The result at the UK general election on 7 May represented a startling triumph for the Conservatives. A weak performance by the party’s Labour rivals opened the door to an outright majority for Prime Minister David Cameron’s incumbent government, despite the stringent cuts the party made while in government with the Liberal Democrats over the previous five years and the general expectation that another coalition was on the way.
The Tories’ unexpected majority in Parliament gives Cameron and his cabinet free rein to pursue their manifesto commitments and their divisive deficit reduction plan. But myriad challenges lie ahead, not least for the UK’s beleaguered armed forces and wider defence situation.
Instability on the world stage
Geopolitically, forces have conspired to turn the modern era into one of the most unpredictable since the end of the Cold War. The advances of ISIS in Syria, Iraq and even Libya threaten to destabilise the entire Middle East region, with US President Barack Obama recently acknowledging that the US still doesn’t have a "complete strategy" to deal with the group’s poisonous expansion; a concerted air strike campaign and Western-backed Iraqi forces have had limited effect so far.
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Even closer to home, Russian involvement in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, including the opportunistic annexation of the Crimea and continued supply of materiel and troops to anti-government forces, raises the risk of major state-on-state conflict in Europe to its highest level in decades. In Asia, meanwhile, territorial hostility in the South and East China Seas between China and its neighbours represent yet another worrying escalation of state-level tension.
The global security picture looks very different today than it did at the time of the government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in 2010, the last major review of UK security policy. The shifting landscape was noted by erstwhile House of Commons Defence Committee chair Rory Stewart in his comments accompanying a March 2015 report posing questions that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) must answer before the next SDSR, expected towards the end of 2015.
Report says Britain’s nuclear weapons should be retained to defend the country and prevent “nuclear blackmail”.
"Coming up with an achievable strategy for our involvement in future conflicts will be more challenging than ever before," Stewart said. "The threats to stability around the world change and re-emerge with startling speed. Our next SDSR must state how or when we might intervene to maintain stability overseas and it must focus more rigorously on the UK’s key military alliances and partnerships."
Cuts from the get-go
Whatever national strategy the government decides to pursue in the run-up to the SDSR, the UK’s armed forces are clear in for a tough fiscal ride, as they have been in recent years. The MoD’s budget has been slashed by 8% since the Conservative-led coalition came to power in 2010, and the trend of shaving defence costs looks set to continue. The UK differs from the US in the sense that defence spending commitments aren’t seen as a vote-winner; as a result defence has often been among the first in line for budget evaluations.
The armed forces’ status as a soft target for cuts has held true in the early days of the Conservative majority government. Chancellor George Osborne’s recently announced plan to save £3bn from departmental budgets (on top of around £1.5bn from the sale of the state’s remaining stake in Royal Mail) levied a cut of £500m on the MoD budget, to be made within this financial year. Only the Department for Transport was asked to cut more.
The cuts, which represent 1.5% of its total budget, can be made by targeting administrative expenses such as consultants’ fees and travel while tinkering with some equipment programmes. And, crucially, the UK’s much-trumpeted commitment to Nato’s defence spending target of 2% of GDP is safe, for now at least.
"This agreement will not impact on the baseline defence budget, manpower numbers or current operations," the MoD confirmed in a statement. "The UK will continue to spend 2% GDP on defence in this financial year."
Nevertheless, the cuts have drawn stinging criticism from some defence leaders and lobby groups, with former First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Lord West describing them as "a total disaster".
Andy Smith, CEO of the UK National Defence Association, pulled no punches either. "Conservative MPs should be hanging their heads in shame that a Tory government is, once again, preparing to cut the armed forces, at a time when threats to UK security are growing and the need for Britain to be militarily strong is greater than ever."
Trident in the dock
The renewal of Trident, the UK’s submarine-based nuclear weapons programme, formed one of the Tories’ key election manifesto pledges for defence, and winning an outright majority in Parliament means any future cuts are highly unlikely to affect this core investment.
Nevertheless, one of the other important results of the 2015 general election – the stratospheric rise of the Scottish National Party – has put a closer spotlight on the £23bn project. The SNP, in common with all other pro-independence Scottish parties, is staunchly opposed to Trident’s renewal, an especially sensitive issue as HMNB Clyde in Scotland serves as the base for the UK’s nuclear submarines and Trident missiles.
The SNP’s astonishing performance at the election, in which it secured 56 parliamentary seats, has given the party the influence to push a debate on Trident much further up the agenda. The party secured a special adjournment debate on Trident safety on 28 May in the wake of inside allegations by AB William McNeilly of serious safety and security breaches at HMNB Clyde.
The UK’s vulnerability in this area is becoming increasingly critical.
The Royal Navy investigation into the claims made by McNeilly concluded that his accusations were factually incorrect and often based on hearsay and misinterpretation. Nevertheless, the presence of a strong SNP voting bloc united in its ideological opposition to Trident ("[Argyll and Bute] is a constituency of stunning natural beauty far too great to be polluted by the obscenity of weapons of mass destruction," said former SNP leader Alex Salmond in his opening speech at the debate) ready to pounce on any perceived failure will certainly keep the government on its toes as it continues to develop the project.
SDSR 2015: considering the UK’s global role
Topping the list of questions posed by the Defence Committee in the lead-up to the SDSR is a simple query with hidden complexities: "What is the UK national strategy? Should it be global or regional in focus?"
This question cuts to the heart of the challenge that lies before the government – to form a coherent national defence policy that allows the SDSR to prioritise based on the objectives of that policy. The fundamental question to ask first – does the UK plan to retain a leading role in Nato and collective security efforts on a global scale?
The Tory government made some clear commitments in its election manifesto. Trident will be renewed, and £160bn is earmarked for spending on big-ticket military equipment programmes over the next decade, including new Type 26 frigates, Scout armoured vehicles, Apache attack helicopters and the Joint Strike Fighter, not to mention the two new aircraft carriers currently under construction.
A pledge to not let regular army troop numbers slip below 82,000 seems to put paid to pre-election predictions by the Royal United Services Institute think tank that the army could be downsized to 50,000. The recent increase of British troops joining Nato’s multi-national Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, which the UK will lead in 2017, also signals a commitment to collective security.
Still, the insistent refusal of Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and the party to commit to Nato’s target of spending 2% of GDP on defence beyond 2016 has raised concerns in defence circles, including from the US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and former Nato general secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen, that future defence cuts will jeopardise the UK’s role as a leading Nato member and ally.
"We need an engaged United Kingdom," Carter told the BBC.
With the UK’s total lack of maritime patrol aircraft and concerns about how the Royal Navy will man and equip its two new aircraft carriers when they come into service in the early 2020s, there are other urgent requirements that will be almost impossible to meet if defence spending falls. The need to boost conventional defence capacity in light of Russian aggression puts the MoD at a funding crossroads, especially after the 40% reduction of Challenger 2 tanks in the 2010 SDSR.
Withdrawal from the 2% Nato target would bear no particular mark of shame for the UK, despite David Cameron’s enthusiastic cheerleading for other countries to make the pledge. After all, the UK is one of only four Nato members – along with the US, Estonia and Greece – that actually honours the commitment.
But as Carter noted, further defence cuts, bringing the UK below the 2% target, would likely result in a significant diminishment of the UK’s capacity to express itself on the global stage and would only make sense if the government is looking to pursue a more isolationist national defence policy. Before those vital spending decisions can be made, Cameron’s triumphant Tories must work out what it is they want to achieve.