17 July 2020

The strategic defence and security review is back on the British Government’s priorities’ agenda

Negoiţă Sorin

According to the decision made at the end of last year, the Great Britain’s government wants, following the 2020 priority agenda, to establish a new strategic/integrated review of defence and security, to reevaluate the United Kingdom’s position and role on the international political scene, given its withdrawal from the European Union. In the meantime, due to the SARS CoV-2 virus global spread and the pandemic, the London officials were forced, this spring, to take a break from the elaboration process of the strategic planning document of defence, to focus more on the necessary measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic’s effects. However, recently, thanks to easing the restrictions as much as possible so that to return to normality, the strategic review might return to the priorities of the London Cabinet.

Image source: Profi Media

The British Government has decided to make a strategic defence review since the end of 2019

Shortly before ending the withdrawal process from the European Union (Brexit), Great Britain’s government showed its interest in making a new strategic defence and security review, to be completed in July 2020. To that end, in the December 19th 2019 speech, Queen Elisabeth II has stated that “My Government will work to promote and expand the United Kingdom’s influence in the world. An Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review will be undertaken to reassess the nation’s place in the world, covering all aspects of international policy from defence to diplomacy and development”.

Afterwards, at the beginning of this year (February 26th), the Government led by Boris Johnson presented to the British Parliament, through a written statement, the SDSR 2020 priorities, including:

i) Define the Government's ambition for the UK's role in the world and the long-term strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy.

ii) Set out the way in which the UK will be a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation, examining how we work more effectively with our allies.

iii) Determine the capabilities we need for the next decade and beyond to pursue our objectives and address the risks and threats we face.

iv) Identify the necessary reforms to Government systems and structures to achieve these goals.

v) Outline a clear approach to implementation over the next decade and set out how we will evaluate delivery of our aims.

Furthermore, Boris Johnson stated that the review will involve British experts from the Defence Ministry and the Downing Street 10, but also advisers and some allies. They want to create „the biggest review of our foreign, defence, security and development policy since the end of the Cold War”, which will “be underpinned by the commitments the Government has already made to continue to exceed the NATO target of spending 2% of GDP on Defence[1], to commit 0.7% of GNI[2] to international development and to maintain the nuclear deterrent”. Also, the prime minister ensured the British Parliament and the National Security Council that they will permanently be informed about the evolution of the SDSR elaboration process.

Starting with 2010, the Great Britain’s Government established that it will elaborate the SDSR once in five years, but the strategic document to be created this year will be all the more important as it should consider the country’s foreign policy needs when the United Kingdom just left the EU. Therefore, on one hand, there are uncertainties about the its long term-relations with Europe, and on the other hand, Great Britain could decide “how much” the transatlantic relation will matter and if it can rely, in the future, on its traditional partner, the US. Furthermore, when elaborating the SDRS, the Government will have to consider, for the first time, the lessons learned during the coronavirus pandemic, which led to a deep economic crisis which seriously affected the defence budget. Moreover, this led, according to the Defence’s Commission of the British Parliament announcement (April 15th) to the formal suspension of the defence and security review analysis and, implicitly, to deadline’s postponement of the planning document’s completion. To that end, the president of the defence commission, Tobias Elwood, stated that “There would be no point in conducting an in-depth review of the nation’s defence and security challenges to an artificial deadline, especially at a time when Whitehall is rightly focusing on tackling coronavirus”.

The last SDSR were “delivered” by the Governments led by David Cameron, in 2010 and 2015, however, bear in mind that the one elaborated 10 years ago was strongly influenced by the global financial crisis from 2008. Therefore, the 2010 SRSR did not reach its reconfiguration goals for the Armed Forces through the global threats, but it rather “cut” the three categories of the armed forces, with the 8% decrease of the defence costs. Some of the projects were postponed, others were reduced as magnitude or simply cancelled. However, there was no decrease equal to Great Britain’s foreign policy ambitions, in fact, it all happened due to the great number of dislocations of British military in the Iraq and Afghanistan theatres of operations.

On the other hand, the 2015 SDRS tried to direct the international terrorism fight costs (ISIS and other non-state organizations), focusing on creating more reduced expeditionary forces and on special forces. According to those involved in the process, all have been made underestimating the Russia’s conventional military capacity, which allowed Kremlin to become an important player in the civil war with Syria.

The defence planning is back on the British Government’s agenda

Thanks to the fact that the British Government focused more, this spring, on tackling the SARS CoV-2 VIRUS, which seriously affected the United Kingdom, the new strategic review was unstable during all this time and it became even harder to think of a time when this could be ended. However, as the coronavirus pandemic seems to have overcome its peak and life is increasingly confident that it will get back to the long-awaited “normal”, the SDRS 2020 might be again on Johnson’s Government priority list. Indeed, the completion term was again postponed for the end of the year or even the beginning of the following year.

Before the coronavirus pandemic emerged, the integrated/strategic review aimed at redefining the role and position Great Britain plays on the international scene, as well as the reconfiguration of the defence and security needs based on the current security challenges, the committed priorities and the foreign policy objectives. Therefore, the British Government is aware of the necessity of adopting a package of more realistic defence and security tasks to reach high standards, but to consider the British economic dimension and the threats and challenges the United Kingdom might face in the present.

Alike the other European states, Great Britain is affected by a health crisis and an economic one, similar as size to the financial one that took place 10 years ago. This might produce, as expected, a 9% GDP decrease, which will negatively influence the defence budget as well. So, the expected decrease might get to the amount lost after 2010 and, implicitly, the modernization projects of the three force categories of the army could be postponed and some of them even suspended, despite the hopes of British military leaders.

Source: Statista.com[3]

The continuously changing international security environment is the foundation of the SDSR

On the other hand, when the UK is facing two extremely demanding challenges, Brexit and the fight against the effects of Covid-19, the world seems to be more unstable, more dangerous and more volatile than it once was, after the end of the Cold War. From a British perspective, the main threats to global security are the aggressive and expansive behavior of some states, but also the accession to power of totalitarian regimes that want to rule at any cost.

Thus, China's failure to timely warn about the danger and severity of coronavirus, its aggressive actions in the South China Sea, uninterrupted economic expansion in Africa and Asia, but also in some areas of Europe, and zero tolerance for protesters in Hong Kong, make the British Government pay more and more attention to the Asian state's commitment to world economic supremacy and the consolidation of its global power status.

At the same time, Russia is seen as a threat to NATO and Europe, especially the Baltic and the Black Sea, while running an active campaign (cyber, hybrid, proxy actions) to destabilize governments that have supported sanctions against  the annexation of Crimea. On the other hand, North Korea, which continues to develop ballistic missiles and strives to improve its nuclear ambitions, as well as Iran, which remains the main "active sponsor" of international terrorism, represent also, in the British sense, possible enemies and destabilization factors of the global balance.

Given these potential threats and the need to rethink defense and security, the United Kingdom is aware that a decrease in defense funding would create a further postponement of ongoing or approval modernization projects. Moreover, previous experiences should remind the Brits that the current conflicts are unfolding with unexpected speed and gravity, which means limited reaction time. Therefore, starting a possible conflict would take place with the available resources, not with the desired ones in an ideal situation.

The most important commitment for SDRS 2020

Analyzing the context wherein the current strategic/integrated defense review is taking place, defense analyst Nicholas Drummond (former British Army officer) proposes, in Article A Guide to the 2020 Integrated Review, priorities/defense commitments for SDSR 2020. According to him, there are four priorities that must be taken into account in the preparation of the planning document: internal defense (national), protecting the interests of Great Britain and the Commonwealth abroad, compliance with its NATO Treaty obligations and the support for UN resolutions. These priorities would in turn involve five types of missions with varying degrees of risk and intensity: deterrence, hybrid or proxy warfare, peace support, limited wars and major conflicts.

So, according to the British analyst, the main priority is the internal defense of the United Kingdom, which, theoretically, includes the resources of the British Armed Forces to prevent an invasion, but based on the status of an island state, this scenario is less likely. Therefore, a possible enemy could act from the inside to sabotage the key power supply and water supply infrastructure or the food supply chain. However, the main responsibility for this lies with the UK police or security services (MI5 and MI6). There is also a need to protect the British seaways and airspace, as well as stepping up measures against threats of cyber attacks or hacking attempts.

A second priority is to protect the interests of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth states abroad, as well as their potential trading partners. This is a significant responsibility for ensuring the UK's economic prosperity after the end of Brexit, all the more so as China is promoting a capturing markets policy in less developed countries. This makes capitalizing on business opportunities with existing or potential partners worldwide becoming a higher priority than ever before.

Thirdly, compliance with the UK's obligations under the NATO Treaty is and must stay a key priority of the London’s Government. As provided for in Article 5 of the Treaty, any attack on a NATO Member State is considered an attack on all, and so if China or Iran were to attack the US, the British could be drawn into a conflict in Asia or the Middle East.

Last but not least, as a member of the UN, the United Kingdom could receive, based on the Security Council resolutions (where it is a permanent member), the request to join an international coalition to support the UN, which would involve missions to support and maintaining peace.

The future relation of Great Britain with the traditional partner, the US

Given this year's defence and security review, Secretary of Defense (Minister of Defense) Ben Wallace warned, in an interview with The Sunday Times, in January, that London should get ready to intervene in various conflicts without Washington's support, amid growing concerns about President Trump's increasingly isolationist foreign policy. The British politician acknowledged that the prospect of America's withdrawal from the commitments it has made over time in various parts of the world "keeps me awake at night".

Wallace also argued that the SDSR 2020 should give the British Government the opportunity to rethink the military assumptions, in effect since 2010, that Britain will always fight alongside the US. He believes that options should be considered to cover the lack of capabilities that London can only provide through the US. According to the minister, information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) is an area to which the United Kingdom has had privileged access from Washington: “We are very dependent on American air coverage and American intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. We need to diversify our means”.

As for defense planning, the British Army has so far assumed that any major operation will be carried out in cooperation with the US Army. In this regard, the Minister of Defense believes that this issue should be rethought, so the current defense and security review will be a good opportunity to identify courses of action that will make the UK less dependent on the US in conflicts and future operations.  Also, the British planners will have to consider the future of the cooperation relation between the United Kingdom and UE, given that the military partnership between the two parts is not clear yet and it might start to become clearer only after ending the post-Brexit negotiations.

Translated by Andreea Soare

[1] The United Kingdom is the third NATO member state to allocate more than 2% of GDP to defense (2.15%), after the United States (3.38%) and Greece (2.32%).

[2] The Gross National Income is is the total domestic and foreign output claimed by residents of a country, consisting of gross domestic product (GDP), plus factor incomes earned by foreign residents, minus income earned in the domestic economy by nonresidents . https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gross_national_income

[3] Data were collected from https://www.statista.com/statistics/283300/united-kingdom-uk-military-defense-spending-y-on-y/