LONDON — Former British national security adviser Peter Ricketts has urged the government to put the brakes on its plan to complete an integrated review of defense, security, foreign policy and development by July. The new coronavirus pandemic is partly to blame, he said.
“I do not see how a deep, thorough and integrated review covering the entire spectrum [of requirements] can now be done by July,“ Ricketts told a March 17 parliamentary Defence Select Committee hearing on the government’s plan.
Conservative Party Prime Minister Boris Johnson initiated the review following his general election win in early December. Johnson promised it would be the most fundamental review of its kind since the end of the Cold War.
Analysts and others have been concerned that the review will be fudged in the rush to complete the promised deep dive into defense, foreign policy and security strategy reform.
The defense committee already called for a delay, and it has questions about how the review is being run.
Tobias Elwood, the recently appointed committee chairman, said the panel is “not impressed” by the initial way the review is progressing. Elwood said at the March 17 hearing that the Army had been told to submit their requirements by Mar 20, before they had been informed by the government what its new foreign policy will look like. The committee met with Army chiefs last week.
The Foreign Office has produced five separate essays on its view of Britain’s role in the world, and the Army had not seen the documents, said Elwood.
One government lobbyist said that Elwood’s remarks showed that Dominic Cummins, Boris Johnson’s special adviser and one of the main proponents for radical change in the defense sector, had settled on an answer even before the review questions had been asked.
“He’s not listening and doesn’t appear to care much how he gets the outcome he wants, particularly around areas like technology and procurement,” he said.
Ricketts told the committee the already tight timescale had been further jeopardized by the government’s concentration on the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic.
“I do not see how you could possibly complete the review over the [coming] months, not least because of the bandwidth available for senior ministers and the government more generally [as a result of the virus],” he said.
COVID-19′s influence on defense matters was further illustrated March 19 when the Ministry of Defence announced that thousands of regular and reserve troops are being put on standby to assist public services as part of a new support force.
Ricketts, who led the Conservative government’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, said that given the situation, it is possible Johnson might want to put off the review as well as the comprehensive spending review that’s running in parallel.
The spending review sets the level of departmental spending across government for several years ahead.
Alex Ashbourne-Walmsley of Ashbourne Strategic Consulting also believes the defense and funding reviews should be postponed.
“It makes no sense to me that the U.K. should continue with either the defense review process or the comprehensive spending review when it is still too soon to determine the long-term economic and social impacts of coronavirus. It would be more sensible to defer everything for at least a year,” she said.
Ricketts has suggested the government could come up with baseline foreign policy principles and some initial military priorities while leaving the more detailed work until later.
Both he and Jock Stirupp, the former chief of the Defence Staff, told the committee that it is important the defense review and the comprehensive spending review are done in tandem to ensure the money and military requirements went hand-in-hand.
The MoD is facing a serious funding shortfall, which is likely to lead to further cancellations or delays to major programs.
A recent report by the National Audit Office, the government financial watchdog, said the MoD’s 10-year defense equipment plan shows there is a potential funding shortfall of up to £13 billion (U.S. $15 billion).
The funding gap is shrinking, but this is the third year in a row the National Audit Office has deemed the plan unaffordable.
Defence Procurement Minister Jeremy Quin told Parliament during a session on defense questions March 16 that the government had every intention of continuing with the review. “It’s important we get on with it," he said. "We need to take firm decisions, and the swifter, the better.”
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was quizzed about the integrated review timetable in the March 16 session. He said the government is regularly reviewing the decision on timing.