LONDON — The British government has hit the pause button on its integrated defense review as it pours its efforts into battling the coronavirus crisis, Cabinet Office officials have told the parliamentary Defence Committee.
“The Cabinet Office has informed the defence select committee that work on the integrated review has been formally paused across Whitehall,” the committee announced April 15.
Committee chair Tobias Ellwood said in a statement that the move by the Cabinet Office, the department leading the review, was the right move to take given the crisis.
“There would be no point in conducting an in-depth review of the nation’s defence and security challenges to an artificial deadline, especially at a time when Whitehall is rightly focusing on tackling conronavirus,” Ellwood said.
The recently appointed Defence Committee chair said that when the review restarts it will have to do so “with the added consequences of the pandemic to be considered.”
A spokesperson for the Defence Committee said the Cabinet Office had not given any indication as to when it might start to ramp up the review effort again. However, two sources tell Defense News that the review could go on ice for up to a year.
In a letter announcing the pause, deputy national security adviser Alex Ellis said that while the review was on hold, the government would be retaining a “small core capacity to think about the long-term effects of COVID-19 and issues expected to be covered in the Integrated Review." This team will be very limited in size and function, he added.
The Ministry of Defence already faced mounting budget problems before the pandemic struck. Now, the massive economic crisis facing the British government makes it highly unlikely any additional cash will be found for defense, despite the prominent role the military is playing here combating the virus.
The review was initiated immediately following Boris Johnson’s election as prime minister in early December. Johnson promised it would be the most fundamental review of its kind since the end of the Cold War. Defense, security, foreign policy and international development strategy were to all be part of the effort. The review was scheduled by the government to be completed by July, a timescale the Defence Committee, analysts, lawmakers and others all said was too quick.
Johnson first signaled his intention to slow down work on the review in a letter to Ellwood and two other committee chair dated March 24.
“We have diverted resources from across Government and the Civil Service to work on COVID-19, scaling back efforts on the Integrated Review,” Johnson said at the time.
Quizzed last month by parliamentarians about a possible delay to the review, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the government was open-minded about putting the work on hold.
“There is no ideological block or determination to carry on come what may," Wallace said then. “With this coronavirus growing, if it is the right thing to do, we will absolutely pause the review if necessary; if not, we shall move forward.”
Jon Louth, an independent defense analyst, believes the government may have to start the review process over again, given the changing circumstances.
“I think we are close to going back to square one, if the budget settlement for defense is to be unpicked and secured as part of a late Autumn or Spring  government-wide spending review,” he said. “Who could have any confidence in what the defense equipment program funding settlement would actually be? It could involve unpacking current contracts, but also unpick some of the ambition we have in terms of new things.
“What we have and what we would like are going to be colored by a budget settlement smaller than people were anticipating; in fact, quite substantially smaller. Whether that means the MoD starts to think about reprofiling things to the right or really starts taking strategic choices, we will have to wait and see,” added Louth, who until recently was a senior analyst at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London.