LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has officially launched the foreign policy, defense, security and international development review, which he expects will be completed this year.
Johnson said the review, which he promised to undertake during the general election campaign late last year, will be the largest integrated effort of its type since the end of the Cold War. He set out the broad terms to Parliament on Feb. 26 of what could be a radical rethink of Britain’s role in the world now that is has left the European Union.
“We need to grasp the opportunities of the next decade and deliver upon the Government’s priorities. This is a defining moment in how the UK relates to the rest of the world and we want to take this unique opportunity to reassess our priorities and our approach to delivering them,” Johnson wrote in a statement to lawmakers.
Topping the list of objectives outlined in the statement was to define the government’s “ambition for the UK’s role in the world and set out the long-term strategic aims for national security and foreign policy.” The review will also “determine the capabilities we need for the next decade and beyond to pursue our objectives and address the risks and threats we face,” the statement said.
National media reported cited government sources as saying the review will not be “cost neutral” — a phrase interpreted as meaning additional funds might be available to the Ministry of Defence. However, that’s unlikely to see the MoD avoid capability cuts; it already has a funding hole in its 10-year equipment plan.
Possible cuts to the size of the Army and reductions in the numbers of main battle tanks were mooted by some in the media as possible targets. Both have previously been targets for cuts in recent reviews.
Instead of conventional weapons, the government wants to invest in space, cyber and information system capabilities. A statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office reemphasized the point, saying the review will look at “how we can better use technology and data to adjust to the changing nature of threats we face — from countering hostile state activity to strengthening our armed forces. All this will be undertaken with the aim of creating a more coherent and strategic approach to our overseas activity.”
Peter Roberts, the director of military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London, cautioned the government against taking that approach too far in a paper on the integrated review released last week.
“The MoD and government need to consider cyber, information and sub-threshold warfare and the UK needs to be ready and able to engage in this, but it should not hide behind euphemisms or think that all conflict can be fought in the sterile space of data. Pretending that future war will be bloodless, limited to creating virtual or cyber casualties, makes the carnage of real war more likely. As does being unclear about what behaviour is unacceptable or the consequences of behaving badly,” he said.
“The integrated review needs to provide the right sized hammer [hard power] for the government’s toolbox and clarity on how it will be used,” Roberts added.
What about Johnson’s deadline?
A statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office said the review will run in “parallel to the Government comprehensive spending review, ensuring departments are equipped with the resources they need to enact the review’s conclusions.”
Britain’s comprehensive spending review, expected later this year, is meant to set firm, multiyear spending limits across all government departments.
“The main bulk of the [newly launched] review is expected to conclude in line with the comprehensive spending review later this year, although implementation of its recommendations will be a multi-year project,” the statement read.
But some analysts are concerned the review will suffer under such a tight timescale. Independent analyst John Louth said its unlikely complete findings will be available this year.
“I think we will see the main themes ready by the end of the summer, but it might take a while before we see the full picture. A lot of the detail associated with the review will likely come later, things like force structure, new investment, what goes, what stays — that will take longer,” he said.
However, Malcolm Chalmers, the deputy director general at the RUSI think tank, said the government’s decision to conclude the integrated review at the same time as the comprehensive spending review was the right way to go.
“The commitment to protect the 2 percent of GDP spent on defense provides some reassurance against deep cuts. But the MoD will want to have clarity on its budgets beyond the next two years if it is to plan for the radical modernization that is required,” Chalmers said. “What makes this review distinct from [the strategic defense and security reviews of] 2010 and 2015 — and what could make it the most radical since the end of the Cold War — is the increased focus on foreign policy.
“A radical review of foreign policy is needed to help the government respond to President [Donald] Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine, which, together with wider international trends, is in danger of leaving the U.K. isolated when pursuing its national interests. While there are also new opportunities as a result of recent changes, the risks to the U.K.’s essential alliance relationships are greater now than they have been for many decades. The mitigation of these risks should be central to this new review.”
The statement to Parliament also included a passing reference to funding.
“The Review will be underpinned by the commitments the Government has already made to continue to exceed the NATO target of spending 2% of GDP on defence, to commit 0.7% of Gross National Income to international development and to maintain the nuclear deterrent,” it said.
The MoD’s procurement processes will also come under the microscope of the review, according to the statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Late deliveries and overspending by the MoD and the defense industry is a particular hobby horse of Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummins. The ministry has reformed its procurement processes over many years without ever quite cracking the issue. At one point, the MoD planned to privatize its in-house procurement agency, but that was ultimately canceled.