The new Integrated Review – the government’s view of Britain’s foreign policy, security, trade and overseas development interests – has caught everyone on the hop. It brilliantly lays down the state of the world from a British perspective, and suggests what we all need to do about it.
Dare it be whispered: against the most common criticism of Boris Johnson himself, it under-promises and delivers in argument, policy, and analysis in abundance. In its range and depth, it has caught the traditional choreographers of UK political debate on the hop.
The 115-page paper, well crafted by Professor John Bew, looks to what is on the horizon and is coming towards us like the thunder over Mandalay. It looks at the prospects, for instance, of terrorists using chemical or biological or even nuclear weaponry within the next ten years. It discusses the impact of quantum computing “which has the potential to unlock a step-change in computing power.” It also promises a new dimension in connectivity and cyber. We are moving into the world of direct energy weapons, and hypersonic missiles.
The paper has made a generational leap in the way it addresses the world of climate change, migration, demographic shifts of ageing populations, pandemics and famine, and the plague of falsified information – fake news. This may explain why the traditional commentariat of the media and Westminster have struggled to come to terms with the challenge of new thinking in this review.
The headlines have been full of how many fewer tanks the Army will now have, the usefulness of the aircraft carriers on deployment to Indo-Pacific waters, and the increase of the nuclear stockpile from 180 to 260 warheads. All of these are in the review, but they are not the main effort of the exercise.
The paper’s focus is the security and prosperity of the home base – the four nations of the United Kingdom – and what Britain must do to ensure this by working with allies and deterring potential adversaries across the world. And this is all happening in a pretty novel context – it is a strategy for the time of Covid, literally and metaphorically.
Lord Hennessy, the constitutional guru, Westminster chronicler and sage, says the review “has to assure the home constituents for their safety and security. It has to impress allies that the UK really has something they need. Finally, it should suggest to adversaries that the UK might be more capable than they think.”
It has impressed some habitual hard men of the strategic analysis corner, too. “I am surprised by its reach and depth,” says Francis Tusa, one of the most distinguished independent defence and security analysts in UK. “It is well argued and expressed. It is the best paper on Britain’s strategy I have seen for more than 20 years – better than anything produced by governments this century.” How does it compare to the Strategic Defence Review of Tony Blair’s first year in 1998? “Not sure” – but of course that review suffered from never being properly budgeted; and so many of its assumptions being blown away on 9 September 2001.
Despite its wide range, the IR paper is realistic. It knows things will cost, and that Britain cannot go it alone in most areas of endeavour. “We have to get rid of the impression that the UK has full spectrum military capability. It doesn’t. It hasn’t the money or the resources,” says Tusa.
We will know more about the money side early next week, when the government publishes its Defence Command Paper. It will spell out where the extra defence funding of around £24.5 billion over inflation will go over the next four years. It will mean cuts for all of the armed services, including a reduction in front line equipment for the Army, Navy and Air Force – and a reduction in personnel for the Army and RAF – up to 10,000 soldiers in the case of the former.
The Integrated Review’s main argument – to describe the strategic framework for Britain – is laid out in four main areas; gaining strategic advantage through science and technology; shaping the international order; strengthening security and defence at home and overseas; building resilience at home and overseas.
There is a tremendous amount packed into very little space – a steamer trunk of policy recommendations and observation, with a surprising lack of Whitehall waffle.
On the international order, the paper states firmly that the UK is ‘a European country with global interest.’ But it will be making a ‘tilt to the Indo-Pacific’ in the interests of trade and security. Here China is seen as a main protagonist, deplorable on human rights and political liberties, but an important trading partner. Here the paper veers away from the current fashion – particularly in American strategic discussion – of seeing China in Manichean terms of light and darkness.
America is seen as the vital ally. But this doesn’t exclude Europe, despite what the post-Brexit naysayers have forecast about the Integrated Review. It states the importance of the alliance with France on nuclear policy and the bilateral arrangements from the Lancaster House agreement in activities like the Combined Join Task Force. Equally important is the alliance with the Nordic Group of northern nations.
Britain will support European allies through Nato, especially against the increasing submarine and cyber activity of Putin’s Russia – which is seen as the number one disrupter in European security. “But we are not talking about going to war,” the forces chief, General Sir Nick Carter, remarked to me a few days ago. “I don’t think Russia or China want to fight just now, but Russia has been active, across the Middle East, Syria and Libya. But remember it is a power in decline, which makes it more dangerous, perhaps.”
The paper lays out an ambitious programme for new equipment and systems. The programme to build four new submarines for the upgraded Trident missile is within budget – the first time this has been announced for years – with the first boat, HMS Dreadnought, going operational around 2030. This means it will be ahead of the equivalent first of the new class of American big submarines – the SLBNs or ‘boomers’ – by several years. Hence the significance of announcing the holding of 260 nuclear warheads – implying that the UK may consider putting two of their strategic submarines on operations at the same time.
This may be a pretty numbing thought. But the clear, though understated, message is that we are in a new phase of nuclear weapons proliferation, like it or not. The IR pledges that the UK does not contemplate using nuclear weapons in a first strike, especially a non-nuclear power, but feels it must be prepared if the alliance is threatened by weapons of mass destruction. This is not my view, I stress, but a paraphrase of the paper. There is real fear that we are going to see more biological and chemical weaponry – and the Novichok attacks on the Skripals and Alexei Navalny are a warning.
The paper also makes a bold statement about future aerial combat systems, especially the Future Combat Air System or Tempest project. The IR says this is to be developed as the RAF’s next major combat aircraft, to succeed the Typhoon. The order for the F-35 Lightning II for the Royal Navy is to be held at 48 until 2025 at least. This implies that the F-35 is exclusively for the aircraft carriers. Given the expense of running and maintaining the aircraft, and the revelations that the US Air Force, the main buyer, is to cut back on its F-35 order, this is unsurprising. But this means that Tempest is now an even bigger project, with other allies invited to join the original trio of UK, Italy and Sweden. Unsurprisingly given the turbulent history of the F-35, a project which cost at a conservative estimate $1.5 trillion, US participation is not being sought.
One of the most intriguing sections is on homeland resilience and community support. The report suggests that Covid-19 has revealed the need for greater military support for civil contingencies for a range of emergencies and disasters both natural and man-made. It even hints that a civilian cadre should be on standby to help out. This is a sea change in military and government thinking, no doubt tried and tested in the way the military have plugged the gaps in helping out in myriad tasks at ground zero level throughout the pandemic.
This links across to the provisions and proposals for the changing challenges of terrorism and organized crime. A new coordinating cell and command bunker is to be provided for this at the Cabinet Office in Whitehall. One of the most successful adjuncts to the CONTEST anti-terrorism apparatus has been the JTAC – Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre. But it has long been thought it should be complemented by operational command centre to ensure coordination between the different security, intelligence and counter-terror forces. The IR says that there will be a new Counter Terrorism Operations Centre, which will work with the new Cyber Command, which seems roughly modelled on the modus operandi of Israel’s Unit 8200, possibly the most effective counter terrorism operator in the world.
The Integrated Review raises a host of possibilities and insights, subtle and agile in argument, with very few hostages to fortune. In the history of Whitehall or almost any other government bureaucracy in any other age, it is a pretty rare achievement.