FOREWORD - DEFENCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, Issue 50
Michael Clarke - Director of the Royal United Services Institute
The coalition government has no shortage of difficult issues to address, none more immediate than defence policy. Defence has been in urgent need of a new strategic review since at least 2006 and the unaffordable future is already heavily mortgaged by such factors as the war in Afghanistan, contracts already concluded for the new aircraft carriers, the third delivery of Typhoon fighters, the commitment to maintain the Trident system and the pay and pension liabilities of service personnel.
When the government looks around for immediate savings, there are no sufficiently big future projects, except perhaps the Joint Strike Fighter, that could make the sort of structural difference to spending required. The government can claim that it will cut the MoD's administration by 25% and completely reform the equipment procurement process, but experience suggests that quick initiatives like this tend to save very little money in the short term and conceal major opportunity costs. Administrative reforms are more about culture and practice than about budgets as such, as important as resources obviously are. The war in Afghanistan – in which the coalition government has repeated that the UK must somehow prevail – is absorbing something like a third of the defence budget when everything is taken into account. For the next couple of years at least, it will be difficult to find anything other than peripheral savings in defence, assuming a continuation of existing strategic assumptions.
If these assumptions are not continued, however, and if there is a more decisive break from the defence policy we have previously regarded as irreducible, then greater changes are possible. Will the coalition government be prepared to think very differently about how we interpret our military relationship with the USA, how we should relate to our European allies, and what is a war of necessity as opposed to a war of choice? The rhetoric so far is that they will, and we will see whether this becomes a reality in the autumn when the coalition government publishes its white paper.
There are good strategic reasons for them to look at all these assumptions. The range of strategic choices the UK now faces has not been this great, or uncertain, since the mid-1930s. It is 75 years since we faced a dangerous world in which the direction the UK might take was so much at issue. The coalition government could get it right or wrong. We should not assume that continuity is more likely to be right, just as we should not assume that radical change driven by financial necessity is more likely to produce less favourable strategic choices.