Comment

Integrated Review 2021: Is Defence In For A 'Pounding'?

The UK now faces a moment of reckoning, writes defence analyst Professor Michael Clarke.

By Professor Michael Clarke, Visiting Professor of Defence Studies at King's College London and former Director General at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Defence and security analysts are all running for cover as they are about to be bombarded with Government announcements around the long-awaited and snappily-titled, 'Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy' – or, the 'Integrated Review', for short.

The first salvo will be fired by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons on Tuesday when he launches the strategic overview of the process, 'Global Britain in a Competitive Age'.

The following Monday, we will get the Defence Command Paper that is designed to give practical effect to the strategic thinking, alongside another long-awaited paper, the Defence Industrial Strategy.

Then, in the days and weeks after that, there will be more strategy papers for cyber war, for artificial intelligence, and on defence and climate change issues.

We are promised by one insider that some of the announcements will be "eye-popping".

So, in essence, strategy this week, defence and industry next week, and infrastructure in short order after that.

Britain's Brexit Government certainly doesn't lack for ambition.

As General Sir Patrick Sanders who runs Strategic Command put it succinctly: "Our ambition is to be the leading integrated force in the world," because outside the European Union, and for many other reasons, the UK now faces a moment of reckoning.

The big strategy picture

What can we expect from the strategic overview?

Reports are that it will say a lot about developing Britain's science and technology base and the need to create greater domestic resilience.

This has been highlighted by the challenges of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, but 'resilience' is a much deeper concept, covering all areas of critical national infrastructure.

Boris Johnson leaving Downing Street 160920 CREDIT PA
The Government has already described the Integrated Review as the largest of its kind since the end of the Cold War (Picture: PA).

Being nationally resilient and good at applied science is one of the best safeguards against being pressured or blackmailed by adversaries such as China and Russia, who are expected to be namechecked as adversaries quite extensively in these statements.

Beyond that, the strategy is expected to argue that 'Global Britain' will use its forces proactively around the world – refusing to cede to our adversaries that 'grey area' just below the explicit conflict threshold where so much mischief is created.

And those forces will consist of both traditional military elements and new transformative capacities based on data fusion, artificial intelligence, cyber power and robotics.

The Armed Forces will be smaller, particularly the British Army and the RAF, but greatly upgraded in fielding new and transformative technologies.

The Royal Navy will give 'Global Britain' the physical reach to promote military cooperation anywhere in the world.

The RAF will take on the all-important space domain, and the Army will be the first in the world to structure itself very largely around completely new conceptions of how modern warfare is likely to be fought.

The big powers are all going down the same technological roads, of course, but for a country with small armed forces, this strategy puts a lot of eggs in just a few baskets; a 'moment of reckoning' indeed.

Most eye-catching for the journalists will be the wording around Brexit Britain's 'tilt towards the Indo-Pacific'.

In outline, this makes a lot of sense. The world economy is re-structuring itself around the high levels of growth in Asia; there is considerable push-back in many countries against assertive Chinese policy, and there are many opportunities for Britain to establish or renew strong economic and security partnerships with countries such as India, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand.

Cyber Security MOD Crown Copyright Defence Imagery duotone
The UK Government has already announced a 'cyber corridor' will be developed in the North of England under the review (Picture: MOD).

Britain seems already to be pushing for membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership that would link it more closely to North America and the Pacific economies.

It will certainly associate itself – and could even join at some point – the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the US, Japan, Australia and India, that has been galvanised into action by China's recent behaviour.

Nor is it any secret that the Prime Minister will seek to persuade the G7 meeting that he will be hosting in June to expand the group into a G10 by adding India, South Korea and Australia.

We will probably hear a lot more about this 'tilt' towards the Indo-Pacific when the Prime Minister visits India later in the summer, and it will certainly be a talking point when the aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, enters the more politically sensitive waters of the Indo-Pacific on her global tour.

Strategic dangers

Big strategic moments always come with corresponding dangers.

The Prime Minister will doubtless launch 'Global Britain in a Competitive Age' with some ringing phrases and a few witticisms.

But in the years to come, three particular shadows will hang over the Integrated Review and the Government will have to work hard, and put the cash in, to dispel them.

One is the question of 'how big a tilt' towards the Indo-Pacific is envisaged for British defence and security policy.

Britain can certainly play a role in the Indo-Pacific, but its core strategic interests will always lie with Europe, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Stretching itself towards 'new opportunities' in the Indo-Pacific may diminish Britain's role and its core competence in its own neighbourhood – and at a time when Putin's Russia is working hard to influence Europe's security agenda.

Being visible and welcome around the world is not the same as being strategically significant.

Britain may or may not play a strategically important role in the Indo-Pacific but the Government always assumes it is strategically significant in European defence.

If Global Britain's small forces and other security assets, transformational or not, overstretch themselves across the world, the danger is that they may become strategically irrelevant everywhere.

A second shadow is cast by the inevitable time and costs of creating such big transformations across all Britain's Armed Forces and its other security capabilities.

More big defence spending announcements are likely to be made during this year, but the fact remains that the economy is trying to recover from the COVID crisis, and the immediate Brexit effects, at the same time.

HMS Queen Elizabeth will lead her Carrier Strike Group on operations this year.

Transformation is not cheap and it cannot be funded only by defence cost-cutting elsewhere.

Nor is transformation quick, so the ambition to create 'the leading integrated force in the world' will have to be sustained with political commitment through more than one government over the next few years.

Unless the economy bounces back very robustly from Brexit and COVID, and finally gets above the levels of 2008 when it all began to go wrong, this could be asking a lot.

And thirdly, Britain has got to sell this strategic approach to its allies in the US and across Europe who are generally sceptical about most of it.

Some see it as a dangerous exercise in Conservative Party 'Brexit hubris' – going global in a big way to emphasise Britain's departure from the EU.

Others see it as a big experiment in making Britain more strategically significant across the board by being ultra-high-tech, joined up and clever; making limited physical assets work very hard indeed. All are watching with considerable interest – some polite, some horrified.

The Pentagon and NATO in Brussels are both, frankly, worried that, for whatever reasons, the technical transformation will not be carried through, and Britain will just end up with smaller forces and too little to show for all the rhetoric.

This whole approach to security after Brexit – the amorphous concept of 'Global Britain', has been a very long time coming – since before 2016, in fact. But it is now arriving with the express-train roar of an artillery barrage.

Tin hats on; we may be in for a hard pounding.

Professor Michael Clarke is Visiting Professor of Defence Studies at King's College London and was Director-General at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) until 2015.

For more discussion on the Integrated Review, click through to this week’s episode of the BFBS Sitrep Podcast.