Sunday SDR, Chapter 3: Adaptability and Influence

Well, it’s going to be more like “All SDR, All the Time”, as I’ve just noticed that MOD is planning to close the consultation in two weeks. Here goes.

Well, Chapter 3 is in my mind the most impressive bit of the SDR Green Paper so far. It basically sets out the notion that, although the military have as usual succeeded in adapting to the conditions in the field and generally cracking on, the broader defence establishment – the MOD policy-making process, the defence procurement system, the intelligence services, the defence industries – have not done anywhere near as well in coping with constantly changing priorities.

The point is made that although the MOD succeeded, eventually, in turning around a fearsome number of Urgent Operational Requirements very quickly to support the Army in Afghanistan, the very need to issue so many UORs demonstrates that the main equipment programme was dysfunctional. Further, the defence establishment is put on notice that it will have to save money in order to fix the core equipment programme.

As far as answers go, the chapter suggests that there is a need to institutionalise the practice of having regular defence reviews, rather than holding them as and when the Treasury insists, and that this should be set down in an Act of Parliament. Further, they want to alter the strategic planning process – after Iraq, who could possibly object? – in order to “increase the ability of Ministers to direct change”, but also to “increase the authority of the Chief of Joint Operations”.

There’s obviously some tension between these goals – one increases the power of ministers, one the power of the officer corps and specifically the operational command structure rather than the Defence Staff. There’s a fine political balance here; if the intention is to boost both Northwood and the ministers, the corollary is less power for the Defence Staff and the civil servants.

Of course, the key to the politics here is procurement, because that’s where the money is and because technology eventually becomes policy. Chapter 3 suggests the following changes:

* generating more adaptable forces. Many of our forces are already operating outside their primary roles. We need to strengthen this trend towards taking on multiple roles;
* prioritising our investment in capabilities with wide utility, which are likely to be effective in a range of scenarios and against a range of threats. These would include, for example, support helicopters;

To put it another way, especially if there’s not much money around, the MOD can’t afford to indulge in hyper-specialised gear. Instead, equipment has to be general-purpose, in order to fit in with a strategy of trying to stay agile in the environment “characterised by uncertainty” laid out in Chapter 1. The helicopter example is nicely uncontroversial, but it probably won’t have gone unnoticed that it also fits the carriers.

* creating greater flexibility between Regular and Reserve Forces to ensure access to a wider range of skills and a larger personnel pool;

The MOD has been trying to do this ever since the last SDR decided that the Territorial Army was too big and needed cutting; after Kosovo, when an unexpectedly large mobilisation was needed, they changed course, but despite using the reserves heavily in Iraq and Afghanistan, they continued cutting the headline numbers until very recently. The reserves were also given a homeland security/anti-terrorism role, being asked to provide a battalion-sized Civil Contingency Reaction Force for each regional brigade. Experience of actual civil contingencies, like the 2007 floods, led this to be abandoned as the civil authorities found they didn’t have any need for a CCRF but did badly need almost every other specialisation.

* developing a greater understanding of the appropriate balance between technological edge and larger numbers of platforms;

This was a Hoon-to-Reid era trope – although the services wouldn’t get as many (tanks/ships/aircraft/whatever), high technology would make up the difference and therefore the costs of Iraq could be absorbed.

* relying on being able to reconstitute military capabilities, to enable us to access a full range of balanced capabilities with appropriate warning time without having to maintain those capabilities at all times.

To put it another way, if it’s possible to re-create certain specialities quickly, we don’t need to have them permanently on hand. This requires a different view of the industrial base – does this suggest that we need to pay more attention to keeping the industries involved in the UK?

Further, the procurement system is asked to:

# increasing our use of mature technologies when setting requirements. This would reduce the risk that research and development could lead to delays and cost increases in the programme;

# increasing our use of spiral or modular development, in which we build a capability to meet our current requirements but with the capacity to upgrade that capability by adding functions or technologies as they become mature or new threats emerge.

The Adaptability section checks out by admitting that the MOD struggled to understand what was happening through the 2000s, that it lacked understanding of the countries it operated in, and that it failed to make use of expertise available in other government departments, in academia, and in other institutions. They propose more openness and suggest “empowering the Concepts and Doctrine Centre”, their in-house thinktank. Unfortunately, this lacks credibility – at the same time as this statement was issued, the MOD is in the process of shutting down its Research and Assessments Branch, whose job this is, as the MOD’s favourite blog points out.

As far as influence goes, the chapter suggests that the military should be doing more advising, defence diplomacy, and the like, and also tackles the nuclear question very briefly. Essentially, it simply says that we need to make decisions now about Trident so as not to commit to disarmament by accident – this is a far more controversial statement than the SDR makes it sound, and it gives the strong impression that simply nobody wants to discuss it. It’s a let-down at the end of what is otherwise a very sensible document.

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