Annual Policy Review 2015

Defence and national security

Defence and national security


  • Withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan
  • Defence Reform Bill passed
  • New UK/France defence agreement
  • Three new Royal Navy offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) ordered
  • ‘Flooding up’ and naming of the first new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth

1More-to-doMore to do

  • • Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill
  • Communications data
  • Further reductions to the regular Army and increased recruitment to the Army Reserve
  • Trident renewal programme

1UnexpectedThe unexpected

  • Emergence of ISIS and air strikes in Iraq
  • Ukraine
  • Islamist attacks in Paris


  • Balanced books, including major reductions in the size of the regular Army
  • No major new deployment of troops abroad
  • Private sector expertise introduced to Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S)
  • Major investment in new defence equipment including F-35



The first duty of any state is to keep its citizens safe, a challenge made harder each year as the nature of the threats to the UK becomes more dispersed and harder to identify.

Following the July reshuffle and the surprise move by Foreign Secretary William Hague to Leader of the House, ultimate responsibility was passed to Michael Fallon as the new Defence Secretary. Just two months into the job, he found himself at the heart of planning air strikes in Iraq following the Government’s decision to take action against Islamic State. However, unlike the UK’s previous incursion in 2003, the action enjoyed cross-party support in large part on the proviso it was limited to air strikes with no ‘boots on the ground’.

Of greater long term significance was withdrawal of the final British troops from Afghanistan, bringing to an end the protracted 13-year deployment. Not only that, it could well be the last major deployment of British ground forces abroad, given the prevailing political consensus against using ground troops following the human and monetary cost of the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns.

Back home, Mr Fallon has continued the work of his predecessor Philip Hammond in bringing greater financial discipline to the MoD. Progress has been made on a number of important strands of this work, principally the passing into law and implementation of the Defence Reform Bill and further reductions in the size of the regular army. On the former, the MoD offered a set of contracts to private sector providers at the start of November, bringing private sector expertise into Defence time. This did though fall short of the full privatisation of DE&S favoured by Philip Hammond.

In terms of progress in reducing the headcount of the armed forces, the MoD announced in June that 1,060 military personnel had been made redundant. This takes the total reduction in personnel since 2011 to 12,130. However, the National Audit Office has been heavily critical of the MoD’s performance in this regard, concluding that the savings had been overestimated and the feasibility of the restructuring the army misjudged. Furthermore, the Government is struggling to recruit the number of reservists needed to bridge the gap.

Meanwhile, the build of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s flagship new aircraft carrier progressed a step further this year with the ship ‘flooded up’ and named by HM The Queen in July. The carrier is expected to be in commission by 2017 with David Cameron confirming that the second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, will be commissioned if he remains Prime Minister after the next election. Whether there will be any planes operate from them remains to be seen, given the ongoing delays in the F-35 programme.

Away from traditional defence matters, the fall-out from Edward Snowden’s revelations continues to pervade discussion of national security. Debates over the appropriate balance between the privacy of the individual and the ability of the state to protect its citizens now occur regularly in Parliament and the media. Intelligence officials are under greater public scrutiny than before, but there will have to be a broader debate about the balance between security and privacy in the next Parliament.

In light of the ongoing instability in the Middle East and the emergence of ISIL, the Government decided to introduce a Counter- Terrorism and Security Bill to bolster the powers of the police and security services. The wide-ranging legislation is described as urgently needed by the Home Secretary and includes greater powers to seize passports and a requirement on communications service providers to retain data to enable IP addresses to be matched to individuals.

Looking towards the next Parliament, given the MoD remains an unprotected department, it will again likely be subject to severe cuts. In this regard, the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) due to be carried out next year will be crucial in setting the future direction of UK defence and national security policy. An important question here is whether a Labour ‘zero-based’ spending review would come before or after the SDSR. If it came first, the defence budget would appear particularly vulnerable.