The UK’s Integrated Review: A Return to the Phoney War

Main Image Credit Whitehall, London. Courtesy of Pikrepo.

The delay to the Integrated Review provides the Ministry of Defence the ideal opportunity to develop and improve its contribution.

Even though Boris Johnson has called a temporary halt to the Integrated Review, that will not stop the myriad stakeholders within government manoeuvring to secure a favourable outcome from whatever finally emerges.

The jockeying for position, which has been evident in the opening stages of all recent defence reviews, was dubbed the ‘phoney war’ by Paul Cornish and Andrew Dorman.

On Your Marks, And then Stop

In normal times, the prime minister’s announcement of the Integrated Review’s remit on 26 February 2020 would have marked the end of this ‘phoney war’ interlude. Indeed, work on policy formulation did commence under the direction of Alex Ellis – the newly appointed Deputy National Security Advisor for the Integrated Review – immediately thereafter. However, the coronavirus pandemic intervened to scupper the plans. On 16 March, Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Select Committee, called on the government to postpone the Integrated Review, and, on 9 April, Mr Ellis confirmed that the prime minister had directed that work on the review should be formally paused across Whitehall.

Quite rightly, the government’s key focus in the weeks ahead will continue to be on managing the coronavirus crisis, leaving little bandwidth for anything else. Furthermore, as Malcolm Chalmers and Will Jessett pointed out in a recent RUSI commentary, the lasting consequences of the pandemic could require a significant rethink of the resourcing and conclusions of the Integrated Review. As a result, the Integrated Review once more slipped into the ‘phoney war’ phase.

On the face of it, this may be seen as a backward step. During this lull all those who want to influence the review mobilise their apologists, such as retired officers, civil servants, politicians and academics to lobby on behalf of their respective favourites. That said, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) should see this return to the ‘phoney war’ stage as an opportunity, rather than a threat. If used correctly, this additional time could leave it far better placed to deal with the difficulties that a coronavirus-influenced review will inevitably bring. There are three ways in which the MoD can improve its position for when the Integrated Review resumes: predict, prioritise, and prepare.

Struggling with Tasks and Concepts

The MoD has struggled to adapt and update its current force structure to meet the new, Joint Force 2025 (JF25) requirements within the ten-year timeline that followed the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) of 2015. The fundamental problem is the headmark for JF25 was programmatic, not conceptual. That is to say, it created a task organisation for the new joint force but provided no direction on how the force elements contained therein should actually fight. As a result, over and above the components of JF25 listed in the document, SDSR 15 provided no clear direction for defence planners to assist them in developing the JF25 capabilities to ensure that they would actually be capable of operating against current and future threats.

Since the last SDSR, the MoD’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre has published a Future Force Concept and is currently developing a new Integrated Operating Concept. Moreover, in his annual RUSI Lecture in December 2019, General Sir Nicholas Carter, the Chief of the Defence Staff, confirmed that the integration of all five domains – space, cyber and information, maritime, land and air – would ‘change the way we fight’. This view was supported by Air Marshal Richard Knighton, the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff, in his 2019 Lord Trenchard Memorial Lecture where he posited that ‘the new operating domains of space and cyberspace offer new opportunities to probe, test, shape, disorientate and ultimately unravel our adversaries’. The conceptual work appears almost complete, but the MoD still needs formally to record it in doctrine and ensure it is positioned in the vanguard of its contribution to the Integrated Review.

Ranking Priorities

Having confirmed its conceptual headmark, the MoD must agree, and then abide by, its associated priorities for military capability. However, at this point, it should be recognised that no review starts with a blank sheet of paper – instead, the existing force structure will always have to be taken into account. This is a considerable constraint, as fielded military capability may not be the most appropriate to support the new concept’s aims and objectives. Nevertheless, a simple set of priorities, signed up to by all three services, would direct investment in both current and future capabilities, and equally as importantly, confirm where to disinvest, in order to generate the headroom within the defence budget that will surely be required to fund tomorrow’s ‘sunrise’ capabilities.

Crucially, this prioritisation must be matched by more focused direction from the government on the ranking and detail of risks within the National Security Strategy (NSS). At present, the risk matrix, derived from the National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA) is far too wide-ranging. As David Blagden from the University of Exeter pointed out to the House of Commons Defence Committee: ‘the NSRA … creates very broad categories so it is hard to think what might not actually fall within these [tier one] categories if we defined it in the right way’. If almost any eventuality could reasonably find a home in one of the six tier one risks of the NSS, they offer defence planners very little guidance on how to prioritise military capability.

Plan, Prepare

The way the MoD can improve its position is to prepare, and prepare thoroughly. A considerable number of options are generated during the policy formulation phase of a review, and all of them have to be evaluated and costed. Time is always short and capability managers, delivery teams and industry often have difficulty producing suitable evidence to support decision-making. To mitigate this, a pragmatic assessment of likely options should be undertaken now, to allow supporting information and appropriate costings to be gathered in advance. This preparation would not only ensure all of the probable bases are covered, but would also provide an element of flexibility to deal with the inevitable curve balls that the MoD will encounter during the policy formulation phase.

A formal announcement on revised timings for the Integrated Review is expected shortly, but it is likely to remain aligned with government plans for the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). The CSR will be significantly influenced by the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis, which is unlikely to be good news for the defence budget. In its manifesto, the Conservative government promised to ‘exceed the NATO target of spending two per cent of GDP on defence and increase the budget by at least zero point five per cent above inflation every year of the new Parliament’.

In 2019, the UK’s NATO contribution was approximately £46.9 billion, or 2.1% of GDP. However, if GDP for 2020 falls by 13%, as predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility, the government could cut the defence budget by more than £6 billion per annum and still remain within its manifesto pledge.

That may be a worst-case scenario, but it is certain to focus the minds of senior officials within the MoD. By way of mitigation, they should act swiftly to use the additional time that the return to the ‘phoney war’ has given them. They could do worse than predict how defence will fight in the future, prioritise the military capability needed to do so, and prepare the evidence to justify its procurement and sustainment. 

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Air Commodore (Ret’d) Andrew Curtis OBE

Associate Fellow

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