Article: The UK's Integrated Review - Ambitious, but is it deliverable?

At almost 120 pages, the UK Government’s Integrated Review is a weighty document, but arguably only reveals half the story.  The operational implications of this review of UK foreign and defence policy will be fleshed out on 22 March in a Defence Command Paper. Nonetheless, we have learnt a lot about the role the UK will aim to play on the international stage from today’s announcement.

Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy – to give it its full name – defines the Government’s vision for the UK’s role across the globe for the next decade. It is a mixture of clear re-affirmations and departures in approach from the last policy document of this kind, which was produced in 2015. In fact, the Integrated Review  explicitly outlines seven areas in which the current policy approach will continue – including in areas such as US-UK relations, NATO, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals – and twelve where a new course will be taken – covering areas such as China, space and cyber.

Four underpinning objectives are driving these polices:

  1. Sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology
  2. Shaping the open international order of the future
  3. Strengthening security and defence at home and overseas
  4. Building resilience at home and overseas

Fundamentally the aim of the Review is to identify the threats the UK faces for the next decade and the broad brush approach the Government will take to mitigate them. The breadth of the report is significant, covering the classical foreign and defence policy issues of geo-politics, trade, and military capability; as well as addressing subjects such as climate change, space, and international development.

The question of meeting the ambitions of this policy document in the real world is still, in large part, yet to be answered. Through announcements in November 2020 and the recent Budget, the UK Government has made clear its intentions to go above and beyond the NATO defence spending target of 2% of GDP. The destructive impact of the pandemic on public finances, however, looms over any and all Government spending plans at the moment. The threats identified by the Integrated Review are diverse and policies will need to be innovative to rebuff them. Innovation, however, will also be needed in delivery – ensuring the most is made of the whole defence community.

The Ministry of Defence has long-advocated a policy of Whole Force by Design – an approach which aims to integrate the military, reservist, civilian and private sector partners more effectively to ensure the best possible outcomes at the greatest efficiency. The ambitions of the Integrated Review only serve to reinforce how important it is that the policy of Whole Force by Design is at the centre of the development of the UK’s future defence capabilities.

Making (new) Friends and Influencing (the) People(‘s Republic of China)

The clearest point of departure from the UK’s current foreign policy is the shift in focus further to the East.

Brexit was a geopolitical event with reverberations which have already been felt in foreign and defence policy, but the Integrated Review confirms a permanent shift in the UK’s policy approach. The UK was often characterised as the bridge between the United States and the EU. There are warm words and reiterations that those relationships will be maintained. But there is an unsubtle indication that – what the UK Government titles – the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region is where the UK will now focus.

China, and the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, is unambiguously at the forefront of the UK defence policy-makers’ minds. The phrase ‘Indo-Pacific’ appears 32 times in the document, followed closely by China specifically, with ‘27’ mentions. Russia, by comparison, is only mentioned 14 times, the United States 9 times, and Iran just 5.

Not only is this region seen to hold the opportunities for trade, growth and economic expansion, but its where the strategic challenges of most prominence are to be found.

An ambition to engage with the countries and multi-lateral organisations of the Indo-Pacific region are front and centre. Through enhanced relationships in the region, the UK Government hopes not only to open up socio-economic opportunities, but create the conditions to mitigate emerging security threats and manage the strategic challenges of the next decade.

In other words, through closer trade and cultural ties with countries such as India, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines, the UK hopes to dampen the aggression and threat of an increasingly aggressive China.

An Arms Race or a Technology Treadmill?

The central tension in this policy is that at the same time as recognising the threat of China, the UK is also seeking to maintain – or even deepen – economic ties with the new superpower. Increased investment in conventional and nuclear capabilities – which is also committed to in this new policy document – are undoubtedly motivated in part by concerns of an ever more active Chinese foreign and defence policy. However, the strategic advantage, as the UK Government sees it, lies not in winning what would normally be thought of as the arms race, but maintaining dominance on the technology treadmill.

This is evidenced by the fact that the Government’s top two goals relate to growing the UK’s science and technology base, and enhancing its cyber capabilities. These are the primary means by which it can sustain a strategic advantage, the UK Government argues.

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but according to the UK Government, it seems the microprocessor is more powerful than both.

Putting Policy into Practice

An increase in the number of nuclear warheads, a new Counter-Terrorism Operations Centre, and a promise to return development spending to the pre-pandemic level of 0.7% of GDP, are just three of the practical shifts brought about by the Integrated Review. But, the real detail for the defence community will be in the forthcoming Command Paper.

It will, of course, build on the already outlined commitments in the recent Spending Review, Budget and the £24.1billion defence investment package announced by the Prime Minister in November 2020. The multiplicity of threats identified, from cyber to climate change, chemical attacks to future pandemics, and China to non-state actors, makes the case for investment a strong one.

Innovation, however, will not only be necessary to keep pace with the challenges the UK faces, but to manage the fiscal pressures that defence, like all other public services, will face in the post-pandemic world. The Government will need to leverage the best of military, reservist, civilian and private sector thinking if it is to achieve its ambitions within the precarious financial environment created by Covid-19. The Ministry of Defence must therefore continue with its commitment to the concept of Whole Force by Design. Building capabilities to meet the threats outlined in the Integrated Review through this lens of Whole Force by Design means outcomes will be improved, costs minimised, and innovation maximised. The upcoming Command Paper will be the opportune place to recognise this.

You can read the Serco Institute’s report, Whole Force by Design: Optimising Defence to Meet Future Challenges, here.

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