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One year on: Reappraising the Integrated Review

Strategic reviews should not be judged on whether they predict the next crisis. The 2010 review did not foresee the NATO air campaign over Libya the following year. The 2015 document did not factor in that Britain would in 2016 decide to leave the EU. The 2021 integrated review could not have anticipated that, within a year of publication, Putin would decide to transform the European security landscape by mounting a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The real value of these planning documents is in identifying the long-term interests of the country, and deriving from these a set of enduring priorities which will guide the allocation of finite resources.– Professor the Lord Ricketts

How does the 2021 integrated review measure up to this yardstick? My broad assessment at the time was that the review set out in thoughtful terms a wide range of ambitious goals for Britain’s new national strategy, but failed to establish any clear priorities.

The Ukraine crisis is…forcing choices and clarifying Britain’s essential interests.– Professor the Lord Ricketts

As a result, the eye-catching novelties which were played up in the political marketing of the Review have been cast aside. But much of value remains, and now needs to be adapted to the new circumstances.

Some of the threat analysis in the early part of the Review has been shown to be spot on, in particular the statement that: ‘The precondition for global Britain is the safety of our citizens at home and the security of the Euro-Atlantic area’; and the judgement that ‘Russia remains the most acute threat to our security’. The problem was that these important judgements did not drive the main conclusions of the Review. The whole thrust of the document, and especially the presentation of it by Ministers, was that leaving the EU was an opportunity to move on from traditional ties and seek fresh opportunities and new partnerships beyond Europe. The section headed ‘Prime Minister’s Vision’ set the objective that ‘by 2030, we will be deeply engaged in the Indo-Pacific as the European partner with the broadest, most integrated presence in support of mutually – beneficial trade, shared security and values’. The same paragraph emphasised that Britain would be active in Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf. Almost nothing was said about future relations with the EU.

There was also a strand of thought in the Review that Britain’s new global role meant taking a different view of the international order: “The Integrated Review also signals a change of approach. Over the last decade, UK policy has been focused on preserving the post-Cold War ‘rules-based international system’…today however the international order is more fragmented… A defence of the status quo is no longer sufficient for the decade ahead.” The clear implication was that the post-war system was increasingly outmoded, and that in future Britain would take a more dynamic approach, building what the Review called a “network of like-minded countries and flexible groupings.”

The implications of the Ukraine conflict

Putin’s war put this Global Britain rhetoric into a very different perspective. The crisis has shown that Britain’s vital national interests are not engaged in the Indo-Pacific region to the extent they are by events on the European continent. It has demonstrated that defending the post-war rules-based order as laid down in the UN Charter is vital if the world is not to fall back into the sort of barbaric wars which disfigured the twentieth century. And it has been a sharp reminder that strengthening the NATO alliance is far more central to Britain’s security than creating flexible new groupings.

In practice, the UK’s military response to the crisis has been sure-footed. British governments have developed a close military training relationship with Ukraine since 2015, and built on that to take a leading role in the supply of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons as soon as the Russian invasion began. British forces were among the first in NATO to reinforce the Baltic States and Poland. But however the war ends, the European security landscape has undergone a major strategic shift.

Deterrence of a hostile Russia, involving larger numbers of NATO ground forces based in Eastern Europe, is here to stay. This has profound implications for Britain’s defence posture and equipment programme.– Professor the Lord Ricketts

The Integrated Review did not contain much detail on the size and mission of the future armed forces. The main emphasis in the section dealing with defence, apart from the important announcement on nuclear warhead numbers, was on the benefits of advanced technology: “We will prioritise the development and integration of new technologies…and a ‘digital backbone’ to enable multi-domain operations.” The Royal Navy (RN) was given pride of place in the political presentation of the Review, with the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers and their advanced F35 aircraft symbolising Britain’s ambitions to play a global role. The accompanying Defence White Paper announced that Britain would strengthen its ‘strategic hubs’ in Oman, Kenya and Singapore. It also made pretty clear that spending on major equipment programmes would continue to be directed largely to the Navy and the Royal Air Force (RAF): ‘The RN will have new ships and missiles, the RAF new fighters and the Army will be more deployed and better protected.’

The Army’s status as the Cinderella service of the Global Britain strategy was further underlined when the Defence Secretary told Parliament in March 2021 that the Army would be cut to 72,500, its smallest size since 1714. Mr Wallace explained that numbers were now less important, since new technology made each soldier more effective.  However, the Army's equipment modernisation programme has been dogged by problems, with the scrapping of programme to upgrade the elderly Warrior armoured infantry vehicle and the continuing delays in bringing the Ajax reconnaissance vehicle into service. Now the Army is being called on to make new deployments of forces to Eastern Europe, which may become permanent.

Aircraft carriers are good for showing the flag in the Indo-Pacific but of little use in territorial defence of NATO allies. And the war in Ukraine, far from being a high-tech affair requiring dominance of cyberspace, has turned out to be a distinctly 20th century conflict depending heavily on generating forces of a significant size, with good logistics and firepower.

Both the size of the British Army and the priorities in the defence equipment programme need urgent re-thinking in the light of the war in Ukraine. – Professor the Lord Ricketts

Global Britain and the EU

There is one further aspect of the Integrated Review which now needs revisiting – Britain’s relationship with the EU and its members. As noted above, the EU was almost totally air-brushed out of the document. All the emphasis was on the greater agility and speed of action which Britain would enjoy, having cast off the shackles of EU membership. Yet it turned out that both the EU and US were able to move more quickly than the UK in imposing sanctions on Russian individuals and companies linked to the Putin regime. The British Government had to scramble though a new law to fill in loopholes left after Brexit. And the fact that sanctions have to be coordinated between allies in order to be effective made it necessary for UK and EU sanctions experts to work together (even though this was not revealed at the time to the British public). This pragmatic cooperation needs to be expanded to all areas of foreign policy and put on a more permanent footing.

Beyond the practicalities of EU-UK cooperation, the Ukraine crisis showed that Britain and its nearest neighbours shared the same values and interests when it came to responding to war on the European continent. Indeed, the scale and barbarity of the conflict galvanised members of the EU into accepting for the first time that the organisation should take on a security and defence role in keeping with its economic weight. In Germany, security policy changed more in the first three weeks of the conflict than in the previous thirty years. With the prospect of Germany having the largest defence budget in Europe and resuming the central role in European security it occupied during the Cold War, the British Government should develop a new defence partnership with Germany on a par with the one we have had with France since the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties.

Germany and many other EU countries were deeply shaken by Donald Trump’s dismissive attitude to NATO. President Joe Biden has proved an effective leader of the Western alliance in the Ukraine crisis, but the Europeans are looking anxiously at the prospect of Trump or another Republican with a similar approach winning the Presidency in 2024. The decisions taken in Berlin and other EU capitals about the longer-term lessons to draw from Putin’s aggression will shape European security for decades. It is crucial that Britain influences that debate, through dialogue with the EU and a reinforced partnership with Germany and France in particular.  This was an issue which the Integrated Review could not have foreseen, but it is a now a top priority, and supersedes Global Britain slogans like the Indo-Pacific tilt.

Strategic reviews cannot predict the future. But if they are to prove durable, they need to set a long-term direction which can be adapted as circumstances change.

Many of the ideas set out in the Integrated Review for building a more secure and resilient UK continue to be relevant. But Putin’s war in Ukraine has put European security back where it belongs – at the heart of Britain’s national security priorities.– Professor the Lord Ricketts

An updated version of the Review is now needed to weigh all the consequences of this seismic event.

Lord (Peter) Ricketts is a visiting professor in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He was the United Kingdom’s first National Security Adviser (2010-12) and is a former Permanent Under Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Head of the Diplomatic Service (2006-10) and Ambassador to France (2012-16). Lord Ricketts is the author of Hard Choices: The Making and Unmaking of Global Britain (London: Atlantic Books, paperback edition 2022).

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Peter Ricketts

Peter Ricketts

Visiting Professor

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