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The UK’s review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, halted by the health emergency, is now restarting. But not from where it stopped, for both outputs and inputs need to be reconsidered.
Apparently, the Integrated Review has restarted, and might even deliver an output this year, along with a Comprehensive Spending Review. Over the past two weeks, there has also been cross-Whitehall activity to identify spending that can be brought forward to boost employment and the economy.
Recommendations are currently with HM Treasury. That activity might have been announced already, but was deferred by the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. It is useful to go back to some of the questions posed for the Review when it was first announced.
Immediately after the 2019 general election, I described the key questions that the Integrated Review needed to address. Principal among these were the need for clarity about the UK’s interests, the role the UK wanted to play in the world, and how to balance these with the available resource.
Since then, a lot has happened. The Review was delayed and the world has been reeling from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. While it is too soon to make definitive judgements about the medium- to long-term impact of the pandemic, in light of all that has already happened, it is appropriate to consider whether those questions remain valid.
The requirement for the Review to take a position on the UK’s role in the world remains central: there is still a pressing need to move beyond glib assertions of ‘Global Britain’ and provide some substance. For, while the Review’s task remains unchanged, the answers may now be different. The world certainly looks different now as the perceptions of threats (or at least our understanding of their impact) change. Moreover, as parts of the world emerge from the health crisis at different speeds and with different implications for their economies, the relative distribution of power between states is likely to shift. This may intensify challenges to the existing international order, as those striving for change gain in relative influence. For status quo powers such as the UK, the need to define a new set of strategic objectives becomes an imperative.
Medium powers will not achieve this on their own: systematic investment in strengthening networks of alliances and building new ones is needed to ensure the UK has a critical mass of friends and allies. An attractive vision that it can communicate compellingly will be needed; for all of its troubles and doubts over its real purpose, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is at least an idea that can bring countries together. In this context, the decision to fold the Department for International Development under the Foreign and Commonwealth Office could be a strategic error.
The coronavirus pandemic is also accelerating existing trends – notably, a move from fossil fuels to more sustainable sources of energy. This will impact heavily on the Middle East and Russia. In the case of Russia, the human and economic impact is large, if the exact details are hazy given the lack of transparency. There are also questions about government competence that could encourage them to consider further foreign adventurism to deflect attention. The risk of a miscalculation or misunderstanding is high, and the procedures for de-escalating tensions are less robust that they were during the Cold War – a situation made worse by the frosty relations between Russia and other European powers since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Strong at Home
What the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted most, however, is a need to be clearer about how the UK sees itself domestically. The differential impact of the virus on parts of the population, in which race and class have a significant impact on the prospects for survival for those made ill by it, raises a question about the nature of the UK and what it means for its citizens. This has brought into stark relief a question of whether the government’s first duty is actually to protect its people from external threats – as it is often asserted – or whether ensuring the domestic safety and protecting the quality of life of its people matter even more.
For a government elected on an economic and social levelling-up agenda, the Review must surely now reflect much more on the human security of citizens, something which did not appear to be very high on the list when it was first launched. This task goes considerably beyond the question of domestic resilience I originally posed, for we see adversaries seeking to exploit fractures in Western societies as a way of constraining action and generating space for pursuing their own interests.
As well as the challenges to societal cohesion, the coronavirus pandemic has also exposed the need for a greater focus on resilience of the homeland against a wider range of risks. This goes beyond Defence, for there is a role for civil society in this – just look at the NHS volunteering scheme. However, national resilience should harness Defence’s unique capacity to plan, mobilise, command and control a rapidly expanded workforce that has been surged to deal with a crisis. During the current crisis, Defence has provided over 1,000 military planners to departments across government to help with planning, but as ever, the challenge is to ensure that the potential utility of Defence is understood. This goes beyond equipment and pure numbers, and includes specialist areas, such as logistics and infrastructure.
A heightened homeland commitment, perhaps through changes to the Civil Contingencies Act to formalise Defence’s status as a ‘responder’, could provide a meaningful domestic role for the Reserves. The Reserve Forces 2030 review being led by Mark Lancaster should consider this.
On Resources and Necessities
With more risks – from states, human actors and nature – the demand for Defence is even greater now than when I wrote six months ago. The enduring challenge, however, remains balancing demand with the available resources. While the former is increasing, it is extremely unlikely that the latter will match it. Although the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic is impossible to compute at this stage, each day brings new figures, and it is already clear that the short-term impact is going to be significant. The April 2020 figures, the first full month of lockdown, show a 20.4% fall in UK GDP with comparable figures of the same short period in previous years, and government borrowing could rise to almost double that of the 2007–08 financial crisis. Defence is not likely to be top of the government’s list of spending priorities.
While the economic future looks bleak, at least in the short term, the government’s manifesto contained two important commitments for Defence. First was to ‘continue exceeding the NATO [2% of GDP] target’. While the reiteration of this commitment is welcome, a much smaller GDP could still translate into significant cuts to spending, notwithstanding the government pledge.
The second commitment made by the government is hugely important, as it promises to ‘increase the budget by 0.5% above inflation each year’. Assuming the government remains bound by its manifesto commitments, defence spending should not, therefore, fall from current levels. However, a severe economic challenge could be seen as force majeure and result in cuts in order to pay for extra investment in health, employment protection and social security. This would be devastating for Defence and could make the constrictive outcome of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review look positively benign.
Even if the commitments are honoured – and the prime minister has made clear that he does not favour the austerity policies of his predecessors – the current programme’s affordability will remain a challenge, and this is before we talk of accommodating any increase in ambition. The annual bailouts Defence has received for the last two years have merely met the immediate cost pressure, not reset the budget for long-term sustainability. Without an increase in the budget, therefore, Defence will need to find cuts to deliver current plans, let alone pursue the ‘mobilise, modernise, transform’ agenda.
In terms of capabilities, the timing of the Review itself poses a risk. Fresh in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, there is a danger that security concerns are filtered through a lens that prioritises resilience over other threats, or seeks to put in place contingency plans for the last crisis, not the next one. Defence is also in danger of worrying short-sightedness if it focuses exclusively on softer capabilities (such as information activity or deterring aggressors below the threshold of combat operations) to the exclusion of its hard power.
There is certainly a value in the tools of influence that the armed forces might wield, but if they become the primary weapon in its arsenal, the UK will lose much of the military credibility (with allies and competitors) that it has built over centuries. While focusing on persistent engagement and making routine use of the force is important, care must be taken not to sacrifice further the contingent capability Defence has to be able to offer for the rare but overwhelming problems a country might face. Getting more use out of the force and department is crucial, so reforming Defence’s operational and business functions remains essential.
Ruses and Excuses Won’t Do
The questions I posed for the Review last December continue to reflect what is needed, even if the answers will inevitably be affected by the experience of the current health crisis. Questions of resilience and Defence’s role in that will have a higher priority than before, and the challenge of balancing ambition and resource is even more acute than anticipated in December.
The Review will have to make choices and set priorities, even though both are difficult for governments who prefer to keep their options open. But the classic response of salami-slicing Defence while retaining all of the options, even at lower mass or readiness, is becoming unsustainable given the current size of the UK’s armed forces.
Similarly, care is needed to avoid optimising only for another pandemic or hybrid warfare at the expense of other threats. As prudent drivers or homeowners will testify, while insurance premiums are unpopular, they are worth paying because you cannot predict exactly when that protection will be needed. And as business has found out, ensuring that your policy covers low-probability risks is vital for survival.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Professor Peter Roberts
Director, Military Sciences