SDSR – Mortgaging the Future to a War in Afghanistan? 19 October 2010

‘Or a review process that lends itself to everyone stepping outside for a nice Hamlet cigar…’ I caught the SDSR Parliamentary debate between lectures this afternoon, which was slightly surreal, but it felt like a real Parliamentary occasion. Having been described, recently, as having caught ‘the spirit of the Cameron age’ in something I wrote, I suppose one would expect me to say that Cameron was convincing this afternoon in Parliament. He stressed his own interventions at crucial moments in the review, and thus lends his own personal credibility to the end result – this is important because previously he looked like he was allowing rats to fight it out in a bag, and now he’s saying he has signed it off. No wonder Dr Fox looked demonstrably more relaxed. He’s also probably relieved to have got through this process without losing any junior ministers (who have strong defence interests in their constituencies) and without having to haul any ‘senior sources’ over public coals for continually briefing the press against the process, and for their own special interests.

The blogosphere and Radio4 (on my drive home) is and was ablaze with flash-pieces about the review announcements, so I won’t attempt to provide anything comprehensive, but I will limit myself to a few comments about some things that caught my attention.

The aircraft carriers decision has been derided for being ‘silly’ – two ships, some without planes, one without readiness, and that is likely to be sold or leased (apparently). Well, the real blame should fall on the Labour minister who signed off a contract which allowed BAE to be paid more if this contract was scrapped, than if it delivered the second ship. I have written about this several times in the past. The blame for this should sit with the previous government (as should some of the extremely poor value PFIs), the SDSR has merely made the best of a bad job.

An extra 500m on cybersecurity is the victory of the security side of the review – and this was clear from the NSS published yesterday. The extra dollop of cash for Forces mental health is also to be welcomed.

The scrapping of the Nimrods is timely.They were so far past their end-use dates that their continued service was a national disgrace. The purchase of ‘rivet-joint’ might not be ideal, but is a sad reflection of the inability of British based manufacturers to provide new airframes or designs.

The stricture that ‘the troops will be fully supported in Afghanistan’ is of course something that most people interested in defence issues would support, and it would be politically difficult to underfund or underplay this campaign. But to configure the UK armed forces around this one campaign is, I think, highly risky. The juice had better be worth the squeeze. This presumably accounts for why the process will be re-run in 2015, and one also assumes that UK forces will have left Afghanistan by that point.

The reduction of 25,000 civil servants within the MoD will be very difficult to absorb. Whilst the end result of this SDSR (and remember that the implementation phase, which will run through 2011 will produce a lot more micro-results) was a more balanced compromise of interests in the defence establishment than many imagined, the 25k reduction in staff is a radical re-framing of what the MoD is and does. It is here that the SDSR was at its most radical, and it the part of the announcement that has been least talked about in the coverage.

Finally, I liked Ed Miliband pointing the finger at the Tories saying they had produced some unfunded proposals. He was in the last government, wasn’t he? It seemed an unusual rock-like allegation in the political greenhouse.

So, it wasn’t radical and it wasn’t strategically led (see the Public Administration Committee’s report on Strategy, published on Monday), but this SDSR has been a reasonable balance between competing tensions and affixes another sticking plaster on the ailing UK defence sector. The reform of the MoD has the potential to be radical, as has the implementation stage stuff on the defence industrial base, and the defence estates. There’s a good year’s worth of defence spotting left in this process….

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