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The government's plan to complete the Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy before July 2020 was always unrealistic.
Now that ministers and senior officials are focused on the coronavirus pandemic for the foreseeable future, the government should agree to delay the conclusion of the review until 2021. Current defence plans and programmes should be rolled forward, as part of a one-year Spending Round.
The lasting consequences of the pandemic remain highly unpredictable, but are likely to include new debates on public spending priorities in the UK and elsewhere, new geopolitical alignments between major powers, exacerbated developmental challenges in countries worst hit by the crisis and (potentially) a further strengthening of nationalist political forces.
These new trends could require a significant rethink of the resourcing of the review. For now, the most plausible scenario is that the extra £1.9 billion allocated to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for 2020/21 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 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 shape of expeditionary forces should be determined primarily through the need to work closely with NATO allies for the defence of Europe.
The review should 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 Joint Force 2030, which 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’.
The MoD should also optimise its ground forces (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. It will require moving towards a different division of labour with the UK’s main NATO European Allies.