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UK Integrated Review: Perspective on Technology

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.

This paper discusses the Integrated Review from a technology perspective, and, more specifically, from the viewpoint of national security information technology dynamics.

From this viewpoint, this paper begins by highlighting the select impacts of technology in national security matters in general, before going into the Integrated Review and highlighting key aspects from it from a technology perspective.

This paper will close in raising a few critical questions which emerge from the otherwise inspiring Integrated Review and by highlighting one key consideration for the successful implementation of the Integrated Review’s goals.

Introduction: Increasing Impact of Technology

The constant acceleration of digitalization in our societies is an undisputable fact. Governments, corporations, and citizens are all focusing their attention on how they can stretch and modify their boundaries of the possible and enhance security with the help of technology. At the same time, the ever-increasing importance of technology in empowering our way of life introduces new challenges, vulnerabilities, and dependencies. This is especially true for the state’s national security apparatus the success of which depends on the secure and constant flow of data: having the right data, at the right time, in the right place.

Enabling this outcome is not solely a technological issue, however. As technological capabilities evolve and are introduced into the national security ecosystem, it should be noted that old technologies do not necessarily go away. Rather, it is the role of the new to adapt to the old. This complex journey must be managed and led with skill. Moreover, this adaptation process puts a whole new dimension of complexity into the technology evolution path where a clear view of what operational capabilities and processes, which are supported by technology and information, are most critical. Unfortunately, this clear view is often lacking. Further, technology without data is useless. Too often however, even if technologies could enable smooth data flows, radically different datasets, poor quality of data, scalability issues, and organizational processes and norms clog the pipes of smooth data flows, making fluidity and agility only a dream.

Introduction: Increasing Impact of Technology

From the perspective of technology, and its rapid evolution, the Integrated Review is an inspiring, although at times repetitive, read of an ambitious vision for 2030.– Dr Valtteri Vuorisalo

It gives special emphasis to science and technology (S&T) and outlines and ambition to give science and technology a central and pivotal role in the national security toolbox. Indeed, UK aims to be a science and technology superpower by 2030. Science and technology will be the tool of choice in gaining economic, political and security advantages in the coming decade. In addition, science and technology is seen to be a mechanism with which international norms can be moulded. Moreover, the UK seeks to dynamically and proactively shape the post-COVID order with science and technology.

Given the importance of technology in society as a key enabler of our contemporary way of life, it is easy to agree with the Integrated Review’s emphasis on science and technology. To any follower of technology and the role of technology in national security, undoubtably it would be odd if it did not. Still, the Integrated Review should be applauded for highlighting this critical enabler and independent capability for larger audiences. Further, the Integrated Review correctly identifies science and technology as a source of new threats which need to be responded to. Interestingly, it identifies the role of the private sector as a key collaboration partner in achieving science and technology superpower status – but it also identifies the private sector and large corporations as potentially adversarial players in an arena of intensifying systemic competition.

While the Integrated Review does a good job in articulating the importance of science and technology, it does not, in this author’s view, sufficiently address the role of data. Granted, the Integrated Review aims to establish “Britain as data hub”. Yet very few concrete thoughts on what this actually means, or how to make this happen are given. Yes, there is discussion on how interoperability – that is, the mechanism with which the fluid flow of data is enabled – needs to be achieved, but even then, the focus is on architectures, standards and development methods. Undoubtably these are important, but they are (only some) tools with which interoperability is achieved. What is missing is a vision on how to determine on what data is important, how to validate it and gain access to it, how to integrate various datasets, who is in charge of this data hub – and is it really a hub if all of these, to only mention a few key items, are missing?

If data is to be seen as a strategic resource, one could expect a vision on how to utilize it.– Dr Valtteri Vuorisalo

Further, while the Integrated Review is right to articulate new ways of working in order to achieve its visionary goals, it discusses these new collaboration practices from a position which leads the reader to assume that the process of building these new outcomes takes place in a vacuum. In other words, it does not give a visionary view on what we should do with all of the legacy solutions and legacy data that currently enable our way of life and cannot simply be plugged off, working cultures which favour siloed practices, and sometimes norms which prohibit or hinder joint activities. Unfortunately, this is typical with large governmental transformation journey programs.

Technology & the Global Context

The Integrated Review rightly identifies the contemporary global security architecture as increasingly fragmented and as a stage for increased competition over core interests. No longer can states imagine they can proceed like they have before. To quote the Integrated Review, the “defence of the status quo is no longer sufficient”.

Within this fragmented landscape, the Integrated Review calls out China as the most impactful systemic competitor in the 2020s. China’s potent economy, size of its population, technological investments and assertiveness within the global security architecture makes it a formidable competitor. While all of this is true and easy to agree with,

the Integrated Review leaves out one key advantage which China enjoys: the amount of data it is able to collect and utilize without the limitations of western democratic ethics, norms and values.– Dr Valtteri Vuorisalo

For example, one of the most important new technologies which the Integrated Review calls out, Artificial Intelligence, is dependent on data which can be seen as a strategic resource. It can be argued that the one with most data is in best position to develop and utilize Artificial Intelligence and enhance innovation for example.

The post COVID-19 world will most likely continue to evolve into an even more fragmented landscape, making it even harder to cooperate. It has been argued that the world will enter a phase of ‘deglobalization’ as global logistical chains are disrupted by the pandemic and where nationalism is on the rise, and the promotion of one’s own state’s interests go before that of the others.

Within this fragmented landscape many other actors, in addition to China, also see new opportunities. Russia is called out by the Integrated Review as ‘the most acute threat to the UK’. The constantly evolving technological landscape, the constantly evolving world order, and the emergence of new domains like cyber and space, actors like Russia have plenty of opportunity to find new ways of projecting influence and power, both soft and hard. It should be noted that although Russian technological capabilities are sometimes criticized, Russia has been very successful in producing innovative operational manoeuvres. One should always remember that technology alone is never an answer, but you need to combine technical capabilities with operational art in order to be successful.

Technology & the Changing Role of the Private Sector

The Integrated Review calls out that this rapid evolution of new possibilities also opens doors for new non-state actors. Serious and organized crime is constantly evolving into a notable challenger, but so are businesses, and especially global technology companies which are likely to grow their geopolitical influence. Having masses of consumer data at their disposal helps in this, but another mechanism of influence which these companies have is the fact that they are in prime position to shape the new standards of communication and collaboration, not only from a technological perspective but from a procedural and operational perspective. For example, these companies impact how we interact with the world, what gestures we use, which solutions we use, how we use them, etc. – effectively becoming new sources and interpreters of the ‘real’ for us. Moreover,

the Integrated Review is right to point out that as technology evolves faster than the legislation governing it, the fast-paced evolution of technology exposes the limits of existing global governance. – Dr Valtteri Vuorisalo

Technology & New Ways of Working

It is clear that to reach the goals of the Integrated Review, new ways of working need to be established. It is no longer sufficient to defend the status quo; it is no longer sufficient to work the way we have done in the past.

Accordingly, the Integrated Review acknowledges the fact that in order to be able to shape the new post-COVID international order, mechanisms with which working with a network of “like-minded countries and flexible groupings” need to be established. Further, a “sharper and more dynamic focus” is called for in order to be able to adapt to a more competitive and fluid global environment.

Central to this new way of working is the “own-collaborate-access” framework for Science and Technology power. In short, the UK will own some capabilities, collaborate with others to develop some capabilities, and gain access to some capabilities through deals and relationships. “Business science” approaches will be utilized to ensure the UK has access to the technologies it needs. New partnerships, co-creation and resource-pooling across the public and private sectors and friendly nations are mechanisms with which access to technologies will be ensured and through this, the sustainment of strategic advantage through science and technology.

In a world which is increasingly dependent on data flows, the integrations of these flows between public and private sectors and friendly nations is a central requirement for the sustainment of strategic advantage through science and technology. This is no easy task, but rather a task which demands time, skills, and monetary resources. Multiple initiatives to produce similar integrated outcomes exist, for example NATO’s Federated Mission Networking initiative, the learnings from which can be used to jump start these new initiatives which the Integrated Review calls for.

It should be noted that adversaries are already acting in a more integrated way. Notably by using civilian technologies for military purposes, stretching the boundaries of war and peace. Moreover, these adversaries, like authoritarian regimes, enjoy one distinct advantage: time.Since irregular groupings and authoritarian regimes are not bound by similar data protection laws as set up in typical democracies for example, they have no normative restrictions to mix operational data and civilian technologies (for example cloud technologies). Another noticeable disadvantage for a democratic actor like the UK is its slow and lengthy procurement cycle. Current procurement mechanisms are simply not up to able to cope with the pace with which technology evolves. What follows is that democratic governments too often buy old technologies: by the time they get the technology they started to buy, new, better ones have already entered the market.

In Closing

As mentioned above,

the Integrated Review is an ambitious and inspiring read, one which rightly raises excellent action points for any given liberal democratic nation whose way of life is increasingly dependent on technology and data. – Dr Valtteri Vuorisalo

One cannot help but think if it is even too ambitious. It is easy to support the call to action from a theoretical standpoint, but what is missing is how will this government transformation be different from other large government transformation initiatives in the past? Especially as, like the Integrated Review correctly identifies, the role of science and technology already has a huge role for state power projection and this role will increase in the near future.

This emphasis on technology also begs the question that does the UK have the right skills in place with which it can execute this highly technological vision? – Dr Valtteri Vuorisalo

Further, how will collaboration be established between the public and civilian sectors for example, so that it protects the intellectual property of businesses participating in the collaboration programs? Yet, in the end, the complexity of this ambitious vision is not related to technological talent or legal issues, but one which calls for people working together, people who have not necessarily worked together in the past.

We are all familiar with Peter Drucker’s famous saying: ‘cultures eat strategies for breakfast’. How then to successfully manage multiple working cultures across the public sector, private sector and academia working on highly technological outcomes? The Integrated Review does not provide clear answers to this question, the answer to which many readers of the Integrated Review arguably eagerly await.


Dr Valtteri Vuorisalo is a visiting senior research fellow in the Centre for Defence Studies, in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Dr Vuorisalo is also Professor of Practice of National Security at Tampere University.


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Valtteri Vuorisalo

Valtteri Vuorisalo

Visiting Senior Research Fellow

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