The UK is about to announce the results of the so-called ‘Integrated Review’. This represents the climax of almost a year’s work to look at the strategic defence, foreign policy and security challenges facing the UK and working out the best way to tackle them.
These reviews occur roughly every five years, with the last two happening in 2010 and 2015. This review was launched shortly after the current Government won the 2019 general election. Its aim is to produce a long-term plan, out to the 2030s on how to approach the sort of challenges that may threaten the UK in that time.
This has required input from across the Government, not just the traditional security areas like the MOD and Foreign Office. Policy makers have had to consider what impact issues like international trade, climate change and new technology may mean for the future, and how it could affect national interests.
The result will be the announcement of a paper that tries to set out not only what these threats are, but also the type of resources required to fix it. This will include things like diplomatic cover (how many Embassies are needed), ideas about how to invest in things like cyber security and other national security assets. Perhaps most importantly it will set out the planned structure for the armed forces, and the sort of missions they will do.
These reviews are not easy, as they require people to try to assess likely trends and make long term predictions about what may happen in the world. These have not always gone to plan – for example, the 2010 review missed the resurgence of Russia as a conventional military threat.
The planners need to come up with an outlook that tries to reflect the world that we are in now, and work out what may change – for example, what powers are in the ascendancy, what technology may change and what (if any) threats may be emerging that need to be countered.
Although the results are not yet known, it is likely that the planners for this review need to consider several big problems, all of which are complicated and need different responses. In Europe the problem of balancing the UK’s security relationship with the EU, particularly after Brexit, with the need to support NATO and strengthen it will be difficult.
The UK has traditionally been a leading player in European security areas, with its globally deployable armed forces and willingness to play a major role in NATO welcomed by partners. But Brexit inevitably means this relationship will evolve and change, while NATO looks under ever more significant challenges – both externally and with its own member states quibbling over funding matters.
The return of Russia as a credible threat in Eastern Europe will provide a set of military problems that need to be carefully looked at. The combination of well-equipped and trained Russian ground forces, along with a highly capable and increasingly active submarine fleet in the Arctic as well could pose a major security threat. The UK will need to decide the best way to deter this combination of problems, which call for investment in both anti-submarine warfare platforms like ships and long range patrol aircraft, with renewed investment in things like heavy armour and artillery on the ground.
At the same time though, wider security threats are proliferating around the world. There is a strong interest in Government in a so-called ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ which would see an increased emphasis on playing a greater role in the region compared to at present. The combination of significant trade opportunities, and also the complex security challenges ranging from tackling terrorist threats to potential for state on state conflict is huge.
To deliver this though would need a major shift in resources and attention away from Europe. The UK would probably need to invest in a bigger diplomatic presence, coupled with a larger military presence in the region – and be prepared to show it is committed for the long haul to reassure allies of our good intentions.
This calls for a very different military to the one that is needed in Europe – more reliant on naval and air power to quickly move across large distances of this vast region, and counter the likely threats from countries like China. There is probably less call for the Army to operate in its traditional ‘heavy’ format of tanks and APCs, and instead lighter units will be required.
The question is whether this shift makes sense – it will put the UK firmly on the map in the region, but it will also draw the ire of countries like China, who already have a strained relationship with the UK over issues like 5G networks.
The risk is that a strong military presence designed to bolster allies could have a negative economic impact – China can offer significant economic opportunities for UK industry, and if this market is closed to them as a result, then the long term consequences for the UK economy could be significant.
Another area where difficult decisions need to be made is around the level of UK engagement in regions like the Gulf or Africa. Both regions offer huge opportunities to bolster UK security – both from the short-term tackling of threats like Iranian aggressive acts in the Gulf region, or tackling the very complex security challenges in places like Mali.
In the medium term a committed UK presence may well pay dividends in terms of economic support. For example, sub Saharan Africa will over the next 20-30 years be a potential economic boom location, while the cash rich Gulf states could prove a source of reliable orders for high tech UK products like fighter jets and cyber security products.
There is also a wider need to be aware of the challenges of energy security and ensuring the flow of oil and natural gas makes it to the UK from the Middle East without disruption. The shipping route is full of natural choke points, and potential conflict zones, for example the Suez Canal, the Bab-Al-Mendab straits and so on. To ensure the safety of shipping, and to protect the flow of goods and resources to the UK, its vital that these areas remain relatively secure.
This calls for a longer-term UK defence and security presence, but will it be domestically popular to send troops to work with Gulf countries with dubious human rights records, or to fight in bloody insurgencies in places like Mali.
The cost will be high and require long term commitment that may not seem a price worth paying to many of the public.
The wider picture that needs to be thought about is the nature of the UK’s closest relationship with the USA. There is without a doubt an extremely close and highly effective alliance between the two nations, built on decades of close co-operation and trust.
For it to remain relevant though, the UK needs to be able to show the US that it is not a ‘freeloader’ and that it continues to play a major part in international affairs. This calls for things like ongoing spending on Trident and new nuclear submarines, and continued investment in very high-end military capabilities like the F35 project which will cost billions of pounds.
For the US, the UK matters as a military partner, because it can participate in the riskiest of operations from the outset (the so-called ‘day one’ capability) and do so with the full range of military and wider assets. The UK is an enormously valued ally, but only for as long as it invests in the skills and equipment needed to remain as a top tier partner.
The review will need to consider carefully how to balance off the UK’s own strategic and defence priorities, with identifying what matters most to the US to work out where UK efforts need to go. It may be the case that to preserve the relationship with the US more widely, there needs to be a greater commitment to places like NATO or the Indo-Pacific, even if it isn’t necessarily as great a strategic need for the UK.
The wider challenge that the UK will face in trying to remain relevant to the US is working out how to afford all the different newly emerging technologies likely to enter service. The US, and NATO, rely on high tech military equipment to maintain a qualitative fighting edge over possible adversaries. This isn’t cheap though and can require a lot of money to be spent on a new kit that will help keep giving a battle-winning advantage.
The Chief of the Defence Staff has spoken openly about the need to look at what the UK can afford, what will not remain relevant and needs to be retired, and also what needs to be brought into service – as well as the way to cope in between – the so-called ‘sunset’ and ‘sunrise’ capabilities. A good example of this is the challenge of what to do with the British Army’s main battle tank force.
The Challenger 2 fleet was introduced roughly 25 years ago and requires a major update to stay as a credible tank. This update is likely to be expensive, and the Army will not be able to afford to upgrade all 227 tanks that it has in service.
The question is whether the tank is still relevant to the Army’s needs – is it the right type of technology for the mid 21st Century? Would a better solution be to invest in more drones, artillery and anti-tank missiles to provide a combination of firepower, surveillance and presence, and the ability to take the fight to a capable enemy?
Is the tank still a relevant capability tool, or is it too slow to move around? In a world when speed of response is everything, is the tank simply not a valuable tool to have in an island nation like the UK, which would need to ship them to the operation in question? Or is the possession of a major armoured capability likely to be a key sign of staying relevant to allies like the US, by showing the UK wants to remain able to operate across all the main types of military operations?
There is no easy right answer here, but the tension at the heart of the defence budget will be whether it is better to invest in updating tanks or moving forward and bringing new and potentially more relevant capabilities into service. For example, the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has seen large numbers of relatively modern tanks disabled by drones – proof perhaps that armoured warfare can only occur in an environment where air superiority is assured.
If though the UK decides to bring new technology into service, how can it be certain that it will work, or that it will be affordable in sufficient numbers to make a difference? There is a real risk being run that while the promise of emerging new equipment could be great, ensuring that it works is a real risk. What happens in the gap between sunset and sunrise – for example, if the UK deletes its Challenger 2 fleet, then discovers that the putative replacement drone capability to replace it is either delayed or doesn’t work as planned – how is this gap covered?
The other risk is that once a piece of equipment goes out of service without a direct replacement, it is much easier to delete or reduce funding for its successor if a few years pass without needing it. If you’ve managed three or four years without a tank-style capability, do you still need to bring one in, or could you scrap the replacement project and save money?
Saving money is likely to be at the forefront of the review authors' minds right now.
Originally it was expected that the review would be done alongside the completion of a multi-year spending review across the Government that would ensure that the MOD knew its budget for the next few years.
This would have provided some much needed financial certainty and ensured that plans could be made to retire some ‘sunset’ capabilities while knowing that the so-called ‘sunrise’ was also funded and planned to deliver in due course. The problem though is that this spending review has now been scrapped while the Government works out how to tackle the COVID-19 situation, and then takes stock of the economic situation afterwards.
The problem for Defence now is that it faces having completed a review that sets out its future plans but has no funding in place to pay for it. Even worse, it also has significant in-year funding challenges that urgently need to be solved as part of wider budget problems.
This means it faces an incredibly difficult set of problems. Does it press ‘pause’ on its plans until the next spending review is done, but not knowing how much may, or may not, be available then for the MOD? Does it go ahead and try to begin the process of restructuring the armed forces, even if the money isn’t guaranteed, knowing that this could cause further problems in a year or two if they are mid-transformation and the money runs out – forcing major rethinking on the go.
Alternatively, they could do nothing now, and present the plans as an aspiration but not enact them. This is potentially an ideal outcome for showing the ambition, but the problem is that there is not enough money in the budget now to deliver the MOD’s plans as they are – if they do this, then its likely major cuts will be required in the very near future to balance the books – but these cuts will need to occur without any future financial certainty.
This dilemma is significant because it threatens to completely undo the work of the review. No matter how great the policy aspiration is, if the underlying funding isn’t there to support it, then the review will have failed.
Right now the MOD is on the verge of facing a very significant dilemma – does it publish the Review and hope for the best, does it hold off and keep doing what its been doing (knowing that this causes financial issues), or does it do cuts to make the books balance, but which do not necessarily make operational or strategic sense?
There is not a good outcome facing the MOD right now, only a series of equally difficult bad outcomes. It is not yet clear what will happen, but whatever decision is taken, it is difficult to see how significant defence cuts can be avoided. To put it mildly, this is a very difficult time for the MOD.
This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.
This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.
Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.