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CDS on the SDSR - trading the perfect for the acceptable

General Richards’ speech at the Policy Exchange think tank in central London focused predominantly on the National Security Strategy and the…

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

General Richards’ speech at the Policy Exchange think tank in central London focused predominantly on the National Security Strategy and the Strategic Defence and Security Review.

He described the National Security Strategy as the guiding document for the analysis and the setting of the strategic context for the Strategic Defence and Security Review.

General Richards said that, based on the National Security Strategy, the SDSR has set us on the path to reform the nation’s defence:

It has embedded importantly the experience of a decade on operations into a plan for the future,” he added.

To understand this you must see the SDSR not as an end state but as part of a process. It is not the final word but a stage in the evolving role of our Armed Forces. It is a waypoint to guide the first stage of transformation.

As part of this, the SDSR recognises the change in a generation of servicemen and women. Officers who were company commanders in Northern Ireland at the time of the last Defence Review in 1998 are now generals with many tours of Iraq and Afghanistan under their belt. Airmen who joined for adventure are now flight sergeants with hours of combat missions and experience of leadership in the most trying conditions.

Since that last review in 1998 the UK Armed Forces have undertaken over a hundred operations and paid a heavy price. More than 560 of our comrades-in-arms have been killed.

These operations have seen new equipment, new people and new doctrine all play their part in the changing character of conflict and have moulded the forces that we now seek to transform.

So change is ever present in the military field. The General said:

The National Security Strategy and the SDSR have given us the opportunity to place that change in its proper strategic context, helping to ensure that transformation is objectively directed rather than simply imposed by events. The Government’s pledge to hold regular reviews recognises this continuing evolution.

But the SDSR does not stand alone, he said, it must be seen in the context of the threats facing our country, and the national finances:

The decisions taken in the SDSR have rightly been taken on the basis of the excellent analysis done by the National Security Strategy which looks beyond the immediate five years at the range of risks the nation faces,” General Richards said.

The National Security Strategy [NSS] has not been given as much prominence as the SDSR and it should be given more. It is an impressive piece of work by a mixed team of officials, both civilian and military, from several departments. The NSS shapes the debate, identifies the issues and gives us the direction of travel.

General Richards said that the strategy lists threats and it is worth remembering the most pressing:

They range from international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, sabotage, espionage, dissident Northern Ireland groups, through natural hazards and cyber attack to the economic situation,” he said.

Given this complex underpinning, the strategic context if you will, the choices we make must accommodate a wide spectrum of threats. That is why our so-called adaptable posture is the right one. And finance is clearly part of the strategic context.

General Richards said that the financial security of the nation must be a primary consideration of any review:

If you need an example of a government failing to get this formula right, pause to recall the fate of the Soviet Union. Moscow’s attempt to match US defence spending contributed to a bankrupt state which led to its collapse.

A plan is not a plan if it doesn’t take into account the resources available. This SDSR has been no different and builds on the reality of the position in which we find ourselves.

That of course has required us to make judgements that trade the perfect for the acceptable. The review prioritises on the basis of our assessment of risk. It ensures we never fall into the trap of gambling.

General Richards said that difficult decisions are a fundamental element of command and in that context he addressed two of the decisions that attracted some comment.

Firstly the decision to continue with the purchase of the new super carriers. And secondly the decision to decommission the Harrier fleet and retain the Tornados:

The case for carriers was not supported by everyone,” he said. “Some argued that they were no longer necessary; that the range of modern jets, extended by a fleet of tanker aircraft, and our basing agreements mean they are part of yesterday’s arsenal. I don’t agree.

Whilst I consider it an acceptable risk to be without carrier strike for the next decade, I do not think, and did not during the SDSR debate think, it prudent to assume a future that discounts ever requiring them again.

The gap in carrier-based aircraft does not diminish our ability to defend the Falkland Islands. The situation in the South Atlantic is very different to that of 1982. Our strategy is based on deterrence and defence, i.e. for once learning the lessons of 1982. So today our defences are much greater with a capable sea, ground and air presence.

Furthermore the government in Buenos Aires is now a democracy, not a military dictatorship, based on the rule of law and tied into a network of alliances, both regional and international. The Argentine foreign minister emphasised in an interview this month that they would seek to take the islands through peaceful means.

Once all this was understood and agreed, and given that our finances required us to remove a complete fast jet type, the issue of whether Harrier or Tornado [should go] could be based on current and anticipated operational need. In this, the choice was made for us some time ago.

When the decision was taken in 2009 to reduce the Harrier fleet to 32 aircraft it became impossible to sustain operations in Afghanistan, and maintain an adequate contingent capability for the unexpected, with just the Harrier.

The short delay to the first carrier, to allow it to be fitted with ‘cats and traps’, means that when it comes into service in 2019 it will be equipped with the hugely capable carrier variant of Joint Strike Fighter. That will mean we will have greater flexibility over their 50 years’ lifespan and will ensure we are prepared for a less predictable future.

General Richards said that for other types of equipment similar decisions have had to be taken; numbers of tanks and artillery will be cut, numbers of personnel reduced and ships paid off:

To be clear,” he said. “That does not mean that equipment that was once the backbone of our Navy, Army and Air Force is now useless.

It is all a question of scale and context. And because we have prioritised against identified risks but not foregone any major capability, we retain the flexibility to evolve and grow back that which a changing strategic environment suggests wise in the future.

Concluding, General Richards said:

We cannot prepare for everything. We cannot be instantly ready for every eventuality. But we can be prepared, in close concert with allies, for the most likely contingencies and structured and equipped to deal with the greatest threats.

We must prioritise for today’s operations. It is no good being ready for tomorrow if that risks losing today. All this is balanced to ensure we can fulfil our standing commitments to the people of the United Kingdom in guaranteeing the protection of our air and sea space.

See Related Links to read General Richards’ speech in full.

Published 23 November 2010