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The Disintegrated Review? Britain and the Ukraine Crisis

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

The more pessimistic strategic planners and security wonks in the UK could, if they were so inclined, play a depressing game of bingo around the work done on major reviews of security and defence.  It would consist of a checklist of cliches on how quickly their work is declared obsolete, underfunded, ‘exposed by events’ or undone by changing political priorities.  The recent Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy(‘Global Britain in a competitive age’ to use its slightly catchier title, or just the ‘IR’) is no exception.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led some commentators to call for a re-evaluation of the review’s conclusions and for elements of its implementation to be reversed.  Thus, the Integrated Review, and the Defence Command Paper that followed it (‘Defence in a Competitive Age’) might be seen as a latter-day Nott Review, doomed to be reversed almost as soon as the paper was back from the Parliamentary printers.1

I will argue for a stay of execution: that the Integrated Review has set out the world now manifesting; that the government is acting in accordance with the principles that it establishes; that elements have been misinterpreted; and that a differentiation needs to be made between the review and the Defence Command Paper, where lessons still need to be identified and considered.

It’s all about the competition, stupid

The first point to be made is that the defining concept at the heart of the IR is ‘the intensification of competition between states and with non-state actors’.2  The meaning of competition has been contested and critiqued, especially as the new US administration has rolled out talk of ‘strategic competition’.  Broadly speaking, the IR sees a world of greater friction and conflict, of all kinds, from violent to economic via ideological differences.  That this competition is not new (for more details, please see the entire history of the Cold War) does not matter.  The IR is not naïve about the state of the world, and is not banking on a new era of generosity and benevolence breaking out.

USS America (foreground) an amphibious assault ship of the United States Navy, HMS Queen Elizabeth (centre) and the JS Ise, a Hyūga-class helicopter destroyer of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force whilst in the Philippine Sea. Photo: MOD.

Indeed, Russia is identified in this competitive geopolitical environment as ‘the most acute direct threat to the UK’3, being ‘more active around the wider European neighbourhood’ as part of a deteriorating security environment.4  This is the kind of neighbour who steals your parking spot, puts rubbish in your bins, and plays loud music at night: the IR does not downplay the significance of Russia.  Meanwhile, Ukraine and the ’Eastern European neighbourhood’ are also mentioned as worthy of attention.

Tilting, not pivoting, and twirling (always twirling)

This focus comes because the IR puts the ‘Euro-Atlantic’ region and continental Europe front and centre: they are ‘critical to the UK’s security and prosperity’.5  Time and again NATO is the starting point for the approach to defence, and in spite of ever-heated political rhetoric over Brexit, the European Union is also mentioned as part of a wider approach to security.  Much heat and light has been expended on why the Indo-Pacific was given such prominence in the IR, and the paper itself sets out the reasons, including the massive and growing economic clout of the region.6  Overall though, there is a reason it was described as a ‘tilt’ to the region, in contrast to the old US ‘pivot’. Such linguistic dancing on the head of a pin might bring The Simpsons to mind, but the IR was never confused about the importance of Europe in terms of economic links, geography, and political relationships when it comes to our security.  As an example of this in action, while the headline economic activity of the recent Carrier Strike Group deployment might have been in the Indo-Pacific, it should not have gone unnoticed that it was involved with other European and NATO countries both on the way out and during its return to the UK. HMS Prince of Wales has recently taken on NATO responsibilities and will be exercising with NATO Allies.  Admittedly, the IR, as a ‘strategic framework’ doesn’t give a comprehensive list of geographical priorities, something for which the Strategic Defence Review in 1998 was praised, but has not been repeated publicly since.  However, the language used is such that a careful reader can infer the importance of the Euro-Atlantic, and that the Indo-Pacific is not taking precedence.

Happy Christmas, war isn’t over

Similarly, the IR is explicit about how competition will manifest in some cases, and the role the UK envisages for itself: a significant power, with global interests, but one that seeks to work multilaterally wherever possible, supporting institutions and (what we regard as) international norms and conventions which should guide and constrain how states act.  ‘Global Britain’ is a headline for the country, but it isn’t a call for unfettered unilateralism.  In this environment, the threat of violence and war is a constant.  The IR explicitly mentions an increase in violent conflict globally, and sees it prevalent for at least the next decade, with the potential for escalation as part of competition.7 This is not a world-view that suggests that war is ‘over’ and that violence has lost its attraction for states or non-state groups.

Marking the UK’s efforts

We can see this framework at play in how the UK has tackled the crisis in Ukraine.  There has been significant consultation and coordination with allies and partners, the sharing of intelligence from early on and a heavy emphasis on multilateralism with efforts at the UN and NATO, and working with the EU.  The UK has also made use of its presence at or membership in a collection of other multilateral organisations, from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to the Joint Expeditionary Force (another organisation referenced in the IR).8  Of course, when you have so many countries in the mix, and prominent European leaders engaged on high profile diplomatic initiatives, there is bound to be a bit of friction, and interest, in who is ‘grabbing’ which headlines.  But even here, the usual background diplomacy and contacts have continued with the UK playing a coordinating role in Europe on efforts to support the Ukrainian military.

Whither the military?

You might be forgiven for experiencing a bout of cognitive dissonance at this point, especially given the apparently rosy picture painted above which suggests that this was largely predicted and anticipated and lauding the fact that the IR appears to be guiding how the UK is responding.  After all, Putin hasn’t been deterred.  Ukraine has been invaded.  Thousands more are likely to die in a war that has been rumbling for eight years.  Armoured columns are winding their way across Ukraine, and didn’t we just cut our Army and tanks?

It is important here is to distinguish between the Integrated Review as a framework for government, and the Defence Command Paper as a departmental interpretation of that direction.

It is important here is to distinguish between the Integrated Review as a framework for government, and the Defence Command Paper as a departmental interpretation of that direction.  Decisions taken in the latter are part of trying to navigate towards the vision the IR sets out and will naturally be reviewed over the years.  It follows that changes in the Command Paper don’t necessarily invalidate the IR and there has been some lazy conflation of the two which suggests exactly this.

It’s also important to read and reflect on what the Command Paper actually says.  The Defence Secretary opened by arguing that ‘It would…endanger our people if we simply wielded a sword of cuts, slicing away the battle-proven on the promise of novelty, without regard for what is left behind.  Old capabilities are not necessarily redundant, just as new technologies are not always relevant’.9  The detail with regards to the Army looks forward to a future with new armoured vehicles in the form of Boxer and Ajax, Challenger 3 tanks, air defences, electronic warfare, and long-range firepower in the shape of new artillery.10  While cyberspace and cyber capabilities are prominent, as befits a government looking for an edge through innovation and science, this shopping list is not one of a Ministry of Defence doing away with ‘hard power’, especially given investments elsewhere in new frigates for the Royal Navy, more F-35 jets for the air force, and a range of guided missiles.

Interpreting the Command Paper

Policy and real-world constraints should be our guide to understanding how to interpret lessons from the war in Ukraine and judge the implementation of the Integrated Review, through the Command Paper.  The very first thing to be said is that Western countries have clearly taken a policy choice to not directly fight Russia over Ukraine, based on a calculation of whether it would be in their interests or not.  That choice can be debated, but it appears unlikely to be one based wholly around capability.  In other words, even if the UK could muster an armoured force similar to that used in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it is extremely unlikely that it would now be sending one to fight in Ukraine.  After all, the US does possess exactly this sort of force and it isn’t spoiling for a fight.  It seems implausible to argue that the UK would do differently.  This can also be seen in the extreme reluctance to support calls for no-fly zones which are growing in volume, and being led by some prominent figures.

An RAF Hercules aircraft on the tarmac late at night in the Middle East on the 12th June 2020. Photo: MOD.

Fundamentally, there is an imbalance of interests at play: Russia (or perhaps more accurately, President Putin) regards the issue as vital and thus is prepared to commit more, and risk more.  When it comes to the use of force, he is clearly prepared to escalate further, though as some have commented this may represent a failure to think about achievable policy goals.

The Command Paper also gave some hints to activity now being seen, where it talked about countering state threats using ‘a mixture of operational activity, strategic communication and engagement.  We will work closely with other departments and the intelligence community to maximise our national impact’.11  This is exactly what the Ministry of Defence has done with more briefings and a near-daily release of information from Defence Intelligence to counter Russian disinformation and undermine the Russian narrative.  Stripping away the Russian pretext for invasion has not deterred that invasion; but it may have contributed to being able to assemble a broader coalition and helped foster the unusual display of solidarity now taking place.  Indeed, the isolation of Russia in finance, sport, and many other elements of the international system might be seen as an example of ‘horizontal escalation’ and previous National Security Adviser Mark Sedwill’s ‘Fusion Doctrine’ in action: using Western asymmetric advantages in other areas to respond to a Russian military attack.

Hoist by our own petard

However, this latter activity doesn’t let the Command Paper off the hook.  Where should it face scrutiny, and why?  In the first case, we may have talked ourselves into giving a misleading impression about how the MOD sees future war.  The MOD clearly wants a capable fighting force, including on land.  But the scale of the transformation is incredible: with tanks, other armoured vehicles, air defences and artillery all being updated or replaced, nearly every major Army combat capability is changing, within the space of a decade, alongside needing new communications.  In the meantime, we don’t fundamentally have the kind of coherent land combat force that we want.  From a strategic perspective, the UK’s choice is to focus in the near-term on what it can contribute to NATO and other partners: modern air forces, and navy, hence the heavy naval presence in NATO exercises and RAF involvement in NATO air patrolling.

This leaves an uncomfortable gap, which we have filled by extolling the importance of the ‘new domains’ of space and cyberspace, and the significance of non-violent means of competition, and the need to be ‘pentaphibians’.  The problem here is that while the MOD is therefore not blind to the importance of firepower, it has encouraged a discussion around ‘horse and tank moments’, ‘sunset capabilities’ and ‘tank battles in Europe’ which provide plentiful ammunition for easy shots until that hard power can be regenerated within the Army.  Defence has been challenged over whether the Command Paper and the Integrated Operating Concept at its heart provide a clear enough vision of how the Armed Forces really intend to fight.  There are split views on whether it is a useful guide or a re-heated and ahistorical collection of old ideas.  The subsequent scepticism over the Future Soldier concept suggests that the Army still needs to grapple with explaining both its role and the changes necessary to fulfil it after the IR.

Pictured is the new Ajax prototype shown near its future assembly site in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. Photo: MOD.

The question of ‘sub-threshold’ activity and ‘Persistent Engagement’ are part of the same attempt within the MOD to make the best of the available resources and follow an approach that uses international relationships to deter threats.  The crisis in Ukraine doesn’t immediately invalidate those ideas, but it is a potential demonstration of their limits and that they are not a substitute for hard military power which only the MOD can provide.  Other departments have been prominent in the fields of diplomacy and economics in responding to Russian aggression.  Similarly, we shouldn’t immediately throw out the idea of the Ranger Regiment, but it is notable that it was sent to Ukraine, delivered weapons, provided training and then left.  Accompanying Ukrainian forces was never an option.  It’s an example that however interesting a concept is, it needs to complement policy preferences to demonstrate utility.

It’s…complicated

In summary, we should be careful in drawing conclusions at this point about the UK’s strategic posture and decisions from the war in Ukraine.  If that sounds like an over-cautious caveat from a risk-averse civil servant, you would be right!  ‘It’s complicated’ can be a frustratingly obtuse analytical stance, but it has the benefit of being true in most cases.  The challenge for strategic thought is always one of time and timing: when to re-examine assumptions and when to show patience in the face of conflicting evidence or confusion.  The current phase of the war in Ukraine is a little under two weeks old at the time of writing.  By the time this is published there may have been a diplomatic breakthrough or Kyiv could have fallen.  Russia has yet to fully commit all its forces, and the tactical landscape is ever-changing.

Indeed, it seems perverse at this point to argue that tanks are back in vogue when the picture is one of significant casualties amongst armoured forces.  Neither do we know whether the ‘information war’ will trump ‘boots on the ground’.  Meanwhile, there is much commentary on the absence of significant cyber disruption.  This could change in a week.  Indeed, while I argue that the Integrated Review has withstood this test of its logic so far, profound changes have taken place within European security, including a radical change in German attitudes to defence spending.  We do not know where China (which remains the long-term primary ‘competitor’) will end up on the issue nor what the global economy will look like six months from now.

 If that sounds like an over-cautious caveat from a risk-averse civil servant, you would be right!  

There is plenty to examine in current Defence thinking and investment decisions.  The most recent National Audit Office report on the Defence Equipment Plan is predictably sceptical of the MOD’s figures and confidence it can achieve all that it wants with the existing spending settlement.  A number of smaller decisions are being scrutinised, from whether the shrinking air transport fleet can support a global presence, whether our logistics can sustain our expected deployments, and whether the pace and volume of the introduction of various new weapons is sufficient.  But while analysis of Russian capabilities is still being conducted and placed in the right context, it is remarkably early to be drawing major conclusions about the impact on UK strategy and resources, even as analysts are rightly identifying emerging questions.

The sight of a number of other European countries pledging to increase spending could lead the UK to do the same.  Conversely, we might point to spending being above the NATO 2% guidance.  In any case, any discussion about increasing the defence budget would need to account for the necessity above what was already a significant rise in 2021 and be convincing about the MOD’s ability to spend it wisely in the face of the issues raised by the NAO.  Additionally, it does not necessarily follow that the Army would be the sole recipient of any rise.  Its budget is already the single largest part of the Equipment Plan over the next decade (nuclear spending is separate to that of the Royal Navy) and an argument could be made that infrastructure, logistics and other ‘supporting’ functions would be just as worthy as tanks.  Alternatively, the significant changes afoot in European spending might lead the UK to further invest in air and naval power to complement the land power of continental NATO allies.

The Strategic Defence and Security Review of 2010 declared that the UK would be ‘more selective in our use of the Armed Forces’ and set out criteria against which to judge the wisdom of overseas interventions.12  Within five months it had ignored most of these and started the campaign in Libya, later leading to a reversal of decisions to cut capabilities like the Sentinel surveillance aircraft.  As previous defence and security reviews have shown, mercurial policy direction can do as much harm as stubborn adherence to dated ideas.  The UK should undoubtedly identify lessons from the war in Ukraine and consider the implications for security spending and concepts, but this should be deliberate and considered, rather than a reflex at the start of an evolving war.

Generic cartoon selfie
Matthew

Matthew is a civil servant with experience working across government on national security, including in policy, strategy and intelligence roles, as well as operational deployments for the MOD.

The views expressed in his writing are his and do not represent the views of the Ministry of Defence.

Footnotes

  1. Though it’s also worth looking at the work of Andrew Dorman on some of the myths of the Nott Review.
  2. HM Government, Global Britain in a Competitive Age. The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, CP 403, (London: TSO, 2011), 24.
  3. Ibid., 26.
  4. Ibid., 29.
  5. Ibid., 26.
  6. Ibid., 66.
  7. Ibid., 29.
  8. Ibid., 27.
  9. Ministry of Defence, Defence in a Competitive Age, CP 411, (London: TSO, 2021), 1.
  10. Ibid., 52.
  11. Ibid., 16.
  12. HM Government, Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review, Cm 7948, (London: TSO, 2010), 17.

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