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What the UK's Integrated Review 2021 says about conflict

What the UK's Integrated Review 2021 says about conflict

 

The UK’s Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy came out in March 2021 with much fanfare.

Security and defence reviews say pretty much the same thing every time.  Strong defence, strong alliances, a rules-based international order – within financial constraints.  There, I’ve written it.  Could have saved everyone a lot of work.

There’s a serious point here.  For 18 months or so, the UK's Integrated Review 2021 will have creamed off a good chunk of the thinking time of most officials in Whitehall with any interest or ability in defence or international security.  That is quite an opportunity cost.  If it doesn’t say much other than the usual with a few tweaks here and there, then the time could have been better spent on actually tackling wars.

On the other hand, re-stating old truths can help and if there are some adjustments to be made, good to announce them at the same time.  But then it might be wise not to trumpet the exercise as something big and new, since that can breed cynicism when it turns out a year or two later that the ship is still sailing in much the same direction.  Over time cynicism corrodes trust.  That damages confidence, and therefore reduces our strength - the opposite of what we should be trying to achieve.

The review also covers development, foreign policy, and some other aspects of security and defence.  Here I focus on what the review says about conflict.

What the review says about conflict

What the review says about conflict boils down to this:

What actual new action does the review announce on conflicts – that will affect current overseas conflicts in some definite and direct way?  None.

What about any changes of direction in how we prepare and equip ourselves to deal with conflict?  There are several.  The main ones are: 

  • Science and technology. A big increase in spending on science and tech R&D, and a firm emphasis on making the UK a tech superpower.
  • Integration. An even more integrated approach to security and to conflict.  This idea has been around for years under various names.  It means trying to combine the various instruments of power into a coherent effort.  The review (including in its name) signals that the government wishes to go further on integration.
  • Cyber. A major theme.  The UK wishes to be one of the world’s leading cyber powers.
  • Nuclear weapons. An increase in the maximum number of nuclear warheads that the UK will hold.  The review claims that this greater number is now the minimum required for the deterrent to remain credible.

What is no change from previous reviews is the desire to shape the international order.  Open, rules-based, resilient, with strengthened multilateral institutions and free and fair trade.  All governments have said this for the past 40 years.  Still, it is worth repeating because the rules-based order is such an important foundation for everything else.

So does this review change the UK’s approach to conflict?

Strategists and planners often think in terms of Ends, Ways and Means.  Splitting what the review says under those headings:

Ends

No change.  The UK to be secure and resilient.  And the same aspiration for our allies, and as much as possible of the rest of the world.

Ways

  • A reaffirmation of the rules-based international order, which is no change
  • A major drive on combatting climate change. That is new, given the scale of effort proposed.  It is widely thought that climate change will exacerbate conflict.

 Means

  • ‘Modern’ (i.e. smaller, with updated equipment) armed forces, which is essentially what all previous reviews have said
  • Much greater investment in science and technology
  • An increased cyber capability
  • An increase in nuclear warheads

There is also a plan to establish a new conflict centre in the FCDO.  It is not clear how capable this would be.  There used to be a Conflict Group within the FCO; perhaps this will be something similar.  Given the history of new structures within Whitehall it would be unwise to place a major expectation on it at this stage, though any sensible person will wish it well.

In summary

The significant changes relevant to conflict are in:

  • Smaller armed forces (the review did not explicitly say the armed forces will be smaller, but the defence command paper confirmed it a few days later)
  • Climate action
  • Science and technology
  • Cyber
  • Nuclear weapons

The increase in nuclear weapons looks bizarre.  If there are sound arguments why the deterrent now needs more warheads to be credible (which the review doesn’t go into – it hints at changes in ‘technological and doctrinal threats’), then those who accept the need for nuclear weapons may perhaps find it defensible.  But if there is no compelling reason for the increase, the additional warheads will give a highly damaging signal to other nations, several of whom we’re trying to persuade to renounce nuclear weapons.

At a stroke, the publication of this review has put the UK in a position where it can hardly complain if other countries increase their nuclear stockpiles.  That is the opposite of what we and our allies have been trying for decades to achieve.  It looks like a massive own goal.  The damage can - perhaps - be reduced if the government immediately publishes clear evidence showing that the new warhead limit is the minimum necessary for deterrence.  But does the government have that evidence?  If so why didn't they publish an unclassified summary of it in the review?

The climate action would be happening regardless of its relevance to international security.  It may or may not help to reduce conflicts.

Cyber is a capability we will require in any event, review or no review, because we obviously need to protect ourselves in that domain now that it exists.  As with any other domain, that means the ability to take the offensive if necessary.

That leaves, as the only significant changes that are not inevitable or apparently bizarre:

  • Investment in science and technology, and
  • A reduction in the number of armed forces personnel

One plus, and one minus.

What should this review have said?

1.  The review should have offered hope that conflicts can be ended much more effectively than up till now, with suggestions as to how. It should have committed the UK to playing a leading role in that aspiration.

We are one of the world’s largest economies, a permanent Security Council member, blessed with a huge number of multilateral connections and strong allies.  If we won’t take a lead in making big improvements to how wars are prevented, who will?

There are currently 40+ conflicts in the world – far too many.  A security review that does not explain how we will try to reduce this number, with innovation or other bold approaches, is open to the charge of fiddling with adjustments to our capabilities while Rome burns.

2.  The number of armed forces personnel should have remained steady. An increase was unrealistic given the UK’s financial situation.  But the existing number is already thought by most observers to be too low for the predictable threats.  So reducing it further is deepening the risk of the UK being caught out.

Then there are the unpredictable threats, some of which might well require more troops.  It is foolish to get rid of fire engines just because there hasn't been a fire for a while.

3.  There should have been no increase in nuclear warheads without a clear and detailed explanation, which has not been offered. That is extraordinary, and looks irresponsible.

4.  There should have been a credible recommitment to the rule of law. Which would have meant distancing ourselves from actual or threatened breaches of the law in the recent past.  These may have included the invasion of Iraq before the point of last resort had been reached - lawyers are not agreed on this but in any event the UK should not have been so close to the legal line.  There followed the UK's failure to dissociate itself, for several years, from the serious breaches of international law at Guantánamo Bay.  More recent examples include the threat to break the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement.  These signals echoed around the world.  They have weakened our ability to persuade other nations to uphold the law.  And therefore have weakened the world’s security.

The remainder of the review’s highlights – principally cyber, climate action, science and technology – are good and necessary.  But they are undermined by the removal of thousands of soldiers; the increase in nuclear warheads; and an incomplete commitment to the rule of law.

Conclusion

On conflict the review is flawed, and unambitious.  It proposes greater integration, which is welcome and may help coherence.  But it fails to offer hope that we and others will grip overseas conflicts and end more of them, more quickly and more effectively than in the past.

 

 

Cover photo: Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.  For more information see http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/3/.

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