High-tech, low cunning: moving towards the sharp end of the Integrated Review

Now we see the defence part of the Integrated Review. It reveals a series of big ambitions based on a faith in British science and technology and not a little low cunning to make it all work. Michael Clarke offers an update on the way the Armed Forces will be expected to fit into the overall strategy.[1] 

Last week’s strategic concept paper for the Integrated Review was a long and somewhat baroque document that left many observers perplexed.[2] It set out a ‘vision’, an ‘overview’ and then a complex ‘strategic framework’ that seemed to revisit issues in different ways as it led us through a house of many, many rooms.

Nevertheless, the general strategic intentions came through clearly enough. They can be articulated quite crisply, without all the inflated vocabulary – committee-speak – these documents accumulate as they pass through Whitehall. It will never read like a new 1942 Beveridge Report, but it is an important document for all that, and at a similarly important historical juncture.

One intention that runs like a watermark throughout the whole document is the desire that Brexit Britain should be defined in the world by its capabilities, not its vulnerabilities. These capabilities lie in many areas of British society, in its business and economy, its technology, and in its mixture of soft and hard power resources. Britain can have a strategically significant influence in world politics, the document believes, if its capabilities are used in a canny and integrated way by a policy machine that ought to be able to up its game quite a lot after the hiatus caused by Brexit and the Covid crisis.

The document makes rather hard work of expressing a second general intention that, in a darkening international environment, Britain needs to get back to some of the basics. The basics are seen as taking a values-based approach to international issues – standing up for liberal democracy at a time when it is being squeezed everywhere – pursuing trade (preferably free trade) and prosperity by several different means, and looking for meaningful partnerships, old and new, across the world. These intentions, of course, can be very hard to reconcile. Standing up for liberal values with China or Saudi Arabia while also looking for economic advantages, are only the most egregious examples of the contradictions. But these are facts of diplomatic life. The document is anxious to dispel the idea that Brexit Britain will merely be mercantilist and it promises to be diplomatically proactive in pursuing – and balancing – Britain’s national interests across the world.

A third strategic intention is that Britain will be more overtly ‘geopolitical’ in its approach; making itself more visible around the world, using some of its diplomatic and military strengths to buy into new partnerships and regional groupings, while also re-committing itself to the Euro-Atlantic area. It will ‘tilt to the Indo-Pacific’ to make the most of growing economic opportunities, but maintain its bedrock support for its trans-Atlantic partners (notwithstanding how little it says about relations with the EU). In this respect, the document is prepared to name names. Russia is an ‘opportunist’ and direct strategic challenge for Europe; China is a ‘systemic competitor’, North Korea and Iran are erstwhile adversaries. Brexit Britain will try to add some weight to the tentative and hesitant pushback against Russia, China and the growth of autocracies around the world – though its position on China as the ‘systemic competitor’ is inevitably ambiguous.

This is all ambitious stuff for a sluggish and vulnerable economy, but the fourth intention is to make the most of Britain’s strengths in science and technology, invest considerably more in it, and leverage all the advantages of a digitised society to leapfrog its economic and military capacities into the 2030s. If it seems that the Review is trying to get a quart from a pint pot, its commitment to S&T – set out as the first element in the ‘strategic framework’; the route to ‘sustaining strategic advantage’ – represents a fairly big bet that this will prove to be a British game-changer.

A final strategic intention – not seen in any previous review – is that all this should contribute to preserving the Union of the United Kingdom. It is expressed more elliptically in the document, but in truth, this might emerge as the most important of all the strategic imperatives facing Brexit Britain in the coming decade. It pops up here and there in the text, but it lurks like a spectre that stalks the whole document. If the ‘United Kingdom’ does not stand for something important and successful in the world, the spectre whispers, why should it stand for anything at home?

The Armed Forces in the New Strategy

Attention now switches to the Armed Forces in the second document of the review – the Defence White Paper. The military is only one of the instruments to deliver on all these ambitions, and not the most fundamental of them. But the military is the most visible, and its performance will probably symbolise the fate of the 2021 national strategic reset.

The military’s plan is to create a new sort of global footprint that will take a number of forms. There will be small regional bases acting as ‘hubs’ that forces can use as jumping off points for specialised operations, training and diplomatic missions in different parts of the world. The port of Duqm in Oman, for example, is being developed as one hub with access to East Africa and the Indian Ocean; Diego Garcia’s location reinforces its importance, and similar hubs are possible in new agreements with Singapore or Brunei. Regardless of the Queen Elizabeth carrier task group’s tour to the Pacific starting in April, the Navy plans to station a warship in the region as a matter of course. The Royal Marines will reconfigure to operate more powerfully in two particular theatres; the ‘high north’ in Europe and out of Duqm in the Gulf. The Army plans to create a ‘Ranger’ force of specialised infantry to offer particular military assistance, as requested, to potential partners. Again, the capability will be in small numbers offering niche capabilities, with Special Forces and the elite troops of 16 Air Assault Brigade and the Marine Commandos backing them up for more substantial operations. In the coming years British forces aim to be more visible and useful to partners in such key areas as the Indo-Pacific and in East and West Africa.

The Navy will have a lot to do, maintaining its traditional roles in NATO, while helping develop and protect this light, global military footprint. And it intends to get up into the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean more often. Instead of letting the Russians probe and test our defences at will by sending bombers and ships towards British airspace and waters (‘they bend us out of shape every time they do it’, said one minister) the aim is that we should return the compliment and give the Kremlin something to think about in its own backyard.         

And if it comes to significant war-fighting, the rest of the Army and the RAF are preparing for a battlefield – either in open or in urbanised spaces – that will be strangely free of military personnel. The future battle, it is anticipated, will take place in space and cyber-space, in the electronic spectrum, in the deep areas behind the immediate military objectives, in the logistic chains and the transport systems until – as is the case in all battles – one side weakens and the dominant force will sweep quickly towards its objective, getting up close and personal probably only in the final stages.

All these ambitions are based on two other big bets lodged in the strategy. One is that the analysts are right about the nature of future warfare, and that they can be fought effectively by small forces using transformational technology and/or small forces playing strategically significant roles in bigger coalitions which then offer the necessary numbers of tanks, boots and bayonets if required. And secondly, the strategy is betting that small forces can still be sustained when they ‘persistently engage’, ‘forward deploy’ and ‘compete constantly’ in the ‘grey area’ below the normal threshold of conflict. In a way, this second bet is a small accumulator: can British Armed Forces really do it for the long term; and if they can, will it make a difference to anything that matters? 

Many will be sceptical that this review will really deliver on its ambitions, at least in the defence sphere. They may regard its expansive designs as simply unaffordable in the real world; or no more than flashy cover for an exercise in reduction and self-delusion. To its credit, the Integrated Review is avowedly, unashamedly, ambitious and intended to extend well beyond the present Parliament to set targets for 2030 and beyond. So time will tell.

But the post-Covid world is moving in the direction of confrontation between all the big powers, and rising regional instability in Europe’s near, and not so near, neighbourhood. As British defence forces embark on a journey of serious reorganisation and transformation, the reality checks along the way may start to arrive sooner rather than later. They will test how adeptly Britain can really deploy new fangled high tech with some old-fashioned low cunning.

Michael Clarke was the Director General of RUSI, 2007-15. He is the author of The Challenge of Defending Britain, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2018. He is the co-author of Tipping Point: Britain, Brexit and Security in the 2020sLondon. I.B. Tauris, 2019; and Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, London, I.B. Tauris, November 2021, forthcoming.

Photograph: Crown copyright. This photograph is public sector information licensed under the Open Government License v3.0, available via the Ministry of Defence here.

[1] Michael Clarke, ‘The Integrated Review: Does Boris Have the Courage to be Boring?’, 14 March 2021, https://tippingpoint2020s.com/2021/03/14/the-integrated-review-does-boris-have-the-courage-to-be-boring/

[2] HM Government , Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, CP 403, 16 March 2021.