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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 28, July 1998

The UK Strategic Defence Review: Analysis & Documentation

On 8 July, 1998 the British Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, announced the outcome of the Labour Government's Strategic Defence Review, launched on 28 May 1997. The Review, intended to examine Britain's defence needs to the year 2015, has been published as a White Paper with a separate appendix of essays covering the various issues. After identifying that today there is "no direct military threat to the United Kingdom or Western Europe", the Strategic Defence Review (SDR) notes that risks to international stability are more likely to come from "ethnic and religious conflict; population and environmental pressures; competition for scarce resources; drugs, terrorism and crime." Eight 'core' missions are identified: peacetime security; security of the overseas territories; defence diplomacy; support to wider British interests; peace support and humanitarian operations; regional conflict outside the NATO area; regional conflict inside the NATO area; and strategic attack on NATO. To deal with the multiplicity of more diffuse tasks envisaged in the post-Cold War world, the SDR proposes a reshaping of the British armed forces, shifting towards greater mobility and rapid response capabilities and more efficient cooperation (among the forces and jointly with other countries). On launching the Review, Robertson had already made it clear that neither NATO nor Britain's possession of the Trident nuclear weapon system would be questioned, although changes in role and operations could be considered.

The main focus of the SDR was on force structure, resulting in a fairly comprehensive set of proposals to rationalise and re-organise the armed forces, upgrade their equipment and technology, and increase the importance of combining forces ('jointery' in MoD jargon) and logistics coordination. The aim is to prepare British forces more efficiently for rapid deployment and joint actions with other countries, including NATO's combined joint task forces and UN missions. For the first time, the UK made 'defence diplomacy' one of the core missions, intended to cover arms control, non-proliferation, outreach, and confidence and security building measures.

In hardware and personnel terms, the planned configuration of Britain's forces to 2015 may be summarised as follows (pre SDR figures/plans in brackets):

  • Trident submarines 4 (4);
  • Trident missiles 58 (65);
  • Maximum nuclear warheads per Trident submarine 48 (96);
  • attack submarines 10 (12);
  • aircraft carriers 2 very large (3 smaller);
  • destroyers/frigates 32 (35);
  • roll-on roll-off container ships 6 (2);
  • minesweepers 22 (25);
  • offensive air support 154 (177);
  • C-17 heavy airlift planes 4 extra
  • tank regiments 6 larger (8);
  • Regular Army 112,300 (108,000)
  • Territorial Army 40,000 (56,000).

In addition, the government pledges to go ahead with the controversial order for 232 Eurofighter aircraft, and will shortly be bringing into service a fleet of new Apache helicopters, 'smart' weapons and improved intelligence and reconnaissance equipment. Most importantly, a four-star 'Chief of Defence Logistics' is appointed to manage logistics across all three services. It was also decided to form a 400-personnel joint army/air nuclear, chemical and biological reconnaissance regiment, based with the Royal Armoured Corps.

The following analyses look at some of the key areas in the Strategic Defence Review from different perspectives. It is clear from policy discussions before and after the release of the SDR that nuclear policy played a rather small part in deliberations. In view of the interests of our readership, however, Disarmament Diplomacy has emphasised the implications of Labour's now-open positions on nuclear policy and arms control.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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