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Culture, Diversity, and the Integrated Review

This essay was first published in October 2021, in the second volume of the Centre for Defence Studies series on The Integrated Review in Context: Defence and Security in Focus.

Even before its publication, it was a fairly certain bet that the term ‘diversity’ would feature in the Integrated Review, not least because the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) committed to establishing a security and diversity network (p. 74). However, the level to which the IR would embrace the concept of culture and cultural change within the context of a defence review invited much longer odds, not least because of the very different political and strategic context in 2021. The narratives around British national identity and its history have generated increasing hostility between the conservative right and the liberal left: ‘culture wars’ as they are referred to in the media.

As Dorian Lynskey has suggested ‘Brexit, which really did slice the country in half, gave the Tories a taste for electorally useful cultural conflict’ as recent political manoeuvres over attacks on statues have demonstrated. On the left, there are tensions between those who police language and culture with little appetite for debate and those, such as Mary Beard who present a more nuanced view. As David Olusoga has eloquently observed, historians have been slow to see the bigger picture: ‘that politicians looking for a fight do not care about historical accuracy or complexity.’ Of course the concept of ‘cultural warfare’ is not to be confused with discussions about service or organisational culture, but if the former discourages thoughtful analysis of and reference to the latter, then the armed forces will be the poorer for it.

Also, not surprising was the post-Brexit emphasis on a Global Britain. In this sense, the IR was a break with most past defence reviews which, while always political, veered and hauled around the distribution of resource between different capabilities and the three services rather than reflecting a profound strategic change in Britain’s place in the world (though the 2002 ‘New Chapter’ to the 1998 Strategic Defence Review perhaps attempted to do this in reaction to the events of 9/11).

This review feels much more ‘owned’ by the current incumbent of Number 10, reflecting a pivot away from NATO and Europe (in the IR most notably) towards potential markets and allies further afield, not least with the Indo-Pacific tilt.– Dr Sophy Antrobus

Given the Conservatives’ disdain for culture as shorthand for national identity, it is unsurprising that references to culture in the IR, and the Defence Command Paper (DCP), Defence in a Competitive Age, are used only in the context of the need for future innovation in the armed forces and defence or when discussing the challenging behaviour of the UK’s competitors. The IR lists one of its Reform Priorities, in terms of implementing the review, as ‘Culture, diversity and inclusion: achieving a culture that supports integration, adaption and innovation is critical’ stating the need to ‘foster a culture that encourages more and different kinds of challenge, further developing capabilities such as red-teaming to mitigate cognitive biases that affect decision-making’ (p. 98). Earlier it cites the examples of Russia and China as ‘systemic competitors’ ‘who challenge the values of open and democratic societies and increasingly do so through culture’ (p. 49) presenting culture as a form of conflict between nations.

The DCP states that ‘Capability in the future will be less defined by numbers of people and platforms than by information-centric technologies, automation and a culture of innovation and experimentation’ (p. 38).

Military innovation is not a new concept, and neither is reference to the importance of culture and cultural change in driving innovation. – Dr Sophy Antrobus

Stuart Griffin proposed that: ‘Strategic culture literature became increasingly important to the field of military innovation because it looked both up and out from the organisation (ie how does the military’s culture influence strategic behaviour of, predominantly, the state?) and down and in to the organisation (i.e. how does its strategic culture shape its own choices, how does this reinforce attitude and behaviour and how can one induce meaningful change?)’ (p. 202). Stephen Rosen argued that: ‘Peacetime military innovation may be explainable in terms of how military communities evaluate the future character of war, and how they effect change in the senior officer corps’ (p. 52).


As highlighted above, culture is used in the IR as a shorthand for how to effect innovation at pace, perhaps inadvertently raising a question related to David Edgerton’s point that, ‘Calling for innovation is, paradoxically, a common way of avoiding change when change is not wanted (p. 210)’ How much the current fashion for using innovation as a shorthand for military adaption to a changing strategic environment with new domains and emerging technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, will act as a real catalyst for change is questionable. Some areas, such as the RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office, demonstrate the commitment of considerable resource, in human and financial terms, to break with traditional approaches to procurement of, for example, air power capabilities. However, Edgerton makes a compelling argument for further interrogation of the will behind the words in the IR and DCP.

So far, so predictable.

Analysis of the narrative in the IR and the DCP shows little more than lip service to diversity and, unlike SDSR 2015, avoids reference to women and ethnic minority representation in the armed forces. – Dr Sophy Antrobus

In this context, diversity, like culture, is only referenced three times, and it is explicitly linked to the implications of diversity for operational effectiveness. Whether these omissions signal a political desire to draw clear water between the current government and references that could elicit criticism of ‘political correctness’ (i.e. a deliberate omission) or an oversight on the part of the documents’ authors to make more explicit reference to diversity, particularly regarding women and ethnic minorities, is a question for the MOD. The former is a plausible explanation, but the latter is equally concerning in that it might indicate a complacency that the statistics on diversity are generally ‘heading in the right direction’ when there is significantly more to be done.

The Armed Forces has a history of making leaps forward in diversity terms, for example accepting women as pilots, but at times of crises in recruitment (Sheritt, pp. 203-4): i.e. when diversity was necessary for effectiveness and not because it was the right or just course of action. Page 36 of the DCP states: ‘We recognise that diversity and inclusion is essential to our operational effectiveness and it ensures that we can safeguard the security, stability and prosperity of our nation.’ The paper is less wholehearted in its discussion of its legal obligation to the Public Sector Equality Duty which it (grudgingly in this author’s view) commits to continuing ‘to comply’ with it. This is diversity for expediency rather than as a values-driven commitment.

SDSR 2015 outlined specific targets for women and BAME communities, with reference to proper representation for its own sake and as a reflection of modern British society rather than for combat effectiveness: ‘We are committed to achieving an inclusive working environment, and to building Armed Forces that are diverse and fully representative of UK society. This will be the work of many years but, as a step towards this goal, by 2020 the Armed Forces will be recruiting at least 10% Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic personnel and at least 15% women’ (p. 33). No doubt the reality of the MOD falling well short of these targets precluded countenance of any similar commitments in the 2021 DCP. Instead of 10% BAME by 2020, the actual figure between 2015 and 2020 increased from 7% to 8.8%. For women, instead of 15%, the figure advanced from 10.1% to just 10.9%.

Two final observations. The first is that despite the clear link in both the IR and the DCP between culture, diversity and innovation, the organisation singled out as embodying ‘the culture of innovation, experimentation and pull-through of technology that delivers a cutting-edge’ (DCP, p. 45) is the Special Forces, hardly a bastion of equality and diversity especially in terms of female representation. This links back to Edgerton’s argument that the invocation of innovation might really be a subliminal representation of avoiding change when change is not wanted, certainly here in diversity terms.

Secondly, the desire to move military personnel between military service and the private sector (‘making it easier for people to move around different parts of the defence sector and between the MOD and industry’ Defence Security and Industrial Strategy, p. 50) came just ahead of the Greensill affair demonstrating the difficulty of maintaining a culture of probity when intermingling public servants with the private sector. No doubt, careful legislation and policy could overcome these concerns, but the coincidence of the two provides food for thought. And

there are broader challenges to providing careers which allow servicewomen and men to move between the armed forces and industry, such as the ability of business to poach the most talented with higher salaries than the military can offer.– Dr Sophy Antrobus

All in all, the disappointingly sparse engagement with culture and diversity in the IR and the DCP reflects an interest in those terms only when they offer a holy grail, at least in stated aspirations, of improved operational effectiveness and innovation, and not because culture and diversity matter in and of themselves for a modern fighting force in a western twenty-first century nation.

To end on a positive note though, the words and deeds of senior service personnel, not least Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, demonstrate that

beyond the IR, in the day-to-day activities and pronouncements of the services, there is a commitment to diversity and modernising service culture because it matters. – Dr Sophy Antrobus

Mike Wigston was the author of a report into inappropriate behaviour in the armed forces and has set the RAF ambitious targets for diversity in recruitment (20% BAME and 40% women inflow by 2030). It matters not just for future capability and it’s a commitment many senior chiefs see as profoundly important in its own right.


Dr Sophy Antrobus is a Research Associate with the Freeman Air and Space Institute (FASI) in the School of Security Studies at King’s College London. Dr Antrobus researches contemporary air power in the context of the institutional, cultural and organisational barriers to innovation in modern air forces, in particular the Royal Air Force. Dr Antrobus joined FASI from Portsmouth Business School at the University of Portsmouth where she was a Teaching Fellow in Strategic Studies. She completed her PhD at the University of Exeter in 2019. Her thesis researched the early politics of air power and networks in Whitehall in the inter-war years.



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Sophy  Antrobus

Sophy Antrobus

Research Fellow at the Freeman Air and Space Institute

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