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The Integrated Review - Security and Defence

This essay was first published in July 2021, in the first volume of the Centre for Defence Studies series on The Integrated Review in Context: A Strategy Fit for the 2020s?

Security and Defence Reviews are announced from time to time, often when a new Government takes office.


I was responsible for one, “Front Line First”, when I was Defence Secretary in 1994. Strictly speaking it was a Defence Costs Study rather than a full-blown Review. It came four years after Options for Change in 1990 which, following the end of the Cold War, made major reductions in the defence budget and reduced military manpower and capability to a significant degree.

Front Line First, although it involved a further small reduction in the Defence budget, also increased certain military capabilities; hence its title.

I felt that Options for Change, although necessary, had gone a little bit too far. Amongst other enhancements to armed forces capabilities, we reprieved 4 infantry regiments
that were due to be merged into 2. We also announced that the UK would have Cruise missiles for the first time (the UK was the only country the US would sell them to).

This Integrated Review is timely and necessary given what has happened to the world and to the UK's place in it since the last Review in 2015.

Most important is that the UK has left the European Union after 47 years. Although the EU is not responsible for defence policy and has, not yet, developed a common foreign policy the UK's decision has substantial implications for our foreign policy and for how other countries, both friends and foes, see us.

Also, since, 2015 it is impossible to exaggerate the transformation of China's role in the world. Its adoption of state capitalism happened during Deng Xaoping's time but the emergence of Xi Jinping has led to an unapologetic and provocative foreign policy, combined with a severe deterioration in China's respect for human rights and its greatly enlarged economic muscle.

For the UK, the ongoing destruction of Two Systems in One Country, as regards, Hong Kong, has had a profound effect on British public opinion and will continue to impact adversely on UK- Chinese relations.

China's foreign policy under Xi Jinping has also led, in the last 5 years, to the Indo-Pacific emerging as a distinct geopolitical region. The only reason why these two oceans should be linked in this way, and why two major powers such as Japan in the North Pacific and India in the South-West of Asia should be having joint naval exercises and coordinating their security policy with each other and, with other Asian states, is that they all have China as a neighbour and have been subject to its aggressive foreign policy.

The Review highlights the degree to which the threats from China are now making the 5 Eyes Intelligence co-operation which has existed since 1949 all the more relevant today.– Sir Malcolm Rifkind

Created to help combat the Soviet Union during the Cold War it has become a key tool of co-operation in regard to China. Four of its five members, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, are themselves Pacific states. The fifth, the UK, has major economic and trading interests in the Far East and the Pacific Rim. Although New Zealand is unhappy to see 5 Eyes used as an organisation to advance Western policy on China this is largely because New Zealand has adopted a much softer foreign policy in relation to China than has Australia or the United States.


Russia, too, has become more aggressive and truculent since 2015. Its annexation of Crimea had occurred in 2014. It, and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine, fomented and supported by President Putin, has impacted on the UK as on other Western countries. The attempted poisoning of Skripal in Salisbury has contributed to making relations with Russia much more difficult than at any time since the end of the Cold War.


In this paper I do not try to comment on, or analyse, all aspects of the Integrated Review but offer the following comments.


Compared to many of its predecessors, the UK’s Integrated Review on security and defence can be seen as fit for purpose.


It makes it clear that

the defence of the realm is no longer just the responsibility of the Armed Forces to protect us on land, sea and air. To those obligations must now be added both space and cyberspace.– Sir Malcolm Rifkind

These are not just aspirations. The UK’s Space Command, a Joint Command staffed by the Royal Navy, the Army and the RAF came into effect on 1st April of this year. Britain will have the ability to launch its satellites from the UK by 2022. The UK is already a world leader in cyberspace, including the work done in GCHQ.


It is also good to see the recognition that only by top priority being given to Science and Technology, to a degree not recognised in the past, will we achieve not just economic prosperity but, in the area of defence and security, we will be better able to thwart the malevolent objectives of hostile state and non-state actors.


Particularly significant is the acknowledgement that we can no longer rest on our laurels just because the number of Nobel Prizes that British scientists and engineers have won over the years has been world-beating. Where we have failed in the past has been to ensure that British business and industry, and not just German, Chinese or American businesses, use these British scientific discoveries to provide the products, including the military capability, that we will need.


The need for fresh thinking on technology, including by the MOD and the Service Chiefs, was seen in how astonished a reaction there was in the UK and other NATO powers to the success of the Azerbaijan military against Armenian heavy armour in the Nagorno- Karabakh conflict by the use of small Turkish-supplied drones. Why did it take such a relatively minor-conflict in the Caucasus to bring home to powers and superpowers how airborne drones can now change the outcome in wars?


These admissions and considerations make this report entitled to call itself an “Integrated” Review. Where it is a little disappointing is that it does not give much space to the need for the UK, post Brexit, to work with France, Germany and other EU members, not just in NATO but in regard to wider foreign policy. The Iran nuclear deal is a good example where that co-operation does continue.

We need some radical thinking in both London and Brussels as to how the UK and its nearest neighbours can, wherever possible, co-ordinate their foreign policy to have the maximum impact on the US and the rest of the world.– Sir Malcolm Rifkind

On detail, President Biden will be pleased to see confirmation of the biggest sustained increase in defence spending in the UK since the end of the Cold War, announced by the Prime Minister some months ago. This will take the UK Defence budget to 2.2% of GDP, which the Review notes in absolute terms is a larger spend than any other European member of NATO, including France.


However, there is an interesting divergence of priorities regarding this Review and the recent Interim Review published by the Biden Administration. The US document identified China as the single overwhelming threat that the US now faces. Russia, in comparison, was bundled together with Iran and North Korea as only another serious problem. To demote Russia in this way will not have amused President Putin in the Kremlin.


The UK’s defence review puts it the other way around. While China is described as “the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today”, it is Russia which is described as “the greatest nuclear, conventional military and sub-threshold threat to European security”. This, however, may be a distinction without a difference reflecting the geography of the UK compared to that of the US.


America is a Pacific as well as an Atlantic power. It is the dominant power in the Pacific, a status that China aspires to grab for itself in the years to come. The UK, in comparison, is an Atlantic nation, an extension of the European landmass. When Russia grabs Crimea, destabilises the Baltic region and murders, or tries to murder, UK residents living peacefully in Britain, the Kremlin becomes our most immediate threat.


Despite the wording, in reality the US and the UK are in very close agreement as to the twin threats of China and Russia and the need to counter them.


It is also refreshing that the Review emphasises that the threat from Russia is not just limited to a conventional war. Russian policy now emphasises how one can win a conflict without war fighting in the normal sense. Using cyber attacks, disinformation, “mercenaries”, Russian soldiers pretending not to be Russians as in Eastern Ukraine, and general propaganda the Kremlin hopes to achieve at least some of its objectives without the risks and casualties that have been inseparable for starting a war.


There is one part of the review that disturbs me. In the section of the report on nuclear weapons, the government states that our nuclear weapon stockpile will be increased from not more than 225 to not more than 260 warheads. The only explanation given is “the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats”.


While this is non-specific, it likely refers both to recent Russian rhetoric that implies that nuclear weapons could be available for war fighting, not just as a deterrent, and the evidence that China is making significant increases to its nuclear arsenal.


Increasing the number of warheads without increasing the number of delivery vehicles is unlikely to make a significant difference to the UK’s nuclear weapons capability. It may be that there may be operational issues that cannot be disclosed or the UK may be considering changing its planning assumptions now that there is a potential nuclear weapons threat not just from Russia alone.


While these anxieties are understandable, the proposed increase in warheads is disturbing. It will weaken the effectiveness of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and invite severe criticism from many non-nuclear weapon states.


Given that this is the first increase in the cap of UK nuclear weapons warheads since the end of the Cold War, it would be sensible for the government to provide more information as to its rationale for this proposed change. It could do that without revealing any sensitive information or changing its policy of deliberate ambiguity which is entirely appropriate.


Sir Malcolm Rifkind was Defence Secretary and then Foreign Secretary between 1992 and 1997. From 2010-2015 he was Chairman of the intelligence and Security Committee. He is, currently, a Visiting Professor at the Dept of War Studies at King's College, London


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Malcolm Rifkind

Malcolm Rifkind

Visiting Professor

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