A decade ago, in February 2020, the government announced an Integrated Review. Mandated to overhaul the UK’s approach to foreign policy, defence, and security, it was projected to set a long-term direction of travel for the government’s international approach.
With such a weighty task before it, no one thought that the review was going to be a simple matter. Not only did the various branches of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Foreign Office – now the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCO – FCDO) – have to sit down and set out their priorities, in addition to collecting evidence from a variety of experts, but the review also needed to wring funds from the Treasury to make these plans a reality. Oh, not to mention getting approval from the Prime Minister too.
But then Covid-19 happened. The virus’ sweep across the country brought the review to a stumbling halt, while the energies of government were focused on the emergency at hand. As the first wave receded, the review was picked up again, with a call for evidence issued in September. Publication of the review was set for later in the autumn.
But come November, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stood up in the House of Commons and announced that the government would enact the largest rise in defence expenditure since the end of the Cold War, an increase in spending to the tune of £16.5 billion, spread over 4 years. What happened to the review?
The answer is that it was postponed again. We now almost certainly won’t see it until the new year, but the government have stumped up the cash regardless. Why? And what now?
The answer to ‘why’ appears an enigma at first. Britain is enveloped in an unprecedented medical and social crisis. Well in excess of £400 billion has been spent on countering the impacts of the pandemic, driving Britain’s national debt to 84.6% of GDP. This, however, has not prevented one of the worst death tolls and the worst economic recession in Europe. In the meantime, a recent study by the Social Market Foundation, a cross-party think-tank, found that on average 16% of children had very low food security, having to slim down portions, skip meals or even spend a day or more without food. In Redbridge and Tower Hamlets, 2 London boroughs, the figure is 1 in 4. And while it’s become increasingly apparent over the past 10 years that Russia and China pose an increasing threat to the UK, and that the international situation has become less stable, this has been the case for a number of years (and governments).
But, as you may well have noticed, on 3rd November the US had an election, which Joe Biden won. President-Elect Biden is what is known amongst politics wonks as a ‘Hawk’ – that is, someone who takes a more aggressive and assertive approach to foreign policy. We can therefore expect him to take a harder line against President Putin’s Russia, as well as against other challenges to the US-led international order. But with a population weary of foreign intervention and public debts totalling $27 trillion, the incoming administration may well find itself in need of someone to help shoulder the burden of its foreign policy. So up popped Boris Johnson, with an offer to do exactly that. Across the Atlantic, and across the aisle from the President-Elect, Acting Secretary of Defence Christopher Miller offered fulsome praise, saying that the UK announcement was ‘indicative of their commitment to NATO and our shared security’. Regarding the UK, it is ‘our most stalwart and capable ally’ , whose military is one of ‘the finest fighting forces in the world’, according to Miller’s statement. Job done then, it would seem.
America is not the only issue on the table though. Russian naval incursions into UK waters have been much-increased this year, with 9 ships of the Northern Fleet entering UK territorial waters in early December. In March this year, 7 warships lingered in the English Channel for days. The RAF has been scrambled several times this year to shadow Russian aircraft in the vicinity of UK airspace. Elsewhere in Europe, a hardening of international outlook is occurring. Sweden’s parliament recently approved a 40% increase in defence spending, in response to Russian intrusions into Swedish territorial waters and airspace. France has recently announced that it will begin construction of the largest nuclear aircraft carrier in its history. So, from another perspective, we can fit the UK’s response into that pattern.
The problem with both aspects of the answer to ‘why?’ is found when we ask ‘what happens next?’. For HM Armed Forces, the MoD will still have to make significant cuts, with £1 billion the target amount according to the Telegraph, in order to shrink the £13 billion black hole in its equipment budget. The army may well bear the brunt of this, but the Naval Reserve is to be suspended until April 2021 to save money. So, it’s not as weighty a signal to the US as it seems. And if the government are looking to deter the Kremlin, they could have picked a better way to do it rather than threatening to deploy the Navy against our NATO allies in the event of a No Deal Brexit, while reducing the mass of our conventional forces.
On top of all that, we still haven’t been told what the strategy is.
It’s clear that Boris Johnson’s government is set on revamping the British military for the Information Age. But it is equally clear that to achieve this they have a mountain to climb.