Select Committee on Defence Eighth Report


Past Reviews


15. There is, of course, nothing new in the concept of defence reviews. Some have sought to derive lessons from military failures while others have attempted a root-and-branch rethink of defence strategy. Not all have seen Parliamentary input. Arguably, the first identifiable review (certainly the first in which Parliament had any role) was Cromwell's work in 1643 which led to the formation of the New Model Army.[35] It was, in military terms, a success. Over the ensuing centuries, the United Kingdom has regularly adjusted its defence posture in relation to real or perceived changes in the nature of external threats to its territorial integrity, imperial ambitions or trading interests, or in response to revised Exchequer views of affordability.

16. These reviews have had a variety of targets. The balance of force structure between the Navy and the Army was a constant preoccupation. So too was the structure of the policy-making and decision-making superstructure. In 1688/89, Parliament asserted in the Bill of Rights that no standing army could be maintained in peacetime without its permission. The struggle for supremacy between Crown and civilian control of the military continued however, and was conducted over the hubbub of an endlessly renewed battle by the military to seize control of their own budget and command structure.[36]

17. From the Civil War up to and beyond the Napoleonic wars, the overriding and inescapable commitment was home defence against invasion. Over the first part of the nineteenth century the Army gradually waxed, while the Navy waned, perhaps because it faced little serious opposition. This process continued throughout the era of the Pax Britannica, during which the need for the stationing of land forces overseas to defend the colonies against internal and external threats increased. The consequential loss of a sustainable expeditionary capability was dramatically manifested by the incompetent prosecution of the Crimean War; and the setting up of a parliamentary inquest, in the form of the Select Committee on the Army before Sebastopol, brought down a Prime Minister in 1855.[37]

18. Over the remainder of the nineteenth century, a growing perception that the UK depended for its wealth on the protection of its access to its imperial possessions and trading interests resulted in a re-emphasis on naval power; the focus of spending switched to the Navy and perhaps in consequence the 1887 Select Committee on the Estimates found that the Army did not have the capability to sustain its roles.[38] The Stephen Commission of the same year recommended a reassessment of defence spending on the basis of what we might now term a threat assessment rather than a perception of affordability, and also recommended a reduction of political control of the armed forces.[39] A further review (the Hartington Commission) resulted in the establishment of the War Office and the Elgin Commission, after the Boer War, established the Committee on Imperial Defence which laid the foundations of an integrated civilian/military command structure.[40] Subsequently, the Esher Committee report of 1904 resulted in the permanent establishment of that Committee and the final abolition of the post of Commander in Chief of the Army.

19. By 1908, the growing burden of financing the policy of equipping the Navy to match the size of the two next largest navies (the 'Blue Water' policy) caused the government to reduce the ratio of naval superiority. In the run-up to 1914, the work of the Haldane Committee resulted in the reorganisation and modernisation of the Army. It established a 'National Army' on the basis of an expeditionary force of Regulars and the modern Territorial Army (TA) for home defence, formed from the merger of the Militia, Yeomanry and Volunteers.[41] An underlying principle of the legislation, commonly known as the Haldane principle, was the separation of the tasks of administration, recruiting and accommodation of the Territorial Army from those of command and training, which were to remain under the regular Chain of Command. Lord Haldane explained the rationale behind this separation-

    We find that we are constantly maltreating the Volunteers for want of local knowledge and we feel it to be absolutely essential that they should have some power of organisation in the counties and of controlling their own affairs.[42]

The County Associations were formed to discharge these administrative and recruiting tasks, and they also provided a voice that was independent of the Chain of Command. In 1967 the TA was reorganised and the County Associations renamed as the Territorial Auxiliary Volunteer Reserve Associations (TAVRAs).

20. The Great War brought the experience of total war—conscription and the effective creation of a war economy for the first time brought the age of mass industrial warfare to the whole country. In 1919, Lloyd George's cabinet placed stringent limits on defence expenditure on the planning assumptions that a major war involving UK forces would not occur within ten years. It concluded that the reduced importance of the expeditionary role meant that the Territorials' role as a second-line reinforcement would no longer be necessary, and that their disbanding would release funds for the Regular Army. This view was vigorously promulgated by the then Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Henry Wilson. However, the Territorial Army's existence was assured after Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War, mounted a vigorous campaign in its defence.[43] In the 1920s and 1930s the world situation appeared to offer some parallels to today: there was no overt threat to the United Kingdom homeland and there was an attempt through the League of Nations to exercise conflict prevention and maintain international peace. In 1933, the Defence Requirements Committee was established to advise on the deficiencies of the Armed Forces relative to their intended roles, and on how these might be corrected. Defence spending had dropped to its twentieth century low in the mid-30s, a policy which the Inskip Review of 1938, partly in response to parliamentary pressure, reversed only just in time to counter the German invasion threat.

21. Between the end of World War 2 and the end of the Cold War there were four major exercises which could be broadly classified as defence reviews—in 1957 under Duncan Sandys; in the mid-sixties under Dennis Healey; in 1975-76 under Roy Mason and in 1981 under John Nott.


22. The 1957 review was to some extent a response to the Suez debacle of the previous year which was a diplomatic disaster and had revealed the poor state of readiness of British forces and the obsolescence of much of their equipment. The resulting review (conducted over a two month period) placed the priorities on nuclear deterrence and missiles.[44] It proposed the phased ending of national service with the last call-up in 1960[45] (reducing service manpower from around 700,000 to around 400,000 by the early 'sixties).[46] Overseas garrisons were to be reduced,[47] replaced to an extent by aircraft carriers. One of its proposals—'that fighter aircraft will in due course be replaced by a ground-to-air guided missile system'[48]—shows the danger of making premature predictions. It was an error which had some serious consequences for the UK aerospace industry. However, the rebalancing of forces away from East of Suez and toward Europe was frustrated by events. By 1960, British Army of the Rhine numbers had been cut to 55,000 while 100,000 troops were still stationed in the Middle and Far East.[49]

23. The government's White Paper included a number of refrains that would become familiar over the next few decades, for example—

    A defence plan, if it is to be effective and economical, must be based on a clear understanding of the military responsibilities to be discharged ... The aim must be to provide well-equipped forces sufficient to carry out these duties, while making no greater demands than are absolutely necessary upon manpower, money and other national resources ... Experience has shown that the rapid progress of scientific development and fluctuations in the international situation make it difficult to foresee future military requirements with any certainty, and that consequently a good deal of flexibility must be maintained. Nevertheless, an attempt must be made to establish a broad framework within which long-term planning can proceed ... The new defence plan set out in this paper involves the biggest change in military policy ever made in normal times ... The Government are confident that this defence plan, while helping to relieve the strain upon the economy, will produce compact all-regular forces of the highest quality, armed and organised on the most up-to-date lines.[50]

These words could have served, almost unchanged, as the introduction to the White Paper published in July 1998. We might compare them for example to these sections from the opening chapter of the SDR—

    Defence planning is a long term business. Major equipments take years to develop and typically have lives of twenty five or more. Events since the fall of the Berlin Wall—just nine years ago—show that the political and strategic world can change radically within such timescales. History reminds us that this can be for the worse as well as the better. Social and technological transformation has also been rapid and we can expect this to continue, affecting both our daily lives and the role of our Armed Forces over the next twenty years. We need to take account of such changes and exploit them wherever we can ... The purpose of the Review was not only to meet the challenges of today's complex international scene but also to provide the flexibility to respond to those we may face well into the new century ... We cannot predict the future but if we are to meet it confidently we must have a clear long term view of our objectives and how we expect defence to contribute to them ... The Strategic Defence Review aims to provide the country with modern, effective and affordable Armed Forces which meet today's challenges but are also flexible enough to adapt to change.[51]


24. A major internal review was undertaken in the early sixties, leading to the Mountbatten-Thorneycroft reforms and the Ministry of Defence Act 1964, which created an integrated MoD. The newly elected Labour government launched a defence review in 1965 under the Secretary of State for Defence, Denis Healey. The Healey Review was, in essence, a series of separate studies undertaken by different bodies using different methods. It initially reported to Parliament in a White Paper of February 1966,[52] but was not completed until mid-1967. The process did involve a review of foreign commitments, but that followed after the decisions to make substantial savings by cancelling major equipment orders and reorganising and reducing the Territorial Army.[53] Its numbers were halved to 45,000, and the dissolved units were 'cadreised' into nuclei from which they could supposedly be rebuilt—which in practice meant that they were reduced to an almost notional existence. Although the 1967 White Paper announced continued commitments East of Suez (though with 40,000, at half the previous manpower levels),[54] it warned—

    Defence policy can never be static ... This Statement ... describes the framework of policy within which further decisions will be taken in the years ahead.[55]

By 1968 a further White Paper, in an attempt to stay within a £2 billion cash limit, proposed accelerated withdrawal from Singapore and Malaysia as well as from the Persian Gulf (all to be completed by 1971).[56] The review also signalled the abandonment of further aircraft carrier construction.[57] The rationale behind the new strategy was, the White Paper explained, that—

    Long-term planning is essential in defence. An advanced weapons-system may take up to ten years from its conception to enter service and, in some cases, may then have a further twenty years of operational life. If we are to have forces with the right balance of skills and ages, capable of giving a worthwhile return on their expensive training, we need a stable long-term programme for manpower and recruiting ... substantial uncertainties remain, particularly in the fluidity of the international situation, the development of military technology, and the allocation of roles between allies. In these circumstances, the Government must strike a balance between the best estimate it can now make of Britain's probable defence requirements and the degree of flexibility it can afford as an insurance against the inherent fallibility of judgement.[58]

Again, these words would not have appeared out of place in the 1998 White Paper.


25. The cuts proposed in the Healey Review were slowed only slightly by the Conservative government between 1970 and 1974, although the Prime Minister's undertaking to rebuild the Territorial Army was put in to effect—it took some six to eight years to return its establishment to the new effective levels.[59] In March 1974, the Secretary of State for Defence of the newly-elected Labour government, Roy Mason, ordered a defence review on his first day in office.[60] Like the current SDR, it was declared to begin first with a reconsideration of the UK's defence commitments, but pre-empting this was a government decision that defence spending should drop from around 5% of GDP to around 4.5% over ten years, a decision founded on the presumption that the UK's spending should move towards the NATO average. The Expenditure Committee commented in its preliminary report on the review that—

    ... the Ministry's analysis quickly established that our commitments outside the NATO area were of lowest priority in strictly military terms ... NATO would remain the first charge on resources available for defence ... We endorse this approach.[61]

Three major commitments were deemed essential: the UK's contribution to NATO's front-line forces in Germany; the anti-submarine forces in the eastern Atlantic; and home defence.[62] The three other major commitments examined were the nuclear deterrent, reinforcements earmarked for defence of NATO's northern flank and naval forces in the Mediterranean. It was decided to withdraw all British forces from the Mediterranean theatre with the exception of Cyprus.[63] The overall defence budget was projected to fall by 12% over ten years, with manpower falling by 11% over the same period. The Army's strategic reserve division was broken up, the RAF's transport fleet cut by half and amphibious forces reduced. The commitment to airdrop two parachute battalions and supporting services was scrapped, and the 'airportable' capability was to be reduced from three brigades to one.[64] The Expenditure Committee commented—

    The period following the 1967-68 defence review and the adoption of the strategy of flexible response by the Alliance has seen considerably more emphasis on mobile forces and reinforcement capabilities in NATO. In this field, the United Kingdom has hitherto given a lead amongst the European partners. The review proposals will tend to reverse this trend and therefore reduce the options open to NATO Ministers at the lower levels of strategic escalation. While the commitment to the Central Front is to be maintained, the cuts affecting mobility, support and reinforcement capability will have a weakening effect on both the Northern and Southern flanks.[65]

26. In other words, the last review conducted under a Labour government, still in the heat of the Cold War, shifted the UK's defence posture away from mobility and flexibility of response—that is in precisely the opposite direction to that in which the SDR, in response to a very different world situation, is to push us. In a further Report, in January 1976, the Expenditure Committee concluded—

    ... that the Ministry's previous long-term programme had become unrealistic ... In the public debate on defence, the view is often expressed that the defence budget can safely be cut, with instant savings or other benefits to the economy, and with acceptable consequences for national security. Our examination ... has convinced us that this view is largely fallacious ... The force reductions resulting from the defence review may over-stretch the Services in the fulfilment of their remaining commitments, and may leave an inadequate margin for dealing with unforeseen tasks. [66]

27. In 1976, the sterling crisis precipitated a decision to relinquish virtually all other overseas commitments by withdrawing entirely from Singapore, closing the Gan airbase in the Indian Ocean and withdrawing from the Simonstown Agreement with South Africa. British commitments to permanently stationed forces were thereafter effectively, with some minor exceptions, confined to Europe.[67]


28. The review which took place under Sir John Nott's tenure at the MoD ran from January to June 1981. It was conducted in the international context of a Soviet military build-up and the domestic context of a severe economic downturn and the introduction of cash planning to control public spending.[68] As our predecessors put it, in their Report on the 1981 Statement on the Defence Estimates (SDE)—

    The Secretary of State in his introduction says that the right balance must be re-established "between inevitable resource constraints and ... necessary defence requirements". In other words, the Government's commitments to spend money on defence have outstripped the availability of funds ...[69]

29. The Nott review confirmed the decision to proceed with the purchase of the Trident system from the USA to replace Polaris as the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent.[70] The Territorial Army and the other reserve forces were to be merged and rebuilt to meet the requirement for home defence,[71] which was also to be reinforced by a new fighter aircraft (eventually the Eurofighter programme).[72] The British Army of the Rhine was to be held at the level of 55,000 but to be re-equipped.[73] The main cuts under the Nott review were to fall on the Navy which, although it took on the Trident submarines, was to lose around one fifth of their 60 destroyers and frigates. Despite the supposed abandonment of the carrier programme, three so-called 'through deck cruisers' had been built, designated as the Invincible Class. One of these three carriers and the two amphibious ships Fearless and Intrepid were also to be cut.[74] Out-of-area, or expeditionary, warfare capacity was therefore to be further significantly reduced. With Trident, greater reliance was once again to be placed on the strategic nuclear deterrent as the counter to the Soviet threat (together with an increased submarine fleet),[75] and the overall force structure emphasised the UK's increasing expectation of acting only as part of NATO for overseas expeditionary operations.[76]

30. These proposals were rapidly scotched by the experience of the Falklands conflict in the Spring of 1982, which was commented on by our predecessors in three separate Reports.[77] In the White Paper on the lessons of that conflict, published in December 1982, it was announced that the 5th Infantry Brigade was to become an airborne force including an all-arms assault parachute capability of two battalion groups (withdrawn under the Mason Review); Fearless and Intrepid were to be retained in service.[78] The third aircraft carrier (HMS Invincible) was to be retained, and the number of destroyers and frigates held at around 55.[79] The White Paper concluded by signalling a return to 'flexibility and mobility', but as an extra rather than a central feature of force structure—

    The many useful lessons we have learned from the Falklands Campaign ... do not invalidate the policy we have adopted following last year's defence programme review. The Soviet Union—its policies and its military capabilities—continues to pose the main threat to the security of the United Kingdom and our response to this threat must have the first call on our resources. Following the Falklands Campaign, we shall now be devoting substantially more resources to defence than had been previously planned. In allocating these, we shall be taking measures which will strengthen our general defence capability by increasing the flexibility, mobility and readiness of all three Services for operations in support of NATO and elsewhere.[80]

However, by 1985, our predecessors were commenting—

    Our concern that there might be difficulties in managing the Defence Budget into the 1990s has ... turned into the strongest suspicion that there will indeed be ... cancellations, slowing-down of acquisitions and the running-on of equipment beyond its economic life-span. The evidence we have received from the Ministry has not allayed our fears ... A likely consequence is that important issues will be decided as a result of short-term financial considerations and not in the context of a long-term view of defence requirements or by weighing priorities in a sensible manner. We have drawn attention in this Report to substantial pressure developing on the defence budget over the coming years, and have no doubt that this will require some hard decisions. We are told that there is no immediate need for a major defence review; but we fear that the cumulative effect of managing the defence budget in the manner endorsed in the White Paper may result in a defence review by stealth.[81]

This call for a defence review was to be a constant theme of the Defence Committee over the next decade, but was to remain unanswered until 1997. The government preferred to adopt, in the face of a dramatically changed international security environment, a process of almost continuous review.

35  The Defence Review Process 1643-1939, A submission to the House of Commons Defence Committee Inquiry into the Strategic Defence Review from Stuart Testar, University of Hull (not printed) Back

36  ibid passim Back

37  ibid, p 10; Commons Journals, 1855, p 394 Back

38  Testar, op cit, p 14 Back

39  ibid, p 15 Back

40  ibid, pp 17-21, see also Strachan, RUSI Journal, June 1998 p 4 Back

41  ibid, p 22 Back

42   Army Reform and other Addresses RB Haldane 1908 Back

43  The Territorial Army During the Early Inter-War Years, Captain Peter Caddick-Adams, RMLY Back

44  Ev p 180 Back

45  Cmnd 124, Defence: Outline of Future Policy, April 1957, para 47 Back

46  ibid, para 46 Back

47  ibid, para 33 Back

48  ibid, para 17 Back

49  House of Commons Library Research Paper No. 93/91, pp 4-6 and Cmnd 124, paras 12-16 Back

50  ibid, paras 8, 9, 67, 71-73 Back

51  Cm 3999, paras 12, 14, 15 and 16 Back

52  Cmnd 2901, The Defence Review, February 1966 Back

53  Cmnd 2855, The Re-organization of the Army Reserves, December 1965 and Cmnd 2901, Statement on the Defence Estimates 1967 Back

54  Cmnd 3357, Supplementary Statement on Defence Policy 1967, p 5 Back

55  ibid p 1 Back

56  Cmnd 3701, Supplementary Statement on Defence Policy 1968, pp 3-5 Back

57  Cmnd 2901, op cit, 4-10 Back

58  ibid, p 20 Back

59  Q 2610 Back

60  ibid, p 8 Back

61  Second Report from the Expenditure Committee, Session 1974-75, The Defence Review Proposals, HC 259, para 11 Back

62  ibid, para 16 Back

63  ibid, para 17 Back

64  ibid, para 18 Back

65  ibid, para 19 Back

66  Second Report from the Expenditure Committee, Session 1975-76, Defence, HC 155, paras 139-142 Back

67  House of Commons Library Research Paper No. 93/91, p 7 Back

68  Cmnd 8288, The United Kingdom Defence Programme; the Way Forward, June 1981, paras 1 and 2 Back

69  Second Report, Session 1980-81, Statement on the Defence Estimates 1981, HC 302, para 3 Back

70  Cmnd 8288, op cit, paras 9 and 10; Fourth Report, Session 1980-81, Strategic Nuclear Weapons Policy, HC 36 Back

71  Cmnd 8288, op cit, para 15 Back

72  ibid, para 20 Back

73  ibid, paras 16-18 Back

74  ibid, paras 29-31 Back

75  ibid, para 26 Back

76  See also Sixth Report, Session 1987-88, The Future Size and Role of the Royal Navy's Surface Fleet, HC 309 Back

77  First and Third Reports, Session 1982-83 The Handling of Press and Public Relations during the Falklands Conflict, HC 17 and The Future Defence of the Falkland Islands, HC 154 and Fourth Report, Session 1986-87, Implementing the Lessons of the Falklands Campaign, HC 345 Back

78  The Falklands Campaign: The Lessons, Cmnd 8758, December 1982, para 304 Back

79  Cmnd 8758, op cit, paras 307-309; see also Third Report, Session 1984-85, Defence Commitments and Resources and the Defence Estimates 1985-86, HC 37-I, paras 75-86 Back

80  Cmnd 8758, op cit, para 313 Back

81  Third Report, Session 1984-85, op cit, paras 36 and 107 Back

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