of the summer recess. However, even given that a large element of work on the defence aspects of NSCR had already been completed and also that the initial internal review process was pretty well complete with many of the individual ideas and concepts for cuts having been leaked and subsequently not surprisingly been badly received within the military and wider defence community to which they would impact, I take the view that achieving consensus by July is a very tall order.
As Professor Chalmers rightly points out in his RUSI report, “significant delay in concluding MDP risks damaging consequences for international credibility, especially if it has not been concluded before the NATO summit in July 2018” adding that the period up to October 2018 is also a crucial time for the negotiations of a new defence and security partnership with the EU” something that I would add that members of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee are currently examining in Paris today.
The Chalmers RUSI report outlines that the so-called MDP will apparently have four strands of work: Firstly. It will work to optimise how the MOD is organised and operated. Secondly it will identify further efficiencies including apparently, ‘through an aggressive programme of business modernisation’. Fourthly, MDP has been planned to ‘improve our performance on the commercial and industrial issues’ and finally, it will examine the capabilities that defence contributes to national security and will ‘move quickly to strengthen further our capabilities in priority areas and reduce resources we devote elsewhere’.
I have my own personal reservations on the ability to achieve all this in a satisfactory manner that achieves genuine consensus questioning initially, who will now be involved in putting all of this together, whether those involved may be over reliant on academics and civil servants, of what specific elements will the military and particularly, the service chiefs will be involved and of who else might be involved advising them? In saying this I am of course mindful of the absolute disgrace of how SDSR 2010 was put together and of some of the mindless individuals who knew little if anything about defence who were involved.
Back to the matter in hand and In order to achieve the MDP on the scale suggested Professor Chalmers considers that those involved forming the review will need to consider some or all of the following:
Maintaining capabilities able to respond to possible conflict on at least two fronts, contributing to NATO’s deterrent capability against Russia while retaining the ability to respond robustly to crises in the turbulent neighbourhoods to Europe’s south.
An increased focus on the new technologies, capabilities and doctrines (including cyber and electronic warfare, robotics and artificial intelligence, air and missile defence, anti-submarine warfare, hardening and rapid dispersal) that are likely to be key in maintaining UK military credibility over the next ten to fifteen years.
Additional resources for the remuneration packages and employment flexibility that will be needed to attract the best people into defence, including through greater use of reservist and part-time personnel.
Rescheduling selected major procurement programmes, for example those for F-35B aircraft and Apache helicopters, spreading their costs over a longer period.
A readiness to cut back on lower-priority capabilities whose contribution to defence objectives no longer justifies their cost, taking advantage of the possibilities afforded by new technology and new systems to mitigate the effect of their loss.
In this very interesting paper for which the link is https://rusi.org/decisiontime2018 Professor Chalmers lays out the RUSI view of the many inherent flaws in SDSR 2015. These include over ambitious procurement plans based on the unrealistic assumptions in relation to potential efficiency savings and that the authors of the review had thought possible meaning that the whole process was in essence unfunded. This together with other factors attempts to set out the constraints that have created the present imbalance in the defence budget.
In respect of service personnel numbers, Professor Chalmers reminds that SDSR 2015 promised to cut the number of MoD civilian employees by 30%, from 58,200 in July 2015 to 41,000 by 2020, saving £150 million on the annual pay bill and that as of late 2017, there was little sign of progress towards this target with the total number of civilian employees at 56,900. He concludes that as numbers have been cut by 25,000 (or 30%) since 2010, new opportunities for large reductions are increasingly difficult to identity.
Chalmers writes of the MOD being constrained by the commitment to maintain military personnel numbers by the UK government insisting that the total size of the regular forces be maintained at 2015 levels and that of these, Army regular numbers should be maintained at or above 82,000.
He reminds that the Levene reforms, introduced into the MOD after 2011, led to a significant delegation of budgetary authority and flexibility to Front Line Commands and that as a result, the service chiefs could decide to shift resources between service, civilian and contractor personnel, and/or other spending, with some confidence that they would retain any efficiency savings they were able to generate and reminds that the interpretation of this commitment has been under consideration as part of the NSCR. The protection of total personnel numbers is likely to make achieving the overall efficiency savings target more difficult. It also threatens to tie the armed forces – and the army, in particular – into a metric for military capability that is increasingly outdated in modern warfare.
On the issue of unexpected currency issues he suggests that the equipment plans approved as part of SDSR 2025 included £18.6 billion in US dollars and £2.6 billion in Euro’s – this together amounting to some 12% of total ten-year equipment programme spending plan adding that for two years after the referendum currency hedging was in place, preventing extra costs to the MoD. However, Professor Chalmers goes on to point out that from 2018/19 the MoD will be required to pay for any extra sterling devaluation costs of purchases denominated in dollars. He points out that sterling has subsequently partially recovered against the dollar and is (as of 24 January 2018) only 7% below the $1.50 level at which the MoD hedged its purchases before the referendum but he goes on to point out that even at this level, the MoD could face an additional annual cost of around £150 million by the end of the decade.
In respect of new challenges Professor Chalmers states that SDSR 2015 recognised the need for deterrence of Russia to become more central to the planning of UK capabilities. However, he states that “evidence has mounted that the challenge from Russia is likely to be more sustained and increasingly multifaceted than thought likely even in 2015. Russia” he says “has strengthened its security position in the Middle East and is now capitalising on its ruthless application of force in support of the Syrian regime to play a key role in shaping the post-war settlement. It has become increasingly aggressive in its use of new cyber technologies to subvert the political systems of the UK’s key allies, most notably in the US.
Importantly he reminds that “Russia’s resurgence as a serious international actor has been underpinned by rapid growth in spending on a range of improved conventional military capabilities, which it has used in Ukraine and Syria as well in increasingly assertive exercises around NATO’s borders. He states that while “Russia’s defence budget is no longer growing, and recent sanctions appear to be causing real problems in areas where its military remains reliant on imported technology (for example, in relation to fifth-generation aircraft), the sharp increase in annual capital spending over the last decade means it can afford continuing modernisation of its forces, posing increased military challenges to NATO forces (including the UK) that are used to dealing with much less capable potential adversaries”.
As a result of this and in contrast to the operational experience of the two decades since 1990, Chalmers suggests in his report that “the UK’s armed forces are having to put deterrence of a strong peer competitor at the heart of their preparations. Every element of the UK military needs to be prepared for a conflict that could involve cyber, electronic and missile attack from an early stage, increasing the importance of force protection and dispersal. In stark contrast to recent conflicts, aircraft and ships will need to be prepared to operate alongside UK allies in highly contested environments, as well as being able to monitor and counter the more ambiguous threats that Russia could pose in coming years. Yet the UK military cannot be a ‘Russia-only’ force, as it almost became in the latter years of the Cold War. In contrast to that time, instability to the south of Europe – from the Gulf to the Sahel – poses a growing range of security challenges from which the UK (even after Brexit) will not be able to entirely absent itself. The UK armed forces are likely to be called to contribute to further alliance operations in this wider neighbourhood”.
He states that the RAF’s most sustained operation since the Second World War is now drawing down (note: this is one of the few points made in the RUSI report that I would actually disagree). He suggests that given the multiple fractures and social disorder across Europe’s southern neighbourhoods, however, it would be premature to suggest that comparably sized commitments will not be required in coming years. At the heart of any review of UK defence and security capabilities, therefore, must be a strategy for being able to respond on at least two fronts.
Finally in my review of this excellent RUSI paper, Professor Chalmers goes on to talk of the need for the UK to adapt rapidly to these changes if they are to retain whatever comparative advantages they have. For the UK he suggests that “this imperative is being reflected in vigorous debate on how far its defence investment programme should focus more on new technologies, premised on the belief that large platforms and bases will become increasingly vulnerable, and that the future lies in a radical shift towards dispersed networks of autonomous systems”. Yet, as he suggests, “the more radical the commitment to rapid fielding of new disruptive technologies, the less useful the traditional measures of military capability (numbers of ships, manned combat aircraft and regular full-time army personnel) become as indicators of national military power”. There are many who might disagree with this last statement of course!
Professor Chalmers suggests that “timing is likely to be the key here. In the short term, and even over the next decade, these traditional indicators will still be critical to military effectiveness. Beyond this timeframe, it is likely that systems rather than platforms – swarms rather than autonomous units, networked robots as much as battalions of humans – will become increasingly central to military effectiveness. For decision-makers today, the key will be to invest in integration between traditional and new technologies, hedging against disruptive developments in technology, but not risking everything on unproven innovations. This might involve spending more on protecting major platforms – carriers and submarines, for example – against new forms of attack, while also investing in the capabilities that can render an adversary’s obsolete”.
I am grateful for having read this and while much of the factual detail is already known there is considerable wisdom and knowledge contained in Professor Chalmers views on where we go next in defence and importantly, were we should go.
CHW (London – 7th February 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785