Main Image Credit Built to last: the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, whose deployment to the Indo-Pacific was symbolic of the Integrated Review's 'tilt' to the region. Image: Neil Watkin / Alamy
The new prime minister has directed an update to the UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy to ‘ensure the UK’s diplomatic, military and security architecture is keeping pace with evolving threat posed by hostile nations'. It remains to be seen whether this will be primarily a political gesture, or a valuable course correction following Russia’s war against Ukraine.
What is commonly referred to as the UK’s Integrated Review was published in March 2021 as three interconnected parts which require distinction. ‘Global Britain in a competitive age’ (hereafter referred to as the IR) articulated the strategic outcomes (ends) and evaluated the methods available to achieve them (ways). ‘Defence in a competitive age’ (the Defence Command Paper or DCP) and the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy (DSIS) both assessed and committed to the resources required to achieve the outcomes (means).
Its publication was delayed by one year due to the coronavirus pandemic and the difficulty of articulating Global Britain and its place in an uncertain world. However, the global impact of the war in Ukraine – with its spill-over, including a serious nuclear and energy dimension – is arguably a greater source of uncertainty. Although recent Ukrainian military successes have been impressive, they are not yet decisive, and there are multiple pathways for the war to take, while key factors such as the future of President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation remain unclear.
A Bottom-Up Approach Would be of Most Value
Professor John Bew, foreign policy adviser to both the current and former prime minister and lead IR author, will lead the update. The reference to a focus on ‘architecture’ suggests it will take a top-down rather than a bottom-up approach. However, the IR broadly got the ends and ways right. It was the means – the resourcing and prioritisation underpinning the Global Britain vision – that were more uncertain. It would be more valuable to focus on changes to the DCP now, rather than wait for the update to the IR to be completed, for several reasons.
First, it is difficult to plan and execute concurrently. With so much civilian and military staff capacity directed at the immediate support to Ukraine and managing the impacts of the war, revising the strategy could create uncertainty and detract from ongoing implementation. Second, while it is still too early to fully assess the lessons of the war in Ukraine and the requirements of modern industrial state-on-state warfighting, there are early indications of the importance of aspects that have often been neglected, such as logistics, stocks and industrial capacity, which need to be immediately addressed. Moreover, since the DCP was written, UK defence planners now have vast amounts of data on how Russian forces actually fight and how they can best be defeated.
Third, linked closely to the above point, Defence had already been allocated an additional £16.4 billion this Parliament to fund the DCP. Now, the prime minister has further committed to spending 3% of GDP on defence by 2030 to ‘maintain(ing) our position as the leading security actor in Europe’, which could amount to an additional £157 billion with little clarity thus far on how this could be absorbed. Moreover, spending commitments can only be made for this Parliament, and therefore planning for 3% by 2030 could actually do more harm than good if it does not materialise. A focus on immediate spending priorities over the next two years would arguably be more sensible.
The Russian reinvasion of Ukraine is an inflection point for European and global security, but it is one that is well within the policy parameters of the Integrated Review
Therefore, the update is not a question of strategy, but rather a programmatic review of the DCP and equipment plan, and what should stop, start or continue in light of the war in Ukraine – making a more relevant, tangible and measurable contribution to UK national security. Urgency is critical given that the UK must prepare its military to fight earlier than initially envisaged, and delaying this detailed work, even for a couple of months, could be detrimental and costly.
The 2021 Integrated Review
The much-publicised Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ was primarily one of foreign, trade and security policy. Militarily, it has a maritime flavour, deploying Carrier Strike Groups periodically to support UK interests, such as in 2021, and Offshore Patrol Vessels permanently to strengthen partnerships in the region. The AUKUS pact between the UK, the US and Australia and increased defence cooperation with Japan provide early evidence of its outputs. China is already described as a ‘systematic competitor’, and the IR accepts that its growing assertiveness will challenge UK interests and security – language that has since been adopted by US and NATO policymakers. With this framing now shared among allies, it is unclear what benefit tougher language would provide. If Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific priorities are to be rebalanced, then it is a question of resourcing rather than strategy.
The Euro-Atlantic received less attention and detail, but the IR was clear on its importance, stating that ‘NATO will remain the foundation of collective security in our home region of the Euro-Atlantic, where Russia remains the most acute threat to our security’ … ’The Euro-Atlantic region will remain critical to the UK’s security and prosperity’, and that ‘The UK will be the greatest single European contributor to the security of the Euro-Atlantic area to 2030’.
The Russian reinvasion of Ukraine is an inflection point for European and global security, but it is one that is well within the policy parameters of the IR. The UK was well attuned to the Russian threat following the annexation of Crimea, the 2018 Skripal incident in Salisbury (which led to the death of a British national and had strong echoes of the 2006 Litvinenko poisoning), and the 2021 HMS Defender incident when conducting freedom of navigation operations off the coast of Crimea. An update could list the awful things Russia has done to Ukraine and its people since February 2022, but it would not change its designation as enemy number one. Russia’s aggression has vindicated the UK’s central commitment to the primacy of NATO for European security, which more European countries now share or at least admit. In fact, the UK’s strategy has already been updated directly through the March 2022 paper, ‘The UK’s Defence Contribution in the High North’, which articulated the UK’s Northern Europe focus, and indirectly through the publication of NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept, which had a clear UK influence and reinforced central tenets of the IR.
The UK government should have confidence in the analysis that went into the 15-month process to produce the Integrated Review, and avoid reactionary changes to elements largely outside of its control
UK support for Ukraine has been longstanding under Operation Orbital from 2015 onwards, which has been significantly ramped up this year. The UK is currently ranked second by total bilateral commitments overall (military, economic and humanitarian support). Political support is unequivocal, with Prime Minister Liz Truss committing to 2023 support at 2022 levels and prioritising Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky over US President Joe Biden for the first call of her premiership. Again, while not explicitly foreseen by the IR, current and future UK commitments are not out of place under extant strategy.
The Integrated Review as a Guide to Strategy
The IR introduced reforms, including moving from a purely risk-based calculation of national security to one of values, national interest and achieving grand strategic objectives. It was ‘intended as a guide for action for those responsible for aspects of national security and international policy across government’. In response to Russian aggression and the war in Ukraine, UK government actions – which the IR specifically challenged itself to be judged on – have not only provided critical support to Ukraine, but also demonstrated how the UK intends to develop as a European security actor, which was noticeably lacking in the IR.
Indeed, the UK has made several important interventions in 2022 that demonstrate the IR in action within the Euro-Atlantic. First, the UK defence secretary was at the forefront of the international Ukraine response, developing a militarised approach to UK support which other European countries followed. Second, UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) activity has increased significantly, and it has deployed the UK Standing Joint Force Headquarters. In May 2022, the UK signed joint declarations with Finland and Sweden (both JEF members) to provide security guarantees during their NATO membership application process. Third, the UK has reinforced the NATO multinational battlegroup it leads under Operation Cabrit in Estonia, with elements in Poland, to be able to scale to a brigade-sized mission if required. The JEF, alongside the new trilateral defence arrangement with Poland and Ukraine, creates a chain of foreign and security relationships that stretches from the Arctic and High North through the Baltics and down to the Black Sea, protecting Europe’s northern and eastern flanks. These actions are a rebuttal to the accusations that the IR prioritised the Indo-Pacific at the expense of Europe.
The Timeframes Make Little Sense
UK defence and security reviews cannot be considered in isolation. Each review since the Cold War has been knocked off course by world events. The 1998 Strategic Defence Review was updated in 2002 following 9/11. The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) was a budgetary rather than a strategic exercise, and looked unwise as Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 – in retrospect the shaping operation for the 2022 invasion. The 2015 SDSR was incredibly ambitious, but became largely moribund following the 2016 Brexit referendum result and lower than forecast economic growth, leading to the ‘supplementary reviews’ of 2018 – the National Security Capability Review and Modernising Defence Programme.
Therefore, there is precedent for updating reviews. However, if the scope is too broad, it will achieve little in the time available. The government must call an election by January 2025. If the Conservatives win, there would likely be a review in 2025 to fit the 2010 commitment to complete one every five years. If Labour win, it would be a certainty. Therefore, this update would have a maximum shelf life of 24 months. The UK government should instead have confidence in the analysis that went into the 15-month process to produce the IR, and avoid reactionary changes to elements largely outside of its control. It should change those elements that are almost entirely within its control and make immediate progress in matching financial commitments to tangible military capabilities, which might be needed in the Euro-Atlantic sooner than the original IR assessed.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.
Research Fellow for European Security
International Security Studies