LONDON — Britain has reversed a decline in its defense posture of recent years with last week's the publication by the Government last week of its Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) but analysts here warn the rhetoric now must be turned into implementation.
"It's short on detail and I'm worried about how it's all going to be paid for, but it's a so much better thought-out effort than the previous SDSR in 2010. Now they have to deliver on the document's content," said one consultant here who asked not to be named.
Driven by a dire financial situation and a huge over-commitment of the equipment budget, the Ministry of Defence was savaged in the 2010 SDSR with cuts to capabilities, personnel numbers and programs.
The cuts pretty much coincided with accusations by some of Britain’s allies that it was retreating from the international arena to focus more on domestic issues over the past five’s years, drawing concerns from US President Barack Obama and others.
British Prime Minister David Cameron told Defense News in an exclusive interview Nov. 23, just ahead of the publication of the SDSR, said that he had spoken to Obama at the recent G20 meeting in Turkey and the president was "clearly delighted" with the choices the UK had made in the defense review.
Cameron also said accusations of a diminishing British involvement internationally were incorrect.
"I have never accepted the strategic shrinkage argument for a minute. We needed to make sure we got our economy back on track, but even so we have the second-largest defense budget in NATO," he said.
"The SDSR sends out a clear message that Britain is an engaged nation with global reach and global influence not for national vanity but for reasons of clear-sighted national interest; we are a player in the world," said Cameron.
One of the things that has changed here since the previous review is the recognition by senior government ministers that the threat level to British security has risen markedly, resulting in defense and intelligence requirements securing a much greater priority than previously, said analysts.
That's partly borne out by some of the changes that give the British military a more expeditionary feel about them.
The changes include two new Army strike brigades for rapid deployment over long distances, fast-tracking delivery of F-35Bs to beef up the number of aircraft Britain's new aircraft carriers can deploy, a doubling of special forces spending and as part of a new Joint Force 2025 program, be able to deploy a 50,000 strong expeditionary force compared with the 30,000 planned for by SDSR 2010.
Analysts here said that in capability terms at least, this latest review has gone some way to repairing the damage caused by the 2010 cut.
"Much of what has been announced in SDSR 2015 has reversed the direction of travel that had been established five years ago," said Doug Barrie, the senior air analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank.
"The UK armed forces, while highly capable and motivated, were on the brink of becoming a boutique force simply because the lack of scale risked its ability to sustain operations at a level required," he said.
"That's particularly true in the air sector where cuts to combat air mass and the gap in maritime patrol capability were no longer a credible option given the changing circumstances since 2010, particularly the uptick in Russian submarine and surface naval activity in UK's area of interest. Hence the decision to acquire the highly capable P-8 aircraft," he said.
Aviation was a big winner in the review, with two additional Typhoon squadrons being stood up, an F-35 squadron being added earlier than expected, the Hercules C-130Js' out-of-service date being extended significantly, a new fleet of remotely piloted aircraft, and updates on and out-of-service dates on ISTAR aircraft like the Shadow, Sentry E-3 and Sentinel.
But not all agree the SDSR marks that big of a capability increase. though.
Malcolm Chalmers, the director of UK defense policy studies at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, said the outcome of the review was much better than had been expected six months ago but would not greatly improve generate a significant improvement to capabilities.
"It does not add up to a step change in UK defense capabilities compared with current levels. It is therefore best described as being a 'steady as she goes' review, providing a welcome element of stability in defense planning after five years of substantial reductions," said Chalmers.
The RUSI think tanker said the report emphasized "high-quality adaptable forces able to work closely with allies."
The UK government announced last week that it was increasing equipment and support spending over the next 10ten years by £12 billion to £178 billion (US $18.2 billion to $270.3 billion). The annual budget will rise from £34.3 billion this year to £39.6 billion in 2020, having previously been cut by 8 percent since 2010.
Much of that additional £12 billion would come from savings, including a £2 billion reprioritization of existing funding. That could to impact affect a number of smaller program
One surprise was the announcement that civilian defense job numbers will are going to be cut 30 percent from the current 56,000 level by 30 percent. That’s on top of a 33 percent reduction since 2010.
A number of those jobs could be contracted out to industry but concerns are being raised here about the possible adverse impact reductions on this scale could have
Two key programs have caught the most attention in the SDSR: the purchase of nine Boeing P-8 maritime patrol aircraft and the announcement of delays and big cost increases to the Successor nuclear missile submarine program.
Selection of the P-8, without giving rivals like Airbus, Lockheed Martin and L-3 the chance to compete, has angered many here who point to the lower cost and high British industry content of other platforms.
Going single source on the maritime patrol aircraft is inconsistent with government assertions that the defense industry here is a vital part of the prosperity agenda being pursued by the Conservative government.
Negotiations between the US and British governments are underway with a deal possible by the end of March.
US sources said deliveries could start in 2017 with two US Navy production slots having already been earmarked to be handed over to the British.
Other sources said the governments are also considering bridging the gap until the British aircraft are operational by having two USN P-8s with British crews available from the RAF base at for maritime patrol work.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said a "range of options were being looked at including the continued use of existing assets and drawing on support from allies whenever possible until we reach initial operating capability."
The source also said Boeing may be contemplating a major investment in the UK to support the P-8 and other aircraft and helicopter platforms it has supplied to British forces. Civil aircraft support could also be involved.
The other big program issue detailed in the review related to the Successor program to replace the current fleet of four Vanguard-class nuclear missile boats currently in service.
The SDSR said the first nuclear boat was being delayed for entry into service from 2028 to the early 2030s and the price would rise from £25 billion to £31 billion with a whopping £10 billion contingency fund on top of that to cover the risk of possible cost overruns.
Consultant Alex Ashbourne-Walmsley, of Asbourne Strategic Consulting, reckons the biggest single risk was the new nuclear reactor being built by the British without operating it first on a test bed.
The government also said it was cutting the Type 26 antisubmarine warfare frigate program from 13 to eight vessels and starting a concept study to build a lighter general purpose frigate to fill the gap and provide a more exportable vessel for industry.