The Integrated Review: right about the world but wrong about its military implications

Steve Davies

April 30, 2021

The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, published on 16th March, is the most important assessment of Britain’s place in the world since 1998, if not earlier.

As the name suggests, it is not simply a strategic defence review but a broader survey of geopolitical trends, security, and of Britain’s place in the emerging world order. The Review is refreshingly realistic and thoughtful, particularly in comparison to previous efforts over the years.

One reason is that it reflects the profound shift in the United Kingdom’s geopolitical orientation that follows from the exit from the European Union and also thinks seriously about the way the international order is changing, and doing so at an accelerating rate. However, at least one key element of the reassessment of Britain’s position is implied rather than being spelt out.

The key elements are these. Firstly, the emergence of a new global order, one that is multi-polar and without a clear hegemon or dominant power. Secondly, that this is driven partly by technology and also by the shift in the centre of gravity of the world economy to Asia, particularly east Asia but also Western and Southern. Third, that Britain as a globally connected trading state has interests both close by in Europe but also, and increasingly, globally. In particular there is an interest in the maintenance of a world trading system that connects the various geopolitical regions of the world. Finally, it has an interest in the survival of a liberal democratic order in those parts of the world where it is established, and in its extension where possible.

Several things follow from this and are spelt out. These include, notably, a realistic approach towards China, identified as the emerging power. The Review avoids the option of Cold-War style confrontation or containment and states instead a model based on cautious but also limited engagement. The Chinese system is seen as a rival model to liberal democracy but not as one that has an expansionist logic. Russia in contrast is seen as not being an alternative model but as also a much more explicit security threat due to being highly disruptive and more likely to have direct conflicts of interest with the UK.

Two things are implied but not developed. The first is the increasing challenge of ‘4th generation’ conflicts and actors. These involve actions other than armed conflict, such as cyber attacks, and non-state participants (although often supported or sponsored by states) such as terrorists, clans and tribes, and organised crime. The other, a clear subtext but not spelt out, is the relative decline of the United States as a great power and, linked to that, the movement of American policy in a more straightforwardly nationalist direction. The conclusion should be that the Anglo-American connection will slowly become less central for British policy.

If the geostrategic and geopolitical elements of the Review are clear and realistic, the same cannot be said for the concrete defence policy conclusions. Essentially, the logic of the broader analysis is not followed through to the obvious conclusions. Instead, there is a reluctance to do this and a continued attachment to an outdated idea of the United Kingdom’s capacity and military and security needs.

If we take the geopolitical analysis of the Review as a starting point then several things clearly follow for defence and security – or should do.

The first is a much greater emphasis on intelligence, electronic warfare and cyber-security, and cultural/psychological warfare. The second is a major reconfiguration of the Army, with the conventional force much reduced or transformed to territorial status and an expansion of counter-terrorism and anti-insurgent capability. So-called ‘special forces’ should actually become the norm. The third is a Navy focussed on the protection of long-distance maritime trade routes as opposed to force projection. This means a focus on anti-submarine capacity and littoral warships (for anti-piracy and support of special forces). Finally, in terms of overall orientation, a move away from capacity for large-scale intervention and force projection (as opposed to small force insertion) and towards intelligence and targeted use of force.

The actual proposed measures do not reflect this. There is still a stress on force projection, with large surface warships, notably the two aircraft carriers. This means that once again we will end up with the wrong kind of Navy.

There is a move to reduce the Army still further but not to reshape and reconfigure it: this risks the worst of both worlds, with an Army that is too small and poorly equipped to be able to engage in conventional warfare and deterrence but not organised or trained in the kind of action that will become increasingly frequent.

Most striking is the commitment to significantly increase the number of nuclear warheads in the nuclear deterrent. It is not clear how this adds to security or what strategic purpose it serves. In fact, the overall analysis suggests a continued need for an effective minimal deterrent but not one like the one we currently have, much less its expansion.

The last highlights the unspoken theme here, which is a continued attachment to a notion of the UK as a great power with a global capacity for large-scale intervention. This misunderstands the reality of the UK’s position and means that the considerable power and influence it does have will not be as effectively exercised as it might be.

The unspoken assumption is that Britain will continue to be a junior partner to the United States when the picture of the world presented implies strongly that this will be increasingly less the case, and that security interests require a different approach: one that does not preserve a posture that reflects a role and position the United Kingdom no longer has and a capacity that has been beyond its means for a long time but rather looks to the strengths it has and the very important role it look to play in the emerging world order.


Written by Steve Davies

Dr Steve Davies is Head of Education at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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