Fitting Defence for the Future: Towards the Next Strategic Defence Review
(Source: UK Ministry of Defence; issued Sept. 16, 2009)
Speech delivered by Secretary of State for Defence Bob Ainsworth at King's College London on Tuesday 15 September 09

Let me begin by saying thank you to the Centre for Defence Studies and the War Studies Department for hosting this event here at King’s.

I particularly wanted to come here to make this speech. The War Studies Department is one of Britain’s best academic centres - a world leader. Institutions like this help provide the Ministry of Defence with rigorous analysis to draw on and imaginative new ideas to consider.

Today I want to talk about some of the major challenges facing British defence. Defence is facing one of the toughest periods it has had for some time.

We have 9,000 personnel in a hard fight in Afghanistan. And pressures on the defence budget are significant.

As Secretary of State for Defence, I have two overwhelming priorities. First, operations in Afghanistan. Second, preparing our forces for the future. Getting these right are essential to seeing us through these tough times.

In July, I launched a process to enable a new defence review to take place early in the next Parliament. As a first step in this process I will publish a Defence Green Paper early next year.

This will set out our thinking on the key issues facing defence, suggest the key questions to be resolved in the full review, and invite reactions from the public.

Our preparation for the future must be in the context of ensuring success in the present. So to begin with, I want to say a few words about current operations. Important as the Green Paper is, Afghanistan comes first.

Afghanistan First

I described in my speech in July the rationale behind the operations in Afghanistan this summer. The Prime Minister set out again 10 days ago why we are in Afghanistan, the complexities, the difficulties and what we are achieving.

Last Friday marked the 8th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Almost 3,000 were killed; 67 British citizens. This was an attack against a NATO ally. Inaction was not acceptable then, and it is not acceptable now.

We can’t allow Afghanistan to once again become a safe haven for terrorists. We can’t allow Al Qaeda, and related terrorist groups, to operate, plan and foment insecurity without challenge no matter where they are. This may be in distant places, but the threat to the UK is real. For Britain to be secure, Afghanistan needs to be secure, Pakistan needs to be secure.

Failure in Afghanistan would have profound consequences for our national security. It would embolden those who preach extremist violence and increase the threat of terrorist attacks here at home.

It would undermine the NATO alliance which has been the bedrock of our defence for the last 60 years. It would leave the UK and our Armed Forces with diminished support for action in the future and a tarnished reputation.

This summer’s operations have been costly. They have taken their toll on the young men and women of our armed forces, who have responded with determination, bravery and skill. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

As I said in July, success in counter-insurgency should be measured by how safe the Afghan people feel and how far peaceful life can be resumed. We will win based on our ability to separate the insurgents from the people. We operate to protect the people from violence and to gain their support.

As a coalition, the key challenge is to implement and resource the right strategy consistently through NATO. General McChrystal’s approach ties in closely with our own national thinking.

We will have succeeded when the Afghans are able themselves to protect their own people and deny Afghanistan as a terrorist training ground. A new emphasis on partnering units of the Afghan army at all levels is the best way to fulfill this. We would support an ambition to grow the Afghan National Army to 134,000 by the earlier date of November 2010.

I have made it clear to all of the personnel in the Ministry of Defence that success in Afghanistan is our main effort, and will remain our principal commitment for as long as it takes. Our approach at this time must be - and is - Afghanistan First. It is the first call on resources and that is why we have increased military spending on Afghanistan since 2006 from £700 million to over £3 billion per annum.

First when it comes to getting the right equipment, fit for operational purpose and into theatre. Since 2006, we have spent over £1 billion from the reserve on new vehicles for Afghanistan, and by next spring we will have doubled the number of helicopters compared with November 2006. We have been prioritising within the core budget towards current operations including protected vehicles, helicopters, personal protection and to ensure we have the right manpower and this priority must continue. And first when it comes to ensuring our Armed Forces have the best training, support and medical care possible.

The Need for Change

Operations in Afghanistan illustrate how rapidly our world is changing and has changed over the past decade.

The Strategic Defence Review of 1998 helped our Armed Forces to move beyond the legacy of the Cold War and to configure for recent operations.

The pace of change since 1998 has been considerable. In 1998 only 1 in 5 households in the UK had a mobile phone. Ten years later that is now 4 in 5. The number of internet users has tripled. GPS technology is used widely in everyday life. Military capabilities are changing just as fast. For example, from 1998 onwards the UK Armed Forces could only generate around 800 flying hours per year from Unmanned Arial Vehicles, by 2009 that had risen to over 10,000 hours. We are living through a technological revolution.

Many of the key principles of the 1998 SDR have proven themselves correct. The focus on tackling threats at source requiring expeditionary forces. The conclusion that the UK would most often take part in operations as part of a coalition of international forces. The benefit of the new mission of defence diplomacy.

We have built on the SDR since 1998, not least with the 2002 New Chapter which helped to reflect the immediate implications of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But some of the assumptions underpinning the SDR have now been overtaken by events.

Over the last decade, with concurrent and enduring operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, our Armed Forces have been, to quote General Dannatt, running hot. Like Michael Clarke I would concede that “go first, go fast, go home had a very short shelf life as an aspiration.”

Secondly, the complexities involved in even limited operations abroad to tackle threats at source have proven more difficult than predicted.

Lastly, we didn’t fully estimate the extent to which our Armed Forces would need to engage in a multi-agency approach. This includes operating alongside other Government departments, but also working with charitable organisations and private companies focussed on reconstruction or security.

In looking forward it's clear that change is required if we are to maintain defence forces fit for the challenges ahead.

The International Context for Defence

The National Security Strategy provides the wider strategic policy context and planning assumptions for the coming five years. But defence capabilities take far longer to build. So we constantly need to scan the horizon. If we make judgements based only on the context of the present we are bound to make changes that will not only be wrong but difficult to reverse further down the line.

In the next decade we will still have to deal with the threats that have emerged over the last 10 years.

Terrorist groups will remain among the most threatening non-state actors. These could include a wide range of violent extremist movements which seek to employ the methods used by Al Qaeda.

Unstable or failing states will be both the source and the arena of conflict. As in Afghanistan, the UK may be compelled to act decisively to contain the impact of instability, particularly when our national security is directly threatened.

Attempts to control or counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction have only been partly successful over the last decade. The 2010 NPT Review Conference is key. If we can deliver an invigorated regime on nuclear power as a whole it could make a fundamental contribution to security in the decades to come.

Looking further forward, the sheer scale of the change then we are likely to see in the next 30 years, and the rapidity of that change, gives serious pause for thought. By 2040, the global population is likely to have risen by almost 2 billion people with 65% living in urban areas. Energy demand, which has doubled over the last 30 years, is set to grow by more than half again – with China and India accounting for around 45% of that increase. Three quarters of total energy usage is still likely to come from fossil fuels. Fully one-third of the world’s population will live in areas where access to water will be a day to day concern.

In this context the resilience of the institutions and processes of global governance – in particular the system of free trade – is of significant concern.

Free trade has the capacity to limit the chances of international confrontation over access to resources, particularly energy. As an island nation with an economic dependence on trade it is right that our Armed Forces act to protect international trade routes, for instance against piracy. But free trade will not of itself reduce all of the inequalities thrown up by globalisation.

If conflict is to be avoided, we will need more effective international institutions. The UK will need to remain globally influential and engaged to shape those institutions and their actions. Our defence capability will need to reflect that global role.

Two developments in particular have the potential to reshape the world radically. First, the increasing impact of climate change and competition for resources. And second the rising economic and political power of Asia.

It is widely held that one of the greatest long term challenges to international stability is likely to be the result of climate change.

Current evidence suggests at least a rise of 2 degrees Celsius in the next 30 years. The impact of such a change is difficult to predict particularly for the purposes of defence planning. But we can conclude that current trends of resource use are unsustainable particularly in the context of the growth of global population and growing social aspirations. Competition for resources such as water, arable land and strategic minerals may trigger or exacerbate conflict. We could see mass migration as a result of rapid change in fragile societies. Regions which already suffer from insecurity are likely to feel the impact of climate change harder than in stable societies.

Over the next few decades, Asia will rival the US and Europe as a centre for global economic and political power. It is currently predicted that by 2030 the world’s four largest single economies will be the US, China, Japan and India. Some estimate that the size of China’s economy will overhaul that of the United States by 2040. Over this period, the United States is likely to remain the only military power with the ability to support a global presence. The UK relationship with the United States, in the context of NATO and our membership of the EU, will therefore remain critical for our security.

Looking long-term what should our initial conclusions be?

First, the judgement of the recent French defence review that we can expect “a world not necessarily more dangerous, but certainly less predictable, less stable and more contradictory” is a fair assessment.

Second, individual nations will be unable to tackle threats or impose solutions alone. The system of alliances and treaties and international agreements will be more important than ever. These will need to be reformed and adapt if they are to serve our security in the years ahead.

Third, as an organisation Defence will need to learn lessons and effect change more quickly, from training to procurement, from operational tactics to overriding doctrine. We will need to take a hard look at our own internal structures to be sure that they are up to the job. As part of that it is my belief that in planning for defence we in the UK should move towards the US system of regular defence reviews – say once every parliament. As others, including Bernard Gray, have argued this would provide a statutory basis for adapting our defence posture.

War fighting

Let me now turn to the business of war itself. As strategists from Clausewitz onwards have recognised the fundamental nature of war is unchanging. But the character of warfare – how wars are fought - is a reflection of the age.

In the 21st century it would appear that the threat of state on state warfare has receded. While it is true that Britain faces no direct territorial challenge, as Hew Strachan has pointed out, the UK has been involved in four wars in the last 30 years - to recover the Falkands, the two Gulf Wars, and in Kosovo - where the opposing armed forces were those of another state. Deterrence, both conventional and nuclear, remains a valid strategy.

But we have also been pitted against irregular forces – as in Iraq following the collapse of Saddam’s regime and now in Afghanistan. Each of these conflicts carries within them aspects of both regular and irregular warfare.

The academic and intellectual debate on planning for defence against these different threats still rages. I tend to agree with General Petraeus’s comment that “the truth is not to be found in any of these schools of thought, but rather in the debate among them.”

The growing trend in warfare is likely to be complexity - whether at sea, on land, or in the air – or in all probability an interdependent combination of all three.

Military forces will face engagement with a range of different combatants and those with an interest in influencing the course of events. These may include states themselves, non-state groups, alliance structures, a range of different government agencies, civilians in conflict zones, and of course the general public at home.

Each of these will be involved for a variety of reasons – national security, national identity, ideology, resources, political power, or even in support of criminal activity.

War will be fought in new theatres – such as cyberspace. Over the past ten years we have seen civilian aircraft used as suicide bombs. Multi-million pound warships attacked from inflatable dinghies. The rapid evolution in technology and tactical use of improvised explosive devices. We can expect old and new technology to be used in novel ways. That is why we need to stay ahead of the game, keep learning and do all we can to protect our people.

The application of physical force – the muscle movements – will play an important role in resolving conflicts but the course of wars will be influenced as much though diplomacy and opinion as through fighting. In an era of 24 hour news the media assumes an important and influential role.

We have seen in Afghanistan, the need to undertake a range of operations all in the same theatre and in the same timeframe.

This can be everything from high-intensity war-fighting, through counter-insurgency and peace support. We have seen the critical importance of working with local security forces. All this must be coordinated closely with the civilian efforts at building effective governance. This need for flexibility, adaptability, co-ordination and constant learning must inform our defence planning.

In considering the breadth of change, Defence will have to balance competing requirements. The need to maintain credibility in our primary role as the ultimate guarantor of our territorial integrity. And the ability to engage abroad at different levels of intensity preventing and resolving conflicts in order to protect our national security and our national interests.

Our initial conclusions on the character of warfare should be first then international intervention will be more difficult not less. We will have to consider carefully how to apply military force in pursuit of national security. And second, and related to this, that the timely application of soft power and methods of conflict prevention will be a high priority.

Despite continued real term increases, the pressures on the defence budget are well documented. There are competing demands on the public purse. We will need to be better at spending the money we have, and more rigorous in prioritising what we spend it on. The Gray Review that we commissioned in December last year will be published in the autumn.

Lord Drayson is heading up our Strategic Defence Acquisition Reform team which will take forward a programme of work in response to that report. In the context of the defence review, we cannot exclude major shifts in the way we use our defence spending to refocus on our priorities. There will be tough choices ahead.

The Green Paper

In conclusion let me set out briefly the process leading to the defence review.

A Defence Green Paper published early next year is the first step. Work is already under way. It will draw on the considerable expertise available within the Ministry, with the Armed Forces Services and our partners across government. Full public consultation will follow its publication. We hope this will lead to a serious and wide-ranging national defence debate.

Yesterday I chaired the first meeting of my Defence Advisory Forum, a group of senior figures with experience in the armed services, government, academia, business and the media.

I have invited the Conservatives and the Liberals Democrats to take part. I hope they will participate in the spirit in which the offer was made.

In my view, the defence of the nation should always come before party politics. We have to be able to reach beyond our political differences and put the interests of the country first. The same applies to the mission in Afghanistan.

In preparing the Green Paper, we want to engage with you, our defence academic community. We hope the Centre for Defence Studies and other think tanks will sponsor seminars on Green Paper issues and we stand ready to help.

We need your expertise and experience.

We need your challenge and criticism.

We need your alternative perspectives.

We need the clarity and rigour which King’s, and its fellow institutions, have brought to the study of war.

With your help we can set our Armed Forces on the right road to face the challenges of the future.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: While this speech contains little news apart from the approximate dates of the Defence Green Paper and the new Strategic Defence Review, we have posted it because it illustrates the level of strategic thinking going on at MoD.
There are no new insights, nor anything of real interest, in Mr Ainsworth’s description of the future strategic context; indeed, his speech contains more platitudes (“We can’t allow Afghanistan to once again become a safe haven for terrorists”; “We are living through a technological revolution”; “We can expect old and new technology to be used in novel ways”) than is usual even for a ministerial speech.
And he repeats the habitual, dubious claims of “continued real term increases” in UK defense spending.

But it is his assertion that “It is widely held that one of the greatest long-term challenges to international stability is likely to be the result of climate change” that will no doubt raise eyebrows in military circles.

And his statement that “The UK relationship with the United States (....) will remain critical for our security” could easily be interpreted as proof that the Labour government has learned little or nothing from the way the “special relationship” has degraded over the past decade.

Finally, Mr Ainsworth warns that “we cannot exclude major shifts in the way we use our defence spending” at the same time as he sternly intimates that “our defence capability will need to reflect (our) global role.”

If it were needed, this speech is indeed proof that a wide-ranging, “bottom-up” defense review of gigantic proportions is long overdue.)


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