Article Published March 23rd, 2021
The government’s new Integrated Review is by and large an unimpressive document. It is long and repetitive, with for example the phrase “S&T a core skill” appearing 48 times. It is intellectually self-contradictory in its constant tension between Britain’s post Brexit “independence” and the need for multilateralism. It is work clearly written by many contributors of widely divergent standards of literary competence, poorly edited. More importantly, those who thumb the document hoping for a rational explanation of the UK’s strategic priorities in the coming decade will also be disappointed. Pity the foreign defence analyst or diplomat given the unenviable task of attempting to sift through the hundred pages to make some sense of the UK’s strategic direction. He or she must devote several evenings of concentration, in order to draw any meaningful conclusions about the UK’s latest “ten-year plan”.
Along the way to these conclusions the analyst will note several “alarums and excursions”: a vast job creation scheme for bureaucrats with an interest in cyber-warfare: the establishment of a “College for National Security”, the creation of a “Situation Centre” to work seamlessly with a “Counter Terrorism Operations Centre”. The analyst may also be struck by the document’s Orwellian “Media Literacy Strategy”, and “Local Resilience Forums” as well as an overarching “Online Safety Bill”.
According to the Review, the borders of the UK, are moreover not just “lines on the map” but points of philosophical significance to be secured by “upstream compliance” while our National Security Risk Assessment (a classified document we are reassuringly told) will now comprise of “interdependencies, cascading and compound risks”.
Through the thickets of these power-point fatuities there are some sensible ideas, intelligently ventilated, but the strain of the mental somersaults required to match the realities of the UK’s post-Brexit future with the much-reduced resources at her disposal run as an unwelcome leitmotiv throughout the text.
The appendix which breaks down costs and assigns £2.3 million just to the “implementation” of the measures described in the Review shows that the sums earmarked represent the largest British programme of investment in defence since the end of the Cold War. £6.6 billion will go on Research and Development. The aim is to provide a “military edge”, later referred to, equally vaguely, as “cutting edge capabilities”. We are of course not told what these cutting edge instruments are but there is much use of the term “cross-cutting” (27 times); in fact so frequently does the term occur, in not immediately relevant contexts, that one wonders if there has been another editorial slip and what was really meant was “cost-cutting”.
What is meant by this, we must assume, is some rapid roll-out of Artificial Intelligence programmes (AI) and Cyber-Warfare capabilities, helpfully referred to later, in another piece of loose drafting as “the digital transformation of the security and intelligence services”.
Unfortunately, compared to the amounts spent on such programmes by our rivals and adversaries (Russia and China) and even collectively the EU where A.I. capabilities are more advanced than is generally supposed, £6.6 billion is relatively small beer. The exclusion of the UK from such expensive joint European projects as the Galileo satellite programme (a project to which we contributed considerably more than £6.6 billion) underlines the vulnerability of small countries “going it alone” when it comes to expensive procurement projects. Yet in several key areas this is precisely what the UK is proposing. By these parameters, there is a danger that the “cutting edge” may well be obsolescent by the time of its unveiling.
It is just as well then that the Review makes no bones about the UK’s post-Brexit near total security dependency on the US. In one paragraph, also much repeated throughout the document, there is a bold reference to the US providing the UK with all its needs, civil as well as military: “The US remains our most important bilateral relationship, our largest trading partner and inward investor”. Economists might dispute the trading claim but the rare candour towards the oft-discussed proximity of 51st state status for the UK is striking.
In an extraordinary paragraph, written, it would seem (and perhaps a little carelessly not updated) before Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House, the document coolly announces what it calls the UK’s diplomatic and security “change of approach”. Blithely referring to the end of the “post-Cold-War rules based international system”, the Review notes “We face today an international order more fragmented, characterized by increasing competition between states over interests…..a defence of the status-quo is no longer sufficient for the decades ahead”.
No doubt such a cavalier approach to the “rules-based international system” and the defence of the “status-quo” would have sat well with a Trump presidency, and indeed might have even reflected the Prime Minister’s own arbitrary approach to international agreements but, as the incoming American President has made abundantly clear, the post-war arrangements agreed by the victorious powers after 1945 continue to prove surprisingly resilient. There is little appetite in Washington (or indeed in Moscow or Beijing) to abandon the “rules-based international system”.
Perhaps the wishful thinking of Brexit can be seen in this desire to upend the global status-quo. Those Conservatives who predicted twenty years ago (and still predict) the break-up of Europe seem to believe that all the other parts of the fabric of international relations are also ripe for demolition. The Review brings the intellectual dissonance of Brexit prominently into the wider dimension of geo-politics.
The element of fantasy therefore is never far from the surface of this document. We are told (again much repeated throughout) that we are a “maritime trading nation”. Yet often, even on the same page, we are reminded that in under 10 years the UK will be a space super-power, “capable of protecting our interests in space” thanks to an ambitious schedule of satellite insertion, to be launched from Scotland. The fact that Scotland may have left the union long before then is treated as an event on a par with lightning striking the White House twice in one day. There are ambitious plans for Scotland in the Review.
Scotland will provide a new “space-hub”. Thousands of new jobs will be created by the anchoring of the RAF’s new space command in the Highlands, and the first satellite will be launched as early as the year after next. The Review dismisses the decade old multi-billion European Galileo satellite programme from which the UK was ejected on account of Brexit. This, the Review insists, can be replicated unilaterally within 24 months by “using our sovereign capabilities” and “burden-sharing partnerships with our allies” (i.e. the U.S.).
Scotland is also the home of what the document refers to as our “independent nuclear deterrent”. As the deterrent depends on US satellite positioning to reach its target, US servicing and updating to be deployed, it would be more accurate to admit it is only capable of what is in practice a dual key deployment dependent on US compliance; more perhaps a US deterrent with a British flag on it even if, as the document loudly proclaims: “only the Prime Minister can authorize its deployment”. It is hard not to read into the document’s repeated enmeshing of Scotland in the core future strategic capabilities of the UK a powerful warning that the path of Scottish independence carries huge risks for the security of the UK and will therefore be resisted by the entire capabilities of the British state.
Turning to the enemy without, the Review offers a predicable focus on Russia. As the Salisbury poisonings and Russian intervention in the Ukraine and Crimea underline, Moscow represents an adversary that has already demonstrated the very capabilities (immorally deployed) the Review notes need to be developed by the UK in order to defend “our values and interests”. In language reminiscent of the height of the Cold War, Russia is accused of being “the most acute direct threat to the UK”. This elevation of Russia to the status of “Public Enemy No 1” may come as a surprise to many European diplomats who might be forgiven for imagining that the Russian threat was closer both geographically and historically to central and eastern Europe than to the UK. The focus on Russia’s threat sits illogically and intellectually uneasily with the UK’s strategic withdrawal from the European project, following Brexit.
Another inconsistency lies in the Review’s much vaunted “Pacific Tilt”. This can only be directed against China yet notwithstanding escalating tensions over Covid-19, Hong Kong and Huawei mobile technology, China, by contrast, is only labelled a “systemic competitor”. Better, it would seem, to be a “most acute direct threat” than a “systemic competitor” in terms of the quantity of resources to be deployed to oppose you.
Aside from a casual reference to the training of Ukrainian military personnel, the remedies proposed by the Review for dealing with the “most direct acute threat” appear in this context almost eccentric. “By 2030”, the document insists, “we will be deeply engaged in the Indo-Pacific”. Moreover “we will be particularly active in East Africa”. It requires a feat of considerable imagination to see how such deployments will intimidate the Russian bear and reduce the “most direct acute threat”.
It is when we come to Europe that the illogicality, never far from the surface of the Review, becomes most marked. In one of the most curious of the sections of the Review, different parts of Europe are prioritized over other European countries. Even this predictable Divide et impera approach proffers startling distortions of reality. Germany is mentioned, but notwithstanding the scaling back of British forces deployed there since the end of the cold war, it is not so much a NATO ally but more of a “strategic hub”, bracketed along with the Sovereign Base Areas of Cyprus and Gibraltar. One wonders what Berlin might have to say about being so described 30 years after Germany regained her sovereignty.
When it comes to France the Review is on firmer territory. The military alliance with France dating from the Lancaster House agreements involves “constant daily and unprecedented cooperation on nuclear capabilities” the Review insist. To cement this there will be a new Franco-British Defence Summit later this year.
Perhaps, unsurprisingly, the lower order of European batting is more uneven: Spain, Italy and Portugal along with the Scandinavians and Poles (“shared history”) are deemed worthy of a special mention while Austria, Hungary, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia and Croatia are not mentioned at all. It is hard not to wonder what British diplomatic representation in these countries has achieved in order to provoke such a chilling silence.
Although the Review goes out to stress (repeatedly) that “diplomacy” is at the centre of “the next ten years”, perhaps the most coherent part of the document is that enjoying the largest input from the military. The Military Command Document which was to be published simultaneously with the Review, arrived a few days late, but the extra time was used well. It is in many ways a model of clarity compared with its confused predecessor, though regrettably it shares the same cavalier approach to grammar and modern English usage.
An interesting new military doctrine is formally introduced here; a smudging of the border between hostilities and what is called “sub-war growth in state competition below the threshold of war”. This is what the Review ponderously and ungrammatically refers to as the difference between “operations” and “warfighting”. The term “Warfighting” of course simply means war. Its introduction into military, geo-political or diplomatic vocabulary should be resisted.
British exceptionalism truly knows no bounds here. Hardly any other country in the world uses a compound to mean war. The Review, however explains that, from now on, “new” military requirements must be addressed to allow for the “seamless” move of capabilities from “operating” to “warfighting”.
In particular, our special forces must be equipped to deal with the “most sophisticated of adversaries”. Those familiar with the activities of the SAS during the last fifty years will perhaps question this aspiration; after all, the SAS have been operating successfully in this space for half a century against highly sophisticated adversaries in many cases.
To support them, and to draw attention away from the imminent reductions in army manpower, we must now create a new “Ranger” force, “modelled on the American “Green Beret” troops” also often deployed clandestinely behind enemy lines. It has yet to be explained how this new US inspired “Green Beret” army unit will coexist let alone serve alongside the Navy’s Green Beret commandoes.
Other points in the Review and the later Military reforms document offer little new. As predicted, capabilities requiring expensive upgrades were shelved and the Army was, notwithstanding the excitement around the new “Ranger” force, as expected, to bear the brunt of at least an 18% cut to manpower.
These documents’ principal value lie in their capturing, perhaps rather more than was envisioned by its authors, the strategic confusion which arises from the Brexit decision and the UK’s determination to turn its back on EU defence potentialities.
By ignoring the European project’s relevance to defence, the UK is assuming that for the foreseeable future, the EU’s defence capabilities on land and in space will remain nugatory. This idea sits uneasily with the predictions, enunciated by several senior British army officers at the time of the Brexit referendum that, unless we left the EU, European military reform and modernization would proceed at such an alarming pace that the Brigade of Guards would soon have to don green “European” uniforms when parading down Whitehall.
When the full extent of the drastic reduction of UK military personnel, disbandment of famous regiments, sale of barracks and other military assets the Review implies, comes to light, these retired generals will perhaps wonder if they backed the right horse. Closer European integration in defence, largely shaped by the UK, might have saved the regimental silver of their old units more effectively than this incoherent Integrated Review.