Why It's Now Time To Begin Thinking About Defence Reviews

By Professor Michael Clarke, Distinguished Fellow, RUSI, and Forces News election analyst. See here for the full article.

Election campaigns are always characterised by promises to hold a defence review; it is the best way to avoid having to answer awkward questions about conflicts, costs and defence contracts. The Labour and Liberal Democrats manifestos in this campaign made the usual nods to such reviews. Somewhat surprisingly, the Conservative manifesto said nothing about conducting one.

But then, in the middle of the campaign, Conservative Central Headquarters (CCHQ) made a sudden announcement that a future Conservative government would conduct a full defence, security and foreign policy review during 2020. It was a brief and almost fleeting statement that was immediately lost in the scramble of other election issues. But it promised a review that would be deep and wide-ranging. It defined ‘security’ as ranging from international crime and policing, to cyber defence, counter-terrorism, and the need to upgrade the armed forces well beyond the type of force structure they currently anticipate in the mid-2020s. To invest, in fact, in a new type of armed force for the future defence of the country. It would involve what it defined as a ‘huge technological upgrade of security forces’, with far more investment, for example, in military satellites and related new technologies, including robotics, artificial intelligence and quantum computing. It was a startling commitment that almost passed unnoticed at the time.

Many analysts would argue that the statement was a welcome recognition of the true nature of the security challenges that are waiting out there for Brexit Britain as it enters the new decade. But the implications of such a review will be a lot harder to swallow, even for a Conservative government with a generous majority.

It implies some significant increase in defence and security resources across the board – one independent source suggests around £20 billion a year in the first instance, on top of the £60 billion already devoted to such assets. Failing that, some significant resource shifts would have to be made from existing budget allocations – severe trade-offs to be sure, since new technologies do not come cheap. And while Britain is well up with the science of such new and innovative technologies, the outright weaponisation of them, or else the integration of them within current suites of capabilities, is a significant economic jump to make.

Such a review also implies a big shake-up across Whitehall if it is to succeed. Some insiders already argue that the currently fashionable ‘fusion doctrine’, to make government work more effectively across the board, will only succeed if the silos within Whitehall are decisively broken down. It is, they whisper, already failing. The Ministry of Defence certainly maintains its normal rationale, but the Foreign Office has been kept out of all Brexit policy, has had trade policy removed from it, and has long since lost control, or even influence, over foreign aid policy. The Home Office struggles from one crisis to the next over policing, immigration, terrorist de-radicalisation and border controls, to name only the most obvious. The National Security Council needs an overhaul and its relationship with Downing Street and the Joint Intelligence Committee needs to be clarified. The system still lacks a ‘strategic brain’ at its heart, even were the country blessed with a strategically-minded Prime Minister at its head.

Not least, to jump half a technology generation ahead from the mid-2020s – to catapult British security policy and its instruments into the mid-30s very rapidly requires the Government to resolve a series of messy outstanding defence issues that have been hanging over it during the last decade.

It must resolve many problems relating to the personnel numbers the forces should have in their service. These include: how to resolve a Royal Navy strategy based on global projection through carrier-strike, with an Army strategy based around a full Combat Division prepared to fight in Europe; the number of F-35 Lightning aircraft we will procure; how many of the Challenger upgrades, Ajax and Boxer vehicles the Army will have; how much of its artillery will match the long-range battlefield challenges of the coming decade, and so forth.

The Conservative election staff even briefed journalists that a new government would seek to amend the Human Rights Act to give personnel in the Armed Forces more legal protection in operational theatres. That might sound like some legal tweaking to adjust an anachronism or a local unfairness. But it is the sort of issue that can run for a long time and sap the energy from other aspects of strategic review processes.

One thing is certain. CCHQ spoke about this coming review as a task for 2020. If Conservative politicians and ministers now sweeping triumphantly into government after a convincing election victory are serious about conducting it, it cannot be a quick and dirty exercise over a few months in the New Year. It should be the beginning of a rolling reform process that is at once clear-sighted and irreverent. As the Chief of Defence Staff expressed it only a week ago, it should be a review that is prepared to cast aside old shibboleths. As the dust settles next week and ‘Getting Brexit Done’ takes some parliamentary form, we will see.