The UK's Integrated Review: How Does It Stack Up?

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Three former senior officials deeply involved in managing the UK’s defences comment on the country’s latest Integrated Review, Defence Command Paper and the newly-released Defence and Security Industrial Strategy.

In December, we published an Occasional Paper proposing five ‘tests’ against which the Integrated Review could be assessed by comparison with the most significant UK defence and security reviews since 1990. Now that the main policy document, the Defence Command Paper and the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy (DSIS) have all been published, we offer a preliminary assessment of how the Integrated Review stacks up. Like our earlier paper, this article focuses on the defence aspects of the Review.

Accuracy and Comprehensiveness

Against the first test – the accuracy of the assessment of changing threats and risks, and the quality of the headline policy response – the Integrated Review appears to score well. The analysis of the changing national and international security environment up to 2030 looks thoughtful and comprehensive. The new ‘Strategic Framework to 2025’ is right to include ‘Sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology’, but the Review is less clear and less persuasive about how the UK will ‘shape the open international order of the future’.

The insistence on the centrality of NATO and acknowledgement that the European theatre is where most of the UK’s effort will be expended is welcome. The continuity in key bilateral relationships and the sparse acknowledgement of the security contribution of the EU are unsurprising – although close cooperation between NATO and the EU will be an essential element in safeguarding the continent’s security.

Whether the UK will be able to enact a meaningful ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific without weakening its ability to respond to crises in Europe remains to be seen. The Review’s coverage of the Middle East and Africa is quite thin. The same is true of its language on nuclear deterrence, particularly with regard to the increase in the warhead stockpile. We criticised previous reviews for not foreseeing the extent and pace of the resurgent threat from Russia, or the wider security threat posed by China. While the Integrated Review is clear-eyed on Russia, has it also underestimated the security impact of China and of accelerating climate change, which receives relatively light attention in the Defence Command Paper?

Defence Planning

Against the second test – the relative success of the defence planning responses – the Integrated Review documents propose approaches which build upon the big themes of earlier major reviews. The journey towards ‘jointery’ continues and accelerates, with five-domain ‘integration’ becoming the new buzzword. The international sections of the Defence Command Paper and the DSIS highlight the security interdependencies between the UK and its allies. But they set out few new practical ideas for closer cooperation – and neither they nor the main policy document try to explain how such interdependency squares with the drive towards achieving greater sovereignty in national security. It remains to be seen whether the model of ‘persistent engagement’ overseas that is at the heart of the Defence Command Paper – as well as the new Integrated Operating Concept introduced by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) – will make the difference in deterrence that is claimed.

It will be important that the UK’s main effort is devoted to bolstering security in Europe and its environs rather than further afield. Both the main policy document and the Defence Command Paper seek to take the ‘Fusion Doctrine’ further through even stronger cross-departmental cooperation and coordination. We welcome the focus in the Defence Command Paper on the defence workforce, the proposals to invest in upskilling and the planned comprehensive review of the offer for military personnel. We also welcome its ‘more strategic’ approach to the defence and security industry. The DSIS’s recognition of ‘industry as a strategic capability’ and its move away from the policy of ‘global competition by default’ are both refreshing – if overdue. But the latest promise of acquisition reform should aim to contain cost growth as well as being more responsive to the changing nature of the industry.

Structures and Capabilities

The Review scores well against our third test – changes to force structure and capabilities – proposing steps that seem well attuned to the risks and threats the UK and its allies will face in the decade ahead. We welcome the increased investment in the digital backbone that Strategic Command will provide – although we draw little confidence from the poor track record of successive governments on major IT projects – as well as the investment in space, cyber and special forces capabilities. The proposed additions to the capabilities of each of the individual Services also look like the right ones.

We criticised previous reviews for making changes that ‘did not go far enough, fast enough’ – so, unlike some commentators, we judge the early retirement of a range of ‘sunset’ capabilities to be sensible steps to release resources for investment in newer systems. While the reservations expressed by some about the further reduction in the number of regular Army personnel are understandable, we note that the planning assumptions about the range of tasks the Army should be able to perform, and the scale at which it could war-fight, remain appropriately ambitious. Overall, we judge that the ‘Integrated Force 2030’ that replaces the Joint Force 2025 model is a significant improvement, if not radically different.

The substantial addition to the defence budget announced in November 2020 means that the Integrated Review scores better against our fourth test – the balance between policy, commitments, the forward programme and the defence budget – than any of the other post-Cold War reviews. Ministers and officials have spoken of the budget being in balance throughout the decade ahead. If correct, that is a major achievement, but we share some of the doubts of the Public Accounts Committee about whether there will be enough left over to pay for the new acquisitions once the hole in the existing programme has been plugged. And our survey of past reviews showed how unexpected commitments and inexorable cost growth in the defence programme can quickly put policy, plans and the budget out of balance again. It is a little surprising to find only a single short paragraph in the Defence Command Paper covering the financial sustainability of the MoD’s forward plans. Greater transparency here could have helped to dispel some of our doubts (and those of others).

Management Changes

Our fifth test related to the effectiveness of changes to the organisation and management of defence and wider national security. The most significant change this time – the merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – was announced and enacted halfway through the review process. The Review makes sensible proposals for new cross-cutting capabilities such as a better Situation Centre, Counter Terrorism Operations Centre, National Cyber Force and a national capability in digital twinning. Inside the MoD, the new Space Command should provide a useful focus for activities in the space domain.

The Integrated Review was billed as the deepest and most radical review of UK foreign, defence, security and development policy since the end of the Cold War. Based on the five tests we identified last year, the Review compares favourably to all the major reviews our earlier article examined (including the reviews in which we were closely involved).

Two of the four other major reviews (in 1997/98 and 2015) were very well regarded at the time they were published. In both cases they were quite quickly blown off course: in the first case by international events (9/11 and all that followed), and in the second by a widening gap between policy ambition and available resources.

The policies and plans in the wider Integrated Review, the Defence Command Paper and the DSIS are extensive, diverse and very ambitious. They will need to be carefully prioritised with robust machinery established to oversee implementation if the government’s intentions are to be realised. We hope that the five tests proposed in our earlier paper (and provisionally applied in this article) will help decision-makers and stakeholders monitor progress with implementing the Review.

Finally, we congratulate all involved in the conduct of the Integrated Review and the associated documents for undertaking it during such a challenging period for the country. None of the defence and security reviews since 1945 have taken place in such demanding circumstances. It remains to be seen how soon it will be necessary to undertake another major review of the UK’s national security. For the sake of those who will be involved, we hope that they will not have to contend with the extraordinary challenges faced by those who produced the Integrated Review.

Will Jessett led the MoD’s work on the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, and the 2018 National Security Capability Review and Modernising Defence Programme.

Tom McKane led the MoD’s work on the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. He was successively Director General for Strategy and Director General for Security Policy in the MoD.

Peter Watkins was successively Director General for Security Policy and Director General for Strategy and International in the MoD.

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


Will Jessett CBE

Senior Associate Fellow

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