The UK’s Integrated Review: five key questions

Andrew Dorman

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the launch of the United Nations’ Climate Change conference, COP26, in central London on 4 February 2020. Photo: JEREMY SELWYN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s flagship Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy has returned to the fore following its postponement at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Already social media is replete with advice, concerns and fears. In a series for The Times, defence correspondent Lucy Fisher suggests that the British government is considering scrapping its tank fleet, while there is continuous speculation about how Theresa May’s ‘Global Britain’ strapline might be implemented by her beleaguered successor.

Within the think-tank community, the Henry Jackson Society has advocated the construction of a new Royal Yacht as a possible solution to the UK’s security needs, whilst within the Royal United Services Institute there are calls for a return to national service. Neither option appears to be receiving any serious consideration within Whitehall. Perhaps inevitably, in a process involving defence and with a largely male ‘defence commentariat’, much of the debate has devolved rapidly into a discussion of equipment — tanks vs. aircraft carriers vs. cyber and so on.

To realize the full potential of this review amidst the confusion, five interlinked questions must be considered.

1. What are the threats to the United Kingdom and its dependencies?

Ben Wallace, the current UK Defence Secretary, has already indicated that a threat rather than a risk-based approach is being used. Within the defence commentariat opinion is divided between three threats — Russia, China and terrorism. The return of an emphasis on Russia and China as key threats to the UK marks a major change since the 2010 review, and whichever state is prioritized will have a great bearing on which military capabilities the UK invests in. A focus on Russia allows the army to argue for the retention of an armoured capability while a focus on China would necessitate a more maritime focus. In the background some continue to emphasize the threat posed by terrorism and point to the UK’s ongoing military commitments in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. As terror organizations adapt their tactics to the opportunities afforded by cyberspace, so too must the security services adapt to effectively counter this threat.

However, this narrow focus on defence threats reflects the dominant military dynamic of much of the debate. Looking beyond this, other threats including climate change, global economic vulnerability and pandemics demand far greater attention. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that while our military leaders obsess over conflict between humans, other threats exist that require persistent and strategic responses, as most micro-biologists would tell you. With increasingly scarce security resources the question is what challenges should be privileged over others? Is it time to redefine what we mean by ‘security’ altogether?

2. How will wars and conflict be conducted in the future?

Another central debate is over the changing character of conflict. The Integrated Review must consider how warfare will be conducted in the coming decades, with a greater emphasis on hybrid methods, the radical impact of new technologies and the renewed involvement of a wide range of non-state actors. Debates about the future character of conflict and revolutions in military affairs are neither new nor confined to the United Kingdom, but they provide a basis for prioritizing capabilities and justifying the protection of yesterday’s defence programmes using the pretext of countering tomorrow’s challenges. The National Audit Office has made clear that the MOD’s current Equipment Plan is unaffordable and as a consequence the government is confronted with difficult decisions about what to fund and what to cut. How wars will be fought in in the future will be a major determinant of what military capabilities will be required.

3. Who are the UK’s allies and partners?

For centuries successive governments have sought to work with partners to mitigate against risks to the UK and its interests. The 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (NSS/SDSR) placed NATO at the heart of British security policy, and this is likely to remain the case. Within NATO the UK possesses significant influence both due to its standing as the second nuclear power (France has not committed its nuclear forces to NATO) and because of the various posts it holds. However, with influence comes obligation and the question of how much the UK wants to remain committed remains. Indeed, one of the strategic dilemmas facing the Johnson government is whether it wants to retain a NATO focus or look to free-ride within the alliance as it focuses on a more global outlook.

Beyond NATO, the UK has traditional emphasized the so-called ‘special relationship’ with the United States, but this has come under increasing strain during the Trump administration and the US’s longer term strategic pivot towards Asia and away from Europe. Beyond the transatlantic relationship, attention should be paid to Britain’s relations with the likes of Japan, Australia, India and the Gulf monarchies. Next to this is the question of whether Brexit will facilitate the UK’s deeper engagement with organizations like the Commonwealth and United Nations, or whether indeed its departure from the European Union will leave the country isolated. Partners allow the UK to share the defence and security burden, but they also come with additional commitments and obligations. Identifying which powers to engage with, and which geographic spheres to act in, will be key to a coherent review process.

4. Who or what is the United Kingdom?

The issue of allies and partners also raises questions about the future unity of the United Kingdom itself. As a state whose relative power is artificially high because of historical advantages it is difficult to map a path forward which does not incorporate some form of relative declinist assumptions. Moreover, there are ongoing questions about the UK’s traditional emphasis on the rule of law in light of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the current government’s position vis-à-vis the negotiations with the European Union and the potential impact of Scotland voting for independence. The identity issue is therefore at the very heart of the review.

5. What lessons can be learnt from previous reviews?

This is not a new phenomenon, and much can be learnt from the conduct of past reviews. In the defence sphere, the most recent NSS/SDSR process has been formally linked to the parliamentary cycle. The cyclical nature of the review schedule has resulted in policymakers being trapped in what some have described as a ‘Groundhog Day’ scenario, whereby the same recurring obstacles repeatedly prevent progress. At the heart of this is a continued inability to link ‘ends’, ‘ways’ and ‘means’ in a credible form, a failure perpetuated by the politics of the review process and the territorial approach to funding taken by the various military services.

What might we expect to see?

Therefore we could expect some form of Autumn announcement delivered around the time of the ongoing Spending Review. This is more likely to focus on policy themes, concepts and ideas with less detail on what this will mean in terms of people, equipment and bases. This will most likely be left to next year when the ravages of COVID-19 and the economic consequences of agreeing, or not agreeing a deal, with the EU become clearer and the parlous state of Britain’s finances become evermore apparent. If past practice is anything to go by the likely date will be the Thursday immediately preceding the Easter or Summer parliamentary recess.

For policymakers the simplistic linear assumptions of those who advocate the grand strategy narrative will be quickly put to one side as the wicked nature of the review conundrum becomes clearer. If the past is a guide, they will eventually adopt some form of ‘incrementalist approach’ wrapped in the language of radical change and strategy. To do anything more would require what Sir Humphrey would refer to as ‘brave thinking’ which few ministers or prime ministers are ever prepared to adopt. The most (in)famous radical defence reviews were conducted by Duncan Sandys in 1957 and John Nott in 1981 and history has not looked kindly on either.

Andrew Dorman is Professor of International Security at King’s College London, and Editor of International Affairs. He has written extensively on UK defence policy and the review process, including the following articles with Paul Cornish.

Complex security and strategic latency: the UK Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015’, International Affairs 91: 2 (2015), pp.351–70.

Breaking the mould: the United Kingdom Strategic Defence Review 2010’, International Affairs 86: 2 (2010), pp. 395–410.

Blair’s Wars and Brown’s Budgets: From Strategic Defence Review to Strategic Decay in Less than a Decade’, International Affairs 85: 2 (2009), pp.247–261.

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