Winston Churchill disliked a pudding because he thought it “lacked a theme.” While the UK’s just-released Global Britain in a Competitive Age (the Integrated Review or IR) and its companion piece Defence in a Competitive Age (the Defence Command Paper or DCP) are extremely well written and comprehensive, Churchill’s complaint applies in several ways.
First, is an overall theme needed? Second, what are the priorities and tradeoffs? Third, and perhaps most importantly what is the British strategy to implement the aims, objectives and aspirations of both papers, as worthy as they may be? Answers to these questions will determine the impact and consequences of these initiatives that could prove as significant as the decision by the British government in 1968 to depart “East of Suez.”
The overall aim to create a stronger, more secure, prosperous and resilient Britain while sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology; shaping the international order; and strengthening security and defense at home and overseas, are well put and unobjectionable. But the hard part is the “how to do it” in a fully integrated manner when the very nature of a pluralistic society and vast government bureaucracies and fiefdoms are powerful antibodies to coordination and prioritisation especially when money is involved.
For the Integrated Review, the National Security Council and the National Security Advisor are designated as the integrators. Annex A lists specific funding that has been dedicated for the many specific areas that form the foundations for a more secure and prosperous Global Britain. But no specifics are offered as to how the IR will be fully integrated and monitored to ensure the appropriate actions and follow up are taken. One hopes Number Ten has or will set in train the mechanisms for both.
Similarly for the Ministry of Defence, how a threat-focused, modernised and financially sustainable force will follow relies on the current chain and command and organization. But, for example, with the establishment of the new National Cyber Force and Counter-Terrorism Operation are the current MoD and NSC structures fit for purpose or are changes necessary?
The emphasis on building economic strength; turning Britain into a superpower scientific and technological nation and a “soft-power superpower” likewise are noble ambitions. But where does the Treasury fit in along with fiscal, monetary and regulatory policies that may need legislation to promote this accession to superpower status beyond paying the bills? Again, one hopes Numbers Ten and Eleven have this in train.
The major challenge on defence is now in the form of disruption.
I call this the new MAD – Massive Attacks of Disruption, whether of man or nature. The Covid-19 pandemic; the violent winter weather that turned off the power in one of the energy richest regions in the world – the state of Texas; and the SolarWind cyber attacks. These are unmistakable harbingers of the new MAD. Vladimir Putin and Russian “active measures” aim to disrupt, disunite and sow chaos in the West. And China’s aggressive diplomacy, IP theft, militarization of the contiguous seas and intimidation of neighbors likewise are state forms of MAD.
Without priorities, no strategy can work because infinite resources are needed. And what are the long-term costs and benefits? Have these been at least examined? This especially applies to the notion of enhanced and imaginative presence regardless of which ministry may be represented as an idea long overdue. And the Integrated Operational Concept that distinguishes between “operating” and ”war-fighting” should have long-term impact on future force design and deployments.
Finally, relatively unaddressed are the preferred outcomes the UK seeks with its “tilt” to Asia. While the more specific US strategy is “to compete, deter and if war comes, defeat” a range of adversaries topped by China and Russia in what could be a nuclear conflagration, those aims are not defined and how to achieve them is vague. The UK could fall into that trap.
The IR and DCP are excellent examples of thorough, well-thought out and researched documents that set the foundations for what is needed for security and prosperity. But the next and most vital step is implementation. Without proper execution, the best plans are insufficient to guarantee the best or even acceptable results.
It will be interesting to see how the UK government and indeed Parliament react to the IR and DCP, and to see what actions will or will not be taken to ensure that these reviews are indeed fully and effectively implemented.
Dr Harlan Ullman is UPI’s Arnaud deBorchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book due out this year is The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Endangered, Infected, Engulfed and Disunited a 51% Nation and the Rest of the World that lays out the argument for MAD.