LONDON — Five years after Britain's dire finances triggered a Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) that axed capabilities, force numbers, readiness and ambition, the government gets to have another go at setting out its military priorities in the next few weeks when it wheels out the new version of the review.
A more capable intelligence, surveillance and target-acquisition force, reversing cuts to combat aircraft numbers, a decision on the size of the F-35 fleet, a commitment to the new Type 26 frigates, spending on innovation, improving readiness levels and greater international partnerships could be among the themes the SDSR will address, said analysts and others.
The date may change but the week starting Nov. 23 has been penciled in to release the SDSR, along with a new national security strategy and a government-wide spending review.
The Ministry of Defence budget may effectively be protected, but the department could still be required to meet huge efficiency savings targets as part of the spending review.
While July's unexpectedly positive five-year defense-spending settlement has put the MoD in a much better place, tough choices remain for the government on priorities across a range of equipment, manpower and other issues.
It's not just the budgetary situation that has changed the standing of defense.
Analysts said the government now accepts that the rapidly changing geopolitical situation posed by Russian aggression, and developments in the Middle East, and North Africa, plus and the growing pressures on homeland security require a revised approach.
One of the capability judgments the British must make is whether Russia will be the potential enemy against which it measures its forces, said Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute of Strategic Studies think tank in London.
"The UK has to decide whether Russian combat capability is to be its benchmark," he said.. "If Britain is serious about contributing to NATO deterrence then the forces it sends to exercise in the alliances front-line states need to be of sufficient quality to act as a real deterrent. That has big implications for armoured vehicle and other programs."," he said.
The international dimension of SDSR will likely be reflected by the British bolstering defense engagement and overseas partnerships, said analysts said.
"A new naval base is being built for the Royal Navy in Bahrain and foreign secretary Philip Hammond said at the Manama Dialogue last week that Britain would shortly go further and unveil a new Gulf strategy," Barry said. "That may involve a more sustained presence in the region with exercises, deployments and even some modest forward basing of forces."
Alex Ashbourne Walmsley, of Ashbourne Strategic Consulting, said there will likely be more emphasis on international partnerships, as well.
"You can expect cooperation not just with our usual partners, France and the US, but also with the Netherlands and Germany," she said.. "Look for announcements coming up on joint training, and cooperation in counter terrorism and cyber.," she said.
While the likely contents of SDSR 2015 are now known to only a select few politicians, military officers and civil servants, there have been several broad pointers as to what it may contain.
Most prominently, Gen. Sir Nicholas Houghton, the chief of the defense staff, outlined some possible priorities during a September speech to the Chatham House think tank. He picked out war-fighting resilience, boosting special forces, spending more on innovation, increasing RAF combat numbers, improving surveillance and targeting capabilities, and resolving critical manpower shortage challenges among the key issues on the SDSR agenda.
Houghton's speech followed earlier statements supporting raised ISTAR and special forces spending by Prime Minister David Cameron after the Conservative general election win in May.
Last month, Cameron preempted the SDSR by announcing that the Royal Air Force (RAF) was to buy more than 20 unmanned air vehicles to replace the 10 armed Predator machines presently deployed against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
There's also a hangar full of other capability issues that could be addressed, including committing to a new maritime patrol aircraft, improving cyber defense and offensive capacity, extending the out-of-service date of the C-130J Hercules fleet and going ahead with a new mechanized infantry vehicle for the British Army.
In terms of capital spending, the Navy will be the main beneficiary with a renewed commitment to the new nuclear deterrent, and the operation of the second aircraft and, possibly, the trailing of a future submarine capability beyond the Astute hunter-killers now entering service, said Ashbourne-Walmsley said.
Howard Wheeldon, an analyst who specializes in air power, said he thought the SDSR would roll back some decisions made five years ago to reduce fighter squadron numbers.
Two additional Typhoon squadrons made up of Tranche 1 standard aircraft due to be taken out of service in 2019 and, eventually, another F-35 squadron could be added to the lineup, he said during a private briefing of executives at a London law firm last week.
Defence Procurement Minister Philip Dunne confirmed in Parliament Nov. 4 that extending the lift of Tranche 1 aircraft is part of the SDSR deliberations.
Wheeldon also said he expects to see the RAF's Sentry E-3 airborne early warning aircraft fleet upgraded and retained in service until 2035 and the Sentinel battlefield surveillance platform continued until least 2021, rather than being taken out of service in 2019 as planned.
Ashbourne-Walmsley cautions, though, that the SDSR may cover the capability issues but avoid the detail.
"I don’t think SDSR will be nearly as specific as people want," she said.. "The MoD will be wanting to keep its options open rather than be precise about announcements on kit or force numbers.," she said.
"They have virtually no new money to spend in the next two years, so why would they box themselves in with detailed procurement announcements now"" she said.
One example of that is the decision about whether or not to replace a maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) capability axed in 2010's SDSR.
Sources say the government is unlikely to go much further than state a commitment to the MPA requirement in the SDSR, rather than go with the RAF's preference to buy the Boeing P-8 or run a competition.
It’s not just military capabilities that are likely to be on the review menu, either. Industrial capabilities will also be on the agenda too.
Paul Everitt, CEO of the ADS Group defense and aerospace trade lobby, said that the message from industry has been about the need to encourage research and development, the wider prosperity agenda, security of supply and sustaining key capabilities.
"I don't know the detail of what they are likely to say but innovation will be a key theme, the prosperity agenda will be a key theme and there will be some recognition of the economic and industrial contribution made by the defense and security sectors," he said.