Dr Paul Cornish
(Former Chatham House Expert)

These are certainly hard times for defence. British armed forces have a demanding operational role in Afghanistan, and are likely to be there for several more years. For good reason, the UK involvement in Afghanistan - known as Operation Herrick - is currently the main concern in defence policy-making and planning.

But Op Herrick cannot be the exclusive concern. British armed forces currently have a range of other commitments around the world which must be taken into account. What is more, the task for defence planners is not only to deal with the present but also to look more widely and out to the horizon where new challenges might be emerging. In other words, while in the midst of a demanding conflict serious thought must nevertheless be given to maintaining a defence posture flexible enough to meet an uncertain future, ensuring not least that long lead-times in development and production will provide the optimal configuration of forces and capabilities. Then there is the matter of resources. It seems unlikely that the UK defence budget will be increased in real terms for the foreseeable future. UK security and defence policy must therefore not only contend with a current conflict and an uncertain future, it must also be made in the face of resource constraints which are certain to tighten in the near term.

The latest attempt to square the defence circle was the announcement by the Secretary of State for Defence on 15 December 2009. Bob Ainsworth produced a list of 'increased capabilities to support our mission in Afghanistan' including the following: 22 more Chinook helicopters; one more C-17 strategic transport aircraft (making a total of seven); enhancements to the fleet of Hercules C-130J aircraft; more unmanned aircraft for reconnaissance and surveillance; more improved body armour and close combat equipment; improved radios and satellite communications; more, and better protected vehicles; and more equipment for countering the threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Although these capability improvements were generally welcomed (particularly by the Army), they are rather long awaited; in several cases the requirement has been clear since 2006 when the intensity and complexity of operations in Afghanistan began to increase. In at least one case the wait will be longer still - the first tranche of 10 new Chinook helicopters will not arrive until 2012-2013; roughly the time at which Britain expects to be winding down its military involvement in Afghanistan.

Ainsworth's announcement also contained some surprises; a tacit admission that years of so-called smart acquisition had not worked - 'Some major projects...  have ended up costing more than twice the initial estimate in real terms' - as well as the decision to draw down the fleet of Nimrod MR2 Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) aircraft 12 months early and delay the introduction of their replacement. The problem of dumb, as opposed to smart acquisition will no doubt feature in the debate over the forthcoming strategic defence review (SDR). As for the Nimrod MR2 this aircraft has made a significant contribution to operations in Afghanistan but its principal role is that of maritime patrol, partly in support of the UK submarine fleet - including Vanguard-class independent nuclear deterrent force. If there is to be a gap in the UK's maritime patrol capability then this can only mean that a decision has been taken to accept a level of risk where the security of the independent deterrent is concerned. But what was the basis for that decision - strategic or budgetary?

Mr Ainsworth also outlined the arrangements by which the invoice for all this new equipment will be settled. The total cost (including new vehicles and counter-IED equipment) will be in the region of £1.3 billion. Of this, some £280 million has been allocated from the Treasury Reserve, leaving approximately £900 million to be found, in the words of The Economist, by 'raiding other parts of the overstretched defence budget.' The Secretary of State provided a good deal of information as to where and when these raids would take place: one squadron of Harrier aircraft will be taken out of service; the civilian workforce of the MoD will be reduced, as will the number of Service personnel; some aspects of Army training will be marginalised; and the Royal Navy will see two ships taken out of service early.

Each of these decisions is contentious and - as with the Nimrod MR2 - raises the suspicion that the motive is more budgetary than strategic. The Harrier, for example, is not only an extremely effective and reliable ground attack aircraft, particularly useful in Afghanistan, it is also the core of the UK maritime fixed wing capability, which will eventually be provided by the Joint Strike Fighter deployed on the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. The decision to reduce the numbers of Service personnel seems odd at a time when the Armed Forces are operationally overstretched - and hardly good for morale. And if Army training is to focus on Afghanistan, with other activities such as heavy armoured manoeuvre, amphibious operations and mountain warfare 'temporarily' reduced, the risk is that these abilities will not just be marginalised in the present but will not be remembered in the future, if and when the need arises.

But the biggest surprise of all is that these 'raids' are taking place on the core defence budget, rather than being covered by the Treasury Reserve. Although already compromised by arrangements between the Treasury and the MoD concerning the costs of equipment acquired under the Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) scheme, the tradition has been that the annual defence budget should cover the normal running and equipment costs of national defence, while the cost of operations should be met by the government's reserve funding. This important tradition appears to have been abandoned in the Secretary of State's announcement, with unpredictable implications for the future of defence budgeting and planning in the UK.

The quality of Ainsworth's decisions lies as much in their immediate impact as in the manner in which they were made. If the decisions to provide improved personal equipment as well as more and better armoured vehicles can be expedited, then the effect on operations in Afghanistan is sure to be welcome. But for the longer term, the concern must be that the December announcement was driven less by strategic preference than by budgetary pressure. The Treasury - and therefore the government as a whole - has rather deftly manoeuvred itself out of some of its responsibilities for national defence, and it is not clear that the new budgeting arrangement is no more than a temporary measure. What is clear, however, is that even before the publication of the defence green paper the forthcoming SDR is already being approached with some military capabilities ruled out and others marginalised, that a cost-cutting mentality is already in evidence, and that the rivalry between the three Armed Services is set to deepen as a result.

The Secretary of State's announcement hints that the SDR will be determined by the pernicious notion of 'affordability'. Any strategic assessment or military plan must of course take account of the availability of resources, and must be adjusted accordingly. But this is not to say that resource constraints should determine strategy. The forthcoming SDR should be as open-minded as possible in its analysis of strategic threats and challenges. Since the defence budget is not limitless, and will not be able to meet each of these contingencies, the task of the planners is to identify which strategic risks are the priorities for funding and which can be tolerated. This is an imperfect approach to strategic risk - far better, perhaps, to have the resources to deal with every contingency - but it is at least a more honest, and arguably a safer approach than to pretend, for budgetary reasons, that certain risks do not exist.

'Affordability' puts resources before analysis and is the worst possible basis for the SDR. It is also nothing more than political choice masquerading as a cast-iron rule of public spending. An economy the size of the United Kingdom's could certainly 'afford' to do all that is needed in Afghanistan while at the same time equipping the Armed Forces well enough to meet the future. The total cost of the new and improved capabilities announced in December is the equivalent of just two tenths of one per cent of government spending for 2009-2010. That sum could conceivably be recovered from other departments on the grounds that a major conflict is underway and those departments' spending plans could be postponed relatively easily. But to apply spending cuts unequally would require more political leadership than the bland 'burden-sharing' approach which prevails at present. For as long as the belief persists that there are 'no votes in defence' it will require political courage to insist that public spending should be constrained in other areas - health delivery or overseas aid for example - in order to fund the UK's defence posture. But even if there are no votes in defence, there still needs to be leadership in government.

This article originally appeared in Parliamentary Brief, January 2010.

Further resources

British Defence Spending: Divorced from Reality
The World Today
Andrew Dorman, February 2010

National Defence in the Age of Austerity
International Affairs
Paul Cornish and Andrew Dorman, July 2009

Blair's Wars and Brown's Budgets: From Strategic Defence Review to Strategic Decay in Less Than a Decade
International Affairs
Paul Cornish and Andrew Dorman, March 2009