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Ambition versus Affordability: Tackling the Defence Review Dilemma

Dr David Jordan

Senior Lecturer & Co-Director of the Freeman Air & Space Institute

15 March 2021

Since the end of the Second World War, Britain has seen successive governments try to ‘square the circle‘ of attempting to maintain Britain��s status and commitments as a major power but without possessing the military resources to back it up, in a context of ever declining spending on defence. Across multiple defence reviews in the last 50 years, governments have tended to overpromise and underspend, and prioritise short-term thinking over long-term needs, without an accompanying realignment and rebalancing of commitments, which brings a notable level of risk.

Against a backdrop of economic uncertainty due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and a post-Brexit re-set, the latest review of defence, this week’s announcement on the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (‘Integrated Review’ or ‘IR’), will ‘define the government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade’. It will not only need to set out how the government aims to achieve its ‘Global Britain’ agenda by maintaining an ambitious foreign policy and military capability programme, but will also need to detail how security services will continue to be fit for purpose in an era of increasingly complex and diverse threats to the defence landscape, all the while within tight budgetary constraints.

A new paper, The Defence Review Dilemma: The British Experience, published today explores the British experience of Defence Reviews, the challenges and pitfalls governments have faced in tackling the ambition versus affordability dilemma and what this might suggest about the policy and spending announcements on defence made this week.

Boris Johnson’s ambition to deliver a ‘Global Britain’ implies that ‘hard power’ will remain an important tool of the government’s approach. Yet, the experience of past reviews suggests that there is a risk of difficult questions about the financing of defence and ensuring that the hard power provided by the armed forces is both sufficient to meet demand and flexible enough to address the range of risks confronting it.

Since the end of the Second World War, the United Kingdom has seen a dramatic decline in the amount of expenditure on defence. In 1952, a little over 11 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was spent on defence; just over 60 years later the proportion has fallen to around 2 per cent. This has understandably, brought about comparable reductions in the size of the UK’s armed forces, yet the desire of successive British governments to play a significant world role despite a mixture of financial difficulties and a desire to reapportion spending away from defence into other areas of the economy, has led to a consistent and uncomfortable imbalance between commitment and resources.

The first challenge facing any review is that of how British governments perceive the United Kingdom’s position in the world. There is a very clear theme throughout post‑war history of governments, be they Labour, Conservative or coalition, of the UK wanting to play a significant role in world affairs, as befitting a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council and one of the G7 group of leading economic powers.

The reduction in Britain’s defence capabilities East of Suez during the 1960s provided a clear warning for policy makers about the possible risk to reputation caused by retrenchment. The cancellation of new aircraft carriers and a huge reduction in the UK’s presence in Singapore and Malaysia was a source of much angst to President Lyndon Johnson’s administration and key allies in the Far East.

More recently the move towards Network Enabled Capability, first presaged in the Blair government’s Strategic Defence Review in 1998, suggests that temptations for ‘quick wins’ by removing extant capabilities to bring new technology into mainstream, risks creating gaps which reduce not only capability but potentially credibility in the eyes of partner nations.

The implication here is that while the temptation to make reductions to the defence budget by removing capabilities which are thought to be on the verge of obsolescence is obvious, it may not in fact be in the best interests of the UK’s defence posture. As Sir John Nott, who presided over the 1981 defence review, suggests:

We have to keep up with the threat, and keeping up with the threat is horrendously expensive"– Sir John Nott

Succumbing to the temptation to remove capabilities wholesale, while having financial sense (through removing support chain costs as well as the capability) may be attractive, but tends to rebound, sometimes upon the governments which have implemented the changes. As noted above, the Nott Review is often cited as an example of this occurring. Nott, charged with dealing with an unaffordable defence budget, was compelled to make some extremely difficult choices in his attempts to address the problem. The Navy suffered most from the reductions brought about by the review, only to be the mainstay of operations in the Falklands conflict the following year.

A similar potential embarrassment arose in July 1990. The ‘Options for Change’ review envisaged a reduction in the strength of the British Army On the Rhine from four divisions to two and the reduction of the RAF’s Tornado GR1 force by three squadrons. Less than a month later, it became clear that any operation to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait would require Britain to contribute both heavy armour and a substantial number of Tornado GR1s to make a notable commitment to the coalition forces in the Gulf.

There is therefore considerable evidence from past reviews to suggest that the removal of capabilities – whether that be because of perceptions of limited utility in future conflict, or as a means of making savings – without an accompanying realignment and rebalancing of commitments brings a notable level of risk.

This dilemma has been at the heart of all post-war defence reviews. It may be regarded as mildly depressing that there is good cause to suggest that announcement of retiring ‘old’ capabilities in favour of investment in new technologies has often been done more to create the impression of remaining at the leading edge of military capabilities than to actually invest in the equipment and personnel required to be positioned there.

If the Integrated Review is to fulfil its objectives, the decision-making process becomes even more taxing.Will the government conclude that it must trade extant capabilities which are still useful to allow the procurement of new technologies and capabilities which are likely to play an important part in future conflict, even if this means making some apparently unpalatable decisions (such as reducing the number of Army regiments, or the Navy’s ships, or removing whole fleets of aircraft)? Or does it seek to walk a tightrope of investing sufficient monies in allowing the development of new capability areas while ensuring that a credible range of extant capabilities is maintained?

And perhaps most significantly of all, is the government able, in a way unlike some of its predecessors, to accept that building and maintaining the range of capabilities necessary to fulfil the nation’s perceived national interests, at least in terms of hard power, will require significant expenditure? Or will we see acceptance that a trimming of aspirations and ambitions, so that capabilities, budgets and commitments align, is required? There are few easy answers, but as past experience shows many wrong or fanciful ones – and it is the dilemma of finding the right answers that Prime Minister Johnson’s government now faces.

This piece discusses the paper 'The Defence Review Dilemma: The British Experience, written by Dr David Jordan and published by the Freeman Air and Space Institute, King's College London.

Dr David Jordan is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Defence Studies & Co-Director of the Freeman Air & Space Institute, King's College London. 

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David Jordan

David Jordan

Co-Director of the Freeman Air and Space Institute

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