Leaving aside the overblown rhetoric and repetitious structure of the document, the recently published UK strategic defence, security, and foreign policy review (SDSFR), Global Britain in a Competitive Age,1 is likely to encounter criticism from various quarters. This is perhaps not surprising as, having divorced itself from the EU via Brexit, the UK, now only a middle-ranking power, is seeking a global role in a world in a state of flux. The first choice it has to make is where lie its economic and political interests? But this traditional foreign policy task is complicated in an international situation where there is a clear clash of values and ideologies between the US and China, and perhaps more broadly between Western individualistic and Eastern collectivist values. There are further issues to resolve in terms of UK policies against Russia and within the Middle-East.
The SDSFR does not really confront these issues, but it seeks a ‘middle way’. Given that the intensification of the ‘cold war’, launched by the US against China, is gradually encompassing the UK and the EU, it is difficult to see how long the ‘middle way’ can be sustained. This positioning is most clearly demonstrated in the context of its “tilt to the Indo-Pacific”. Clearly, in terms of trade a “Global Britain” has to recognise the growing weight of East Asia in terms of trade and economic growth, especially China, which has substantial trade and supply chain integration across East Asia and the Indo-Pacific.
The underlying conflict of values, expressed notably in the US and China duologue, raises awkward issues for the UK for instance in relation to Hong Kong and on the treatment of the Uyghurs. The SDSFR makes it clear that for “global Britain”, maintaining good trade links with China will ultimately take priority over all other interests.
Moreover, though the UK does not necessarily share the aggressive attitude of the US toward the increasingly dominant position of Huawei, and other Chinese technology companies, it has to be concerned about competition from Chinese companies, if the UK desires to be a world-leading technological power.
Turning to the area of the UK defence strategy, there are mixed messages and a confused approach. And this fits in with the pattern of earlier UK defence reviews where efforts to shift longer term priorities are invariable subordinated to short term issues around cost and equipment levels. Thus, while the government seeks to improve cyber security and space capabilities, this comes at the cost of reducing the number of military personal and “boots on the ground”. Equally, the desire to expensively fund new SSBN nuclear submarines, to keep Trident competitive also comes at the expense of reducing the size and scope of other parts of the armed forces. There is also the suggestion that the UK could respond with a first-strike nuclear attack, if first attacked with chemical weapons. There is no justification for the over-reliance on a non-independent, nuclear deterrent by a middle-ranking power, except that it exists (and after all France has one). It is argued that this force is a major contribution from the UK to NATO. However, the wider strategic defence review aspects of the document are separately addressed in the second part of this paper.
Finally, the question, effectively posed by this long-awaited review, of an appropriate modern, realistic role for the UK in the world is not satisfactorily answered. The role implied, is one that seems still anchored in the past, with echoes of imperial power, long-since gone. Combined with the recent, albeit promised to be temporary, reduction of the development-aid budget from 0.7% of GDP, to 0.5%, and the absorption of the ODA into the Foreign Office, a continued leadership role in this policy area has been foregone. Reputational soft power is a more responsible and practical modus operandi for the UK in the modern era, rather than hankering after past glories and staying attached to the coat-tails of an almost equally lost, though still powerful, US.
Global Britain Approach
Stripped of the rhetoric and optimistic ambition, the review has three main thrusts.
First, is the so-called “tilt to the Indo-Pacific”. Aside from hints of imperial nostalgia, it is not clear how rapidly this movement will result in significant net increases in the volume of trade. Moreover, in defence terms the net addition of an aircraft carrier, and possibly a few other escort ships, submarines and marines, will add very little to the miniscule UK military presence in South East Asia, in Brunei and Singapore. Neither Australia nor New Zealand are “counting” on a sustained UK presence in this theatre, and British contributions fade into insignificance compared to the size and strength of both Japanese and South Korean forces. And as senior NATO partner, the US has already stated that it would prefer the UK concentrate its activities in the “Atlantic-Euro” area, rather than frittering them away in other parts of the globe.
The suggested linkage with India, Japan, and Australia only makes sense if the UK is planning to become a member of the “Quad”, which is the US renewed approach to forming an Indo-Pacific version of NATO. However, the politics of the Quad, in relation to ASEAN, CPTPP, and RECEP are complex. It is not clear how UK membership of an organisation that is viewed by China with suspicion, and within which the non-US members of the Quad, are hesitant to use the term “Quad”.
Second, the Review’s approach to China is more accommodating than the US will wish, aside from some minor rhetorical flourishes on human rights issues. This softer attitude may be more realistic and in line with UK trade and economic interests, but there is a dishonesty in not admitting that this is the approach selected. It is clear, that whatever the rhetoric about alleged human rights abuses, for the UK these will be trumped by trade and economic interests.
Given the moderate line taken on China in the SDSFR, it would have been useful to indicate in more detail why and how the policy of the UK towards China might differ from the US. In addition, it would have been useful to spell out the UK position in relation to the developing approach of the EU towards China. Insofar as the UK and EU approaches are similar, how the involvement of individual EU countries, in the Indo-Pacific, might challenge a unilateral UK policy deployment in the region?
Third, the ambition to become a dominant world player in terms of technological development and prowess is laudable. The problem here is how capable is the UK is terms of being able to achieve the goals, without substantial state-backed financial investment in science and technology, and without the close integration of UK and EU defence related supply chains.
The US, Japan, and now China have considerable technological strengths, supported by substantial state funding. The strategically-supported and state financed Chinese public-private collaborative effort dwarfs any policy the UK could match. (In the US, DARPA, the public-private collaborative organisation funded by the US government plays an important role). Nonetheless, if proportionately, and in selected technological areas, such as bio-science and technology, the UK adopted a similar programme, it could develop a world lead. Linked with the EU, via a supplementary resource funding approach, through the two-way Horizon programme, then the UK could be successful in developing its civilian technological capacity.
The area of the SDSFR which is not well-developed, and will be of concern to the US, is in relation to NATO and EU defence strategy. The potential success of NATO, and of the EU in relation to defence, is making the advantages of sharing of military sovereignty clearer than it was, say, 30 years ago. There is nothing on the SDSFR that looks in any detail at how NATO and the EU might evolve in terms of defence policy and cooperation. The UK’s Brexit decisions, and general “go it alone” tactics are running entirely contrary to what is going elsewhere in the Atlantic/Europe space.
UK Defence Strategy: The Dilemmas Continue
Accompanying the SDSFR is a Command Paper2 that outlines what the strategy means for the deployment and disposition of military forces by the UK government. Despite the high blown phrases and vacuous promises to defend global common democratic values, this is the place where the military cloth has to be cut to meet the expected budget.
A quick look at the Conservative Party 2019 Manifesto reveals that defence was not high on the agenda. There is a commitment to meet the NATO requirement of 2% of GDP equivalent. There is also a commitment to increase defence spending by 0.5% more than inflation, which has been met in the SDSFR. Otherwise, relatively few promises were made. These included a vague promise to support the UK’s “world beating” defence industry, modernizing the armed forces with £2.2 billion of extra spending. There are also commitments to buy the Type 31 Frigate and a new generation of armoured vehicles for the army, to be made in the UK. However, there was no commitment in the 2019 Manifesto to reduce the manpower levels in the armed forces, or to reduce (“streamline”) the special forces by merging them with the Marines. All of which raise serious questions about how far the UK still has the capability to mount the kind of expeditionary forces raised in the two Gulf Wars and in Afghanistan.
There was also nothing about how the government would make good egregious deficits in the MoD budget that emerged as a result of earlier Conservative government policies. Thus the National Audit Office (NAO) in its report on the affordability of the 10 year Defence Equipment Plan (2020 to 2030) produced a range of estimates of the degree of equipment underfunding. These ranged from £1.8 billion, under the most favourable of circumstances, to £17.4 billion under the worst risk assumptions, The most likely deficit was considered to be £7.3 billion. (NAO Defence Equipment Plan Affordability p. 4).3
The MoD has had serial difficulties in managing its defence procurement budget for many years. In answer to the publicly declared budget shortfalls, the government announced that an additional £16.5 billion was to be allocated to the MoD for the defence equipment plan in November 2020. And this sum was then sold to the public as additional defence spending, which is not the case. Moreover, the earlier announced deficits were only achieved after the MoD had previously cancelled or delayed some £25 billion from earlier versions of the defence equipment plan. The only area where the government can claim any real increase in spending is the decision to increase overall MoD spending from 2% to 2.2% of GDP until 2024. This is insufficient to restore the defence equipment plan to its original shape, designed to retain and expand Britain’s defence capabilities. And some of the reductions in new equipment will lead to losses in defence capabilities.
Tackling earlier budget over-runs has resulted in a decision to reduce the number of new F35 interceptor/strike aircraft for the RAF and the Navy. It is now planned to purchase only 48 out of an earlier planned 114 units, reduced from an even earlier 150 units. Bearing in mind that most of these aircraft are earmarked for the RAF in the UK, it could result in the contingent available for the two new aircraft carriers to be reduced to around 7 or 8 planes each. This is far short of the numbers needed to establish local air superiority and protect the aircraft carriers.
Further budget juggling will lead not only to the ten thousand shrinkage of army personnel, but to the loss of the Navy’s only hospital ship. Indeed, problems with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary fleet could also limit the range of the carrier force.
The SDSFR is light on details about the investment needed for a new generation of armoured vehicles, which is to draw a veil over earlier misallocation of £7 billion on the ill-fated FRES (Future Rapid Effect System) programme. Intended to introduce a complete range of new vehicles for the army, it was eventually abandoned as its funds were diverted to meet urgent operational requirements in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Modernizing the army’s armoured vehicles has been on the agenda for a long time, and like many other political “cans” is regularly kicked further down the road. The current SDSFR appears to follow this model again.
The aim of beefing up the Space command, in setting up a new cyber centre, and to further develop a centre for artificial intelligence, sound interesting. The reality though is that the sums available to the UK alone are small relative to other “Great Powers”. And, indeed, may turn out to be small compared to what the EU can provide through its European Defence Fund and with the European Defence Agency.
The inadequacy of SDSFR document on UK relations with the EU is evident. Indeed, one gains the impression that the Johnson government is intent on cutting the EU out of all consideration, and in denying the existence of its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Prior to Brexit the UK was a reluctant participant in the EU programmes. After Brexit, the UK’s role in common EU defence is greatly reduced. At best it can provide forces as a third country. Any pretensions about a leadership role are now over. The SDSFR mentions the bilateral defence agreements with France as its preferred model. Yet, as the EU evolves, so it is increasingly likely that more practical decisions, particularly on procurement and setting standards will rest with the EU. And these capabilities go far beyond what the NATO model has achieved. NATO is limited to shared defence sovereignty under the leadership – when the US decides to participate – of the US. And these are decisions being made by our closest neighbours and allies.
It would seem timely and logical to follow US advice. The UK needs to sort out its post Brexit relations with Europe. While Prime Minister May argued that the UK would continue to be a reliable security and defence partner with Europe. Instead, the review speculates on a “tilt to the Indo-Pacific”, without realizing how the additional cost is likely far exceed any benefit – particularly when considering the ambiguous approach to China. The latest SDSFR might well lead many EU member states to doubt the UK’s commitment.
Overall, the Review indicates the poverty of the post-Brexit pretence that somehow the UK is capable of becoming a dominant global power. There clearly is a global role for the UK, but it is not evident that this strategic review has accurately or persuasively delineated that role.
The UK needs first to acknowledge that, despite its position as a member of the UN Security Council and the G7, its poor trade performance weakens its global ranking. It may be the world’s 5th or 6th largest economy in terms of GDP, but, adjusted for purchasing power parity, it falls to 13th in the world. Moreover, even in terms of GDP ranking the countries above it are considerably larger. This is not to denigrate the UK, but simply to recognise that any new role should recognise this reality.
The strengths of the UK lie in three main areas. First, its scientific research and technology base, especially in this century’s pre-eminent areas of bio-science and bio-technology, advanced materials science, and space engineering. Second, is its high level of intellectual excellence in its elite university sector, allied to the global importance of the English language. Third, is its traditional reputation for diplomatic excellence, international humanitarian assistance, and constitutional legal probity. Unfortunately, this third area of strength has been tarnished by damaging UK government decisions made over the past couple of years in relation to its handing of Brexit negotiations, its cut in the aid budget, and some further movement away from humanitarian project funding. In the defence review the loss of the Royal Navy’s one hospital ship is a further blow to this laudable UK humanitarian activity. Repairing the UK’s diplomatic reputation is an urgent and difficult task, not made any easier by the government’s recent proposed breaching of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of asylum-seekers.
Any global strategy for the UK should concentrate on building (and rebuilding) and funding these three areas, in terms of both personnel and financial support. Moreover, the UK’s defence capability should be aligned along these dimensions, not flirting with a long-abandoned imperial past. It may be argued that some aspects of the SDSFR indicate marginal shifts towards such a scenario. However, there is an inadequate focus on a realistic global policy ambition, rather than an indulgence in implausible, nostalgic scenarios.
- Government (2021) Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence Development and Foreign Policy, available at: assets.publishing.service.gov.uk
- Ministry of Defence (2021) Defence in a Competitive Age, available at: publishing.service.gov.uk
- NAO (2020) Defence Equipment Plan 2020-2030, Ministry of Defence, available from: nao.org.uk