In preparation for the UK’s upcoming strategic defence review, the UK MoD has set out a defence review green paper, which, although devoid of any spending specifics, details the hard questions the country will have to face as it seeks to define its military future.

The green paper, essentially the dress rehearsal for the full strategic defence review (SDR) scheduled for after the 2010 general election, is the product of six months of consultation and will serve to set out the key questions the final enquiry must address.

UK Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said that the green paper was intended to stimulate debate. “Afghanistan is the top priority today, but we must also ensure that our armed forces are ready to confront the challenges of tomorrow. The current and emerging threats we face are characterised by uncertainty and will require a more flexible response from adaptable armed forces,” he said.

These questions are, however, far from straightforward. The country’s last full-scale defence review was conducted in 1998, before Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars that were never expected and not properly planned for.

“The UK defence review green paper details the hard questions the country will have to face as it seeks to define its military future.”

The release of the green paper has also been set against the difficult political backdrop of the ongoing Chilcot enquiry, which has already revealed, through the testimonies of top officials, that British troops were rushed into battle unarmoured, underfunded and unprepared for the job at hand.

At its heart, the paper questions what contribution the armed forces should make to ensuring security within the UK, as well as wider efforts to prevent conflict and strengthen international stability and the role of key allies.

It also stresses the evolving nature of modern warfare, and points to concerns such as terrorism, the rise of nuclear states, cyberwarfare, resource scarcity and climate change, and the importance of reflecting on lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

With this in mind, the paper determines that to confront an uncertain future, the UK must become more flexible and adaptable, and better able to respond to new threats.

Defence programmes and research

As the UK’s Defence and Security trade organisation ADS points out there is precious little mention of whether or not the government believes investment in research and technology (R&T) is at the right level.

ADS CEO Rees Ward said that R&T had been cut 23% by the MoD over the last three years. “We are pleased the green paper recognises the importance of research investment, but are concerned cuts will allow emerging nation capabilities to outstrip our own,” he said.

As investment goes, the paper did little to confirm or deny the fate of any big programmes except the update of the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent, which officials confirmed as definitely going ahead.

“The green paper determines that to confront an uncertain future, the UK must become more flexible.”

The fate of the navy’s two new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers also seemed to be settled as Ainsworth hinted that they should both survive the forthcoming review.

A question mark, however, has been left over the future of the joint strike fighter (JSF), after Ainsworth refused to guarantee the future of the aircraft, which were designed to be flown from the aircraft carriers.

The future of the heavily delayed A400m heavy transport plane was also left in doubt, although recent reports of a 25% price increase from maker Airbus may well sour the already shaky deal.

International cooperation

Within the paper, the MoD also admitted that the ability to defend the country’s borders was not enough. The UK must be prepared to tackle national security threats at their source, and the document somewhat surprisingly admits that this vital role must be complemented by close relationships with allies, in particular with France and other European countries.

The desire for closer ties underlines the view that British forces are already stretched to capacity and in the event of any further unforeseen conflict, her majesty’s forces would simply not be able to cope.

In specific the return of France to Nato’s military structure is seen as a golden opportunity for closer cooperation. With regard to Nato and the EU in general, the report does make a point that there is a definite need to determine where there is scope to increase the effectiveness of relationships and also rebalance investments.

Closer to home, cooperation across government has also been described as vital and leaders have spoken of bringing together defence, diplomatic and development efforts as part of an integrated civil-military approach.

Whether this leaves the door open for large-scale structural change it is hard to tell. A possible unification of the RAF and Royal Navy has been mentioned in the press and has recently been given credence by senior officials.

Speaking at the unveiling of the green paper, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup refused to completely rule out an amalgamation, and said instead that the merger was plausible and should be debated.

“A desire for closer ties underlines the view that British forces are already stretched to capacity.”

Acquisition reform

Almost overshadowed by the release of the green paper, the MoD also announced the publication of the strategy for acquisition reform, based largely on 2009’s independent Bernard Gray review, which determined that military spending plans were unaffordable and were costing the government up to £2.2bn in delays and cancellations.

Commenting on this new strategy, Minister for Strategic Defence Acquisition Reform Lord Drayson said that it was vital that defence acquisition was as efficient as possible.

“This is a strategy for major reform. At its centre is a radical plan to increase the transparency of our equipment plan, to help ensure it can be kept affordable and achievable,” he said. “By managing our plans and projects better and strengthening our relationship with industry we will improve the delivery of the battle-winning equipment that our armed forces deserve.”

A major part of this will be to create a more business-like relationship between defence equipment and support (DE&S) and the rest of the MoD. To begin with a formal, written terms of business agreement between head office, DE&S and the front line has been introduced. More has to be done, however, and the reform document stresses the need to specify acquisition requirements, as well as their full cost, far more clearly.