UK defence policy: Groundhog Day revisited

Andrew Dorman and Matthew Uttley

Photo Credit: George Evans via Wikimedia

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the film Groundhog Day. The film charts the story of a weatherman, played by Bill Murray, out to cover the annual emergence of the groundhog from its hole. Caught in a blizzard that he did not predict, he finds himself trapped in a time loop in which he constantly relives the same day despite all his best efforts to get his prediction right. After indulging in hedonism and committing suicide numerous times, he begins to re-examine his life and priorities.

This Groundhog Day cycle is an apt characterisation of the attempts of successive British governments to formulate and implement major defence policy reviews.

Defence reviews have historically been initiated in response to widespread parliamentary and public criticism that the preceding defence review is no longer fit for purpose. This is either because defence budgets have proven inadequate to fund stated commitments, or because of substantive, unforeseen changes in the strategic environment. Then follows a period of ‘phoney war’ or stasis between the government deciding a review is needed and the review actually starting.

Next comes a policy formulation phase, where officials seek to bring budgets and commitments back into line against a backdrop of rumours, claims and counterclaims about where the financial axe should fall. Some form of document, usually a white paper, is then published.

This is followed by the inadequate implementation of the new review. Failure at this stage frequently stems from flawed or over-optimistic assumptions about ‘efficiency measures’ intended to ensure a durable balance between defence resources and commitments. Alternatively, failure arises from false or flawed assumptions about the likelihood of future wars, the nature of those wars and the regions in which they will take place.

On the back of this failure the whole cycle starts again.

The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) inherited by Theresa May’s administration is already exhibiting the hallmarks of previous failed reviews. Despite the creation of a National Security Council and the integration of the National Security Strategy with defence policy, to enable government to provide a strategic direction that was so clearly lacking previously, the 2015 SDSR repeated the same optimistic funding assumptions that its predecessors made. This has been exacerbated by the paralysing effects of the Brexit vote, the fall of sterling, particularly against the dollar, and a world that looks increasingly threatening.

The May government’s ongoing National Security Capability Review is following the classic pattern of its predecessors. The 2015 SDSR is proving unaffordable and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is confronted with a major financial hole, reportedly of some 20 billion pounds over the next decade. Predictably, rumours are already circulating about where the financial axe will fall.

Some commentators have proposed ‘solutions’. Edward Lucas, writing in the Times, has advocated recreating an armoured force in central Europe to deter Russia whilst cutting the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, thus abandoning the United Kingdom’s ability to come to the aid of Norway in the face of Russian aggression. In other words, a 21st century version of the Maginot line with all its attendant weaknesses.

Others have proposed alternative ruses based on historical myths. For example, Michael Clarke, adviser to the House of Commons Defence Committee and former Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute, has argued that the MoD has never been responsible for funding the replacement for the nuclear deterrent, and therefore its inclusion in the current defence budget is unreasonable. Yet, the inclusion of the cost of acquiring the current Trident system in the defence budget was one of the central reasons for the 1981 Nott review. Similarly, Lord West continues to perpetuate the myth that Britain lost the ability to retake the Falklands in 2010 with the scrapping of the aircraft carriers as part of the 2010 SDSR when, in fact, the capability had been lost much earlier when the Sea Harrier was taken out of service during his time as head of the navy.

As with previous defence reviews, various retired senior military officers are complaining that their views have not been listened to, and that the rumoured cuts cannot stand. Similarly, advocates of one or other service are pushing their wares. Following tradition, Dr Graham Moyes made the standard call for the abolition of the Royal Air Force in a letter to the Times letters page published on 15th January 2018.

For Dr Julian Lewis, Conservative Chair of the House of Commons Defence Committee, the solution to the MoD’s current financial woes is far more straightforward. The defence budget should be raised from two percent to three percent of GDP to ensure that national defence policy ends are matched by appropriate budgetary means.

All this raises the question of whether defence, like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, can ever escape repeating the same storylines. For Theresa May, the state of defence looks like one more insurmountable public policy problem. A number of senior Conservative MPs, including James Gray and Tobias Ellwood — the latter a Defence Minister — have indicated that they would rebel against any further cuts. Buying off defence may look politically appealing to the Prime Minister but she also knows from her Chancellor, Philip Hammond, that the country’s finances remain problematic particularly given the pressures on the National Health Service. As a former Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Hammond also understands the scale of the financial plight affecting the MoD in detail.

This cacophony of competing voices, alongside the Prime Minister’s other pressing policy concerns, suggests that the Groundhog Day cycle is set to continue. In the meantime, the government may continue to swing between hedonistic optimism about its ability to control the defence budget and a continuing policy of death by a thousand cuts.

Andrew Dorman is Professor of International Security at King’s College London and Commissioning Editor of International Affairs.

Matthew Uttley is Professor of Defence Studies at King’s College London.

His recent article in International Affairs is titled ‘A spin of the wheel? Defence procurement and defence industries in the Brexit debates’.

Read the article online here.