Government launches substantial overhaul of foreign, defence and security policy

The government has launched a review of foreign, defence and security policy that it claims is the biggest such review since the end of the Cold War.

A defence review was to take place in 2020 in any case, with the last one having been conducted in 2015, but the government has declared that this one will be far more wide-ranging and transformative as the UK seeks to establish its ‘Global Britain’ programme post-Brexit.

While the details and ultimate policy are of course still to be worked out, indications have been given as to the direction in which this review will take UK defence and foreign policy.  In the first place, there are going to be no cuts to defence, according to the government, and there are even hints that it may increase, with the government having declared that there will not be a requirement for the review to be cost neutral.  Previous reviews have had this cost-neutrality requirement, meaning that investment in new technology or development has meant cuts to other capabilities.  

This review is also being linked to the comprehensive spending review, which some commentators and MPs have suggested may enable the UK to achieve the 3% of national GDP on defence spending consistently recommended by the Defence Select Committee.  

That said, the emphasis in announcements on the changing nature of warfare could imply that, while overall spending may increase, there could still be cuts in areas no longer deemed relevant or value for money.  There will also be a drive towards cost efficiency, with defence procurement a particular area touted in the media as being ripe for reform, as Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, has had this in his sights since before entering Number 10.

As part of this focus on the rapidly changing nature of modern warfare, the government has indicated that new technology and the use of data will feature heavily in discussions.  Also under consideration will be the development of an integrated offensive hacking capability, following reports that turf wars between the Ministry of defence and GCHQ have hampered progress in this area since the 2015 review, whilst in the meantime Russia and China have been engaging in subtle but long-term cyber warfare against western countries.

Unusually, the review will also address serious and organised crime, whereas previous reviews have focused more on combatting domestic terrorism, suggesting that there could be a major revamp of the National Crime Agency.

There will also be an examination of Britain’s relationships with allies, prompted both by an understanding of how constructive relationships and cooperation can be used to combat modern threats and by an increasing concern at the potential isolationism of the US.

Most interestingly of all, perhaps, is that the review will consider defence, foreign policy, and international aid all together, whereas previous reviews have focused just on defence in isolation.  Such a move seems highly sensible in a period where Britain is seeking to establish a clear position in the world on its own, and some might say long overdue, given how evidently vital to foreign policy defence capability is.

That such a broad and transformative review is needed is clear.  As the government themselves have pointed out, the threats facing the country have proliferated both in number and variety in recent years.  Moreover, there are important issues that have needed to be addressed for a long time but which have been neglected or passed over by previous review.  These include establishing adopting a cross-governmental, rather than departmental, focus, responding to the seeming reality that we are in conflict with Russia and China and have been for a number of years (through constant hybrid warfare, such as electoral influence, cyber attacks, the Skripal attacks, and the use of deniable agents), and creating an effective command-and-control set-up to combat such threats.

Indeed, we have a strong basis from which to adopt necessary transformation and adapt to this new geopolitical landscape.  The UK starts off from a position where it already has one of the highest military budgets in the world, a well as internationally renowned and respected institutions leadership, expertise, and values.

However, there is scepticism about how effective the review will actually be.  Given the rapid advances being consistently made in missile technology, cyber, artificial intelligence and robotics, the military must adapt rapidly and, in some cases, radically.  How achievable this is, given the constraints that government will face, has been questioned.  Most obviously, there is the question of funding.  While the government has shown and willingness in general to be freer with their spending and has indicated that this review will not need to be cost-neutral, spending increases can only go so far, particularly in light of the government’s commitment to a balanced budget by 2022.  It could require cuts in other departments in order to finance some of the changes they are proposing, and cuts in other departments could in turn cause a backlash for the government, particularly, depending on where those cuts are made, from their newly acquired Labour voters.  They have the strength of position, with their huge majority, to ride this out for now, but in their planning to achieve a second term in government, this could give them cause to consider.

Concern has also been raised about the review being linked to the comprehensive spending review, arguing that rather than lead to the needed boost in spending, this could limit the conclusions of the defence review to wider financial constraints, with the result that decisions on Britain’s foreign policy strategy are overtaken by short-term financial concerns.

There could also be resistance from Whitehall over the changes, the noises recently coming out of the Civil Service have been in opposition to any sweeping reform of how the machinery of government operates.  Streamlining the FCO, DfID, and MoD could therefore come up against some heavy bureaucratic opposition.

All in all, the right noises are being made by the government, and most observers agree on that.  The true judgement, however, as with all things, will be how they deliver.

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