How Refreshing? An Initial Assessment of the UK’s Integrated Review Refresh

Indo-Pacific engagement: HMS Tamar carries out exercises with an Indian Navy ship in January 2023. Image: Defence Imagery / OGL v3.0

The UK’s recently published update to the 2021 Integrated Review – like the original review itself – is not short on aspiration. But the forthcoming Defence Command Paper Refresh will need to take into account the realities of budgetary constraints.

In December 2020, we published a RUSI Occasional Paper proposing five ‘tests’ against which the then-forthcoming 2021 Integrated Review could be assessed by comparison with the most significant UK defence and security reviews since the end of the Cold War. After the Integrated Review (IR21), the Defence Command Paper (DCP) and the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy (DSIS) were published in March 2021, we offered a preliminary assessment of how this latest review stacked up. Both pieces focused on the defence aspects of IR21, the major element by cost and value – and our area of expertise.

Our second article noted that the substantial uplift in the defence budget announced in November 2020 had allowed ministers and officials to claim that defence policy and commitments, the forward programme and the defence budget were in balance for the decade ahead. We cautioned that our survey of past reviews showed how unexpected commitments and inexorable growth in the defence programme can quickly put policy, plans and the budget out of balance again.

So it has proved. Major changes in the international strategic context triggered an early ‘refresh’ of the Integrated Review. Launched by then Prime Minister Liz Truss in September 2022, its premise was that the sharpening of inter-state competition due to the actions of countries like Russia, China and Iran would require significant additional resources to be devoted to strengthening the UK’s national security. She made an explicit commitment to increasing defence spending to 3% of GDP by 2030.

That commitment was dropped when Rishi Sunak became prime minister. The Integrated Review Refresh (IRR), published on 13 March 2023, included a commitment to add £5 billion to the defence budget over the next two years, over and above the £2.3 billion for defence support to Ukraine. Two days later, the Budget announced another £6 billion over the following three years. So, defence spending is expected to reach 2.25% of GDP by 2025, with an aspiration to grow to 2.5% of GDP ‘when fiscal circumstances allow’. These developments necessarily constrained the policy ambitions of the IRR and will have a major bearing on the plans to be set out in the Defence Command Paper Refresh (DCPR) expected in June.

Against that background, this article offers some commentary on the headlines of the IRR and looks ahead to some of the big issues the DCPR will need to address.

IR Refresh

As the document states, the IRR offers a ‘next evolutionary step’ on the path signposted in 2021. The emphasis on deterrence and defence; the need to compete diplomatically, economically and in the security domain, both above and below the threshold of armed conflict; the requirement to bolster national resilience across the board; and the need to strive for technological edge – these are all sustained, but at a heightened pitch. All of this is worthy of support in view of the deterioration in the international environment, exemplified by Russia’s war on Ukraine and Beijing’s muscle-flexing in the Indo-Pacific. The IRR’s explicit call for an ‘integrated approach’ to deterrence and defence – including better integrating all the levers of government – is indeed needed, not least to achieve coherence among the flurry of new strategies launched as part of the Refresh itself.

One could quibble with the assertion that IR21 had been ‘unambiguous in its prioritisation of the Euro-Atlantic’ – this certainly was not what the Johnson government emphasised in its presentation – but it is a welcome recognition of reality. The references to working with European allies and partners, including through the European Political Community and with the EU’s PESCO arrangements, mark a significant change in tone and, it is to be hoped, in substance.

MoD planners will be working their way through a range of approaches to try to square the circle of growing threat-based requirements, increased policy ambition and static or declining financial resources

While the claim to have already ‘delivered’ the ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific stretches a point, the IRR is clearer than IR21 in explaining that, for the most part, it is political, diplomatic, economic and trade levers that will underpin the UK’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific, alongside capability partnerships such as AUKUS (with the US and Australia) and the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP – with Japan and Italy). That said, the tougher language on China is notable, as are the references to the Taiwan Strait and Korean peninsula.

The aspiration to establish with France a ‘permanent European maritime presence in the [Indo-Pacific] region through coordinated carrier deployments’ would look over-ambitious even in the absence of a war on our doorstep. This, and the references to deploying more naval assets across the world and to leading the maritime security pillar of India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, appear to reflect the Royal Navy’s wish not to be confined to the Euro-Atlantic and its environs, rather than a clear-sighted focus on the immediate dangers. As an aside, the AUKUS announcement that the Royal Navy will establish a rotational nuclear-powered submarine presence in Australia looks to be similarly ambitious.

Other examples of over-aspirational language are the description of the UK’s science and technology capabilities as ‘unique’ and the statements that North Korea’s nuclear and weapons programmes must be dismantled, without any explanation of how this is to be accomplished.

The coverage of nuclear declaratory policy is brief to the point of being perfunctory. However, the Refresh signals an initiative to establish ‘regular strategic-level dialogues’ to build confidence and transparency and to manage the risks of miscalculation and escalation between major powers. This is a laudable – if ambitious – aim in these dangerous times.

Defence Command Paper

The early weeks of the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) work on the refresh of the DCP began to consider how UK defence could be transformed by the additional £150 billion that spending 3% of GDP on defence would have represented. When that commitment was dropped, new working assumptions were made about the size of the likely defence financial settlement. Given the impact of general and defence-specific inflation and adverse exchange rate movements, and even with the increases announced on 13 and 15 March, defence purchasing power seems likely to decline in real terms during the period ahead. It was clear from the 2020 Spending Review settlement that the MoD’s resource budget was set to decline – but much less clear how this would be managed.

Since the additional £5 billion announced in the IRR will be devoted to the nuclear programme and munitions stocks, this suggests that some aspects of the comprehensive forward capability plans for each of the Services – published in November last year – will need to be trimmed, or timescales for entry into service deferred. On the basis that the MoD cannot in the short term reasonably expect any further additional funding over and above the levels announced in the IRR and Budget, MoD planners will be working their way through a range of approaches to try to square the circle of growing threat-based requirements, increased policy ambition and static or declining financial resources. Four areas might – and, in one case, should – stand out.

First, we can expect the MoD to examine how to accelerate further the technology-led modernisation of Defence and the armed forces, using the best available new and emerging technologies to improve the operational effectiveness of existing platforms and formations. This will include adding mass, stealth and lethality by expanding the use of remotely crewed systems in all domains, and – in particular – integrating forces more effectively across all five operational domains. The MoD has made generally good progress with this approach since 2021, and we can expect the DCPR to offer an account of achievements in delivering Multi-Domain Integration and plans to step up this approach in the period ahead. Plans will also need to reflect the lessons being learned from the conflict in Ukraine, including about the vital importance of Integrated Air and Missile Defence, electronic warfare and precision and deep strike capabilities.

The Defence Command Paper Refresh will struggle to score high marks unless it offers a compelling narrative of capability reprioritisation, productivity and availability improvements and international engagement

Second, we can expect to see a strong emphasis on Increasing Defence Outputs, as trailed in the annual CDS RUSI lecture in December 2022. The MoD has made determined efforts over decades to increase the efficiency with which it generates operational forces. Radakin is arguing for more effort to achieve significant increases in defence outputs in the decade ahead. The DCPR will presumably try to describe how the MoD intends to deliver this objective. Given the MoD’s track record, the realities of the defence industrial base and Defence’s own internal institutional architecture, we wonder how even a radically new and harder-edged approach will deliver much greater success this time. It would certainly require the stronger, more collaborative relationship with the defence industry touted in the DSIS. We are told also to expect a further drive to increase efficiency, including in the acquisition, digital and corporate services areas.

Third, in addition to the customary descoping and deferrals, the MoD could aim to ‘sunset’ a further range of older capabilities that are becoming expensive to maintain and delivering relatively modest operational capability. This would require bold decisions during a phase of the national political cycle when such rational choices would be controversial. We recall an unwillingness to make such decisions in the run-up to the 2010 general election.

Fourth, the MoD could – and should – use the DCPR to set out how it intends to use still stronger international collaboration to multiply and amplify the operational effectiveness and cost-efficiency of UK defence and the armed forces. With stronger institutional engagement (including a more active role within NATO), multinational formations (such as the Joint Expeditionary Force) and major international capability programmes (such as AUKUS and the GCAP), the MoD already has a good story to tell. MoD officials suggest that NATO’s New Force Model will become a stronger driver of UK (and allies’) defence planning. In turn, NATO’s defence planning targets will need to become sharper and more readily deliverable, and its planning machinery slicker. Of the four approaches listed here, we think that the further development and extension of the international approach has the best prospect of helping to square the circle we describe above in the longer term. An immediate priority will be to take all the necessary steps to ramp up UK munitions production capacity in concert with allies and partners, and to explain in the DCP the progress already made and the future trajectory.

In all of this, the MoD will need to explain how it is delivering the ‘more integrated approach to deterrence and defence’ touted in the IRR – against the background of the biggest challenge to European security since the 1980s.

Having originally talked up the IR and DCP refreshes as major exercises, ministers and officials are now acknowledging that both are mid-way adjustments between major reviews. The 2017/18 National Security Capability Review and 2018 Modernising Defence Programme began and ended the same way. By comparison, several of the UK’s key allies and partners – France, Germany, Poland, Australia, Japan – are undertaking reviews which are forecast to lead to very substantial additional investment in strengthening their armed forces. The DCPR is likely to be measured at the NATO Summit in Vilnius against that benchmark. Given that the headline increases in UK defence spending announced so far are relatively modest, the DCPR will struggle to score high marks unless it offers a compelling narrative of capability reprioritisation, productivity and availability improvements and international engagement.

Once the DCPR is complete, we can expect work to commence to prepare for the next major defence and security review following the upcoming general election. There is precedent for this, too: we recall thorough preparatory policy and planning work before the 1997 and 2010 elections. The work of defence planners never ends – but not since the early 1980s has it taken place in such a dangerous international context.

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

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Will Jessett CBE

Senior Associate Fellow

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Tom McKane

Distinguished Fellow

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Peter Watkins

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