Monday, July 7, 2008

The Strategic Defence Review's (SDR) ninth birthday

July 8th, 2008 represents the ninth anniversary since the publication of the British Government’s Strategic Defence Review (“SDR”). The review was significant as it was both commissioned shortly after the election of “New Labour” led by Prime Minister Tony Blair, and had as its focus the concept of being foreign policy led as opposed to resource led by then Secretary of State for Defence (and later NATO Secretary-General) George Robertson.
Completed under the tenure of Robertson’s successor Geoff Hoon, the review was wide-ranging and encompassed the views of a wider audience. The review was well regarded at the time by the armed forces for its throughness, though nine years and several strenuous commitments later, how well have the decisions set in train by the review proved to be ?
The need for strategic mobility was far-sighted and addressed at the time by the leasing of four C-17 Galaxy aircraft from Boeing in the United States. Two years later the deal was signed and during the time which has elapsed a further two C-17 aircraft were acquired by the Royal Air Force.
The centre piece in terms of procurement requirements from SDR was the decision to focus on expeditionary warfare with two new, large aircraft carriers at the heart of the new capability. Very recently manufacturing contracts were awarded suggesting that this procurement will meet the approximate 15-20 time it takes from concept through to entry into service of defence equipment.
In the meantime the major casualty of the past nine years has been the surface fleet of the Royal Navy. During the nine years which have elapsed, whilst in 1998 the plan was to reduce the surface fleet from 35 to 32 surface ships and 22 to 25 minehunters the figures today are 26 surface ships (Type 22, 23 and 42 vessels) and some 16 minehunters. Whilst a construction programme is underway for successor destroyers to replace the ageing Type 42 destroyers, albeit in smaller numbers, no such relief is on the horizon for the backbone of the surface fleet.
Moving away from equipment procurement one of the major changes to occur as a result of the SDR was the combination of service logistics through the creation of a tri-service Defence Logistics Organisation. It was felt that the acquisition of equipment needed to be “faster, better, cheaper”. Over the nine years since its creation it sought to rationalise logistics provision and was ultimately combined with the Defence Procurement Agency into a large combine known collectively as Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S).
What of “faster, better, cheaper”. The achievement of this goal has arguably been hampered by the failure identified in the 1960s to spend more money in the evaluation and development phases of a project, plus to make those responsible for determining the operational requirement for an equipment be as realistic as possible, to avoid the phenomena known as “gold-plating”.
The acquisition of equipment urgently (via the UOR process) has continued to be successful though its lessons are proving highly difficult to apply to procurements which do not have battlefield necessity attached to them. Additionally, Treasury rulings on long term funding of UOR’s make them increasingly problematic. Meanwhile procurement policies focused purely on ‘value-for-money’ have created one of the most open defence commercial environments in the world, offering competitive deals to the Ministry at the increasing expense of the UK defence manufacturing base – something which the subsequent Defence Industrial Strategy (DIS) may, or may not, assist in redressing.
Looking at the policy some nine years after its publication it is clear that priorities of government expenditure plus additional commitments have made full implementation of SDR increasingly difficult as attention on processual change will always come second to meeting operational requirements plus lack of funds will prioritise the battlefield over administrative reorganisation and the care and welfare of service personnel and their families.
One senior official once suggested that the MoD in effect runs on 120% of the actual funds available thus suggesting that any increase in budget less than 20% will have no material improvement for the defence enterprise. The cuts in numbers of platforms acquired reflects the difficulty of doing more with increasingly less, whilst no effort is made to fundamentally choose which commitments to pursue and which to downplay.
It is perhaps somewhat ironic that as government policy has moved increasingly through the 1990s to today focuses on demonstrable results in terms of meeting key performance indicators by government departments relating to their level of success in pitching for additional funding that the obvious outcomes won by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) have actually led to lower levels of funding (when taking defence inflation into account).

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