The United Kingdom’s Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015

Restoring Britain’s Military Power

Late last year, British Prime Minister David Cameron tabled his government’s National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 (SDSR 2015) – a document that sets out the United Kingdom’s defence and security strategy for the next five years. It was a highly anticipated paper, as defence reviews usually are, and one that surprised.

“We have no way of knowing precisely what course events will take over the next five years,” Cameron told the British House of Commons. “But we can make sure that we have the versatility and the means to respond to new risks and threats to our security as they arise.”

And with that, the PM introduced a plan that, among other things, will see the British government investing more than £178 billion in buying and maintaining equipment for the navy, army and air force over the next decade, doubling the investment for equipment for British special forces, and developing a high-quality, adaptable expeditionary “Joint Force 2025” of 50,000 personnel fully equipped and ready to deploy rapidly.

“The outcome of this review is much better than the armed forces were expecting only six months ago, when further steep capability cuts – compared to those over the past five years – were widely anticipated,” said Malcolm Chalmers, the director of UK defence policy at London’s Royal United Services Institute, in a commentary in The Guardian newspaper.

Officer of the watch.
Officer of the watch. The Royal Navy has operated the UK’s Continuous at Sea Deterrent since 1967 when the first SSBN (Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear) HMS Resolution began patrolling,armed with the Polaris missile system.

Chalmers said that while this review does not signal a significant change in UK defence capabilities when compared with current levels, and can therefore be best described as being a ‘steady as she goes’ review, it does provide some stability in defence planning after five years of substantial reduction.

The 95-page National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review document sets out a four-point National Security Strategy (see sidebar), and a three-point set of national security objectives, followed by details on how the UK will deliver its strategy through the objectives.

The 2015 UK National Security Strategy
  • Strengthen the UK’s armed forces and security and intelligence agencies so that they remain world leading.
  • Further enhance the UK’s position as the world’s leading ‘soft power’ promoting the UK’s values and ­interests globally.
  • Invest further in the UK’s current alliances, including NATO, and in new relationships.
  • Strengthen the UK’s domestic resilience and law enforcement capabilities against global challenges.

The National Security Strategy reflects Britain’s “full-spectrum” approach to repositioning the UK on the world stage – an approach that looks to diplomacy and economics, as well as to military power as important options the government must have at its disposal. The belief, it appears, is that Britain can best engage globally through defence, security, diplomacy and international development.

And the United Kingdom and its allies have a lot to be worried about since the 2010 review. The terrorist events in Paris, the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, geopolitical tensions in the Maghreb, the willingness of Russia to redraw geopolitical boundaries through the use of military force in the Ukraine, the increasing risk of cyber attacks – all reminders that security threats to the UK and all NATO allies are real and tangible.

The largest warships ever built in the UK, Queen Elizabeth-class ships will provide a four acre operating base for  the British military.
The largest warships ever built in the UK, Queen Elizabeth-class ships will provide a four acre operating base for the British military.
(Photo courtesy of BAE Systems)

So, in addition to bolstering the armed forces, the UK will do more to ensure that the British security and intelligence services have the resources needed to prevent and disrupt plots against the UK; that the British diplomatic service will use “soft power”, including refocusing aid to support fragile and broken states, to promote British values and tackle the causes of security threats to the United Kingdom; and that the UK will further strengthen its alliances in Europe and around the world to deal with common defence and security issues.

The main winners in the 2015 review – if you look at budget and capability increases – were Britain’s intelligence services, the Special Forces, and the Royal Air Force.

On the intelligence side, the Government Communications Headquarters (the British intelligence and security organization responsible for providing signals intelligence and information to the government and armed forces), as well as MI5 and MI6 (the domestic and foreign intelligence services), will see their overall staffing and capability budget increased by £2.5 billion, which includes an additional 1,900 personnel.

Among the UK armed forces, command officers were able to breathe a little easier knowing that the overall defence budget would not be further slashed. In fact, SDSR 2015 declared that the budget would increase from £34.3 billion in 2015 to £39.6 billion in 2020, and the number of service personnel would stabilize at about 145,000 (having fallen from 178,000 since 2010).

Moreover, the budget for equipment and support over the next 10 years will increase by £12 billion to £178 billion. And Prime Minister Cameron confirmed that Britain would continue to spend 2 percent of Gross Domestic Product on defence, which is among the highest spends of NATO-member countries. Canada, by contrast, spends less than 1 percent.

The introduction of eight advanced Type 26 Global Combat Ships being built by BAE Systems, will provide the UK with one of the most capable  anti-submarine fleets in the world.
The introduction of eight advanced Type 26 Global Combat Ships being built by BAE Systems, will provide the UK with one of the most capable anti-submarine fleets in the world.

The Royal Air Force can look forward to two squadrons of F-35 fighter jets (which is one squadron more than expected) to equip the two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. The Conservative government remains committed to a total of 138 F-35s by 2035. In the meantime, the government will extend the life of the older Typhoon FGR4 fighter aircraft, and will fund the RAF to stand up two new Typhoon squadrons, using already built BAE Typhoons in storage.

Of particular significance is the government’s announcement in SDSR 2015 that it would set aside £2 billion to buy nine Boeing P8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. The P8 will protect the Royal Navy’s nuclear-powered submarine fleet and the two new aircraft carriers, and enhance maritime search and rescue, addressing noticeable capability deficiencies brought about by the last defence review.

The Conservatives had scrapped the UK’s Nimrod aircraft MR2-to-MRA4 upgrade program in 2010 for cost-saving reasons since the program was years late and vastly over budget. While it was difficult to predict at the time, this decision left the RAF with no maritime patrol capability in the face of increased Russian submarine and surface naval activity over the last few years. In fact, British newspaper The Independent recently reported that the UK had to call upon surveillance help from U.S., Canadian, French and German aircraft more than 20 times last year alone. Furthermore, the lack of maritime patrol capability jeopardized the credibility of Britain’s submarine-borne Trident nuclear deterrent since the UK lacked the capability to track nosey Russian submarines in search of the UK nuclear-deterrent vessels.

One of Britain’s first F-35B Lightning II aircraft
One of Britain’s first F-35B Lightning II aircraft takes off from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Personnel from the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force were familiarizing themselves with the F-35 processes and procedures both in the air and on the ground at the U.S. Air Force Base.
The F-35B Lightning II will place the UK at the forefront of fighter technology, giving the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force a true multi-role all-weather, day and night capability, able to operate from well-established land bases, deployed locations or the Queen Elizabeth-class ­aircraft carriers.
(MOD Photo: Sdr Ldr Nikki Lofthouse)

The P8 Poseidon will be built at Boeing’s factory in Washington State, with little work for industries in the United Kingdom. The proposed sole-source procurement of the Boeing P8 has raised a few eyebrows in the UK since it effectively cut out competition from AirbusLockheed Martin and L-3. Critics have suggested that other these options may well have been less expensive and would have been of greater benefit to the UK aerospace and defence industry.

The Royal Air Force will also see a significant extension in the out-of-service date for its fleet of Hercules C-130J transport aircraft and its ISTAR aircraft such as the ShadowSentry E-3 and Sentinel. And it will acquire more than 20 new Protector armed, remotely piloted aircraft, more than doubling the number of Reaper aircraft that they replace.

British Special Forces, the other big winner in SDSR 2015, will see a doubling in funding for equipment and to enhance their ability to operate and strike globally, and to enhance counter-terrorism capabilities.

“We will buy advanced communications equipment and weapons, and ensure that our Special Forces can operate covertly around the world,” the SDSR 2015 said. “They will have the information they need, including through our investment in advanced high altitude surveillance aircraft. We will upgrade our helicopters and transport aircraft so that they can deploy further and faster.”

The UK will add two Typhoon squadrons and will upgrade its existing aircraft to ensure that the RAF can continue to operate the fighter until at least 2040.
The UK will add two Typhoon squadrons and will upgrade its existing aircraft to ensure that the RAF can continue to operate the fighter until at least 2040.


Britain’s 2015 Defence Review by the Numbers

  • 2% of GDP to be spent on UK defence budget.
  • £178 billion to be spent on military equipment and support over the next decade.
  • £34.3 billion to £39.6 billion rise in defence budget over five years.
  • Equipment and support budget ­represents a £12 billion increase.
  • 2 new squadrons (24 aircraft) of F-35 fighter jets by 2023.
  • 2 new squadrons of Typhoon fighters.
  • 138 F-35 fighters by 2035.
  • 2 new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers.
  • 9 new Boeing P8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft.
  • 20 Protector armed drones.
  • £2 billion increase to budget for special forces.
  • 2 new rapid reaction strike brigades of 5,000 personnel by 2025.
  • 50,000-member expeditionary Joint Force 2025.
  • 8 Type 26 Global Combat Ships
  • 5 general purpose frigates.
  • 1,900 more personnel for GCHQ, MI5 and MI6.
  • 450 new sailors for the Royal Navy.
  • 4 new missile-carrying Trident subs.
  • 30% cut in civilian defence jobs.

The Royal Navy, while not enjoying the funding attention that the air force and special forces received, will get two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers rather than the one promised in 2010, four new Trident missile-carrying submarines, and at least eight new fully-equipped Type 26 global combat ships.  

The QE class aircraft carriers, which will provide the platform for the two new squadrons of F-35 fighter jets, are currently under construction in the UK by a consortium including BAE Systems and Babcock International. They are expected to enter service between 2020 and 2023.

Once again, SDSR 2015 reverses the 2010 position that aircraft carrier strike capability was no longer necessary, and that resulted in the Royal Navy having to scrap old aircraft carriers. The 2015 review notes that the new aircraft carriers will transform the Royal Navy’s ability to project British influence overseas.

Financial constraints have, however, impacted the Royal Navy’s plan to acquire 13 Type 26 Global Combat Ships to replace the Type 23 ships. SDSR 2015 allows for only eight of the advanced ships, which will be phased into the British fleet of 19 frigates and destroyers. For the remaining five ships, the UK will design and build a new class of lighter, flexible general-purpose frigates, dubbed “Type 26-lite”, to be phased into service by 2030.

Under a sole-source contract, the UK will procure nine Boeing P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft capable of long-range ISR maritime and littoral operations.
Under a sole-source contract, the UK will procure nine Boeing P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft capable of long-range ISR maritime and littoral operations.

Finally, the Navy will get four new Trident missile-carrying submarines at a cost of £41 billion, to replace the Vanguard class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. They will enter service beginning in 2030s, later than previously expected.

“It would be irresponsible,” the SDSR noted, “to assume that the UK will not in the foreseeable future be confronted with the kinds of extreme threat to our security or way of life which nuclear weapons seek to deter. We judge that a minimum, credible, independent nuclear deterrent, based on Continuous At Sea Deterrence and assigned to the defence of NATO, remains vital to our national security.”

Changes to the British Army have less to do with equipment or size, but rather with force posture. SDSR 2015 gives the army more of an expeditionary flavour. It picks up on the 2010 proposal for a modern, capable and sophisticated expeditionary force – this one called “Joint Force 2025” rather than the “Future Force 2020” moniker of the previous review.

This proposed expeditionary force will be made up of 50,000 personnel, up from the 30,000 proposed in 2010. The force will include two new 5,000-member strike brigades ready to deploy rapidly over long distances using Ajax armoured vehicles and new mechanized infantry vehicles. The army will retain the ability to deploy up to 40,000 personnel on an expeditionary operation anywhere in the world for a limited period of time, and 10,000 personnel for an extended time.

The army will also get upgraded Apache attack helicopters and RAF Chinook support helicopters, and Warrior armoured fighting vehicles, two brigades devoted to strategic communications, hybrid warfare and battlefield intelligence, and several infantry battalions reconfigured to provide counter-terrorism and stability-building activities overseas.

HMS Vengeance
The Royal Navy’s four Vanguard-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) are each armed with up to 16 UGM-133 Trident II nuclear deterrent missiles. The boats were built by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering (now owned by BAE Systems) between 1986 and 1999. Shown here after completing operational sea training, HMS Vengeance, the fourth submarine in the class is shown here, returns to Naval Base Clyde (where all four of the SSBN are based). The trials were conducted in Scottish exercise areas.
(Photo: POA (Phot) Tam McDonald)

“Despite claims to the contrary, Britain’s latest strategic review isn’t half bad,” said Patrick Porter, Academic Director of the Strategy and Security Institute and Chair of Strategic Studies at the University of Exeter, in an article on the U.S. web-based publication War on the Rocks. He notes that the 2015 review closes some of the gap between military capability and commitments by making a serious effort to identify and weigh risks, and offers a design for the pursuit of security.

Yet critics point to a substantial gap between the immediate military needs of the United Kingdom – needs suggested by Russian aggression, instability in the Middle East, and the emergence of China as a major world military power – and the proposed capability enhancements that could take a decade or more to be realized.

SDSR 2015 has also been criticized for failing to take into account the potential impact of the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, should the British electorate so vote during the June 23rd referendum, in what has become known as the “Brexit” movement.

On balance, however, opinion in the UK appears to lean distinctly in favour of this latest defence and security review as an antidote to the military austerity proposed back in 2010. As the influential British magazine, The Economisttrumpeted last November when David Cameron tabled SDSR 2015: “Britain reasserts itself as a serious military power.”   

Brian Bérubé is an Ottawa-based communications consultant specializing in defence and security issues.