.
T

his week London released the long-awaited and overdue Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (hereinafter simply the “Integrated Review”). Originally announced in May 2019 and slated for publication in 2020, the Integrated Review was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The report is meant to serve as a vision of the United Kingdom’s role in the world for the next decade. Individual department and ministry reports are expected to follow in the coming weeks, with the Ministry of Defence’s report expected on Monday, 22 March. These follow-on reports will articulate how the government will reorient itself to meet the vision of “Global Britain in a competitive age” as the 114-page document is titled.

Headed by a King’s College London professor (the author’s alma mater), John Bew, the report aimed to be much more sweeping in its focus than previous defense and strategic reviews, incorporating non-traditional security concerns. In this, the Integrated Review is successful. It is much broader and comprehensive than traditional defense and security reviews. It takes a more holistic approach to security and foreign policy than previous reviews and includes soft power, science and technology, climate issues and biodiversity loss, pandemic disease, as well as multilateral diplomacy in addition to the traditional tools of state power.

Yet, a critical shortcoming of the Integrated Review is that it tries to be all things to all people. It very much reads as though every ministry and department was asked to provide their top priorities list and the Integrated Review is the result—it is a thorough document to be sure, but it is hardly integrated. How the government will leverage the tools of state power to address the unique issues is not fully fleshed out at a macro-strategic level and, in some ways, likely passes the buck to the individual ministries to sort out for themselves.

Most glaringly, the report contains neither key trade-offs nor a balancing of accounts in the ledger. While the goals outlined in the Integrated Review are laudable, it is wholly unclear how the “Global Britain” mission will be achieved without a concomitant increase in resources—extremely unlikely in this economy and certainly post-Brexit—or a rebalancing of priorities. Britain cannot do everything any more than the United States can do everything it aims to do even with its larger budget, larger military, and larger state apparatuses. At some point, there will need to be a balancing and ranking of priorities.

The Politics of Brexit & The Integrated Review

There is the very clear hand of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his political worldview. As the FT eloquently wrote, “there is a Johnsonian, have-your-cake-and-eat-it quality to this image of Britain as pocket-sized superpower.” The entirety of the Integrated Review smacks of a Johnsonian approach to the world and the country. There is a mismatch between the world as it is and the vision of the prime minister. Britain cannot sustain a full-spectrum military, meet its NATO commitments, provide an expeditionary capability, field a robust nuclear deterrent, and pivot towards the Indo-Pacific all at the same time.

The report reflects the post-Brexit unsettled relationship with Europe and the European Union in that it is Britain separate and apart from the European continent, acting more like a traditional state, rather than a member of a multi-state bloc alliance. Its conscious nods to sovereignty reflect this, as is its emphasis on the Union with Scotland, Wales, England, and Northern Ireland.

Britain would be better placed to reinforce its presence within and to support NATO to combat a revanchist Russia and provide support where possible to the United States, Australia, and New Zealand against a rising China. Instead of believing itself to be a “pocket-sized superpower” with neither the resources nor the political will to act as such, it would be better off leveraging its strengths and being a “European power with global interests” as the report notes.

The prime minister’s problem vis-à-vis NATO and the EU is that for the last several years, and certainly leading up to Brexit, he and many of his political partners preached the need for the UK to break away from Brussels and to chart its path. It is now exceedingly difficult to make the argument that London should reengage on a deeper military and security level in the wake of that narrative. It would certainly require creative back-bending, all of which Johnson is capable of, but it undercuts the “Global Britain” narrative when London is reluctant to firmly establish its support and presence in its backyard. Far from being sorted, the actual implementation of Brexit remains in process, and London and Brussels have not yet had a dialogue on what a future defense and security arrangement would look like if there is one at all beyond NATO.

Brexit makes its presence felt nearly on every page. For example, maintaining itself as a “Science and Tech Superpower” that is “at least third in the world in relevant performance measures for scientific research and innovation” is going to prove difficult. Post-Brexit London made it increasingly difficult for talented Europeans to emigrate to and work in the United Kingdom. One of the United Kingdom’s strengths was its draw for leading European talent, especially from Eastern Europe and the European Union. That freedom of movement is no longer wholly free and, given the Brexit campaign, Britain is not the draw it once was. Making “the UK… a global services, digital and data hub” will prove equally challenging as there is not yet a data-sharing agreement with the European Union.

“Putting trade at the heart of Global Britain” is all well and good to say but again, post-Brexit will prove to be more challenging than it would have been if the UK remained in the European Union. What will likely result are several individual trade agreements all of which will take considerable time and effort to negotiate, while London is at a fundamentally weakened international position.

Britain, Russia, & Rearmament

The report is rather stark on Russia saying, “Russia will remain the most acute direct threat to the UK.” It is not surprising that this is the case. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, invasion of Georgia, cyber-attacks against Estonia, the ongoing war with Ukraine, interference in British elections, and the poisoning of Russians on British soil are all evidence enough of the destabilizing role Russia plays in the region. The report expects this to continue saying, “Russia will be more active around the wider European neighbourhood.”

In rather a stark language, notably so when juxtaposed against China (below), the report states, “The UK respects the people, culture and history of Russia. However, until relations with its government improve, we will actively deter and defend against the full spectrum of threats emanating from Russia.”

Coming on the heels of a recent Parliamentary Defence Committee report on the state of Britain’s armored capability, the Integrated Review leaves much to be desired when it comes to defining an approach to deter Russian behavior. According to the Committee, “The recent history of the British Army’s armoured fighting vehicle capability is deplorable… This report reveals a woeful story of bureaucratic procrastination, military indecision, financial mismanagement and general ineptitude, which have continually bedevilled attempts to properly re-equip the British Army over the last two decades.”

Most damningly, and it is worth quoting at length, the Committee report says:

“Were the British Army to have to fight a peer adversary — a euphemism for Russia — in Eastern Europe in the next few years, whilst our soldiers undoubtedly remain amongst the finest in the world, they would, disgracefully, be forced to go into battle in a combination of obsolescent or even obsolete armoured vehicles, most of them at least 30 years old or more, with poor mechanical reliability, very heavily outgunned by more modern missile and artillery systems and chronically lacking in adequate air defense.”

This Committee’s report is unlikely to build confidence amongst the NATO partners but is not unsurprising. As with the United States, albeit on a much smaller scale, the last 20 years of conflict has been focused on low-intensity, counter-insurgency efforts—not high-intensity combat against a nation-state. Rearming and repositioning for great power competition has not been a priority.

As an alternative model, rather than attempt to field its own one-size-fits-all, “full-spectrum” capability, Britain could be better positioned to integrate into NATO by providing high-tech capabilities to augment its partners and allies. This is unlikely to fit with the prime minister’s view of the world and Britain more broadly, a worldview that demands that Britain have a force that is capable of doing anything and everything, or at least the appearance of being able to do so.

At a macro-level, the Integrated Review commits the government to increase defense spending: “We will increase our defence budget by over £24 billion [~$33.5 billion] over the next four years and remain the largest European spender on defence in NATO, with our expenditure now standing at 2.2% of GDP.” This spending commitment follows a November pledge from the prime minister to boost spending £16.5 billion [~$22.9 billion] over the next four years. However, the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said, “The department's central estimate of the funding shortfall on equipment projects over 2020-2030 was £7.3 billion [~$10.1 billion] but this figure could be as high as £17.4 billion (~$24.2 billion) if certain risks materialize.” It added, “The department also faces significant additional cost pressures—estimated to be around £20 billion [~$27.8 billion]—to develop future military capabilities which are not yet included in the plan, alongside wider financial pressures in maintaining the defence estate.”

The question ultimately becomes how will the government meet its new spending promises while not losing any additional funding to already unfunded mandates or priorities. This is on top of the fact that the economy is already depressed due to Covid and the post-Covid recovery remains very unclear, especially in a post-Brexit environment. Taken together, Brexit and Covid represent the two largest economic hits since Second World War—in 2020 the economy shrank 9.9%, the worst in almost 300 years. The resulting Covid-related economic support thus far is estimated to be north of £340 billion [~$473 billion]—a number that will undoubtedly increase in the coming months, and already represents roughly ten times the size of the defense budget.

An Indo-Pacific Tilt?

The Integrated Review notes, “The Indo-Pacific region matters to the UK: it is critical to our economy, our security and our global ambition to support open societies.” As such, London is “tilting” towards the region in a new way, by pursuing greater cooperation, increased trade relations, and other rather amorphous phrases and concepts which, taken together, do not appear to offer much more than one would have already expected from London.

In practice, it is unclear how London will implement the “Indo-Pacific tilt” without increasing the size of the Royal Navy, laying more and new hulls, or providing some other measure of expeditionary capability. Will London reach new agreements for basing in the Indo-Pacific region? Will it acquire new diesel-electric or air-independent propulsion submarines? Will it reposition rapid response units like 3 Commando Brigade or the SBS to the region? These would be logical moves if the United Kingdom were truly serious about pivoting to the Indo-Pacific and engaging in the region.

As of yet, all of these questions remain unanswered and until the services present their supporting plans (again, expected in the coming weeks), the Integrated Review contains nothing of substance. Interestingly, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the United Kingdom’s largest aircraft carrier, will lead a multi-national task force group on a tour of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Indo-Pacific later this year, in what is likely the first demonstration of this “Global Britain” approach.

Moreover, the allocation of an increasing portion of already limited resources to a region where Britain has fewer interests than say, Europe, is questionable. It very much smacks of Johnson wanting to do too much with too little, when stretched resources could be better allocated elsewhere and a more novel approach to the Indo-Pacific may be warranted.

It is perhaps here where a more multi-lateral approach amongst the Five Eyes partners and a much more joined-up relationship will allow Britain to punch above its weight but in isolation, the tilt is unlikely to have real and tangible teeth. This is not to say that Britain cannot or is incapable of pursuing its interests in the Indo-Pacific, quite the opposite. Britain’s soft power, multilateralism, diplomacy, and other non-hard power tools—all appropriately noted in the report—offers London a way to punch well above its weight on the international stage.

Britain & China

The Integrated Review’s approach to China is notable in its balance, acknowledging that China represents a “systemic challenge” while at the same time stating that cooperation with Beijing will be critical to addressing global challenges. Here the review identifies “the fact that China is an authoritarian state, with different values to ours” and “presents challenges for the UK and our allies.” On trade it is, again, notably balanced, “China and the UK both benefit from bilateral trade and investment, but China also presents the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security.” But adds, “We will also cooperate with China in tackling transnational challenges such as climate change.”

In response, the report notes that Britain “will invest in enhanced China-facing capabilities, through which we will develop a better understanding of China and its people, while improving our ability to respond to the systemic challenge that it poses to our security, prosperity and values – and those of our allies and partners.” There are no hints of anything approaching a direct confrontation or an economic decoupling that may accompany a more assertive approach toward Beijing.

One suspects that the balance is by design so as to acknowledge the challenge China represents, but to avoid antagonizing Beijing by being more declarative and using starker terms. While the report does identify Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in Hong Kong (a former United Kingdom territory that was handed over on terms that China is now breaking) and the “human rights violations in Xinjiang”, it stops short of using stronger language.

Britain’s Nuclear Deterrent

The report has received outsized attention for its commitment to increase the stockpile of nuclear warheads from 180 to 260 “in recognition of the evolving security environment”—reversing a policy of drawing down the number of warheads and reducing the number of weapons deployed on SSBNs. It is unclear how London intends to actually implement this change.

According to the report, “A minimum, credible, independent nuclear deterrent, assigned to the defence of NATO, remains essential in order to guarantee our security and that of our Allies.” Yet, it is unclear what has fundamentally changed that necessitates such an expansion of the arsenal, and how that expansion will counter the new dynamic. It is unclear how the increased warhead numbers are meant to deter Moscow if, as the report notes, Russia is the greatest threat to the United Kingdom and Europe. Without an expanded fleet or shifting the monad to a dyad or triad, the problem is merely one of targeting for the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces and hunting for the Russian Navy.

The Trident submarine now carries eight missiles with a maximum of 40 warheads per boat. Increasing that number means adding additional missiles, expanding the missiles’ individual capacity, or adding new submarines, all of which take considerable time and investment. It is equally unclear if alternatively (or simultaneously), this means that the warhead inventory will be refreshed, removing old warheads while adding new ones, which could represent the overall increase.

How the cost of the expansion will be managed is equally unclear. A 40% increase in the warhead inventory alone would be considerably expensive, to say nothing of the need to re-fit the Trident’s missiles or the expansion of the submarine fleet itself.

Moreover, it is unclear whether the increase in strategic capability will outweigh the potential diplomatic impact of reversing London’s nearly two-decade drive towards reducing nuclear weapons and pushing for nuclear disarmament. It will certainly provide fodder for Moscow to point to London’s perceived hypocrisy and will make future disarmament efforts considerably more difficult.

The United Kingdom & the Special Relationship

That the Special Relationship will endure is not surprising. The Integrated Review’s stated emphasis on this partnership is to be welcomed, but the report itself is unlikely to offer much in the way of confidence within Washington. The Biden Administration is likely to welcome the more holistic approach to global security challenges and London’s commitment to multilateralism, but the questions of viability, resourcing, and implementation will undoubtedly remain. Washington would likely welcome a more engaged Britain in Europe rather than a more forward-leaning or “tilting” United Kingdom in the Indo-Pacific.

Even with some of the aforementioned moves and repositioning that London could undertake, Britain has few real hard power or tangible assets to deploy to the region, and certainly none that would appreciably alter the balance of power or calculus of China or the strategic planning United States. Soft power multilateralism is certainly helpful, as is the United Kingdom’s seat on the United Nations Security Council, but it is unlikely to sway or affect Beijing’s approach.

Hitherto, the United Kingdom was one of the United States’ entry point into European affairs—a stalking horse of sorts in addition to the physical presence of American troops in Germany, Italy, and other forward deployments. With Brexit, that influence and stalking horse is greatly removed and severely reduced. Moreover, London’s standing with Washington post-Afghanistan and post-Iraq is diminished.

True, London stood by Washington after 9/11 and in the march to Iraq and subsequent operations in southwest Asia but the performance of the British military in both left much to be desired. While there is a conscious return to great power competition in the Integrated Review, the resourcing to support such a pivot will remain very much in doubt. Washington ultimately needs a partner that has an appreciable understanding of its resources and capabilities and can augment/stand-in in places where it cannot fully direct its attention. The Integrated Review and Johnson’s vision for a “Global Britain” do neither.

Implementation & the Credibility Gap

Perhaps the biggest challenge to the Integrated Review is its implementation. There is a clear gap between the aspirational language included in the document and the government’s ability to both pay for the proposed changes and meet words with deeds. In the case of the former, the Brexit and Covid economic hole will consume nearly all of the government’s resources for the foreseeable future. Even with a possible post-lockdown bump, a nearly ten percent contraction to the economy in one year is a devastating impact. The Johnson government will be hard-pressed to make the case that other non-stimulus and non-recovery funding should be prioritized.

Moreover, while the emphasis on climate change biodiversity is, perhaps, to be welcomed, the government will likely find it increasingly difficult to prioritize those issues in a post-Brexit, post-Covid environment when economic recovery is a more pressing issue. Equally, the report doesn’t outline what hard choices may be necessary to facilitate climate change responses, including those which may necessitate painful economic measures such as increased costs to consumers.

In the case of the government’s deeds, there is much to be desired. For as much as the document highlights the importance of international law and states that Britain will act as a paragon of virtue, its recent behavior suggests otherwise. Brexit made it clear that London will chart its own path, regardless of what agreements it has made. The government’s fight with the European Union over the implementation of post-Brexit checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain provides further evidence that London will do what it wants. The reversal of the government’s position on nuclear disarmament equally erodes the perspective of Great Britain as a country that plays it with a straight bat, to borrow a cricket phrase.

At a macro-level, the Integrated Review is to be welcomed in that it does join up the various sheets of music into one hymnal but it fundamentally fails to produce a symphony from the source material. It is broader than simply hard power defense and security issues but fails to elaborate how the government will prioritize its interests in an era of limited resources. The Integrated Review ultimately does not answer the exam question: what is Britain’s role in the 21st century?

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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Global Britain: The Arrival of the Long-Awaited Integrated Review

Photo by Benjamin Davies via Unsplash.

March 25, 2021

T

his week London released the long-awaited and overdue Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (hereinafter simply the “Integrated Review”). Originally announced in May 2019 and slated for publication in 2020, the Integrated Review was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The report is meant to serve as a vision of the United Kingdom’s role in the world for the next decade. Individual department and ministry reports are expected to follow in the coming weeks, with the Ministry of Defence’s report expected on Monday, 22 March. These follow-on reports will articulate how the government will reorient itself to meet the vision of “Global Britain in a competitive age” as the 114-page document is titled.

Headed by a King’s College London professor (the author’s alma mater), John Bew, the report aimed to be much more sweeping in its focus than previous defense and strategic reviews, incorporating non-traditional security concerns. In this, the Integrated Review is successful. It is much broader and comprehensive than traditional defense and security reviews. It takes a more holistic approach to security and foreign policy than previous reviews and includes soft power, science and technology, climate issues and biodiversity loss, pandemic disease, as well as multilateral diplomacy in addition to the traditional tools of state power.

Yet, a critical shortcoming of the Integrated Review is that it tries to be all things to all people. It very much reads as though every ministry and department was asked to provide their top priorities list and the Integrated Review is the result—it is a thorough document to be sure, but it is hardly integrated. How the government will leverage the tools of state power to address the unique issues is not fully fleshed out at a macro-strategic level and, in some ways, likely passes the buck to the individual ministries to sort out for themselves.

Most glaringly, the report contains neither key trade-offs nor a balancing of accounts in the ledger. While the goals outlined in the Integrated Review are laudable, it is wholly unclear how the “Global Britain” mission will be achieved without a concomitant increase in resources—extremely unlikely in this economy and certainly post-Brexit—or a rebalancing of priorities. Britain cannot do everything any more than the United States can do everything it aims to do even with its larger budget, larger military, and larger state apparatuses. At some point, there will need to be a balancing and ranking of priorities.

The Politics of Brexit & The Integrated Review

There is the very clear hand of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his political worldview. As the FT eloquently wrote, “there is a Johnsonian, have-your-cake-and-eat-it quality to this image of Britain as pocket-sized superpower.” The entirety of the Integrated Review smacks of a Johnsonian approach to the world and the country. There is a mismatch between the world as it is and the vision of the prime minister. Britain cannot sustain a full-spectrum military, meet its NATO commitments, provide an expeditionary capability, field a robust nuclear deterrent, and pivot towards the Indo-Pacific all at the same time.

The report reflects the post-Brexit unsettled relationship with Europe and the European Union in that it is Britain separate and apart from the European continent, acting more like a traditional state, rather than a member of a multi-state bloc alliance. Its conscious nods to sovereignty reflect this, as is its emphasis on the Union with Scotland, Wales, England, and Northern Ireland.

Britain would be better placed to reinforce its presence within and to support NATO to combat a revanchist Russia and provide support where possible to the United States, Australia, and New Zealand against a rising China. Instead of believing itself to be a “pocket-sized superpower” with neither the resources nor the political will to act as such, it would be better off leveraging its strengths and being a “European power with global interests” as the report notes.

The prime minister’s problem vis-à-vis NATO and the EU is that for the last several years, and certainly leading up to Brexit, he and many of his political partners preached the need for the UK to break away from Brussels and to chart its path. It is now exceedingly difficult to make the argument that London should reengage on a deeper military and security level in the wake of that narrative. It would certainly require creative back-bending, all of which Johnson is capable of, but it undercuts the “Global Britain” narrative when London is reluctant to firmly establish its support and presence in its backyard. Far from being sorted, the actual implementation of Brexit remains in process, and London and Brussels have not yet had a dialogue on what a future defense and security arrangement would look like if there is one at all beyond NATO.

Brexit makes its presence felt nearly on every page. For example, maintaining itself as a “Science and Tech Superpower” that is “at least third in the world in relevant performance measures for scientific research and innovation” is going to prove difficult. Post-Brexit London made it increasingly difficult for talented Europeans to emigrate to and work in the United Kingdom. One of the United Kingdom’s strengths was its draw for leading European talent, especially from Eastern Europe and the European Union. That freedom of movement is no longer wholly free and, given the Brexit campaign, Britain is not the draw it once was. Making “the UK… a global services, digital and data hub” will prove equally challenging as there is not yet a data-sharing agreement with the European Union.

“Putting trade at the heart of Global Britain” is all well and good to say but again, post-Brexit will prove to be more challenging than it would have been if the UK remained in the European Union. What will likely result are several individual trade agreements all of which will take considerable time and effort to negotiate, while London is at a fundamentally weakened international position.

Britain, Russia, & Rearmament

The report is rather stark on Russia saying, “Russia will remain the most acute direct threat to the UK.” It is not surprising that this is the case. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, invasion of Georgia, cyber-attacks against Estonia, the ongoing war with Ukraine, interference in British elections, and the poisoning of Russians on British soil are all evidence enough of the destabilizing role Russia plays in the region. The report expects this to continue saying, “Russia will be more active around the wider European neighbourhood.”

In rather a stark language, notably so when juxtaposed against China (below), the report states, “The UK respects the people, culture and history of Russia. However, until relations with its government improve, we will actively deter and defend against the full spectrum of threats emanating from Russia.”

Coming on the heels of a recent Parliamentary Defence Committee report on the state of Britain’s armored capability, the Integrated Review leaves much to be desired when it comes to defining an approach to deter Russian behavior. According to the Committee, “The recent history of the British Army’s armoured fighting vehicle capability is deplorable… This report reveals a woeful story of bureaucratic procrastination, military indecision, financial mismanagement and general ineptitude, which have continually bedevilled attempts to properly re-equip the British Army over the last two decades.”

Most damningly, and it is worth quoting at length, the Committee report says:

“Were the British Army to have to fight a peer adversary — a euphemism for Russia — in Eastern Europe in the next few years, whilst our soldiers undoubtedly remain amongst the finest in the world, they would, disgracefully, be forced to go into battle in a combination of obsolescent or even obsolete armoured vehicles, most of them at least 30 years old or more, with poor mechanical reliability, very heavily outgunned by more modern missile and artillery systems and chronically lacking in adequate air defense.”

This Committee’s report is unlikely to build confidence amongst the NATO partners but is not unsurprising. As with the United States, albeit on a much smaller scale, the last 20 years of conflict has been focused on low-intensity, counter-insurgency efforts—not high-intensity combat against a nation-state. Rearming and repositioning for great power competition has not been a priority.

As an alternative model, rather than attempt to field its own one-size-fits-all, “full-spectrum” capability, Britain could be better positioned to integrate into NATO by providing high-tech capabilities to augment its partners and allies. This is unlikely to fit with the prime minister’s view of the world and Britain more broadly, a worldview that demands that Britain have a force that is capable of doing anything and everything, or at least the appearance of being able to do so.

At a macro-level, the Integrated Review commits the government to increase defense spending: “We will increase our defence budget by over £24 billion [~$33.5 billion] over the next four years and remain the largest European spender on defence in NATO, with our expenditure now standing at 2.2% of GDP.” This spending commitment follows a November pledge from the prime minister to boost spending £16.5 billion [~$22.9 billion] over the next four years. However, the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said, “The department's central estimate of the funding shortfall on equipment projects over 2020-2030 was £7.3 billion [~$10.1 billion] but this figure could be as high as £17.4 billion (~$24.2 billion) if certain risks materialize.” It added, “The department also faces significant additional cost pressures—estimated to be around £20 billion [~$27.8 billion]—to develop future military capabilities which are not yet included in the plan, alongside wider financial pressures in maintaining the defence estate.”

The question ultimately becomes how will the government meet its new spending promises while not losing any additional funding to already unfunded mandates or priorities. This is on top of the fact that the economy is already depressed due to Covid and the post-Covid recovery remains very unclear, especially in a post-Brexit environment. Taken together, Brexit and Covid represent the two largest economic hits since Second World War—in 2020 the economy shrank 9.9%, the worst in almost 300 years. The resulting Covid-related economic support thus far is estimated to be north of £340 billion [~$473 billion]—a number that will undoubtedly increase in the coming months, and already represents roughly ten times the size of the defense budget.

An Indo-Pacific Tilt?

The Integrated Review notes, “The Indo-Pacific region matters to the UK: it is critical to our economy, our security and our global ambition to support open societies.” As such, London is “tilting” towards the region in a new way, by pursuing greater cooperation, increased trade relations, and other rather amorphous phrases and concepts which, taken together, do not appear to offer much more than one would have already expected from London.

In practice, it is unclear how London will implement the “Indo-Pacific tilt” without increasing the size of the Royal Navy, laying more and new hulls, or providing some other measure of expeditionary capability. Will London reach new agreements for basing in the Indo-Pacific region? Will it acquire new diesel-electric or air-independent propulsion submarines? Will it reposition rapid response units like 3 Commando Brigade or the SBS to the region? These would be logical moves if the United Kingdom were truly serious about pivoting to the Indo-Pacific and engaging in the region.

As of yet, all of these questions remain unanswered and until the services present their supporting plans (again, expected in the coming weeks), the Integrated Review contains nothing of substance. Interestingly, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the United Kingdom’s largest aircraft carrier, will lead a multi-national task force group on a tour of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Indo-Pacific later this year, in what is likely the first demonstration of this “Global Britain” approach.

Moreover, the allocation of an increasing portion of already limited resources to a region where Britain has fewer interests than say, Europe, is questionable. It very much smacks of Johnson wanting to do too much with too little, when stretched resources could be better allocated elsewhere and a more novel approach to the Indo-Pacific may be warranted.

It is perhaps here where a more multi-lateral approach amongst the Five Eyes partners and a much more joined-up relationship will allow Britain to punch above its weight but in isolation, the tilt is unlikely to have real and tangible teeth. This is not to say that Britain cannot or is incapable of pursuing its interests in the Indo-Pacific, quite the opposite. Britain’s soft power, multilateralism, diplomacy, and other non-hard power tools—all appropriately noted in the report—offers London a way to punch well above its weight on the international stage.

Britain & China

The Integrated Review’s approach to China is notable in its balance, acknowledging that China represents a “systemic challenge” while at the same time stating that cooperation with Beijing will be critical to addressing global challenges. Here the review identifies “the fact that China is an authoritarian state, with different values to ours” and “presents challenges for the UK and our allies.” On trade it is, again, notably balanced, “China and the UK both benefit from bilateral trade and investment, but China also presents the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security.” But adds, “We will also cooperate with China in tackling transnational challenges such as climate change.”

In response, the report notes that Britain “will invest in enhanced China-facing capabilities, through which we will develop a better understanding of China and its people, while improving our ability to respond to the systemic challenge that it poses to our security, prosperity and values – and those of our allies and partners.” There are no hints of anything approaching a direct confrontation or an economic decoupling that may accompany a more assertive approach toward Beijing.

One suspects that the balance is by design so as to acknowledge the challenge China represents, but to avoid antagonizing Beijing by being more declarative and using starker terms. While the report does identify Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in Hong Kong (a former United Kingdom territory that was handed over on terms that China is now breaking) and the “human rights violations in Xinjiang”, it stops short of using stronger language.

Britain’s Nuclear Deterrent

The report has received outsized attention for its commitment to increase the stockpile of nuclear warheads from 180 to 260 “in recognition of the evolving security environment”—reversing a policy of drawing down the number of warheads and reducing the number of weapons deployed on SSBNs. It is unclear how London intends to actually implement this change.

According to the report, “A minimum, credible, independent nuclear deterrent, assigned to the defence of NATO, remains essential in order to guarantee our security and that of our Allies.” Yet, it is unclear what has fundamentally changed that necessitates such an expansion of the arsenal, and how that expansion will counter the new dynamic. It is unclear how the increased warhead numbers are meant to deter Moscow if, as the report notes, Russia is the greatest threat to the United Kingdom and Europe. Without an expanded fleet or shifting the monad to a dyad or triad, the problem is merely one of targeting for the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces and hunting for the Russian Navy.

The Trident submarine now carries eight missiles with a maximum of 40 warheads per boat. Increasing that number means adding additional missiles, expanding the missiles’ individual capacity, or adding new submarines, all of which take considerable time and investment. It is equally unclear if alternatively (or simultaneously), this means that the warhead inventory will be refreshed, removing old warheads while adding new ones, which could represent the overall increase.

How the cost of the expansion will be managed is equally unclear. A 40% increase in the warhead inventory alone would be considerably expensive, to say nothing of the need to re-fit the Trident’s missiles or the expansion of the submarine fleet itself.

Moreover, it is unclear whether the increase in strategic capability will outweigh the potential diplomatic impact of reversing London’s nearly two-decade drive towards reducing nuclear weapons and pushing for nuclear disarmament. It will certainly provide fodder for Moscow to point to London’s perceived hypocrisy and will make future disarmament efforts considerably more difficult.

The United Kingdom & the Special Relationship

That the Special Relationship will endure is not surprising. The Integrated Review’s stated emphasis on this partnership is to be welcomed, but the report itself is unlikely to offer much in the way of confidence within Washington. The Biden Administration is likely to welcome the more holistic approach to global security challenges and London’s commitment to multilateralism, but the questions of viability, resourcing, and implementation will undoubtedly remain. Washington would likely welcome a more engaged Britain in Europe rather than a more forward-leaning or “tilting” United Kingdom in the Indo-Pacific.

Even with some of the aforementioned moves and repositioning that London could undertake, Britain has few real hard power or tangible assets to deploy to the region, and certainly none that would appreciably alter the balance of power or calculus of China or the strategic planning United States. Soft power multilateralism is certainly helpful, as is the United Kingdom’s seat on the United Nations Security Council, but it is unlikely to sway or affect Beijing’s approach.

Hitherto, the United Kingdom was one of the United States’ entry point into European affairs—a stalking horse of sorts in addition to the physical presence of American troops in Germany, Italy, and other forward deployments. With Brexit, that influence and stalking horse is greatly removed and severely reduced. Moreover, London’s standing with Washington post-Afghanistan and post-Iraq is diminished.

True, London stood by Washington after 9/11 and in the march to Iraq and subsequent operations in southwest Asia but the performance of the British military in both left much to be desired. While there is a conscious return to great power competition in the Integrated Review, the resourcing to support such a pivot will remain very much in doubt. Washington ultimately needs a partner that has an appreciable understanding of its resources and capabilities and can augment/stand-in in places where it cannot fully direct its attention. The Integrated Review and Johnson’s vision for a “Global Britain” do neither.

Implementation & the Credibility Gap

Perhaps the biggest challenge to the Integrated Review is its implementation. There is a clear gap between the aspirational language included in the document and the government’s ability to both pay for the proposed changes and meet words with deeds. In the case of the former, the Brexit and Covid economic hole will consume nearly all of the government’s resources for the foreseeable future. Even with a possible post-lockdown bump, a nearly ten percent contraction to the economy in one year is a devastating impact. The Johnson government will be hard-pressed to make the case that other non-stimulus and non-recovery funding should be prioritized.

Moreover, while the emphasis on climate change biodiversity is, perhaps, to be welcomed, the government will likely find it increasingly difficult to prioritize those issues in a post-Brexit, post-Covid environment when economic recovery is a more pressing issue. Equally, the report doesn’t outline what hard choices may be necessary to facilitate climate change responses, including those which may necessitate painful economic measures such as increased costs to consumers.

In the case of the government’s deeds, there is much to be desired. For as much as the document highlights the importance of international law and states that Britain will act as a paragon of virtue, its recent behavior suggests otherwise. Brexit made it clear that London will chart its own path, regardless of what agreements it has made. The government’s fight with the European Union over the implementation of post-Brexit checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain provides further evidence that London will do what it wants. The reversal of the government’s position on nuclear disarmament equally erodes the perspective of Great Britain as a country that plays it with a straight bat, to borrow a cricket phrase.

At a macro-level, the Integrated Review is to be welcomed in that it does join up the various sheets of music into one hymnal but it fundamentally fails to produce a symphony from the source material. It is broader than simply hard power defense and security issues but fails to elaborate how the government will prioritize its interests in an era of limited resources. The Integrated Review ultimately does not answer the exam question: what is Britain’s role in the 21st century?

About
Joshua Huminski
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Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.