The British Defence Review – from the jaws of victory to a certain defeat: 16 September 2010

It’s a strange thing when John Nott’s defence review, or indeed ‘Options for Change’ begin to look like well worked out epitomes of good defence thinking… No, let’s call a spade a spade – it’s downright odd when these reviews look like good and sensible thinking. The current defence and security review seems to be in the throws of a catastrophic spasm.

I will happily concede that people say this during every significant review. But this one really is…. just look at the signs:

* The MoD is so clearly out of the loop it has acquired a horrendous dose of press-release diarrhoea. The debates this morning about Trident, and whether it will be renewed in 2014, is indicative of a department throwing the political kitchen sink at the problem. I would imagine that it has decided that if the nuclear deterrent can’t stir a political and public debate, then nothing will. The warnings over theRAF being rolled into the green didn’t seem to stir it up enough.

* All the coverage of this issue comes attached with the phrase ‘an unnamed Prime Ministerial spokesman says/reveals/claims’. Again, a sign (but not totally out of the ordinary) that this review is being conducted by the core executive and not by those who are expert in defence or security. The establishment of the national security committees within the Cabinet Office further reinforce this centralising tendency.

* Liam Fox appears to have been sent to Coventry (for non-English readers, no-one wants to be sent to Coventry, hence the phrase). Unnamed armed forces spokespeople have challenged the good Dr to commit political hari-kari to protect the British armed forces, and the MoD. The dynamics of this review will become to be seen as important, I’m sure. The good Dr appears to have dropped out of the central power-clique. This may be indicative that a) he wasn’t keen on the massive cuts, or could rightly see that they wouldn’t work, or b) he was never a central clique person, and the driving forces for this review are the Treasury, and – I would suspect – the Cabinet Office in tandem. Similarly, it is not clear what role the coalition dynamics are playing into this policy area. The LibDems are against retention of the nuclear deterrent and it would also be interesting to know how this was playing out in the core executive right now. It is the dynamic at the heart of this review that I will certainly look to write about when the dust has settled on it.

* The US rightly streamed into the debate –presumably trying to force a sanity check on the British government – by stating that such cuts could adversely affect the relationship (special or otherwise) with the UK. Again, the sort of warning shot that is not unexpected, but indicative of a mood music that we should be sensitive to.

* The massive US defence equipment deal with the Saudis (yet to be approved by Congress, but who would oppose it?) is yet another clanging bell in this debate. Where now for the UK’s beleaguered ‘primary contractor’? Apart from the US…

* Grand Strategy – an issue considered by the MoD and its Select Committee, right? No, Bernard Jenkin gave the Public Administration Committee a big plug on Radio4 this morning, as they are looking at the future of grand strategy. Had any other KoW reader or writer heard of this inquiry?  The list of those submitting written evidence (normally around 30+ people) is foreshortened here. Anyone know how we can contribute?

I would suspect that KoW readers are folk who want a fit-for-purpose defence policy and armed forces. The move towards a security, rather than defence policy (see Dover 2011 forthcoming!) is a move with strong antecedents, but if this review is a taste of what is to come then the UK is rapidly becoming a small and dysfunctional military power.

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