You are here
The UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy was billed as the most wide-ranging reappraisal of the country’s global interests since 1998. As the ballooning title implies, it was supposed to engage all departments to produce a unified vision of the UK’s role in the world. Much has been written since the Review’s publication about its conclusions. Less attention has been paid to the process that produced it. While the Review should ultimately be judged by its results, this process raises serious questions about the government’s capacity to implement its own recommendations.
The core of the Review was drafted by a small team working in 10 Downing Street. This team consulted widely, and the final document reflects that. It was praised for the breadth of its coverage of pan-departmental interests. One might argue that the final paper failed to clearly prioritise these interests. Nevertheless, the description of the UK’s interests is thorough.
Unfortunately, the No 10 team – responsible for determining the ends being sought – worked largely in parallel with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) until late in the process. The services, taking their guidance from the Integrated Operating Concept – which was finished in the spring of 2020 but not released until the autumn – had already largely completed their propositions for the Review by July 2020, before the team in No 10 had given any substantive directions.
This failure of sequencing led to a clear dislocation in emphasis. By September, the services started to present their thinking. The Royal Navy’s Carrier Strike Group would head east. The Army would use long-range precision fires and special forces to project from ‘lilypad bases’. The RAF promised to maintain a ‘forward and dynamic global presence’. The No 10 team, however, was quick to point out that the UK’s forays into the Indo-Pacific comprised a tilt rather than a pivot, and that Russia remained the greatest threat.
This dislocation in emphasis did not change the propositions, but it did alter what the services felt they had to defend when their proposals came under scrutiny from the Treasury. For the Army, the emphasis when it came to new capability was on fires and more deployable systems. Over the summer, the Army had done little to challenge rumours that its armour might be cut. When it became clear that commitments to NATO were central to the Review, however, this suddenly made Warrior and Challenger critical to the proposition. Hence, they were central to the wargames run in November to test the structure.
In December, a further complication entered the process when the Treasury published its spending plans. Beyond announcing an uptick in funding, the Treasury was clear that defence procurement should contribute to the levelling-up agenda, endorsing projects that involved UK-based production and that developed UK intellectual property. These were criteria that many of the platforms central to warfighting would struggle to meet, since they either involved upgrading legacy platforms or buying from the US.
The first three months of 2021 thus witnessed frantic horse-trading between services and departments. Because the experimental data for the propositions had been generated based on force designs that were created before the Treasury had outlined the means available, the services worked to defend the majority of what they had independently proposed, rather than reconciling their propositions to deliver a joint force.
As speculation about equipment programmes erupted in the media, the MoD insisted – accurately – right up to the Review’s publication that ‘no decisions [had been] made’. In contrast to the Integrated Review, which showed the coherence one would expect in a document drafted by a small team, the Defence Command Paper was evidently rushed, and the work of many hands. It even managed to misstate which service was responsible for operating key pieces of equipment.
Many of the trade-offs made in the Defence Command Paper are in themselves logical. As a whole, however, they are far from ‘integrated’. The Army is postured to be distributed globally, while the Integrated Review emphasises deterring Russia and great power competition. The RAF, meanwhile, has cut back on the air mobility fleet that might have supported a dispersed posture. The Royal Navy, unsurprisingly, doubled down on Carrier Strike. But whereas the RAF proposition published in September did not even use the word ‘Tempest’, the Defence Command Paper commits to Tempest while being opaque as to how many F35Bs the UK will procure. In doing so, it leaves the utility and viability of the Carrier Strike Group an open question. There is also the bizarre commitment to procure three E7 Wedgetails. A minimum of four are required to guarantee a single orbit at readiness in the long term. This means that the MoD has committed to getting the least utility for the greatest cost, while failing to meet its commitments to NATO.
Finally, the lack of sequencing left many decisions incomplete. For instance, there are perfectly rational arguments for having dropped the troubled Warrior Capability Sustainment Programme and consolidated around Boxer. But because Warrior was in the Army proposition when it was wargamed, only to be ripped from the order of battle late in the process, the Army now has to work out how many Boxers to buy and what modules to equip them with. Had the decision to remove Warrior been made earlier, the Army could already have a detailed set of proposals.
Many of the shortcomings of the Defence Command Paper will be addressed over the summer as ministers and the services outline their plans in more detail. However, some of the major bets in the Integrated Review will take over a decade to realise and will require consistent and competent project management and oversight to bring off successfully. This is a cause for concern, because while much of the detail in the Integrated Review makes sense, the process that produced it suggests that project management is not a government strong point.
The government has for some years pursued fusion – or integration – as the best means of cohering interdepartmental activity. Fusion Doctrine prescribes the appointment of a Senior Responsible Officer (SRO) who is supposed to ensure the coherence of interdepartmental lines of effort. In the case of the Integrated Review, the SRO was initially Alex Ellis, who was replaced by David Quarrey mid-way through the process. That the role switched hands during the Review speaks volumes about the SRO’s involvement in decision-making. While the SRO had the power to convene meetings through the Cabinet Office, they were not empowered to direct the sequencing of decisions. They made sure that there was consultation, but they could not force the parties at these consultations to be free and frank in their exchanges. While the letter of Fusion Doctrine may have been satisfied, its execution was a betrayal of its principles.
Given that the Defence Command Paper makes big bets on long-term programmes, the government will have to work hard to convince allies and adversaries that it has the competence to translate its strategy into practice.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Challenger IIs of D Sqn, The Queen's Royal Hussars, conducting a readiness exercise whilst deployed on Operation CABRIT in Estonia. Courtesy of Defence Images/Capt Shane Charles/OGL