Yet when facing demands from the Treasury for cuts it is hard to deflect these demands elsewhere. Other departmental budgets are small by comparison. There may be disproportionate consequences when trying to save what are in effect trivial amounts of money (at least when compared with defence) in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office budget. Cutting the development side requires even more sleight of hand as spending 0.7 percent of gross national income on foreign aid is a matter of law and not just policy.
Of course not all the issues that need to be discussed in the Integrated Review have large financial implications. When it comes to foreign policy priorities, there are big debates to be had. As China flexes its muscles, does the UK need to pay far more attention to the Indo-Pacific region? Are we still too preoccupied with the Middle East and North Africa? Will the US progressively lose interest in NATO even as Russia becomes more assertive in it’s ‘near abroad’?
All these debates refer to big geopolitical shifts, some already underway. What they mean for future defence provisions is less easy to say and to some extent this is the exam question for the Integrated Review. Take China as an example. It will loom large in the review as it poses all sorts of challenges. Some raise military questions, for example aircraft carriers asserting freedom of navigation. But the UK can only contemplate operations in the Indo-Pacific region as a junior partner to its allies. Other issues, such as whether an economic partnership with China must involve self-censorship when it comes to criticising China on human rights abuses or its handling of the pandemic , do not require military outlays.
The government has let it be known that it will be focusing on new military technologies, cyber and space but it is less clear on where the savings can be made to create the room for new commitments. At a time of intense political difficulty for the government it is probable that it will try to avoid the loss of a high-profile capability. The slogan of ‘Global Britain’ and the desire to demonstrate that Brexit does not mean that the country is shrinking away from international engagements will be another argument to boost the defence budget.
The real challenge for the review is to set a path that can be sustained for the years ahead. It may struggle to do this if only because it must be completed before three major issues have been resolved.
The first concerns our future relationship with the EU, which is either going to be relatively smooth although still difficult, or else chaotic and acrimonious. The second concerns the pandemic. There was a feeling in the summer, based on hope as much as analysis, that it was winding down and that we could return to a cautious normality even before a vaccine was widely available.
That hope has now been dashed. The economic impact is going to be huge, so whatever budgetary promises the government makes now may not last a year of financial turmoil. Lastly we are awaiting the results of the American election. While a Biden victory would not be simply a return to the Obama days, four more years of Trump promises irretrievable damage to the Atlantic alliance. However compelling the argument and firm the messaging these three factors are bound to give the review a provisional quality.
Sir Lawrence David Freedman, is Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King's College London.
This piece was published for the launch of the Freeman Air and Space Institute and roundtable on the Integrated Review.