Britain’s Integrated Defence and Security Review: Which Shibboleths?

Main Image Credit Courtesy of PinkSony/Adobe Stock.

Challenging entrenched thinking and slaughtering ‘sacred cows’ in defence and security reviews is easier said than done.

As the UK’s next Strategic Defence and Security Review (now termed the ‘Integrated Review’) commences, it is worth returning to the recent appeal by the country’s Chief of the Defence Staff, who called upon us to engage in 'shattering some shibboleths'. First raised by General Sir Nicholas Carter in the annual RUSI Chief of Defence Staff lecture in December last year, the topic of shibboleths has generated some excitement from the single services in the Ministry of Defence, and also some support from the other corners of Whitehall.

The popular definition of the term ‘shibboleth’ is a custom, principle or belief, especially a longstanding one regarded as outmoded or no longer important. As used by a senior military commander, one might then imagine that this referred to the military, and – given the British obsession with platforms – particular capabilities. And sure enough, the single service posturing started with headlines about deleting and justifying aircraft carriers, as well as more Whitehall fiscal exercises to study the implications of downsizing. 

In other areas of the defence enterprise, the obsession with information, digitisation and technology continues: a belief that cognitive tools will replace any requirement for the traditional warfighting platforms (because – the rather fantastical argument goes – there will never be a high-intensity war again). Perhaps these are the areas General Carter was thinking of. But it’s also worth mentioning that, meanwhile, the looming figure of Dominic Cummings, the chief special adviser to the prime minister, has indicated a desire to shake up established Whitehall processes, the very incarnation of shibboleths.

Yet while discussions over the value of various defence platforms and over the governance and oversight of acquisition processes are needed, the important debate at the start of the Integrated Review is not about deciding between cyber warriors and electric tanks, trading off between artificial intelligence (AI) systems and the number of F35 jets, or whether a UK space presence needs to be composed of sovereign satellites or a set of capabilities partnered with key allies. Indeed, if observers thought that appeals to shatter shibboleths were aimed at military capabilities, they are doing an injustice to General Carter. For in making his remarks, the Chief of Defence Staff is less likely to have been thinking about what the armed forces operate with (the platforms), but instead about how they might have to do it, against (and with) whom they will be engaged and where the next fight will take place. 

In generating a conversation about – to change metaphors – ‘sacred cows’, General Carter was more likely to have been addressing both the intellectual readiness of politicians and military personnel to meet the next challenge, as well as the core questions that actually needed addressing – as opposed to the perennial question about cash. Thus, the ‘shibboleth’ topics that are driving the current conversation at the top of the Integrated Review are more substantial and important. In framing these discussions, topics might be addressing questions such as the following:

  • Is the UK still willing to pay the price for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, with the implicit obligations that accompany such a role?
  • How would the UK influence, persuade or coerce a competitor in the form of a superpower – be it China, the EU or the US?
  • What is a meaningful definition of sovereignty given the globalised and opaque supply chains and internationalised ownership of modern business models?
  • Given contemporary conflict trends, how much conventional capability is the UK willing to trade in order to maintain a strategic nuclear weapons capability?
  • What constitutes a rules-based order according to (the absence of) British values?
  • Would the reintroduction of some form of conscription similar to the Scandinavian countries’ competitive national service forge a better sense of national identity, teach national security skills that could be utilised in crises and build much-needed societal resilience?

Counterintuitively, it should be understood that answers to such questions are not in themselves either binary or immediately required (there are few signs of a central policy line or guidance to emerge from the prime minister), nor are they being directly sought.  Instead, the discussions around these topics are intended to illuminate future decision-making, to highlight which policy decisions are critical, to elucidate and expose genuinely transformative options and to inform future choices.

Still, this is a vital exercise and a creative new approach. Given that the last series of UK defence reviews have generally used the same people and processes and have generated much the same answer, simply turning the handle on the same machine and expecting something genuinely informative and useful was unlikely to achieve anything credible or informative. So, in adopting a new methodology, the government should be congratulated.  This is neither the process-heavy approach of old, nor a ‘solarium approach’ advocated by many. It is also more likely to generate policy positions that have the value to endure, simply because policy will start by challenging basic presumptions – many of which have little supporting evidence.

Nonetheless, a new process that challenges core hypotheses and long-held assumptions in defence may not yield the results many are hoping for. If the desired outcome of the Integrated Review is a structure that relies on technology, data, perception management, soft power, influence, cyber, AI, data science and normative behaviours, participants are unlikely to be satisfied with their eventual findings. Instead, the evidence from contemporary conflict themes, trends and events is that in delivering the defence and security of the state, people – and, vitally, large numbers of armed people in uniforms – are irreplaceable. And so are lots of big guns.

Peter Roberts is Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute, having been the Senior Research Fellow for Sea Power and C4ISR since 2014.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Professor Peter Roberts

Director, Military Sciences

Military Sciences

View profile

Explore our related content