Britain Released a New Strategy Document: What Does it Say?

November 24, 2015

On Monday, Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled Britain’s new National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review in the House of Commons. It marked the first time the United Kingdom has undertaken a review of its strategy and security within the new five-year schedule. This edition is also notable in that it combines the National Security Strategy (NSS) and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which were previously two separate documents. True to its name, the NSS outlines the perceived threats to Britain and its vision for dealing with them, while the SDSR details how the armed forces are configured to execute this vision.

These developments point to a realization in the United Kingdom that it must be more flexible and responsive in terms of setting strategy and defense priorities. After introducing the NSS in 2010 in the wake of criticism that Britain “couldn’t do strategy,” the Conservative government clearly feels it now makes sense to present both policies in a single document. Similarly, the overarching tone of the document is one of internationality. Britain clearly believes it will be working with the United States and France especially closely in the future. But what is inside, and what does it mean?

The NSS related-chapters outline the usual myriad of threats commonly listed in the post-Cold War era. Based on the security services’ National Security Risk Assessment, these threats are then classed into tiers. Tier One risks are the highest priority based on high likelihood and/or high impact. Reflecting the impact of threats and hazards, and the development of risks since 2010, the latest assessment includes a greater number of Tier One risks than in 2012. These are listed in order as terrorism, cyber, international military conflict (rising since 2010), instability overseas (Tier Two in 2010), public health (a new addition), and natural disasters. Interestingly, the general erosion of international order and resulting chaos also makes a more significant appearance.

The 2010 iteration was criticized for failing to foresee both the rise of Russian assertiveness and that of the Islamic State, and in the latest version these are now center-stage threats to Britain. Despite these obvious threats, their new-found prominence is also about politics. The Conservatives’ rhetoric about the rise of Russia has been noticeably sharpened since peacenik Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader in September, while Cameron seeks a vote in Parliament approving Royal Air Force (RAF) strikes on Islamic State positions in Syria next week. Similarly, there is less of an emphasis on soft power and diplomacy than in 2010 – when Britain was slashing its defense spending, gutting its armed forces, and looking for a way to justify it.

What about the SDSR? The headlines seem impressive. Cameron outlined a £178 billion ($276 billion) investment in defense equipment over the next 10 years, although in reality this is more like a £12 billion ($18 billion) increase in real terms as most of that has already been earmarked. Still, it’s not to be sniffed at, especially given the swinging £4.7 billion ($7 billion) of cuts initiated five years ago.

The increased spending means the United Kingdom will plug its maritime surveillance capability gap with the purchase of nine Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. The scrapping of the Nimrod surveillance plane upgrade plan in 2010 – which had already cost about £4 billion ($6 billion) – was a particularly risky move that had forced the United Kingdom to ask the United States, Canada, and France for help when a Russian submarine was lurking in Scottish waters last year, in January, and again today (you have to love the emerging habit of Russian power plays around SDSR release day). Clearly, the P-8 will provide a sorely needed off-the-shelf capability, the removal of which has proved to have been a strategic blunder.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme will be expanded, with 24 of these in service by 2023 rather than the eight originally planned. Some of these may even be based on the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle, as Britain awaits its two new aircraft carriers which are scheduled for delivery from 2018 onwards. The life of the Typhoon fighters – which entered service in 2007 –will also be extended out to 2040, and two additional Typhoon squadrons will bring the RAF’s total to seven. The armed drone fleet will be more than doubled, in recognition that the RAF is seriously lacking aircraft and drones. There are also plans to develop a ballistic missile defense system

Meanwhile, the Royal Navy will now receive only eight frigate-Type 26 Global Combat Ships , compared to the 13 originally planned, due to the high cost of these advanced vessels, while at least another five lighter multi-purpose vessels will also replace the old Type 23s But as the former head of the British Army has pointed out, the small numbers of very advanced ships will not provide the kind of mass needed to patrol the Indian ocean or West Africa: “you need something relatively cheap and cheerful – and more of them,” Lord Dannatt suggests. The other big story at sea concerns the replacement of Britain’s Vanguard submarines, which provide Trident nuclear missile deterrent. The cost of four new subs has risen from £25 to £31 billion ($46 billion), and the saga over their utility and bang-for-buck continues.

On land, by 2025 the Army is to create two new rapidly deployable strike brigades from its existing manpower, which will be equipped with the new Ajax armoured vehicle. While the exact details of these brigades remain unclear, they are intended to underpin Britain’s intent to be able to project a heavy combat-ready division at relatively short notice. Along with the United States, the divisional Renaissance identified by Professor Anthony King and currently underway in the wake of the shortcomings of the brigade system found in Iraq and Afghanistan, seems set to continue. Similarly, the reform of the United Kingdom’s reserves, aimed at better integrating them in line with the “Whole Force” concept, will continue.

Tying all these developments together, this SDSR is notable for its underlying shift towards viewing Britain’s smaller services as a single force, as unveiled in the new Joint Force 2025. Over the next decade, the core of the Joint Force will be based around an expeditionary force of around 50,000 (compared with around 30,000 planned in 2010’s Future Force 2020) and is set to include a new F-35 equipped aircraft carrier, “a land division with three brigades including a new Strike Force; an air group of combat, transport and surveillance aircraft,” and a special forces task group. Of course, the Whole Force concept underpins jointness, but one gets the sense that future SDSRs may well pave the way for the merging of all three services into one force in the name of flexibility and in the search for efficiencies. Another interesting nuance was the primacy of special forces in the document – above that of the Royal Navy which is the senior service – perhaps an indication of why the government is investing an extra £2 billion ($3 billion) in its equipment as well. The number of staff at GCHQ (the signal-intelligence agency), MI5 and MI6 (the domestic and foreign intelligence services) is to also increase by 1,900.

Despite this SDSR unveiling the first major investment, rather than reductions, in the United Kingdom’s security forces for about 25 years, there are a number of noticeable gaps. The first concerns its people. The army remains at its smallest size since the Napoleonic era; recruitment and retention is a problem across British defense; and it remains to be seen if the government’s Spending Review released tomorrow will better the terms and conditions of service. Without the right people in the right place, all the fancy kit in the world is not much use. The message is also clear that rapid-reaction forces are in fashion, and boots on the ground and long-term counter-insurgency operations are out, at least for now. The now bit is important: with a lot of these investments and the Joint Force structure not scheduled for delivery for ten years, there is plenty of scope to adjust or change course entirely between now and then. Which is exactly how the Brits do long-term strategy. Nevertheless, this SDSR is clearly intended to show that Britain wants to remain in the top tier of international powers over the coming decade.


Patrick Bury is a former Captain in the Royal Irish Regiment currently undertaking his PhD in military sociology at the University of Exeter. His memoir, Callsign Hades, has been described as the “first great book of the Afghan war”.

Image: Sgt Ralph Merry ABIPP RAF