Publication of what I have termed the second episode of four in what has been termed in Whitehall parlance over the past eighteen months as the ‘Integrated Review of Security, Defence and Foreign Policy’. The first episode last November covered the future defence budget, the second [today] under the title Global Britain in a Competitive Age covers foreign policy and international ambitions, threats, overall defence and security related strategy – best seen the UK’s International Policy Review. The third episode, due to be published next Monday 22nd March, is intended to cover cuts in existing defence capability required in order to afford the actions proposed in the Global Britain in a Competitive Age paper published today and which I suggest here, due to possible interventions by the Prime Minister, might well have scuppered at least some of the very worst aspects of originally planned MOD intent that had been leaked over the past couple of months.
A date for the final episode which is I understand is intended to cover Defence and Security Industrial Strategy and what HMG is interestingly calling, the deepening of its partnership with industry, improving procurement and laying out the key role defence spending plays in UK innovation and prosperity is, unless this is combined within the March 22nd paper, yet to be announced.
So, how do I view what we have so far learned? Unless I missed it, the word affordability is nowhere to be found. For all that, in respect of what has been announced today, if the promise and intention is achievable, if it is backed up and properly funded, if realism prevails, if the Foreign Office and MOD have sufficient calibre the of skills required to make it happen and if, particularly during the intervening period before the next review process begins, this one is not interfered with, then I suggest that this is a strategy of sorts that can go some way toward halting the long period of UK decline on the world stage. Will it succeed in rebuilding our image abroad? Not until actions are seen to be more than the words. Will increased presence on the international stage provide benefits to UK international trade prospects? You bet it will but not overnight.
My fear as so many times before is that affordability will get in the way of ambition and intent. To be fair though, ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’ does go a very long way towards reversing what has been a long and unfortunate decline in UK influence and diplomacy on the world stage. With the UK no longer a bridge between the US and EU, the need for such a plan was absolutely imperative and what we have had so far could not have come a moment too soon. However, my fear is also that what is still to come in the form of the next episode of the Integrated Review process may well cause our NATO allies to have concern that the UK is not only promising more than it can deliver but that it is also speaking with forked tongue.
So, will our US allies believe that the UK is really is serious about playing a larger role on the international stage? Indeed, is that what the new Biden administration actually wants? The jury is out and having seen how, despite the UK completing one part of its intention to rebuild ‘Carrier Strike’ capability, rebuild its lost maritime patrol capability, plans to replace its ageing fleet of Sentry E3-D aircraft albeit with fewer aircraft and being absolutely steadfast in respect of commitment to the independent nuclear deterrent, I suspect that for now the Pentagon view may well be one of – let’s wait and see what actually happens.
Actions always speak louder than words but that takes nothing away from what is contained in today’s section of the Integrated Review process. Increasing the UK’s stockpile of nuclear missiles, full commitment to Dreadnought, investment in AI, Space Command, Cyber, growing UK science and technology power, building UK national resilience, protecting UK national interests on a global scale, reaching out in respect of conflict and stability homeland security, UK national resilience and countering state threats, defence, disruption and deterrence. This is a big document full of intentions and hope.
In respect of UK Defence, the review talks of reshaping the Armed Forces, commitment to the UK nuclear deterrent, development of Type 32 frigates and Fleet Solid Support ships, delivery of eight Type 26 and five Type 31 frigates, progressing UK carrier strike capability with AT LEAST 48 F-35’s to be purchased by 2025, enhancing UK Cyber capability, much needed enhancement of capital funding to for nuclear detection capability, a Conflict, Stability and Security Fund established, huge additional funding for Border Force and Immigration and also for Counter Terrorism.
A new Cabinet Office Situation Centre to speed up decision making and receiving of data and analysis that requires fast response, funding for Climate Change and bio-diversity, health and resilience and through the creation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, £10 billion is intended to be spent on the creation of Official Development Assistance to support immunisation of children in poorer countries of the world, support girls in education, tackle climate change and improve global health.
It’s all a question of ambition and projection divided by affordability. The cynical argument is that this is all about securing new trading relationships through being seen to enhance our diplomatic relationships and standing in the world and to back this up with a mix of both soft and hard power. While I commend an instance of this in our applying to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) I am bound to wonder what we might bring to that particular table?
Hard power is and will always be interpreted by our NATO allies and adversaries as being predominantly about equipment and manpower capability and our ability to deploy, defend and support. The sad aspect of what has emerged today and in what some might accuse of being a strategy that covers and promises too much is that the UK has been fighting a losing battle on sentiment for far too long. Reversing how some of our NATO allies see us will take a very long time.
More on that next week when we see a list of further equipment cuts confirmed in order to fund the ambitions and new found requirement that we now have in the form of Space, Artificial Intelligence, Cyber, Unmanned Aerial Capabilities, Research and Development and rightly, support other forms of technology investment.
None of this is to suggest that increased investment planned by HMG in all of the above isn’t hugely important and required and if HMG is as good as its word in the years to come, then I absolutely commend the intentions promised. Investing £6.6 billion in R&D during the next four years will require a lot of effort on the part of the MOD. Does the MOD have the right calibre of people and expertise in order to achieve this ambitious target I wonder? Somehow, I rather doubt that it has and that Cabinet Office and Treasury will challenge and delay.
Having been down this road so many times before I well know that words are cheap and that ambitions and plans are all too easily pushed back. The IR narrative talks of the PM’s £24 billion additional investment in Defence but it fails to mention how much of this, combined with the cash benefits already received by pushing programmes back and of planned programme cancellations, is being used to balance the existing black hole in the defence budget.
The IR talks of £210 billion being spent by the MOD on equipment and support over the next decade but it fails to talk about internal accountability and ensuring that the MOD is properly equipped with skilled people in order to ensure money is not wasted.
But when it comes to soft power let us not forget that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been significantly weakened over the years. Too many highly respected diplomats have departed either as a result of natural attrition or departmental related cuts that have reduced our Embassy strengths. There is as far as I can observe, no talk of increasing the Foreign Office budget.
Prior to the formal announcement and publication of the Foreign Policy and Security elements of the Integrated Review process later today HMG has already told us of its commitment to a new, full spectrum approach to UK cyber capability, the establishment of what is being termed as ‘cyber corridors’ across the North of England. Clearly, any strengthening in regard of the already operational National; Cyber Security Centre which was opened in 2016 is welcome and one of our few strengths in recent years has been in the visibility of how the so-called National Cyber Force is transforming our ability to both protect and potentially conduct targeted offensive cyber-attack on our adversaries. Obviously, I applaud all the elements of this policy just as I also do all elements in relation to investment in Artificial Intelligence and the overall strengthening of GCHQ.
We officially learn today of a UK foreign policy that includes a ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific region. This would appear on the surface to be more about securing a place at the future international table and of course, the most important element for government, protecting and enhancing our international trade. Equally true is that this is also about securing lost trust with our allies. The review talks of new alliances being formed with countries such as India which the PM will visit soon, and Japan and Australia.
To that end and as I said following the first episode of the integrated review process last November when the PM announced what he termed as the ‘biggest programme of investment in defence since the end of the Cold War’ – actions speak louder than words.
CHW (London – 16th March 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785