The SWISH Report (25)

What should United Kingdom's defence policy be? A government department has commissioned advice from the noted SWISH management consultancy. This is an exclusive copy of its just completed report.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
2 October 2014

UK defence spending after the 2014 election: a report from the South Waziristan Institute for Strategic Hermeneutics to the Post-Election Financial Planning Unit, HM Treasury, London, UK


Thank you for inviting us to deliver this report. We understand that it is designed to aid your departmental thinking concerning one significant part of the UK’s post-election expenditure planning - defence.

In seeking our views you recognise that our main work in the field of international security over the past decade has been a series of consultancies for the Strategic Planning Cell of the al-Qaida movement but that we have also undertaken work for your prime minister’s office and the United States state department. We further understand that you have recognised that our past work for all three bodies has proved consistently prescient and properly detached and that you therefore believe it will be useful for us to contribute to this work.

As you know, while our main offices were originally in Wana in South Waziristan, we now keep only a small team there, having found it valuable to focus expansion of the consultancy in a number of other centres. This report does utilise the much-valued “global south” view of our colleagues in Wana; but it also draws on our expertise currently located at Dupont and Old Street, the London office being the main facility for the preparation of this report.

Forgive us for this long introduction but we understand that some of those to whom this will be distributed might otherwise be surprised to receive consultancy from a source such as ourselves.

Terms of reference

We understand that you are undertaking a series of assessments on the basis that, whatever the constitution of the government after the UK's election in May 2015, it will most likely be socially and politically impossible to place the majority of required expenditure cuts on the poorer sectors of the population, as has been recent practice. The problem you face is that the richer sectors, especially the top decile, have such influence that any spending cuts or tax increases directed there would also be exceptionally difficult to implement.

You are therefore undertaking a series of studies aimed at achieving cuts of the order of £25 billion per annum from current governmental expenditure. Within this analysis you are interested in our assessing the possibility of taking the UK defence budget from approximately 2.2% of GDP per annum down to the European Nato states' average of approximately 1.8%. 

While not requiring financial details you do wish us to take a broad external look at the defence posture and its global relevance. You further wish us to work on the basis that most of the saving will be used directly for deficit reduction - but that part be used for what might broadly be termed "promoting UK standing in a changing world". 

We understand that your reasoning is as follows: since there is a deeply-embedded element of British culture that still sees military power as an indicator of status, and that such status is electorally important, it would be politically advisable to find other ways of enhancing such status. The focus should be on ways that are appropriate to the likely direction of international-security challenges over the next decade and beyond.

In broad terms, you are looking for a defence posture that costs 35% less than the current budget, releasing approximately £11 billion per annum. This should be fully achievable within the lifetime of the next parliament (2015-20); it should also begin to deliver a perception of increased international standing for the UK that would aid the re-election of the government five years hence. 

Finally, this report is, at your request, an initial summary of our thinking.  You will then decide whether to commission a full study.

The British problem

The fundamental problem with UK defence policy is that it is predicated on the idea that the UK still retains an element of great-power status and that this stems largely from its military posture. In other words, Britain is still a member of the “big boys’ club”. Apart from the innate yet odd masculinity of this view, we would note that this is a problem common to the French also - indeed one of our Paris associates commented that both states still suffer from “delusions of post-imperial grandeur”.

This is nearly sixty years after Suez, a quite remarkable delusion for two economies that are smaller than Germany and Japan and tiny compared with China and the United States. Interestingly, Russia has a similar delusion but that at least relates to the much more recent past. To an outside analyst the UK posture is nothing short of incredible but we have to assess it as it has evolved, not how it more rationally should have evolved.

Furthermore, there has been little attempt to face up to the two massive failures of recent military operations. UK involvement in Afghanistan has lasted close to thirteen years and has been part of a coalition that has singularly failed to defeat the Taliban and other armed opposition groups or to control opium production. Indeed the province in which the UK forces have mostly operated (Helmand) is currently at the centre or the Taliban revival and is also recording particularly high levels of opium poppy cultivation.

Britain may be withdrawing its combat forces but will inevitably retain a military presence of some kind, given that the United States has agreed to maintain the equivalent of two brigades in the country until 2024. Britain’s involvement is expected to be a significant part of the planned contribution of Nato states other than the US (namely 5,000 troops); in a highly unstable country, that is also likely to last another decade.

British involvement in Iraq is similarly disastrous, having started in 2003 and continued for eight years. It has now recommenced. We have no doubt that the Islamic State welcomes the current western involvement and is already experiencing increased transnational support and recruitment to its cause.

We do note, however, that the UK military, especially the army, remains popular among the general public even though the wars they have fought are not. We also note your ministry’s determined efforts to maintain this support, not least through its expanded programme of links with schools and the increased frequency of military parades in major cities. From a national perspective this is certainly interesting and, you may feel, welcome, but it should not be taken to mean that the UK defence posture is sustainable.

Cutting the cloth

Elements of the excessive military structure include the maintenance of a very costly if powerful nuclear force as well as a surface navy that is currently being consolidated almost entirely around the ability to deploy a single Carrier Battle Group (CBG) with potential for global reach. The CBG will deploy the US F-35 strike-aircraft, as will the RAF - both at exorbitant cost, if indeed the planes can ever be made to work.

We should add that Britain also has a particularly incestuous military-industrial complex, with an entrenched “revolving door” militating against control of expenditure. The failure of the Nimrod MRA4 project after £3.6 billion of expenditure is one of many examples. It is extraordinary that the UK, a quintessentially maritime state, still has no long-range maritime reconnaissance capability.  

Some attempts have been made to address this generic problem, but they have a long way to go in the face of what we consider to be a military-industrial-academic-bureaucratic complex that lacks any capacity for independent analysis (this consultancy excepted).

The position of the Royal Navy is perhaps the best illustration of the absurdity of the current posture. When the carriers are completed, Britain will be able to deploy a CBG and a ballistic-missile submarine but little else apart from an occasional destroyer or frigate and maybe an increasingly obsolete amphibious warship. It will essentially be the world’s first Two-Ship Navy.

Perhaps a missile submarine might be considered an indication of status but we are not convinced that the ability to destroy forty cities in a matter of minutes is a true sign of a civilised state worthy of worldwide respect.

We would propose that you recommend to the incoming government that they take immediate and radical action in the first month of taking office:

* Cancel the Trident replacement and withdraw the existing fleet from service, using the Atomic Weapons Establishments at Aldermaston and Burghfield as a test bed for verifiable dismantling of the nuclear force

* Cancel the two carriers and the F-35 order. You may want to try and sell the carriers, but your only option might be to sell one to China in the expectation that India would then buy the other. The arms industry aims to sell to both sides in a confrontation and this would be a spectacular example

* Limit the RAF’s fast-jet inventory to no more than the equivalent of the current Typhoon fleet. You should investigate new versions of the Swedish Saab Gripen in place of the F-35 and the Typhoon, which has hardly been the most conspicuous and relevant RAF acquisition of the past ninety-five years

* Expand the RAF’s heavy-lift capacity with further C-17s and a larger A400M purchase

* Reduce army personnel numbers by one-fifth on currently planned figures

* Withdraw all forces from Germany and scale down or withdraw entirely from other overseas commitments including, of course, the Falklands.

An appropriate defence posture

Instead of a CBG with global reach backed up by a nuclear force, the naval posture should move in the direction of a versatile multi-purpose force with an enhanced capability to support many different operations, especially United Nations missions. Indeed, the UK should take the lead in making the commitment to a standing UN force, along the lines of the long-discussed but never implemented UN Emergency Peace Service. It should also develop a much-enhanced capability for disaster relief, especially as climate disruption increases the severity of extreme weather events. The RAF should substantially expand its long-range heavy-lift capabilities with this in mind. The army should seek higher educational levels for its reduced intake in order to promote serious multi-tasking capabilities.

In the absence of a CBG capability, the Royal Navy should retain its single helicopter carrier, HMS Ocean, using its next refit to adapt it specifically towards multi-purpose capabilities. In the longer term, the UK should develop and build two further vessels of broadly similar displacement, designed from the start with such capabilities in mind. As an interim measure it would make good sense to lease the two French Mistral-class amphibious vessels originally intended for sale to Russia, and make necessary adaptations.

In the longer term, HMG may wish to consider using facilities on Diego Garcia to base one task group there for UN operations, including naval and air assets. This would follow US withdrawal and could also enable HMG to commit to Ilois resettlement.

The overall aim, within five years, would be to see the UK well on the way to a very different military posture - smaller than current levels, internationalist in outlook, and serving as a model for other states to follow. It would be far more relevant to the problems likely to arise from an increasingly constrained and divided world, although addressing the more fundamental problems of environmental limitations and socio-economic divisions would be beyond its specific remit.

Resource allocation in a global context

You have asked us to advise on the practicality of using a minority of the cost savings for purposes designed to enhance international standing, with the majority going directly into deficit reduction. We would like to suggest that you reconsider this.From our perspective the UK has the potential to play a leadership role in one of the greatest of current challenges - enabling the global south to develop radical low-carbon and fully sustainable economies as an essential (if remarkably under-recognised) element of a low-carbon world economy to which we must all move. We would argue forcefully that climate disruption will not be achieved without this, and that a deeply constrained and unstable world will not be amenable to elite control and enforced stability no matter how many carrier-battle groups and missile submarines might be available.

Britain is not the leader in radical energy technologies, either in research or installation, but it has considerable potential. We would recommend a large-scale multi-year programme to aid the development and take-up of technologies appropriate to vigorous developing economies. The main emphasis would be direct assistance to states seeking to embrace such technologies, with some emphasis on a range of Commonwealth states that can serve as models for the global south as a whole. Mauritius, Ghana, Tanzania and Barbados are examples.

This would be backed up by a substantial increase in R&D in universities, research institutes and industry (where there are already some good examples). We would also advocate a substantial increase in R&D spending on climate and oceanographic sciences. In relation to the latter we would point to the marine and oceanographic work at Southampton, Plymouth and Dunstaffnage. Regarding climate change,  we would point to the Universities of Reading, East Anglia and Exeter among others, and for radical energy technologies to Loughborough and (again) Reading Universities, as well of course the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth. 

You might also look at Bradford University’s remarkable remaking of its campus incorporating some of the world’s most energy-efficiency new-builds along with the systematic upgrading of its 1960s-era “heat sieve” building legacy. To adapt an old saying once applied to Manchester: what Bradford does today, the world will need to do tomorrow.

We would emphasise that in all of this work the new element is that there should be heavy investment in links with universities, industries and governments in the global south -  starting with countries such as those listed above, but including many others. This should link with the valuable connections already made between a number of other European Union states and such countries.

We would also suggest that your colleagues in HM Treasury and their Bank of England associates pay far more attention to the work of the New Economics Foundation, especially its Great Transition Project. Your ministry of defence colleagues might also look more closely at the Oxford Research Group’s work on sustainable security.


You did not ask us to be specific as to financial elements but rather to point to appropriate directions of policy travel. This is what we have done and we have sought to achieve two results. The first is to cut military spending to a level appropriate to a relatively small but still interesting country. The second is to suggest a direction in which that country will play a globally relevant role and thereby retain a self-perception of status, an element that we recognise has a political necessity if any implementing government wants to have a prospect of a second term.

In short, the UK is in a position, should it so decide, to play a major role in moving the international community towards the recognition that old ideas of security are simply irrelevant in the face of the common global predicament of severe environmental constraints. Its links with Europe, north America and the Commonwealth place it in a peculiarly appropriate (if not unique) position, especially if it gives much greater prominence to the reform of the UN, especially the Security Council.


May we conclude with two further points? One is that you may be surprised that we have said little about your current Middle East operations against the Islamic State. This is simply because they are so misplaced that it would take a separate report to explain why. Indeed your capacity to repeat mistakes exceeds belief (we are, of course, ready to accept a further consultancy).

The other is that we welcome this particular consultancy but we recognise that it is highly unlikely that any political circumstance might arise in which our recommendations are implemented. The Labour Party might see the need for the kind of defence posture we advocate, given its more internationalist outlook, but it is too scared to cut defence spending for fear of being deemed unpatriotic. The Conservative Party has no problem with cutting defence spending but is addicted to great-power status and does not believe in climate change. Even so, we urge you to persist with your work - after all, politics is a strange profession and we can at least draw solace from the fact that these are your problems, not ours.

SWISH Consultants
London, Washington and Wana
2 October 2014


This is the twenty-fifth report openDemocracy has published from the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics (SWISH). Twenty have advised al-Qaida, two the British governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, one the United States state department, and one the incoming Barack Obama administration:

"The SWISH Report" (14 July 2004) – to al-Qaida:

"The immediate requirement…is therefore to aid, in any way within the framework of your core values, the survival of the Bush administration."

"The SWISH Report (2)" (13 January 2005) - to al-Qaida:

"You are… in the early stages of a decades-long confrontation, and early ‘success' should not in any way cause you to underestimate the problems that lie ahead."

"The SWISH Report (3)" (19 May 2005) – to the British government:

"We believe that disengagement from Iraq, more emphasis on post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan, and vigorous diplomacy in support of a two-state Israel/Palestine solution offer you the best short-term hope of avoiding further damage to your government's credibility in relation to the United States-led war on terror."

"The SWISH Report (4)" (1 September 2005) – to the United States state department:

"What we find quite extraordinary is the manner in which the full extent of your predicament in Iraq is still not appreciated by your political leadership."

"The SWISH Report (5)" (2 February 2006) – to al-Qaida:

"The greatest risk to your movement is that the opinions of some of the sharper analysts on both sides of the Atlantic begin to transcend those of the political and religious fundamentalists that currently dominate the scene. If that were to happen, then you could be in serious trouble within two or three years."

"The SWISH Report (6)" (7 September 2006) – to al-Qaida:

"(The) influence of your movement and your leader is considerable, but you are not in control of your own strategy; rather, you form just one part of a wider process that is as diffuse and unpredictable as it is potent. You could point to the United States failure to control its global war on terror and you would be correct to do so. You could then claim that it is your own movement that is setting the pace - but you would be wrong. The truly revealing development of recent months is that we have reached a point, five years after 9/11 where no one, but no one, is in control."

"The SWISH Report (7)" (7 December 2006) – to al-Qaida:

"In Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as across the wider middle east, it is the power and influence of the United States that is in crisis. Your movement may not be entirely coherent and the overall circumstances may be more complex than a few months ago, but it probably has greater potential for enhancement and further development than at any time in the past five years."

"The SWISH Report (8)" (16 May 2007) - to the British government:

"Radical changes in your policies in relation to Iraq and Israel are essential, together with a review of policy options for Afghanistan. More generally, you must start the process of reorientating political and security thinking towards the real long-term global challenges."

"The SWISH Report (9)" (29 November 2007) - to al-Qaida:

"Our broad conclusions are that your prospects are good. Developments in Iraq should not worry you; events in Afghanistan and Pakistan are markedly positive for you; and the work of your associates elsewhere, including north Africa, are a bonus.

We do have to confess to one concern that may surprise you...In a number of western countries the issue of global climate change is rising rapidly up the political agenda and one of the effects of this is to begin to make some analysts and opinion-formers question the western addiction to oil."

"The SWISH Report (10)" (29 February 2008) - to al-Qaida

"It is said that revolutions change merely the accents of the elites, and we fear that such would be the consequence of your movement coming to power. A lack of flexibility would lead to unbending pursuit of a false purity that would decay rapidly into a bitter autocracy, leading quite possibly to a counter-revolution.

If you really want to succeed then you have to engage in thinking that goes far beyond what appear to be the limits and flaws of your current analysis. We would be happy to assist, but we doubt that your leadership will be willing to allow us to do so. We therefore submit this as possibly our last report."

"The SWISH Report (11)" (11 September 2008) - to al-Qaida

"In any case, whatever his actual policies, we most certainly would expect under an Obama presidency a marked change in style towards a more listening, cooperative and multilaterally - engaged America. That must be of deep concern to you. A more ‘acceptable’ America in global terms is the last thing you want"

"The SWISH Report (12)" (6 November 2008) - to al-Qaida

"If the far enemy began to lose interest in your core region, then your movement really would be in trouble. We will explore this further in a later report; but at this stage, we would suggest that this could emerge as the most potent threat to your movement."

"The SWISH Report (13.1)" (8 December 2008) & "The SWISH Report (13.2)" (15 December 2008) - to the Obama Transition Team:

"(The) standing of the United States across the middle east and southwest Asia is much diminished and its military forces are mired in a dangerous and long-term conflict in Afghanistan that is exacerbated by major problems in Pakistan. We do not believe that victory has been achieved (or will soon be achieved) in Iraq; and we hold that the al-Qaida movement has been dispersed into a loose network that is and will remain extremely difficult to counter.

We are aware that our advice in three of the four major aspects covered in this report - Israel-Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan - is considerably more radical than anything you currently propose; but you have requested our advice and we have given it. We acknowledge that to accept it is much to ask of you, perhaps especially because it represents a very different outlook not just from the neo-conservative vision of a 'new American century' but from some of the assertive realists that you have already invited into your administration."

"The SWISH Report (14)" (9 April 2009) - to al-Qaida:

"(The) conflict in Iraq has enabled thousands of young paramilitaries to travel to Iraq to get combat experience against highly trained and well-armed US troops in an urban environment. This has proved a far better training-ground than was available to these fighters' predecessors who were engaged in fighting low-morale Soviet conscripts in rural Afghanistan in the 1980s. The impact and effectiveness of this new generation of paramilitaries on the future of your mission is difficult to predict, but our Washington office informs us that this outcome is clearly understood among thoughtful military analysts and is causing considerable concern."

"The SWISH Report (15)" (11 June 2009) - to al-Qaida:

"How, then, might you be viewed by, say, 2060? On present trends we anticipate that the international-security context will then be one of massive inequalities of wealth in an environmentally constrained global system in which transnational elites endeavour to maintain control in the face of desperate anti-elite movements and insurgencies. These will be diverse, both in their origins and in their ideologies and belief systems.

Some may well be modelled on your movement. In that event, your final destiny might prove to be seen as an early symptom of a global trend that goes far beyond one religious tradition, rather than a phenomenon of great note in its own right. Your movement will be a footnote to rather than the substance of history."

"The SWISH Report (16)" (21 January 2010) - to al-Qaida:

"We conclude by drawing a lesson from the experience of recent years: that you cannot achieve your ultimate aim of a radical caliphate founded on your particular understanding of Islam’s distant past, but that you will continue with the conflict even so. Your enemy, for now at least, will pursue its strategy in a manner that delivers real value to you. We suspect, though, that this enemy may be more intelligent than you believe. For you, hubris may turn out to be the greater threat."

"The SWISH Report (17)" (1 January 2011) - to al-Qaida:

"This combination of the movement’s inner character and the media-public impact of western policy means that in the coming years we expect to see many more attacks - notwithstanding that their often brutal nature can be counterproductive. Your movement will thus retain a decentred and dispersed vitality that arises primarily from the continuing effects of what your far enemy is doing."

"The SWISH Report (18)" (17 February 2011) - to al-Qaida:

"You are failing to lead or inspire a rapidly escalating revolutionary process, and as a result risk being seen as irrelevant. Even worse, as the regimes fall or shake you are in danger of losing a vital pillar of support for your cause: namely, the idea that people’s hatred of these regimes could only be channelled effectively by embracing your version of Islam. The revolts demonstrate that you are clearly not the only alternative - and this is very bad news indeed."

"The SWISH Report (19)" (30 June 2011) - to al-Qaida:

"We repeat that we do not believe you can succeed in your overall aims. Even so, our analysis forces us to conclude that you have more potential for transnational action and deeper regional involvement than at any time in the past five years. That may be a surprising judgment. In any event, it is based on developments that western states are conspicuously failing to recognise - which can be accounted as a vital fifth advantage for your movement."

"The SWISH Report (20)" (5 January 2012) - to al-Qaida:

"We recognise that we are entering very uncertain times across the region, not least with the Arab awakening and the possibility of a war with Iran. But our remit is specifically concerned with your prospects. In this respect we would argue that the most useful action for you is to seek to affect the US presidential-election campaign in any way that makes a Republican-controlled White House more likely."

"The SWISH Report" (21)" (26 July 2012) - to al-Qaida:

"We do hold to our view that your movement has no chance of achieving your truly radical aims. Even so, we judge that we are in the midst of a very fluid situation, not least in the middle east and west Africa. This leads us to disagree with the argument of many western analysts, namely that al-Qaida is finished. As an organisation your movement is a shadow of its former self; yet as an idea, it may have rather more of a future than we had anticipated."

"The SWISH Report (22)" (6 February 2013)

"We do not believe your aim of a rigorous and purified new caliphate can be achieved. But you have your aims, and our function as a consultancy is to advise you in pursuit of those aims. What we see now is a metamorphosis from the reasonably distinct movement of a decade ago with a semi-structured leadership (the al-Qaida nucleus), into a pervasive yet dispersed idea that has taken root in many parts of the middle east, Africa and south Asia. The problem for you is that most elements of this entity are focused primarily on their immediate environment, and have too little perception of their transnational relevance and significance."

"The SWISH Report (23)" (25 October 2013)

"In a broad perspective, we see Nigeria, Syria and to an extent Iraq as major centres of development. Yet none of these involves associates of your movement seeing themselves primarily as part of a globally orientated vanguard that is charting a route to a worldwide caliphate. Instead, your legacy may simply be the further development of your movement into what is essentially no more than an idea, leaving unrealised the larger aim of a caliphate. It may, nonetheless, prove to be a singularly potent idea with a persistent appeal; and it may be greatly enhanced if the Arab awakening fails to develop further."

"The SWISH Report" (24) - 17 May 2014

"In a broad perspective, we see Nigeria, Syria and to an extent Iraq as major centres of development. Yet none of these involves associates of your movement seeing themselves primarily as part of a globally orientated vanguard that is charting a route to a worldwide caliphate. Instead, your legacy may simply be the further development of your movement into what is essentially no more than an idea, leaving unrealised the larger aim of a caliphate. It may, nonetheless, prove to be a singularly potent idea with a persistent appeal; and it may be greatly enhanced if the Arab awakening fails to develop further."

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