UK Government sets the stage for sweeping defence review

Harry Lye 20 December 2019 (Last Updated December 20th, 2019 11:18)

The UK’s new Conservative government led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson used yesterday’s Queen’s speech to outline a sweeping review of the UK’s defence, security and foreign policy.

UK Government sets the stage for sweeping defence review
Ministry of Defence Main Building Headquarters in London. Credits: MOD Crown Copyright.

The UK’s new Conservative government led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson used yesterday’s Queen’s speech to outline a sweeping review of the UK’s defence, security and foreign policy.

The speech, which outlines the government’s legislative agenda for the next five years, made several commitments on defence spending and veterans that had earlier been outlined in the Conservative party’s manifesto before they won last week’s General Election. It also delivered on a campaign promise to launch “the biggest review of our defence, security and foreign policy since the end of the Cold War”.

Speaking in the House of Lords, the UK’s upper chamber, the Queen said: “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.”

The UK last undertook a National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in 2015; however, next year’s review will bake in foreign policy in a move that former Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood said would help the UK respond to emerging threats in different domains.

Ellwood tweeted: “Much domestic focus but also a plan to review and reset our hard & soft power capabilities. The character of conflict is tilting towards constant economic interference. We are long overdue a grand strategy to better coordinate our international-facing ministries.”

The Prime Minister’s top advisor Dominic Cummings will likely head the review up after it was reported earlier this week that he would lead an overhaul of Ministry of Defence (MOD) procurement. Cummings is a critic of the UK’s aircraft carrier purchase, having described the process as a ‘farce’ in a blog post. Cumming’s on his blog has also criticised MOD’s “revolving door of officials/lobbyists.”

Mentioned in briefing notes released by the Prime Minister’s office are a commitment to “Examine the entire procurement process used by the armed forces, intelligence agencies and other security forces.

“Developing world-leading procurement practices will save the armed forces significant money in the long-term, help to improve capability and ensure new technologies are delivered faster.”

The notes give a better sense of the scale of the review detailing how it will look into the armed forces, intelligence services, and counter-terrorism and will be developed with Foreign Policy in mind to help the UK’s international facing ministries have a more coherent message across Whitehall.

The briefing notes detail how the 2015 SDSR has shaped armed forces policy for the past half a decade are now out of date saying: “The world has moved on since 2015, bringing new opportunities and challenges and exposing the need for an approach that is more fit-for-purpose.”

Priorities for the review will be spending money more effectively, implying the MOD will be pushed to make more efficiency savings, with the briefing notes saying the MOD will look to “sustainably reduce its cost base in the long term”. The review also sets up the government to “undertake a technological upgrade of our national security capabilities so they are ahead of hostile powers, terrorists, and organised crime — and unlike previous exercises government must develop an integrated plan for all forces engaged in security.”

Briefing notes also detail how as the UK leaves the European Union, the UK must forge stronger ties with Europe’s security and intelligence apparatus, and reaffirm its commitment to NATO. The Queen’s Speech also reiterated an earlier campaign promise to maintain defence spending at the NATO recommended 2% of GDP with a yearly rise in spending of .5% above inflation.

The Queen said: “My ministers will continue to invest in our gallant armed forces. My government will honour the Armed Forces Covenant, which will be further incorporated into law, and the NATO commitment to spend at least two per cent of national income on defence.”

The UK manages the European Union’s largest defence budget, and once the UK leaves the EU almost 80% of NATO’s budget will come from outside the EU.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace praised the financial commitment saying: “The interests of the men and women of our armed forces are at the heart of this government. That is why we are continuing to invest above inflation every year to meet our NATO commitments.”

Briefing notes also say the government will look to improve “collaboration with scientists and technology companies” to better develop British investments in space and advanced computing technologies to bolster national security. The notes go on to say that the full scope and criteria of the sweeping review will be announced early in 2020.

In his annual speech this month at the Royal United Services Institute, the Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter said that a new SDSR would help the UK’s Armed Forces “answer some of these significant strategic questions” relating to topics of political warfare and great power competition, information and the pace of technological change.

Carter said: “I suggest that our starting point for a review should be a proper assessment of the threat and this should take the form of a net assessment that determines where our current trajectory will take us in 2030 relative to those of our competitors.

“We might deduce from this that our approach to deterrence needs updating, for the form of authoritarian political warfare that we are confronted with requires a more dynamic approach.”

Carter went onto say that any review would reaffirm commitment to NATO and its success as an alliance while also taking a frank look at the UK’s armed forces saying: “A defence review though will also need to be honest about the true state of our forces.” He also called for a future review to take a “proper look at our defence industrial strategy” to ensure the industry can support national security effectively.

The speech also committed the government to many other measures directed towards the armed forces including committing more of the Armed Forces Covenant to law, legislation to protect personnel and veterans from “vexatious claims”, a new veterans railcard, guaranteed job interviews for public sector roles, reducing national insurance contributions for companies that higher veterans, expanding childcare support for currently serving personnel and protection from devolved tax-rises in Scotland.