By Nicholas Drummond

As life returns to a new kind of normal, a key Government initiative that’s back on the agenda is the Integrated Review. This will be the most significant reconfiguration of Britain’s defence and security needs in a decade. When David Cameron’s coalition government came to power in 2010, it inherited a massive budget deficit caused by the global financial crisis of 2008. Consequently, the 2010 SDSR was not an attempt to reconfigure Britain’s Armed Forces around existential threats. It was about cutting the Navy, Army and Air Force so that net borrowing could be reduced. Defence spending fell by 8%.[1] Total headcount across all three services was reduced from 175,000 regular personnel to 145,000 – a drop of 17%. Renewal initiatives were delayed, reduced in scope or simply cancelled. A new euphemism: “capability holiday,” was used to describe the gaps in our ability to support key roles. Despite reduced defence resources, there was no corresponding reduction in foreign policy aspirations. To make matters worse, this happened at a time when a significant number of British service men and women were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It meant that Defence was being asked to do too much with too little. 

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 Integrated Review goal was to align foreign policy, defence, security and international development. This was a welcome initiative. It makes total sense to redefine Britain’s place on the international stage by identifying the essential roles we must fulfil while only adding the additional discretionary roles we can afford. We can then reconfigure our defence, security and international development needs around these new priorities. The reality of doing this, however, is that our desire to be a world power is limited by the size of our economy. If we are forced to adopt a more realistic and reduced set of defence and security tasks, at least we will be able to resource them better and thus perform them to a higher standard.

However, today we are faced with a similar crisis to 2010. The impact of Covid-19 is likely to reduce GDP by 9%.[2]This equates to a £4-£5 billion reduction in the Defence budget, close to the same amount that was lost in 2010 and it will be lost at time when service chiefs were hoping for an annual budget uplift to implement the modernisation initiatives delayed by the previous crisis. A further concern is that the UK has yet to conclude post-Brexit trade deals with Europe, the USA and other key trading partners. This means that the 2020 Integrated Review is unlikely to be a budget neutral exercise. It may involve jettisoning as much cost as possible so that the ship doesn’t sink. To put it bluntly, the need to save money could turn the well-intentioned 2020 Integrated Review into an unwelcome repeat of the 2010 SDSR.

Will we see corresponding cuts to National Health Service, Education, and Social benefits? Cutting these things is unlikely to help any government get re-elected. But Defence has never been perceived as a vote winner. It’s spending money on something we hope we never have to use. Like an insurance policy, our present circumstances mean it may be expedient to give-up fully comprehensive cover in favour of third-party, fire and theft.

It doesn’t help the cause of the three services that they have been accused of mismanaging their budgets. Navy critics suggest that the costs of implementing Carrier Strike were significantly under-estimated with the investment made at the expense of its core capabilities. Meanwhile, the Army’s detractors have criticised its procurement processes, saying they reveal an inability to buy anything off-the-shelf without adding unnecessary gold plating. The RAF will only buy American aircraft, without a competition, leaving us at the mercy of profligate US defence firms and unfavourable Dollar-Sterling exchange rates. But these are perceptions not reality. The services are getting many more things right than they are getting wrong. Using one or two missteps as justification for deep further cuts is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. 

While Britain’s economy prepares for the double whammy of Covid-19 and Brexit, the world has become more unstable and dangerous than it has been at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963. China’s failure to provide timely warning of the seriousness of Coronavirus, its hawkish aggression in the South China Sea, its unrelenting expansion in Africa and Asia; and zero tolerance towards Hong Kong protesters, show that its mask has well and truly slipped. China’s commitment to global economic supremacy and the reinforcement of its superpower status should worry us. We should be in no doubt that we are engaged in a new Cold War stand-off.

Russia remains a threat to the Baltic states and is conducting an active campaign to destabilise governments that have supported sanctions against it. These were imposed as a result of its annexation of Ukraine territory. Recent Russian “grey zone” activities have come very close to crossing the threshold of conflict. North Korea continues to develop ballistic missiles and may also be furthering its atomic weapons ambitions. Iran is still an active sponsor of global terrorism. Potential adversaries all have the same thing in common: they are ruled by totalitarian regimes that must retain power at all costs. 

Given the above threats and the ongoing need to rebuild UK defence after the most extensive postwar retrenchment, you would expect us to light a fire under modernisation, like the USA, Australia, France and other NATO members. Instead, we are anticipating further cuts. This cannot be right. 

Recent as well as past experience should remind us that conflicts unfold with unexpected speed and severity giving us a very limited response times. Today, we go to war with the military resources we have, not the ones we would ideally like. Furthermore, when it comes to predicting future conflicts, we have a perfect record. We haven’t gotten it right once. This means we need a flexible range of capabilities relevant to a variety of potential scenarios. We also have to be organised so that we can ramp-up recruitment, training and the manufacture of materiel. We need industrial strategies that not only support British jobs, but ensure readiness. 

(Above) The Continuum of Competition illustrates how relations between states can transition from a state of harmony to discord with actions below the threshold of conflict contributing to a ratcheting-up of tensions. As important as “Grey Zone” capabilities may be, they are no substitute for the deterrent effect of “Hard Power.

Investing in defence is like building a wall to keep out wild animals. Such a wall is useless if it has gaps. Unfortunately, Britain’s defence has some serious holes along its length. While numbers alone don’t paint a full picture, reduced quantities have impacted potency of many capabilities. The Royal Navy has only 19 surface combatants and 7 attack submarines. The British Army combat vehicle fleet has an average age of 40 years. The Army’s artillery systems need wholesale renewal. Total RAF combat aircraft were planned to be 232 Typhoons and 138 F-35s, but numbers may be capped at 149 and 72 respectively. Pilot training has been outsourced. Retention of experienced technical specialists is an issue for all three services. Accommodation, pay, pensions and other benefits have fallen behind the private sector, eroding the Armed Forces’ offer, affecting recruitment and retention.

Meanwhile, we talk about investing in AI, unmanned systems and grey zone capabilities. While new domains like Cyber and Space are undoubtedly important, they are no substitute for the deterrent effect of hard power. But our hard power has atrophied without proper regeneration since the end of the Cold War in 1990. As we try to prioritise modernisation initiatives, we must recognise that the Government’s budget is finite. Unable to fund everything we would ideally like, we must choose carefully which battles to fight – quite literally, and spend our money wisely.

So what are our Britain’s immutable Defence & Security roles? There are four over-arching defence commitments that translate into five types of role. Our most fundamental task is to the Domestic Defence of the United Kingdom. This obviously includes resourcing our armed forces to stop an invasion, but this is a highly unlikely scenario. What is more likely is an enemy within. Sabotage of key infrastructure such as power generation, water supply, and food supply chain logistics could potentially be damaged or disrupted. As an island nation we also need to protect sea routes and ensure North Atlantic security. We need to protect UK airspace. Many domestic security tasks fall under the responsibility of the Police, UK Security Services (MI5 and MI6), and GCHQ. The threat of cyber attack and computer hacking could disrupt communications or affect banking networks. There is undoubtedly a need for greater protection against hostile attempts to damage us in these areas. There is also a corresponding need to be able to attack the systems of potential adversaries as a counter to initiatives targeted against us.

The second priority is the Protection UK interests abroad including overseas territories and commonwealth trading partners. This have become a more significant responsibility to secure future prosperity for our post-Brexit economy. China’s policy of active “belt and road” initiatives in lesser developed countries could deny us trading opportunities with existing and potential partners worldwide. This makes international development a more important priority than it was before. In many respects, such initiatives require “soft power” not “hard power.” This is not just about securing favourable trading agreements for our own sake, it is also part of our global responsibility as a key member of the G7 group of countries (USA, UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan).

Our third key commitment is Honouring our NATO Treaty obligations. Article 5 stipulates that an attack against one NATO member would be considered as an attack against all. If China or Iran were to attack the United States, we could well find ourselves drawn into an Asian or Middle East conflict. Fourthly, as a member of the United Nations, we might be asked to become part of an international coalition for Action in support of the United Nations. This might involve task like peacekeeping, aid distribution. and disarming rogue states.

The above four roles imply five mission types with varying degrees of risk and intensity. At a basic level, our military capabilities serve as a Deterrence. The goal is to make any attack against us appear so costly as to not be worthwhile. We should be under no illusion that this requires serious investment in high end war fighting capabilities. Next, Hybrid and Proxy warfare operations will seek to achieve foreign policy goals without direct action. Israel’s cyber attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities used a computer virus that caused its centrifuges to spin out of control damaging them and retarding its nuclear programme. It also assassinated key nuclear scientists. While such activities “below the threshold” can be extremely effective, they can severely compromise a country’s global image and reputation for integrity. This means that within the grand scheme of things, there is an additional domain: “Headspace.” This is an ethical domain where the values and beliefs that define a country’s conduct give it moral authority.

Peace support can include separating warring factions, protecting minorities from genocide, providing refugees with a safe haven, preventing the breakdown of law and order, and instituting regime change in certain situations. For many, this role is that of the global policeman. It is controversial because it can be costly in terms of financial resources needed to prosecute such tasks; costly in terms of the amount of time needed to achieve lasting impact and change; costly in terms of casualties; and costly in terms of political fallout at home, when the ends are perceived to no longer justify the means. Recent UK deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan were viewed by some as unwinnable campaigns. This sapped support and lessened our commitment to seeing-through the task.

The next mission type is Limited war. The Falklands conflict of 1982 and Operation Desert Storm of 1991 are classic examples. Force was used to achieve clear goals over a short period of time. Short, sharp interventions can be highly effective tools of foreign policy.

Finally, there is the Major international conflict. it is the scenario we wish to avoid at all costs. This brings us back to deterrence and the need for nuclear weapons. They represent an enormous cost, but have been a highly effective in keeping the peace over the last 75 years. We maintain such weapons because they are the ultimate sanction; but, equally, we maintain credible conventional forces because these reduce the likelihood of ever having to use nuclear weapons.

Britain has historically allocated specific resources across the five role types. In terms of deterrence, the Royal Navy’s ballistic missile submarines deliver our nuclear capability. The RAF’s Typhoon, and soon the E7 Wedgetail AEW&C fleets, will protect our skies. Our frigates, attack submarines and the P8 Poseidon MPA will ensure North Atlantic security. They can also protect our interests further afield. But, the more tasks you allocate to a finite number of ships and aircraft, the more fragmented they become in their effect. During the Cold War, Britain maintained a sizeable Army in Germany to deter a land grab by the Soviet Union. Today, we have a much reduced Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic States, but the goal is the same: to deter Russian expansion.

When it comes to Hybrid and Proxy warfare, we have recognised the need to ramp-up our capabilities in these areas. The question is whether we can do so at the expense of conventional capabilities.

In terms of Peace Support, we recognise the importance of providing disaster relief and this remains an essential commitment. But, we have become much more averse to deploying “boots on the ground” for discretionary deployments. Behind this, however, there is a recognition that sometimes threats abroad need to be nipped in the bud, before they fully develop and impact us at home.

The resources needed for limited wars and major conflicts are not dissimilar. Moreover, if we are equipped for high intensity operations, the same forces can easily be re-focused around low intensity tasks. However, if our forces are only prepared for low intensity operations, they cannot be easily be re-configured for high intensity ones, as they will lack appropriate equipment. Across each of the five role types, specific capabilities will deliver specific effects, but a further question we need to ask is whether reducing our commitment to one area of foreign policy will actually allow us reduce overall capability requirements? Chinook helicopters, for example, offer utility across multiple scenarios, whereas submarines exist only to hunt other submarines and surface vessels. Would we want to reduce our submarine capabilities? Not at all.

For all these reasons, the Integrated Review must be driven by the existential threats we face as well as realistic foreign policy goals. If money is tight, then it obviously means we can’t be a global policeman. Does this mean we will need to leave Asian security to the USA, Japan, South Korea and Australia? If, instead, we are focused only on threats closer to home, do we become an insignificant player and does that matter? The overwhelming conclusion is that we must decide what we must do to defend our interests and then resource these priorities properly. Yet we must also live within our means. In conclusion, the 2020 will require us to make tough decisions. As we look ahead, we are hoping for the best, but expecting the worst.


[1] House of Commons Defence Committee, Shifting the Goalposts? Defence expenditure and the 2% pledge. (2nd Report of Session 2015-2016) Page 4.

[2] COVID-19 in the United Kingdom: Assessing jobs at risk and the impact on people and places, McKinsey & Company, May 2020. 

https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-sector/our-insights/covid-19-in-the-united-kingdom-assessing-jobs-at-risk-and-the-impact-on-people-and-places#