Britain’s Integrated Review: A Science and Tech Superpower with an Indo-Pacific Tilt

Nick Fishwick,Former Senior Member, British Foreign Office

Nick Fishwick CMG retired in 2012 after nearly thirty years in the British Foreign Service which included postings in Lagos, Istanbul and Kabul. He served in London as director of security and, after returning from Afghanistan in 2007, as director for counterterrorism. His last role in government was as director general for international operations.  

Conrad Prince, Former Deputy Director, GCHQ

Conrad Prince served as the Director General for Operations and Deputy Director of GCHQ from 2008 – 2015. He led GCHQ’s intelligence operations and was responsible for the development of the UK’s national offensive cyber capability. From 2015 – 2018 he was the UK’s first Cyber Security Ambassador, leading cyber capacity building work with a number of key UK allies.

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — If the British public have read their government’s integrated defence review, introduced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Parliament last Tuesday, they will have realised that there is a whole lot more to defending the country these days than just having good armed forces.

The review is very wide-ranging. There is a lot about cyber; space; the global struggle to uphold liberal values; international governance and human rights; the importance of climate change (our “number one international priority”) to global security; health; international alliances; international rivalries; the importance of investing in scientific R and D and new technologies like quantum; terrorism; organised crime; and the nuclear deterrent. And lots more. And this has to be right. Everyone will be clear about the ever-growing diversification of potentially existential threats. We realised twenty years ago, that we could not just contain terrorism by leaving it to the police and security agencies, however good they were: we needed an effort across government, and we needed the active consent of society. The integrated review is informed by this and requires a cross-government and cross-society approach to the threats and challenges facing us. It recognises that in many crucial sectors, what matters will be what universities and the private sector do, rather than what government does.

Much attention has been paid to the fact that the number of nuclear warheads has been raised from “up to” 180 to “up to” 260. Depending on what “up to” means, this is a big proportionate increase though it would still leave the UK’s arsenal smaller than France’s, let alone the big beasts China, Russia and the US. The review itself was noticeably reticent on the reasons for this increase, simply saying that minimal deterrence through 180 warheads was no longer “possible”. So the reasoning is sensitive; national security professionals will know why, and they will have been helped by ministerial comments that the growing threat of Russian nuclear capability is at least part of the reason. Still, not everyone is happy with this. Does it show that we have given up on multilateral nuclear disarmament? Is it another excuse to reduce our army, now due to be cut to a size that could comfortably be contained in a football stadium – something former US defence secretary/CIA chief Leon Panetta has expressed concern about?

The review is not designed to provide the “how”, and that will be the big challenge for Britain over the next ten years. The nuclear niggle aside, most people will support the need to modernise our military, the central importance of responding adequately to the climate crisis, the imperative to get more competitive in the S and T realm, defend and promote our values, counter aggression in traditional and non-traditional spaces, and so on. An army that would take two football stadia to contain would still not guarantee that. But the “how” will be the question to watch. British politicians have been scathing about the ability of our defence ministry to implement big programmes without waste or delay. Governments themselves have to stay focused: the review has encouraging language about its faith in our values, but some fear that authoritarian regimes have been better at implementation and long-term planning than divided, distractable western democracies. It is of the utmost importance to push back on that narrative.

One of the more striking aspects of the review is the emphasis on significantly boosting the UK’s position on science and technology, so that by 2030 it has become a ‘science and tech superpower’. In a narrow military sense this is part of the aspiration to shift from a traditional set of armed forces with legacy conventional capability to one more rooted in data, AI, cyber, space technology and all the rest. But it is a much broader agenda than that. The doubling down on tech represents the UK’s response to the challenges of the globalisation of technology, and a pivot east in tach innovation, with a particular China dimension.  The review presents a new ‘own-collaborate-access’ model for vital new tech where the UK will either lead the development itself, collaborate with other friendly states, or acquire the tech, in a risk managed, way from elsewhere.  And there is a big emphasis on increasing investment in UK R&D, improving pull through and commercialisation of research, and developing a long-term approach to growth in critical areas like quantum and bio-tech.  Overall, this reflects the UK increasingly looking to build its future global power and influence on science, innovation, technology, and R&D.

Cyber is a key part of this and the review gives some hints as to the focus of the UK’s new cyber strategy, due later this year. Along with the cyber dimension to the tech agenda, there is a much-needed focus on further boosting resilience on the critical national infrastructure.  There’s a strong international dimension too, looking to do more to promote the Western vision of a free, open and secure internet in the face of competing models from Russia and China.  On offensive cyber, it is striking that the UK emphasises the use of all levers – including political, economic, legal and strategic communications – alongside offensive cyber as a means of responding to hostile attacks.  This reflects a more nuanced approach beneath the recent hyping of the National Cyber Force, the UK’s new offensive cyber organisation.

The Cipher Brief hosts member-only briefings with the world’s most experienced national and global security experts.  Become a member today.

In some ways, the review is a restatement of Britain’s traditional place in the world. In terms of allies, it could not be clearer that “the United States will remain our most important bilateral relationship” and if this should be a statement of the obvious it is still, post-Trump, good to see it re-emphasied. There is reassurance that European countries, notably France, Germany and Poland, will remain critically important allies; the UK will remain a big defence spender; NATO will remain our strategic military cornerstone; the 5 Eyes community will become of still greater importance than before. The review ranges into other global partnerships and at points gets into a bit of tangle, trying to square these alliances with our “values”. So we are told that values “guide” our policy, but that does not stop us from working with partners “who do not necessarily share the same values”. Sounds like the values guide you so far but after a certain point you chuck the map away and revert to good old realpolitik.

Which leads us to the “Indo-Pacific tilt” – the most significant part of the review geopolitically. The review is reasonably careful in its language about China. We see a restatement of the desire to push back where Chinese regional assertiveness or authoritarian actions challenge our interests and beliefs, combined with a desire to cooperate over trade and climate change. I have not seen much evidence so far that President Xi will be happy to decouple these issues. But the review is pretty clear that the Indo-Pacific (ie, the region surrounding China) is of growing economic importance and has a growing number of potential geo-political flashpoints. So, the UK will play an actively supportive role to the US in the region, looking for closer relationships with ASEAN and with key regional players like Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and – above all, it would seem – India. There will be a bigger British military presence in the region, a more integrated cyber capability and as the review euphemistically says considerably more resources will be devoted to a better “understanding” of China.

Overall, while one can challenge the review here and there, the breadth of focus and the geo-political rethink have to be right. The recognition of the multiplicity of threats, in new theatres, and of the diversity of responses required, is encouraging; so is the continued importance of traditional friendships, above all with the US. The restatement of values is also important, especially as our global competitor China has more confidence in its own values than the Soviet Union ever had. And the review makes it clear that even after the economy has had a prolonged COVID kicking, serious amounts of money will be made available to realise its aspirations. But exactly how this is made to happen remains to be seen.

Read more expert-driven perspective, analysis and opinion in The Cipher Brief

Leave a Reply

Related Articles