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When the government announced in the Queen’s Speech in December that it planned ‘the deepest review of Britain’s security, defence and foreign policy since the end of the Cold War’, it could not have known that the country would be locked down 12 weeks later, dealing with a major health crisis.
Managing the coronavirus pandemic will rightly be the government’s key focus in the weeks and months ahead. It will absorb almost all of Whitehall’s policy and planning capacity. The lasting consequences of the pandemic remain highly unpredictable, but are likely to include new judgements on public spending priorities (in the UK and elsewhere), altered geopolitical alignments between major powers, exacerbated developmental challenges in countries worst hit by the crisis and (potentially) a further strengthening of nationalist political forces. When the dust settles, these new trends could require a significant rethink of the resourcing and conclusions of the Integrated Review.
For these reasons, the government should agree to delay the conclusion of the review until 2021. Work should continue on key foreign and defence policy issues, some of which could be settled to provide the foundations for further work. But current defence plans and programmes should be rolled forward, as part of a one-year Spending Round. The most plausible scenario for the defence budget remains that the extra £1.9 billion allocated to the MoD for 2020/21 in the 2019 Spending Round will be incorporated into the Comprehensive Spending Review baseline, and that a further 0.5% real increase per annum will be added.
The review, when it comes, should be based on a new foreign policy, which we suggest should be encapsulated in a new ‘doctrine of enlightened national interest’. Under such an approach, the first priority for the armed forces should be the defence of the UK homeland and its immediate neighbourhood. The review should, therefore, rethink the criteria used to make decisions on whether to intervene militarily in crises overseas, learning lessons from the strategic failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The shape of expeditionary forces should now be determined primarily through the need to work closely with NATO allies in defence of Europe and its immediate neighbourhood.
The review should be informed by updated assessments of the nature of the threats posed by Russia and China, and by a reappraisal of the UK’s primary alliance relationships. These point towards a reshaping of the balance of the forward defence programme, and a reshaping of the MoD’s integrated operational concept, towards the capabilities that are most important for responding to ‘grey area’ threats. Particular attention should be given to preparing for circumstances where the US believes that its national interests are not sufficiently engaged to justify its own military involvement, but where a coalition of European states (including the UK) believe that they have more at stake. The MoD will also need to address the affordability challenge – the imbalance between available budget and spending plans – that has recurred every year since the SDSR in 2015.
The Joint Force 2030 that should be a major outcome of the review should be markedly different from the current Joint Force 2025 plan. In order to create the headroom to accelerate required modernisation, the MoD will need to dis-invest in ‘sunset capabilities’. It should also optimise its ground forces (the British Army and Royal Marines) for responding rapidly to hybrid and limited threats across Europe’s periphery, drawing down those forces that are designed primarily for holding a segment of NATO’s fully mobilised front line. This could allow substantial savings in personnel costs and related investments, releasing significant resources for modernisation elsewhere.
This reorientation would need careful handling with Allies. Despite the emphasis placed on new technology by its Allied Command Transformation (ACT), and the targets set by NATO’s Readiness Initiative, the Alliance’s main force goals are still dominated by traditional measures of military power. It will be especially important for the UK to make the case for modernisation with its Allies in the US, Germany, France, Poland and the Joint Expeditionary Force countries. But it would be worth it. The UK’s continuing commitment to the 2% of GDP spending target on defence – and its good track record on modernising its forces – can help to create the space for a mature conversation about the need for sustainable burden-sharing between European Allies, as well as between Europe and the US. This will be even more important if key European countries, acting in concert, are expected to take more of a leading role in responding to crises in their own neighbourhood.
For a development of the arguments in this Commentary, see Malcolm Chalmers and Will Jessett, Defence and the Integrated Review: A Testing Time, RUSI Whitehall Report 2-20, March 2020.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of ClaraNila/Adobe Stock.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.