Integrated Review 2021 – Rumour mill

 This is an open post to that will be kept updated in the run-up to the Integrated Review, due to be published in 2021. Here we will list some of the related media speculation and rumours and try to provide some context and comment, especially in relation to the future of the Royal Navy.

The government says the review will set the “long-term strategic aims of international policy and national security, rooted in our national interests so that our activity overseas delivers for the British people”. It will encompass “all aspects of international and national security policy, such as defence, diplomacy, development and national resilience. In doing so, it will re-examine the UK’s priorities and objectives”. The aims of the review are clearly highly ambitious but an attempt to match defence and security policy with foreign policy is long overdue. If executed and resourced properly, it could equip the UK for the tough challenges ahead. Unfortunately, even before the pandemic, resources were inadequate and there is a strong possibility that the outcome will again be cuts dressed up as strategy.

The timeframe for publication of the review is unclear but the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) due in Autumn 2020 should give some indication of the financial limitations at least. If the manifesto commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence is adhered to, then a forecast post-COVID 9% contraction in GDP, would translate into a brutal reduction in the MoD’s budget of around £5Bn per year.

Health warning

In the period before a defence review, it is traditional for the media to carry a variety of speculative reports about dramatic changes to force structures. Typically ‘defence sources’ or un-named ‘ministry insiders’ will be quoted making unverified statements about what “might” have been decided. These press reports and rumours should not be given too much credence, although they may have elements of truth and serve to highlight the pressures that exist. Unauthorised briefings or ‘leaks’, on specific proposals, are usually intended to either test the waters of public opinion or generate an outcry that makes it politically too difficult to implement.

Broadly speaking the leaks are unhelpful, undignified and make it harder for the unfortunate souls within the MoD being forced to take very tough decisions. Servicemen working in Main Building and reaching out to a Broadsheet Defence Correspondent if their particular area of concern is under threat, is not a sensible or sustainable way to shape something as critical as strategic defence policy. There is a strong argument that says if the three services presented a really united front to government, they might all get better outcomes in the long run. However, these reports do provide a useful insight to outsiders about what options are under consideration and depending on your perspective, an opportunity to mobilise opposition against the worst proposals.

Stop Press

Anti-submarine warships could be cut down to single figures (Daily Telegraph 27 Aug 20)

The headline is rather misleading because ASW frigates are already down to single figures (The RN has just 8 towed array sonar-equipped Type 23s). The article goes on to suggest that only the 3 Type 26 frigates already on order will be built, instead of the 8 planned. This report lacks credibility, given the investment in Type 26 which is now, perhaps second only to the Dreadnought programme, in terms of importance to the RN. Mothballing one of the aircraft carriers would make more sense than accepting such a tiny escort force, especially in the face of a growing submarine threat.

Britain may halve fighter jet purchases (The Times 26 Aug 20)

This article suggests that UK F-35 procurement which is supposed to total 138 (into the 2040s) to be capped at 70 aircraft. This is primarily because the RAF wants to divert funds to the development of the ‘optionally manned’ Tempest fighter. 70 F-35s would be the very bare minimum to generate credible carrier air groups, provided they are all B version and delivered at a reasonable pace. From a strategic perspective, this is about balancing the distant future of combat air against the needs of carrier-enabled power projection. Depending on your viewpoint, Tempest is either vital to support domestic industry and the foundation of future air warfare or another hyper-expensive job creation scheme and be inferior to what could be obtained from the US.

Defence review to prioritise protecting undersea cables from Russian spy submarines (Daily Telegraph 21 Aug 20)

An argument that is hard to disagree with. The danger to critical underwater communications infrastructure is yet another threat vector that review must consider. Since obtaining more than 7 SSNs for the RN is virtually an industrial impossibility, the implications for this would be that investment in additional assets would be required such as Extra Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (XLUUVs). There are many other opportunities to enhance UK ASW capability that should be examined.

Royal Marines and 20,000 troops cut to make way for space and cyber war (Daily Telegraph 5 July 20)

Speculation about cuts to the Army and Royal Marines is always a defence review favourite. Already way under its intended strength, one of the biggest issues for the review will be to define what exactly is the strategic purpose of the British Army. Arguably the Royal Marines are the UK’s best fighting formation and if troop numbers must be reduced they should be the very last in line for reductions. Of course, as they are funded from the Navy budget, such logic may not be applied. Amphibious warfare doctrine may be changing but this should not be an excuse to cut platforms unless replaced with equivalents.

Recommended reading

Tracking the Integrated Review (RUSI 2020)

Integrated Review: a reading list (House of Commons Library 21 Aug 20)

Towards the Integrated Review (Think Defence 3 Sept 20)

Integrated Review – an approach to national security (Phil B 11 Sept 20)

Tapping for Gold – Data, Submarine Cables and the Defence Review (Thin Pinstripe Line 22 Aug 20)

Tanks For Nothing? The British Army and the Integrated Review (Thin Pinstripe Line 25 Aug 20)

A Guide to the 2020 Integrated Review (UK Land Power July 20)

Corona Virus: Britain Needs its ‘Mojo’ Back (The Wavell Room 3 Jun 20)