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The Defence Review Dilemma: The British Experience - A Response

Phil Lester

Former Head of Doctrine, Air, Space and Cyber in the Defence Concepts and Doctrine Centre

18 March 2021

Phil Lester responds to Dr David Jordan's paper on The Defence Review Dilemma: The British Experience.

No matter how clearly one thinks, it is impossible to anticipate precisely the character of future conflict. The key is not to be so far off the mark that it becomes impossible to adjust once that character is revealed.– Sir Michael Howard

If every conflict is sui generis, then every strategy must be equally so – with its own parameters - constraints, boundaries and outcomes; an attempt to be, in Sir Michael Howard’s sage words, “not so far off the mark”.


Dr David Jordan’s paper provided a welcome narrative setting the scene for the Integrated Defence, Security and Foreign Policy Review, which was published this week. The paper posits that every British defence review is mired by a dilemma that revolves around an imbalance of strategic ambition and affordability played out through debates over obsolescent capabilities versus emerging technologies. In this brief viewpoint I offer a comment – not because I necessarily disagree with Dr Jordan but to stimulate a wider conversation. Is the strategy-capability or ends-means dynamic a dilemma or merely a reflection of delivering both enduring and adaptive strategic perspectives under conditions of geo-political uncertainty and financial pressure?


Choices will always be required – some options will be seen as essential and others not. Good strategy must always be a delicate balance of ends, ways and means underscored with a clear sense of purpose and what success might look like. As such, they should also provide a basis from which objectives can be adjusted as the context clarifies or evolves. Designing and implementing strategy means that the strategy makers will undoubtedly need to make hard choices – ones of utility, relevance, affordability and, ultimately necessity – all enveloped by the realities of affordability and strategic ambition.


As we know warfare and the condition of persistent competition is constantly evolving – this is largely technology and threat driven. As such our capabilities and the associated ways in which they are employed, need to adapt or be replaced to meet the threats to our strategic objectives. In turn the strategic objectives need to be constantly reviewed through threat analysis and experiential evidence and so the wheel of strategic ambition turns.


As a strategic reference point, let us take the ‘Global Britain’ brand, one the Integrated Review leads on, implementing the very wording in its title. Yet do we have the perfect balance of capability and thinking to realise it? Strategists will have an idea of what the ideal mix of ways and means are, but does everything we currently have in our arsenal reflect appropriate utility, relevance, value and necessity for this strategic ambition and the geo-political context within which we intend to achieve it? If the aspiration is to be both global and to have influence, operating across all domains and with an ability to respond to hostile acts, then are defence’s current capabilities the right ones and at the right scale? We might also ask if all defence’s capabilities are effectively connected and integrated to deliver our aspirations laid out in the Integrated Operating Concept and the Global Britain brand?


The answer is probably, not! A similar series of questions will also be asked around what we desire for the future – what gaps we need to fill and why. So, again we have choices to make. The crux of the issue for air and space power is their reliance upon technology and platforms. These are expensive and exist in a process of constant technological evolution. Therefore, the pace of the develop-procure-realise processes must be agile enough to keep pace with the technological challenges and threats


So, if we return to Dr Jordan’s dilemma – is the heart of the issue one of purely outcome-affordability imbalance? Or, is the root of the problem centred on the way a defence proposition is presented in the defence review process? Reflecting on Dr Jordan’s paper one might assert that defence has become rooted in maintaining its status quo particularly around capabilities that have significant identity and ideological value. This perception of maintaining the status quo may well be fuelled by popular and political debate which are, in themselves, rooted in their own sense of status quo.


Furthermore, is the way that defence translates its capability requirement into capability realisation constrained by complex and long equipment programmes, which once realised, need to pay their way through longevity? In analysing the many air examples Dr Jordan used in his paper to reinforce his thesis, I see one common theme; that is platform centricity with associated cost, time and finance aspects. I have no issue with the RAF (and for that matter the Royal Navy and the Army) focusing on platforms and capabilities; that is what gives the three Services their fighting edge and with it the critical contribution to our national hard and soft power. But I wonder whether the criticism of excessive political ambition and under-resourcing is not the cause but rather a symptom of a protracted develop-procure-realise processes within Defence.


Strategic agility – to shrink, grow or re-balance to meet the imperatives – implies elements of speed and action – to achieve the required level of ambition. Yet the practicalities of capability realisation appear to result in drag and delays. Many might argue that this is primarily because defence’s develop-procure-realise approach is platform centric and driven to a large extent by the need for the three Services to succeed in their own domain rather than constructing an integrated force ‘top-down’.


If this is the case, then the Secretary of State’s Office of Net Assessment and Challenge (SONAC) might be ground-breaking, providing a long-awaited head office mechanism for guiding the post-Levene model across Defence. From the Secretary of State’s launch in December 2020, it is evident that SONAC would provide threat and evidence-based assessment to an empowered Force Development function in an integrated department of state and military strategic headquarters. As such it should provide the basis for top-down strategic integration and might well mitigate the perception of a bottom-up, single-Service-dominated approach.


If such a mechanism can ensure that the hidden wiring of military capability – communications, logistics, command and control apparatus, data analytics as well as the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities – necessary to deliver a truly integrated force capable of operating and fighting below the surface, on the surface and above the surface of the earth, including in, from and through space and cyberspace, then it might become the catalysing force for the strategic realignment and pace needed to deliver the ambition of a ‘Global Britain’. Moreover, this approach will be able to provide the clear evidence of what capability is necessary to deliver any strategy going forward and may well remove the dilemma laid out in Dr Jordan’s excellent historical analysis.

Phil Lester is the former Head of Doctrine, Air, Space and Cyber in the Defence Concepts and Doctrine Centre.

This piece was responding to 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.

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