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Of UK STRATEGIC Defence Reviews By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.







Although I acted an advisor to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee for several years until the last but one General Election I have to say that I am somewhat surprised yet again that in putting together their paper ‘In Search of Strategy – the 2020 Integrated Review’ – that I have not been called to provide evidence to the Committee on a subject area – UK political defence – that that is very close to my heart and that from a professional aspect, has been for the past forty years.

I have been called before many House of Commons, House of Lords and some of the Joint House Committees over the years and as long as I live, I will never forget the drubbings I have had in front of the Public Accounts Committee when the wonderful Margaret Hodge was its chair.

Neither will I fail to remember the very simple words used by the Late Baroness Thatcher when we were both guests at the Admiralty for Dr. Liam Fox’s, who was Secretary of State for Defence at the time, 50th birthday party event eight years ago in 2012. Reintroducing me to Lady Thatcher (Liam had not previously known that I knew her well) and in her by then, much weakened physical and mental condition, when Dr Fox reminded her what I did in respect of supporting defence professional, she quickly retorted “Britain Needs Strong Defence”   

Baring perhaps the rather aptly titled 1994 Defence Costs Study which was followed by ‘The Strategic Defence Review – Modern Forces For A Modern World and which was followed by ‘The Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter in December 2003, and then by Delivering Security in a changing world; Future Capabilities (July 2004) – I am for my own professional reasons going to all but ignore everything that followed after July 2004 because primarily they failed to understand that while defence is and always will be both a political and public choice, it is policy that is born out of strategy as opposed to the other way round. Even so, it is only right that I lay out the list of sometimes obscure and sometimes well written, researched and presented documents albeit that although many were full of promises they each looked at what was affordable in defence as opposed to what we will need to carry forward as the largest single European based NATO resource. The full list of so-called strategy directives published after 2004 are listed below:

October 2010 – The (hobbled Together) 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review:

Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: While this defence reviews was bad for the UK, bad for the NATO Atlantic Alliance and the majority of our partner allies such as the USA, Canada Germany and France in that it was effectively an attempt to slash and burn 20% of UK defence capability in respect of manpower and equipment capability, given the academics involved and in this case senior civil servants such as Sir Peter Rickets and who once told me, following my delivery of a paper I had written and had presented at the Chief of the Air Staff’s Annual Conference in London in July 2012 and which document, as I recall, was extremely critical of the whole SDSR 2010 process, of how and why some of most disgraceful decisions in SDSR 2010 were arrived at let alone made and my also choosing the occasion to defend an open out a discussion on UK/Saudi Arabia relationships which, since the first gov’t to gov’t Al Yamamah deal was signed in 1986, has enjoyed a very long record of success and one that I can say without any doubt has been to the enormous advantage of the UK economy.

Perchance, as I was being led to the table and sitting next to the then president of the RAF Charitable Trust who organise RIAT, Air Chief Marshal Sir John Cheshire who as an aside, I regard as one of mentors, I found myself also sitting next to the now Lord Ricketts. As we greeted each other on arrival at the raised High Table at the Royal International Air Tattoo Gala Dinner at RAF Fairford that fine evening I will never forget the following words Peter Rickets said to me as he introduced himself to me somewhat reluctantly – “I am aware of the paper that you delivered at the CAS Conference in London yesterday and as I was responsible for over half of SDSR 2010 it is very clear to me that we are not going to get on!”

Although extremely rude in his demeanour and showing not exactly untypical arrogance, suffice to say that he engaged in no further conversation with me at all that evening. Other top table guests were absolutely flabbergasted at his behaviour.

Published in October 2011 following around four months’ of serious politically and academic led work ethic and this, followed a year later by the beginning of what was called the Defence Transformation paper and which as far as I am concerned, lacked any form of consistency, was led by academics of a certain age who had very fixed views on what they believed defence required (very little!) had far too little engagement with the senior military people in UK defence and none whatsoever from industry or indeed, with the small but important band of independent defence specialist and commentators (I include myself in this) and who it was apparently decided by the then Sir Peter (Now Lord) Rickets that we should be ignored.

Although Defence Transformation appeared in July 2011 and that it is true to say some of the best ideas have been pinched by the MOD, the paper lacked coherence and there were few, including as I seem to recall, Secretary of State for Defence at that time, Dr. Liam Fox, who gave it the time of day that it probably deserved if only to  confirm my long held theory that policy papers tend to fall along the wayside if they are not led by strategic and political direction.

Professor Malcolm Chalmers, a member of the increasingly clandestine Royal United Services Organisation, one whose primary operation today appears to be challenging government decisions on defence as opposed to helping the MOD formulate strategy that could eventually become policy told the House of Commons Defence Select Committee earlier this year “The 2010 review was followed by the three-month exercise in 2011, because the sums did not add up in the 2010 review.”

Importantly The 2015 review process was preceded by the NSCR and the Modernising Defence Programme—again, the 2015 NSCR made entirely unrealistic assumptions about efficiency savings, which subsequently proved to be unviable.

The next policy paper arrived in November 2015 and once again involved a number of the same academics that had advised on previous policy documents and included individual academics from RUSI, Chatham House, IISS, Oxford Research and others who of course thought they knew best and had all the answers. This was to be the first attempt at an integrated process but it remained a sad fact that no industrial companies where engaged, no specialist commentators and what emerged was probably unacceptable, unworkable and unaffordable.    

Entitled the National Security Strategy/Strategic Defence and Security Review: A Secure and Promising and Prosperous United Kingdom in November 2015 was a nice dream and the only good news that I can suggest is that by now Lord Rickets who had been National Security Advisor had I believe fled to become Britain’s Ambassador to Paris. 

Reviews must be properly resourced, not just with money that allows those charged with the job of conducting it to freely move around and understand properly what we have in defence, capability both in equipment and people, where we operate, how we do what we do, what we need to do the job and what are the weaknesses and failings.

Once again on w might argue that what was intended was to an extent ruined by too many academics with differing views being involved along with too few senior defence civil servants and senior military being involved. If there was any success to be called from this review process, if you can call it, it tried to remedy mistakes that had been made by Liam Fox and his team in MOD and those that followed him into the most senior government defence post, the former and it has to be said in terms of how he pushed through a ruthless policy of cutting spend and pushing large projects back, The Rt. Hon Philip Hammond.    

Following this we had the National Security Capability Review which was conducted between July 2017 and Mar 2018 and in 2018/19 the much heralded ‘Modernising Defence Programmes Review’ which was essentially about Mobilising, Modernising & Transforming Defence.

The 2015 review was followed by the NSCR and the Modernising Defence Programme—again, the 2015 NSCR made entirely unrealistic assumptions about efficiency savings, which subsequently proved to be unviable.

Waiting to join the long list of failed defence and security papers or should I better say, the ones that failed to make any mark because they were either considered unaffordable or one step to far of what the country (the People) could be expected to bare, is what I hope will be the last that once again lives under the mantle of being a strategy review – on e that this time is hell bent on radically changing defence, security and foreign office strategy and policy before it has had a chance to decide where it is that we (Britain) wants to be in the world and where, what we see our future role being in international affairs and continuing to play the now vital role that we do in NATO and so on.

We are reliably told that in so far as defence is concerned the future is about technology such as cyber, cyber defence, digital, autonomous AI defence and many other good things that our would-be enemies are looking and developing as well. But I fear those in the Treasury, Cabinet Office, No 10, BBC Journalists and others will see this all about reducing the cost of operation of defence. I wish those involved in the currently underway ‘Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review’ all the best in the world, I have no worries whatsoever about Mr Dominic Cummings leading it – provided that he makes sure that he fully understands all concepts of defence , security and foreign policy objectives as they are new before starting to change them.

I’ll leave you with the thoughts or should I say excuses given by noble Lord Ricketts in relation to his involvement in dangerously handled SDSR 2010 Review Process (he was after all a former National Security Advisor) explaining as he did to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee that: that the National Security Council did not have time to “look deep down into the difficult issues” during the sixth month Review. Lord Ricketts noted that “at the time we were not in the middle of a global pandemic crisis” but nevertheless suggested that “with hindsight, it would have been better to have had more time to really dig into the detail of some of the difficult defence choices that they had to make.

I started this commentary today on the back of the report published by the House of Commons Defence Select Committee and of which I was an advisor until 2017. This is, as far as it goes, a good report from HCDC and I welcome it although I am far from sure that even members of the Committee know where they are going with the ongoing process yet.

HCDC Report Conclusion

To ensure lessons are learned from previous security and defence Reviews, the Integrated Review should engage with a wide range of stakeholders who were engaged in or scrutinised previous Reviews and the policies, programmes and military deployments that flowed from them.


The Government should review how far these activities were aligned with or deviated from the outcomes of previous Reviews, in order to better understand how to ensure the Integrated Review provides a sustainable and actionable framework for the future. In response to our report, if it has not done so before, the Government should:

Explain how existing lessons learned will inform the Review

Set out what new analysis will be carried out

Ensure that there are effective mechanisms for implementing the Review, and

Explain how the Review’s successes or failings will be measured.

(Note: Commentary will be a little more sporadic than normal during the two or three weeks due to the large mass of people away. Note that I will be writing a ‘retort’ to the paper that Justin Bronk of RUSI has recently published called ‘Combat Air Choices For The UK Government’.

CHW (London – 13th August 2020)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS 

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



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