Projecting power, protecting interests

IssueNovember 2010
Feature by Milan Rai

You can’t fault David Cameron for honesty. The prime minister was blunt in his statement launching the strategic defence and security review (SDSR) on 19 October (12 years after the last such review).

Cameron said: “this review is about how we project power and influence in a rapidly changing world.” He went on: “Britain has punched above its weight in the world. And we should have no less ambition for our country in the decades to come.”

Missing: the public

One interesting feature of the heated debate around the SDSR was the almost complete lack of elite interest in what the public thought about the best way forward for Britain’s foreign and security policy.

On the question of “punching above our weight”, we have some evidence.

A poll in the Daily Telegraph in April 2007 (see box for more details) found that 55% of Britons thought the country should not “as a nation continue to try to ‘punch above its weight’ – that is, have more influence in the world than our military and economic strength would seem to indicate.” If the public had been involved in this foreign policy and security review, if it had been a democratic exercise, the central objective would have been quite different.

Power projection

In his statement, Cameron observed: “Iraq and Afghanistan have shown the immense financial and human costs of large-scale military interventions.”

His response to such costs? Britain “must retain the ability to undertake such operations”. This is the heart of the SDSR, protecting Britain’s capacity to mount global military expeditions, despite the £38bn overspend in military procurement inherited by the coalition government, and despite the extraordinary budget deficit.

The SDSR has two over-arching “high-level objectives”. The first is protecting Britain. The second is, ambitiously: “To shape a stable world, by acting to reduce the likelihood of risks affecting the UK or British interests overseas, and applying our instruments of power and influence to shape the global environment” (emphases added).

In their foreword to the national security strategy which accompanies the SDSR, the prime minister and deputy prime minister write: “In a world that is changing at an astonishing pace, Britain’s interests remain surprisingly constant…. our entire government effort overseas must be geared to promote our trade, the lifeblood of our economy”.

One of the seven military tasks set out in the SDSR is: “defending our interests by projecting power strategically and through expeditionary interventions”.

The SDSR says: “Our future forces, although smaller than now, will retain their geographical reach and their ability to operate across the spectrum from high-intensity intervention to enduring stabilisation activity.”


How is this capacity preserved? The first goal of the military was to defeat the treasury, which had hopes of imposing cuts of up to 20% on the ministry of defence. In the end the cuts were whittled down to 8%.

The second military goal was to preserve the big-ticket items that give an unambiguous sign of “punching above our weight”.

There has been a furore over the government’s decision to proceed with two mega-aircraft carriers at a cost of £5.2bn, despite the fact that one of the ships will immediately be mothballed (or possibly sold), and no aircraft will available to fly on them for 10 years. In this storm, little attention has been paid to what the rationale for the carriers was originally, and why Cameron continued defending the idea of acquiring one of them.

(The second, he says, was forced on him by the terms of the contract with BAE Systems, but for some reason, according to BAE, “at no time did Mr Cameron’s ministers seek to re-negotiate the shipbuilding contract”, Times, 22 October.)

The SDSR says the carriers “will give the UK long term political flexibility to act without depending, at times of regional tension, on agreement from other countries to use of their bases for any mission we want to undertake.”

The carrier “provides options for a coercive response to crises, as a complement or alternative to ground engagements”, helping to “deter or contain threats from relatively well-equipped regional powers, as well as dealing with insurgencies and non-state actors in failing states.”


Cameron summarised the two main short-term goals of the SDSR: “We will continue to be one of very few countries able to deploy a self-sustaining properly equipped brigade-sized force [6,500 troops] anywhere around the world and sustain it indefinitely if needs be.”

Secondly, “We will be able to put 30,000 into the field for a major, one-off operation.” While significant, this is two-thirds of the force sent into Iraq in 2003.

In his SDSR statement, Cameron spelled out some additions to Britain’s interventionary capabilities:

  • A400M transport aircraft, which together with the existing fleet of C17 aircraft and the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft “will allow us to fly our forces wherever they are needed in the world”
  • 12 new heavy-lift Chinook helicopters,
  • New protected mobility vehicles
  • By the 2020s, “a modernised Typhoon fleet fully capable of air-to-air and air-to-ground missions; and the Joint Strike Fighter, the world’s most advanced multi-role combat jet”
  • A “growing fleet” of drones (Unmanned Air Vehicles)
  • A significant increase in “our investment in our special forces”
  • There will also be a fleet of seven nuclear-powered hunter-killer Astute-class submarines “operat[ing] in secret across the world’s oceans [and feeding] vital strategic intelligence back to the UK and to our military forces across the world”.

    These stealth submarines are interventionary weapons. They have special hatches to allow special forces to be deployed stealthily. They can fire the Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles which British submarines fired in the opening salvo of the 2003 Iraq war.

    All these moves will shore up the expeditionary capability, but overall the SDSR amounted to an admission that Britain’s long military decline is continuing.

    For the foreseeable future, Britain’s capacity for aggression against poorer, weaker countries (the real meaning of “power projection”) will be roughly two-thirds of what it has been recently.

    Nuclear delay


    There were all sorts of welcome developments in the SDSR, forced by budgetary pressures: the cancellation of the £3.6bn Nimrod MRA.4 maritime patrol aircraft programme; the immediate decommissioning of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal; a 40% reduction in the Challenger 2 main battle tank fleet; and a 35% cutback in heavy artillery.

    One move, which was also no doubt the result of pressure from coalition partners, the Lib Dems, was the delay announced to the replacement of the Trident nuclear weapon system, and the reduction in Britain’s nuclear arsenal.

    The lives of existing Trident submarines are to be extended to enable the irreversible “main gate” decisions about the replacement system to be delayed until after 2015.

    The number of operational launch tubes on the projected new submarines are to be reduced from 12 to eight, and the number of nuclear warheads on submarines at sea will be reduced from 48 to 40. Britain’s nuclear arsenal, subsidised latterly by the US, is its most important means of “projecting power and influence in a rapidly changing world.”

    The delay created by the SDSR gives us more of an opportunity to exert democratic pressure to overturn Trident replacement.

    What Britain needs is a democratic foreign policy and security review that involves the public, and produces a more humane and sensible path forward, a path towards justice and nonviolence.

Topics: Foreign policy