German First World War Generalissimo Ludendorff reportedly said of his British enemies: “The English Generals are wanting in strategy. We should have no chance if they possessed as much science as their officers and men had of courage and bravery. They are lions led by donkeys.” That strategy word again. When I rule the world it will be banned. At the very least I can write to my publisher, Oxford University Press, and insist ‘strategy’ is re-defined in the Oxford English Dictionary to mean leading without due care and attention.

Today in Parliament, Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox announced the findings of Strategic Defence and Security Reviewette 2 (SDSR): The Further Reckoning. There is good and bad news. Let me give you the bad news first. On the face of it this reviewette smacks of that unholy alliance of end-of-the-world Treasury accountants and beautiful world soft power disarmers who came up last November with the rather silly Strategic Pretence and Impecunity Review. Prime Minister David Cameron showed real chutzpah when he rose in the House at the time to claim that the review would be see no shrinkage of Britain’s strategic footprint. He had just amputated a foot!


So, in this ‘we clearly did not get it absolutely right reviewette’ a further £5bn of ‘uncosted spending’ has apparently been uncovered, on top of the £38bn that had supposedly been missed by the previous and equally strategically illiterate mob.

The British Army will be cut by some 19000 personnel by 2020 reducing the force to 82000, the smallest regular British Army since 1901 (and in those days Britain still had a navy!). The remaining 20000 personnel stationed in Germany will be brought home (that should please Ludendorff). To offset the cuts to the Army the reserves will be increased from around 30,000 to a bit more than 30,000 with a focus on the creation of a fighting force, rather than a support force. The equipments budget will be increased by 1% between 2015 and 2020. This will ensure major projects, such as the Royal Navy’s two super-aircraft carriers can be completed and more Chinook helicopters bought for the Army, although given the planned draw down in Afghanistan the words stable, doors, bolt and flown horses comes to mind.

The ‘strategic’ (aaaargh!) objective remains; to ‘balance the books’ by 2020. Clearly, balancing these infamous books still comes an awful long way before the balancing the force and there still seems little relationship apparent between the fantasy National Security Strategy and the dreaded SDSR – versions one or two. By the way, has anyone ever seen these ‘books’?

Now the good news. Alright, the less bad news. Buried deep in the Sir Humphrey speak there may be just a semblance, a smidgeon, a smearing of strategy and science peeking over the parapet into the no man’s land of Whitehall policy-making. Ludendorff pay attention.

First, some strategic (aaaargh again!) thinking is apparent. Or, rather, the Government has implicitly acknowledged there may be life after financial Armageddon. Reserves can either act as technical support, which has been the traditional British approach, or provide a surge capacity for the fighting force. Hitherto, the British assumed that European allies would provide the surge in the event the British armed forces were doing the heavy fighting during the initial stages of a conflict. It is sad to say that given the sorry experience of Afghanistan and the duplicity of European allies therein, that hope has all but evaporated. With the exception of the French London has no confidence whatsoever in European allies who have proved themselves all too adept at giving their excuses at critical moments in the campaign. They talk solidarity, but never fight it, which helps to explain Britain’s veto of an EU strategic (aaargh – ditto!) headquarters which would inevitably involve more cost for London. Indeed, it is noticeable from Secretary of State Fox’s announcement that only the Anglosphere was mentioned – the Americans, Australians and Canadians.

Second, the move to create a US-style fighting force 120,000 strong with a 70/30 ratio between regulars and reserves will not only reinforce a surge capacity, but also begin to re-embed the British military in civil society. The British like to believe they are casualty tough and there is some truth in that given the three hundred and eighty or so British dead in Afghanistan. One more today sadly. However, having been the first major state to abandon conscription in 1960 one of the reasons for such ‘toughness’ is indifference and ignorance in large segments of British society. Put simply, the massive majority of British citizens have had virtually nothing whatsoever to do with the armed forces, and for a very long time. The military has become a virtual ghetto. Whilst efforts such as Help for Heroes and the Military Covenant raise awareness the gap between the defenders and the defended is dangerously wide.

Even given the ‘goodish’ news there remain profound question-marks that the 2011 reviewette fails to answer. Why, for example, has a professional Army of over one hundred thousand found it so hard to maintain a force of ten thousand in Afghanistan? Such a low level of deployability would suggest that Britain’s hire purchase military has been suffering for too long from an imbalance between personnel and capability – too many boots, not enough weapons and stuff. How, for example, can the management-led approaches to defence reform and procurement reform which have or are about to see the light of day lead to better strategy? Will Liam Fox’s version of Kitchener’s Army be an army on the cheap? If so can it ever really be used for fear of failure?

Certainly, the government does not have the answers. July is the month a British government on dodgy ground makes announcements. This marks yet again the yawning gap between the self-obsessed governing class and the poorly governed. When will the Whitehall Village learn that it is not clever to announce such a review when it thinks most Brits are turning unmentionable shades of sun-burn on some corner of a foreign beach that will be forever Basildon. It simply reinforces the contempt too many Britons have for their government.

The British Government has made a complete Horlicks of security and defence strategy during its first year in office. Governments are of course like popes – infallible. They never admit mistakes. The 2010 SDSR was indeed a profound mistake. But maybe, just maybe, in what is a very muddled British approach to strategy, corrections are beginning to be made and yes, strategic common sense will eventually prevail.

So, one hundred years on from his caustic commendation some re-ordering of Ludendorff is justified. Until proof is apparent to the contrary the British politician is wanting in strategy. The British could make a real difference and generate real influence if the political class possessed as much vision as their officers and men have of courage and bravery.

Military lions led by political donkeys? That is probably unfair. It gives donkeys a bad name.

Professor Julian Lindley-French, a member of the Atlantic Council Strategic Advisor’s Group, is Special Professor of Strategic Studies, University of Leiden, Netherlands and Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.