Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.
As civilians bask in the sunlit vision of Global Britain described in Tuesday’s Integrated Review, this is an anxious weekend for the country’s military.
Monday’s Defence Command Paper will set out the future for Britain’s Armed Forces. The lull between the two Reviews is less than a week, but it might well represent the gulf between the dreams and reality.
As the Prime Minister set out his plan for Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the fizzing, optimistic Boris we know, love and elected with a stonking 80-seat majority was back.
Global Britain outlined the country’s security and international policy objectives for the next five years and beyond. The Prime Minister-penned foreword crackles with can-do about a stronger, more secure and prosperous Britain being a force for good in the world. In the Commons on Tuesday, he was no less upbeat. Britain would be a science superpower, lead by example on Carbon Net Zero, and be ‘more dynamic abroad.’ Not for Britons ‘the cramped horizons of a regional foreign policy.’
Few listening seem to have been troubled by the paradox that the horizons of Britain’s citizens are currently pretty cramped as we are currently under house arrest and forbidden to leave the country to see the world which the Prime Minister was describing. Planet Integrated Review is not only post-pandemic but is a place where the West seems mysteriously unaffected by its governments icing their economies for a year and racking up trillions in debt.
Global Britain was described as ‘the most comprehensive Review since the Cold War’. For those connected to the Armed Forces with long memories of previous Defence Reviews, this phrase probably caused hearts to sink a tad.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, in July 1990 John Major’s government published Options for Change, its post-Cold War assessment of Britain’s future defence capability. Its aim was ‘smaller forces, better equipped, properly trained and housed and well-motivated.’
Many Forces’ personnel were right to stop listening after ‘smaller’: the government aimed to cut strength by 18 per cent over five years, down to 155,000 Servicemen and women.
Highlighting the difference between the theory of defence reviews and the actual practice of international events, less than a week after the launch of Options for Change, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. For all the talk of The End of History and President George HW Bush’s new world order, within weeks British armour and boots were on the ground in Saudi Arabia ahead of the Gulf War.
The swingeing cuts to the Royal Navy outlined in the 1981 Defence Review were on the brink of being implemented just as Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. Had the Buenos Aires junta delayed, the core of the naval task force – HMSs Hermes, Invincible, Fearless and Intrepid – would have probably been scrap and Port Stanley today would still be renamed Puerto Argentino. Sir Lawrence Freedman, the official historian of the conflict, observed that the Falklands ‘was precisely the war for which Britain was planning least’.
While the Blair government’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review is lauded for trying to marry strategic ends and military means, its successors failed to anticipate how protracted the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan might be. The Coalition’s abysmal 2010 Review saw the sell-off of Forces’ family silver, including the Royal Navy’s flagship HMS Ark Royal and RAF Nimrods.
Having banged on about the Military Covenant – the unwritten compact by which Forces’ personnel will be supported in exchange for their service to the nation – David Cameron was caught on camera being berated by a soon-to-be-unemployed Harrier pilot whose fleet was about to be axed. A UK aircraft carrier might have come in handy during the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya when France deployed the Charles de Gaulle.
Despite Boris Johnson’s assertion that Global Britain is not a reflection of old obligations, the Integrated Review’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific region inevitably conjures up the UK’s long-lost military and naval reach, which stretched far beyond the Mediterranean. The January 1968 decision to withdraw from all bases East of Suez – which marked a turning point in Britain’s defence and foreign policy – was not made in any Review but on ‘black Tuesday’ by a Harold Wilson Cabinet buffeted by the shock devaluation of sterling two months earlier.
In the context of defence, Global Britain reinforces the direction of travel for the Armed Forces set out in September’s Integrated Operating Concept. In a speech on the IOC, the Chief of the Defence Staff General, Sir Nick Carter highlighted how Britain’s military must shift from ‘an industrial age of platforms to an information age of systems’. In November, the Prime Minister announced that defence spending would be boosted by £16.5 billion over the next five years, with £6.6 billion going to research and development, particularly AI.
Global Britain underlines the ongoing commitment to NATO, how current defence spending at 2.2 per cent of GDP exceeds the Alliance’s minimum, and that the Government is on the starting blocks to begin the biggest programme of defence investment for three decades, which will include the newer battlegrounds of cyber and space.
Along with the exhilarating prospect of the next generation of naval vessels, Dreadnought submarines and the Future Combat Air System, is the intent towards ‘reshaping our Armed Forces for a more competitive edge’. Andy Smith, the Director of Defence UK observes: ‘The Integrated Review is a very good start, but until we see more of the details on funding and capabilities, the jury is out.’
We will have confirmation on Monday about whether Britain’s Armed Forces are to be the world’s most technologically advanced, able more effectively to operate in the grey zone between war and peace – and will be smaller.