So, what about that SDSR? I’ve just got around to reading it - it’s not difficult, as it’s possibly the lightest MOD document you’ll ever meet. Seriously.

As a result, I have the honour to present probably the best thing ever blogged on British strategy - here. It’s about Europe, America, Britain, the sea, the land, and much else.

I’m broadly in agreement that the original Strategic Defence Review 1998 made a lot of sense. It would probably have been deliverable if we hadn’t decided to go and invade Iraq, and then stick Helmand on top of that, while also deciding to neither put off the various major procurement projects, nor face up to the costs of the wars.

Stretching out the contracts, gapping this, postponing that, categorising this-and-that as “contingency reserve” - it all worked to avoid having to confront the price of Tony Blair’s unique foreign policy. It did so, essentially, by funding the operating costs of the wars at the expense of the capital costs of the equipment programme. And brilliant managers like the duet of Geoff Hoon and Sir Dick Evans at BAE hardly helped.

Part of the problem was the classic defence one of block-obsolescence. In the early 2000s, a hell of a lot of British equipment was closing in on the 30 year mark - Nimrod, VC10, Tristar, Clansman radios, T42 and Invincible-class ships, sundry helicopters. Things were going out of date and climbing the maintenance cost curve. Also, a lot of equipment was designed for one very specific role in northern Germany. And it was all happening at once. SDR 98 was intended to answer the strategic questions (closer to Europe or America? sea or land?) and also to replace the key equipment. But it didn’t happen like that…

Having flicked through the Review, here’s a list of decisions it doesn’t take.

Are we trying to be inseparable from the Americans or invaluable?

If you flip back to Jedibeeftrix’s post, you’ll probably notice this bit:

The problem for Britain’s ambitions in Europe is that a land doctrine does not add anything that Europe doesn’t already have a great deal of, medium-weight brigades. It would undermine the St Malo pressure to forge Europe into a broad spectrum power over all domains: land, sea and air. Further, an EU that is struggling to be seen as a serious strategic partner would also be hard pressed to explain why its most capable naval power, in a group that is mostly devoid of maritime power projection, has transformed itself into a land power. The perception would be that the Britain had once again chosen the US over the EU, and was this not evidence that we were never truly committed to European Defence? Having British forces frequently hip-deep in unattractive American wars has, in addition, all too visibly encouraged the smaller European partners to let their defence spending atrophy. It has only been when our commitment to European Defence has visibly matched that of France that we have been able to persuade the smaller nations that collective defence is an obligation and not a right. .... In contrast, Britain’s ambitions for the US under a land doctrine would no doubt benefit in the short term by being able to sustain a division in theatre wherever this generational epic of failed-state conflicts alights next. We would thereby demonstrate a commitment to the US that would no doubt be reflected in their maintenance of the intelligence and technology sharing functions that forms the real and, for us, beneficial core of the special relationship. However, as America’s interests move further east would the British public be willing to follow the US into wars that are perceived to be ever more remote from what’s recognisable as our national interests?

The SDR strategy was all about building up independent capability and closer ties with Europe, on the basis that it was necessary to be able to say “no” to the Americans (as I put it in my SDR 2010 as a Blog series). If you’re always going to do what they want, you’ll get nothing in return and effectively no say in what it is they want. The Blair policy, however, was all about giving them what they wanted in the hope of getting something back. The two plans were incompatible.

Relatedly, which is more important - land power or sea power?

Jedi reckons that the SDSR is just about compatible with a sea strategy. I’d agree with a heavy accent on the “just” bit. But at the same time, there’s a great deal of stuff in there about Afghanistan and about FRES vehicles. Whether it’s maritime/land or Europe/America, SDSR is one thing and another.

The Army, for example, is still going to plan to operate a division-plus strike force, just not to keep it in the field for long periods of time. Over the long run, it will have to support a brigade-plus and a couple of smaller operations. Actually, the difference isn’t that big between the SDSR and the old Large Scale Deliberate Intervention requirement. (Although, as the FT Westminster blog points out, there’s more where that came from.)

This plays into a major theme:

Are there any major procurement projects that should go?

On this one, the SDSR washes out completely. The only projects that actually hit the deck are the RAF ISTAR ones which are already essentially finished and don’t represent very much in the way of cuts. (And that bucket includes both one “Afghan” item, Sentinel, and one maritime item, MRA4.)

The Army’s FRES project - the £14bn armoured vehicle that hasn’t produced any vehicles, but did spend £192 million on “concept work”, while the Germans who were in the project at the beginning have already got their vehicles - survives. So do the Navy’s aircraft carriers, and the RAF’s new jet fighters, both of them.

On the other hand, the RAF loses an airfield here and there, a percentage of the F-35 buy, 10 Chinooks, Harrier early, and the two ISTAR types. The Army loses the 2nd Division HQ, some manpower, and a slice off its tank park. The Navy is waiting even longer for replacement frigates and isn’t scaled to operate both carriers at once. It’s yer salami slicing, all right.

F-35 - the pivot of the defence debate

Perhaps the key issue in the whole thing is the second fighter type, known as Joint Combat Aircraft or JCA. This is intended to replace both the Harriers and the Jaguars (already cut) and to equip both the RAF and the Navy. It is to provide fleet air defence, carrier strike, and close air support for the Army.

So far, the planning assumption has been that there would be a buy of 120 American F-35B. Significant chunks of the F-35 are built by Rolls Royce and others, and a lot of R&D work in the UK went into it, especially the vertical-takeoff B model. The RAF and Navy traditionally value vertical takeoff, having invented it, and planning for the carriers included the idea of “step ashore”, in which part of the airgroup might move to an improvised shore base.

However, the choice of F-35, of quite so many F-35, and of F-35B is more than controversial. Picking F-35 implies getting what the Americans claim is be the best. But they are ferociously expensive. Also, although the aircraft are flying, the programme has been a nightmare procurement and it’s running very late and over budget.

This is the core of the whole “carriers without aircraft” jibe - when the Tories used it on Labour, it was basically because Labour did what they said and bought American. As Richard North and other blowhards will tell you, American always works. Except when it’s years late, billions over budget, and dependent on the whims of octogenarian alcoholic senators. Now, the Tories have signed up for it. It’s their problem.

Picking the -B model is also important. The carriers are designed for operating a vertical-takeoff aircraft, although as usual take-off will be a short run rather than a vertical jump for better performance. The complex and British-engineered control systems and the lift fan under the nose, the work of RR, cost a lot of money and add considerable extra weight to the plane.

Most of all, though, picking the -B has implications for ship design. Once the flightdeck is complete, we’ve got to go through with -B because there is no other STOVL fighter available. If we chose to design the ships to use catapults and arrester wires, we could have the US Navy’s somewhat cheaper F-35C, or the French Rafale, or possibly the Anglo-Swedish Saab Gripen, or even a seagoing version of the Eurofighter.

The SDSR wants to alter the ships to accept catapults - but it’s not budging on the principle of F-35, even though going Rafale or Gripen or F/A18 would potentially be cheap enough to fix most of the defence budget. That would imply being more European, or not being quite as loyal an ally…and most of all it would imply taking a decision.

In the document, by the way, it gives “interoperability” as the reason for changing - this presumably means interoperability with the French and the US Navy. The US Marines, the Spaniards, and the Italians all fly STOVL, and the Australians want to, and I wasn’t previously aware the special relationship didn’t include the Marines or the Diggers. Of course, their -Bs would be able to land-on any large open deck vertically.

Do we need the carriers?

The answer as per SDSR: Yo. Or perhaps nes. However, it’s actually keener on this than the press spin suggests. The spin is full of talk about not building a ship, or selling it, and that evil Cyclops Brown signed an unbreakable contract with BAE in order to buy votes from Scottish shipbuilders (like they need any help to vote Labour). You might well ask what kind of idiot would take on a contract the size of the carrier job, involving things like enlarging Rosyth’s main drydock as a prerequisite, without guarantees that it would actually happen.

However, the SDSR states directly that a carrier is a strategic requirement - a major nod towards SDR 98, the sea, and building up European capability - but that it will be OK to only have one ship available at any one time. No hesitation - it’s a requirement.

With two carriers, both with their own refit cycle, it would be quite common that only one ship would be available, so this is less significant than it sounds. The SDSR also says that they want to keep open the option of using both ships together, so there you go. The annual running cost of the ship alone is apparently estimated at £44m, so the savings may not be very impressive.

This incidentally came up during the Brown government’s preparations for the planned 2010 SDR - again and again, they looked at cancelling the carriers and then realised that they were surprisingly cheap. The aircraft (see under F-35) are the expensive bit.

Anyway, this is all very theoretical - the key detail here is what the Navy personnel budget looks like in 2020 or thereabouts, and anyone who can predict that ought to be making a fortune in the stock market and probably is. Again, it’s a no-decision.

Also, if we need carriers to rule the waves, don’t we also probably need maritime patrol aircraft?

Nuclear salami

The salami slicing goes right down to the nukes. Rather than dropping Trident, life-extending the current boats, replacing it with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on the SSNs or aircraft, doing something together with the French, or anything else, they’re still going ahead…but they’re planning to have a few dozen fewer bombs, and have decided not to get a replacement warhead (so the American RRW project is now very likely to get cut itself).

They’ve also declared no-first-use, which is nice. And is a decision, but it wasn’t like we were going to launch a unilateral nuclear aggression, was it? If so nobody told me….

Conclusion

Coalition defence policy is basically an exercise in having at least the impression of substantial cuts, the impression of a clear strategy, and the impression of action in general.