UK Strategic Defence and Security Review: SGR Response

Full text of SGR response to the UK Strategic Defence and Security Review, 3 September 2010.

A very similar submission was made to the House of Comons Defence Committee inquiry into this Review.

1. About SGR

2. Consultation process and scope

3. Security strategy – general

4. UK nuclear weapons

5. Conventional weapons systems

6. Research and development

7. Other issues

8. Concluding comments

Main references


1. About SGR

SGR is an independent UK-based membership organisation of about 1000 natural and social scientists, engineers, IT professionals and architects. Our aim is to promote science, design and technology that contribute to peace, social justice, and environmental sustainability.

Our interest in the Strategic Defence and Security Review stems from our concerns about the use of science and technology – and related expertise – in both helping to increase security and/or undermine it. Hence, our comments will focus on these areas.

2. Consultation process and scope

We welcome the opportunity to input to the SDSR, and related parliamentary inquiries. However, we note that information on how and when to input has been sparse. This is not consistent with government guidelines on the holding of public consultations, and reflects poorly on the democratic accountability of the new government. We hope that this does not mean that responses from civil society will not be taken seriously.

We also note that the Defence Secretary has excluded issues related to the UK’s nuclear weapons systems from this review. We fail to understand how a defence review can be undertaken without consideration of the role of one of the main weapons platforms. Our response will therefore cover this issue, in the hope that the terms of reference of the review will be revised.

3. Security strategy – general

We welcome the shift within government policy in recent years from a narrowly defined ‘defence strategy’ to a more broadly defined ‘security strategy’. In particular, we were pleased to see recognition in the 2008 National Security Strategy of a wide range of ‘drivers of insecurity’, including poverty and environmental problems. SGR has long argued for such a perspective. However, UK security and defence policy, and associated spending, has unfortunately remained heavily orientated towards maintaining and deploying large military forces, ready and able to use ‘force projection’ as deemed necessary.

The UK military budget is very large in global terms. According to the respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the UK ranks fourth in the world in terms of absolute spending, and per head of population is twice as large as Russia and more than 12 times greater than China. Per unit of GDP, the UK spends well above the average for the European members of NATO. If the UK decided to reduce military spending to this average, it would lead to a cut in the region of 25%.

The justifications for maintaining such a large budget – or indeed cutting it less than is proposed for many other departments as part of the current government spending review – we believe need to be urgently re-examined.

Firstly, the recent experiences of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated starkly the limitations of relying on military force to achieve security objectives: high numbers of casualties, both civilian and military; the inability to achieve a ‘quick win’ even through the use of overwhelming forces; considerable damage to both the infrastructure and social structures needed for a stable post-conflict society; the marked increase in terrorism as a response to the use of military force; and the huge economic costs.

Secondly, there is widespread agreement that a military attack on the UK by regular armed forces is currently extremely unlikely – the UK is safer from such a threat that at any time in its history. While security analysts have identified a range of potential future threats from regular armed forces, it is extremely important to consider the likelihood of such threats, and not give them undue priority over unconventional or non-military security concerns – such as energy, food or water insecurity. It is also essential that non-military approaches to tackling such future problems are resourced properly. Acting early to tackle the roots of insecurity – both in the UK and globally – should be at the heart of the UK’s security strategy.

SGR is very concerned that the UK’s military budget will be kept high on the justification of extremely low probability future military threats from regular armed forces, while other measures which are aimed at tackling much more likely – but less conventional – security threats will remain under-resourced.

An example of this problem is the level of financial and technical resources devoted to tackling the UK’s currently unsustainable consumption of natural resources. The government has rightly recognised the importance of supporting the transition to a low carbon economy. This has numerous security benefits – including improving the UK’s energy security and reducing its contribution to climate change, itself a driver of insecurity. However, we have serious doubts that the UK will achieve its targets in this area without more finance being made available. Indeed, the UK is a long way from achieving a sustainable level of consumption for a wide range of natural resources, and this will inevitably contribute to greater insecurity, both in the UK and internationally. A major transfer of funding from military sources to support the transition to sustainable consumption levels, we believe is justified.

4. UK nuclear weapons

The UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system and its potential successor have been excluded from this review. To conduct a defence review without considering the role of one of the major weapons platforms seems on the face of it to be deeply flawed. However, this may be because the UK’s continued deployment of nuclear weapons is not driven by military strategy, but by political strategy (i.e. to enhance the UK’s political influence). This has been most recently argued in Ritchie (2008). Further evidence of this perspective is revealed by the Defence Secretary’s recent attempts to have Trident replacement paid for, not from the defence budget, but out of central government funds.

Nevertheless, considering Trident and its replacement in a military context, it is incapable of deterring any of the realistic future threats that the UK may face such as terrorism, social strife or conventional military threats. Furthermore, nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction – indiscriminate and highly dangerous (even for the user nation due to the widespread environmental and health problems they create). They can have no place in defence strategy of a rational nation. The UK’s continued maintenance of such weapons lends them political legitimacy and – in the absence of a clear plan for complete disarmament – undermines attempts to prevent the proliferation of such weapons, further undermining UK security.

Taking these factors into consideration, SGR believes that the UK should take immediate steps to abandon its active deployment of nuclear weapons. It should take the Trident submarines off patrol, place the warheads in secure land-based storage and cancel the replacement system.

Furthermore, the expense of replacing Trident and maintaining that replacement – currently estimated at £70-100 billion over the lifetime of the system – could provide much needed funds to help enhance UK and global security in other ways (see section 3).

As part of the above steps, the current multi-billion pound redevelopment of the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) – whose purpose is likely to involve a nuclear warhead replacement programme – should be halted. SGR believes that the focus of the facility should move rapidly towards one based wholly on providing technical expertise in support of nuclear disarmament, both in the UK and globally.

5. Conventional weapons systems

In launching the SDSR, the Defence Secretary said that the review “will make a clean break from the military and political mindset of Cold War politics”. We welcome such sentiments, but are concerned that they will not lead to the deep cuts in expensive, offensive military technologies that are justified if the UK moved much more towards security strategies based on ideas such as ‘non-offensive defence’ or ‘sustainable security’.

We therefore recommend that priorities for cuts in conventional military technologies should include the following. (These recommendations focus on early retirement of some existing systems, and the cancellation of planned systems on which construction has yet to begin or is in a very early stage.)

  • Aircraft carriers.Current plans to build the two biggest aircraft carriers in British naval history are wedded to Cold War-thinking. The capabilities of the first carrier, already under construction, should be markedly scaled back – including deep cuts to its proposed combat aircraft fleet – while the second carrier should be cancelled.
  • Submarines.Submarines are highly expensive vessels with a strong offensive capability. In addition to retiring the Vanguard-class which carries Trident nuclear missiles and cancelling its successor, we also advocate early retirement for the Trafalgar-class and Swiftsure-class, and cancelling the final three Astute-class vessels.
  • Frigates and destroyers.We advocate early retirement of many of the existing ships, and cuts in the commissioning of the new Type-45 destroyers and plans for Type-26 frigates.
  • Combat aircraft.The UK has a huge fleet of combat aircraft. We advocate early retirement of the over 100-strong Tornado fleet, and deep cuts to the planned fleet of nearly 150 Typhoon fighter planes.
  • Training aircraft.Large reductions in the combat fleet will allow for commensurate cuts in training aircraft.
  • Tanks.With over 300 tanks currently in service – another relic of the Cold War – we advocate deep cuts here as well.
  • Other military equipment. Major cuts in a range of other land, sea and air vehicles that have a strong offensive capability will also be necessary. Vehicles which have particular strengths for humanitarian work and disaster relief should, of course, be protected from cuts.

In combination, SGR believes that cuts such as these could save many billions of pounds per year, with a minimal effect on UK security. They would also help reduce the Ministry of Defence’s massive budget deficit and bring the UK military budget down to a level comparable to that seen across the rest of Europe.

A further relevant aspect of this issue is the sale of UK military equipment abroad, which can fuel insecurity. In recent years, the UK has completed major sales of weapons systems and expertise to countries with poor human rights records – e.g. Saudi Arabia – and countries of concern for other reasons. For example, the £700 million Hawk deal with India endorsed by David Cameron in July 2010 raises serious concerns. It has increased tensions between India and Pakistan, and could potentially fuel a regional arms race. Indeed, given the high levels of poverty in India (and Pakistan), and the recognition that poverty is a driver of insecurity (see section 3), is such a deal really consistent with the UK security policies?

Of particular concern in this area is the UK government’s continued financial support for arms exports through the UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation (UK TI DSO).

SGR strongly recommends that the government immediately enacts much tighter restrictions on arms exports, and closes down the UK TI DSO.

6. Research and development

The Ministry of Defence’s current budget for research and development is approximately £2.2 billion. This is approximately 28% of all public R&D spending. SGR believes this is unnecessarily high, and advocates cuts in this budget before cuts in other publicly-funded R&D. Indeed, a significant fraction of this budget is provided to the AWE. With the cuts to AWE suggested in section 4, this would allow many other civilian areas of R&D – which are of much greater benefit to society – to be spared from being axed.

SGR believes some security-related R&D should be expanded, including that which supports:

  • monitoring and verification of arms control and disarmament agreements;
  • trust-building activities between nations and peoples;
  • non-violent conflict resolution;
  • understanding and tackling the roots of conflict and insecurity;
  • transition to sustainable consumption of natural resources; and
  • other peace-building activities.

7. Other issues

Significant numbers of UK jobs are dependent on the military/ defence sectors. However, all the options that the government is currently considering for cut-backs will include job losses. Because military industry is, by its nature, capital intensive, job losses for a given spending cut are likely to be lower than in many other areas of the economy. For example, a recent study from the University of Massachusetts concluded that per unit of spending, spending in the construction/ building insulation sector creates more than 50% more jobs than military/ defence spending, and public transport spending creates 130% more.

Some argue that UK military spending should be preserved to help to maintain the manufacturing sector. However, an increase in government assistance in sectors such as renewable energy and energy efficiency should be given higher priority, both to improve UK energy security and to reduce climate change, itself a driver of insecurity.

8. Concluding comments

SGR’s main recommendations are:

  • Adopt a security and defence strategy that prioritises tackling the roots of conflict, with an emphasis on non-violent conflict resolution.
  • Prioritise the shift of UK society to a sustainable use of resources.
  • Include UK nuclear weapons in the SDSR, and abandon attempts to have any aspect of their development or deployment funded from civilian budgets.
  • As the first steps to complete nuclear disarmament, take the Trident nuclear submarines off patrol, put the nuclear warheads in secure storage, and cancel plans for a replacement.
  • Cut the total military budget by at least 25% in the short term, with further cuts to follow. The priority for cuts should be major military technology systems with an offensive capability.
  • Enact much tighter restrictions on arms exports, and close down the UK TI DSO.
  • Cut the Ministry of Defence’s R&D budget before cutting other areas of publicly-funded R&D. This could largely be achieved through cuts to the Atomic Weapons Establishment.

Main references

Abbott C, Rogers P, Sloboda J (2006). Global Responses to Global Threats: Sustainable security for the 21st century. Oxford Research Group.

Defence Analytical Services Agency (2009). UK Defence Statistics 2009.

Fox L (2010). Strategic Defence and Security Review. Speech delivered by Secretary of State for Defence at the Royal United Services Institute, London on Monday 14 June 2010.

Langley C (2005). Soldiers in the Laboratory: military involvement in science and technology – and some alternatives. Scientists for Global Responsibility.

Pollin R, Garrett-Peltier H (2007). The U.S. Employment Effects of Military and Domestic Spending Priorities. Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts Amherst. Working Paper 151.

Ritchie N (2007). Trident: The Deal Isn't Done - Serious Questions Remain Unanswered. Bradford Disarmament Research Centre, Bradford University.

Ritchie N (2008). Trident and British Identity: Letting go of nuclear weapons. Bradford Disarmament Research Centre, Bradford University.

Rogers P (2010). Britain, let’s talk about security. Open Democracy website, 9 May.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (2010). SIPRI Yearbook 2010: Armaments, disarmament and international security.

Webber P (2008). Could one Trident submarine cause 'nuclear winter'? SGR Newsletter, no. 35 (winter). Scientists for Global Responsibility.



Dr Stuart Parkinson, Executive Director, SGR - see Contact us page