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What might we expect from the government's Integrated Review?

Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman

Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King's College London

23 September 2020

Historically, going back to the 1950s, defence reviews have been triggered by financial crises. The government has sought to identify dispensable military capabilities, normally over the objections of service chiefs as they claim that national security is being jeopardised.

In more recent reviews governments have tried to break this unfortunate association between defence reviews and subsequent cuts. They have done so by scheduling them every five years, presenting them as prudent exercises to ensure defence value for money rather than as a response to a financial emergency, and also by giving them a broader remit. As with this year’s Integrated Review, they are now expected to consider the requirements of national security in the round, including cyber security, and take seriously non-military policy instruments, such as diplomatic initiatives, overseas aid and economic measures.

Yet despite all of this at the heart of all recent reviews has been the awkward fact that the forward defence programme is not, and has never actually been, affordable. The expenditure gap is handed down from review to review. At times it is addressed but is never fully resolved.

One reason for this is that branches of the armed forces developed an attachment to certain capabilities. If they appear to be under threat (for example tanks at the moment) there will be a rush to the tabloids to make a fuss to embarrass ministers. A second reason is that it is hard to know what is and is not dispensable when evaluating defence provisions. The reviews of 1981 and 1990 targeted maritime capabilities and armoured divisions respectively, both of which ended up playing essential roles in the Falklands in 1982 and the Gulf in 1991. If it is impossible to be sure about short-term contingencies how much harder it is to be bold when thinking about the longer-term?

A third problem is that the large defence programmes take years from conception to fruition, and are governed by contractual obligations. Even as the costs rose the carrier and F-35 programmes could not easily be disavowed. Lastly, it is easy enough to promise ‘efficiency savings’ or accept delays in order to just about bring the programme in line with the budget, even though the proposed savings are largely speculative.

 

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. – Lawrence Freedman

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.

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Lawrence Freedman

Lawrence Freedman

Emeritus Professor of War Studies

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