HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, moored at Portsmouth this month Photo PA
According to the five-year cycle established by David Cameron, the UK is due a strategic defence and security review this year. The government has pledged the “deepest” review since the end of the Cold War, re-styled as an Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review.
The purpose of a centrally-directed review is to produce one coherent view underpinning expenditure, policy and operations across the full spectrum of defence, security and foreign affairs. The new review is an opportunity to clarify national security objectives; address how government operates collectively; and to improve “whole of system” integration of the government’s activities with those of its allies and non-state partners, including the private sector.
It would also be a good moment to reconsider the workings of the current National Security Council and the combined role of national security adviser and cabinet secretary.
Defence and security expenditure doesn’t occur in a vacuum, so it would be sensible to align the strategic review as closely as possible with the comprehensive Spending Review also planned for 2020.
A successful review requires rigorous analysis to underpin its judgements. This should be a structured, reflective and inclusive process that must not be rushed. However, it should be possible within six months.
The best starting point is an honest appraisal of the lessons to be learned from its precursors in 2010 and 2015. It should reflect on the continuing work under SDSR 2015. An integrated strategic review must audit existing activities, clarifying and challenging assumptions, and assessing relative success and failure.
The new review will address major geopolitical questions, such as the orientation of UK policy towards Russia and China. What does the government want to achieve and how accurately does it appraise Britain’s national interests, power and global influence? Answers to these questions will shape decisions about the capability investments required to pursue national strategic objectives. A commitment to “Global Britain” requires global capabilities, but this means different things to different people.
Balanced investment is crucial, between the capabilities needed today and those required in the future, as well as addressing domains (such as space and cyber) that are not exclusively the preserve of any one service or institution. The national offensive cyber programme, for example, has developed incrementally over the last decade, chiefly through collaboration between GCHQ and the MoD. The 2020 review should be an opportunity to audit the assumptions driving its development, including its notional target of 2,000 staff. Offensive cyber is potentially a good testing ground for the concept of a whole force by design and optimising integration of national with allied capabilities, but the whole will be less than the sum of its parts if not based on effective strategic planning.
And that’s all without mentioning Brexit. It will cast a long shadow, over the strategic review period and beyond. The review process will tell us something about what Johnson’s administration intends.