Global Britain or Little Britain?

Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (IR2021) 

“Since the Cold War the threat from our adversaries has been evolving. Our traditional defence and deterrence capabilities remain vital, and our Armed Forces work every day to prevent terror reaching the UK’s shores. But our enemies are also operating in increasingly sophisticated ways, including cyberattacks, to further their own interests”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson


The Integrated Review 2021: The three most important words in the review are ‘competition’, ‘compete’ and ‘agility’.  The review is in effect a ten year plan designed to function much like a US National Security Strategy and has four chapters: science and technology; the open international order of the future; security and defence; and building resilience home and overseas.  Its essential purpose is to strengthen the British home base so that London’s projection of power and influence becomes more credible, and adapt the armed forces to reinforce defence, deterrence and Britain’s strategic influence. Some of the enhanced security and defence effects the review seeks to generate will demand a fusion of civil and military systems, structures and technologies. 

However, for all the talk of innovation the review’s strategic roots are deep in traditional British grand statecraft and for all the rubric of Britain being a “force for good” and a “soft superpower” the review can best be summarised thus: post-Brexit global free trade mercantilism with nukes.  The focus is on enhancing the power of the democracies through global multilateralism built on a genuinely grand strategic effort to consider how best to invest Britain’s still very considerable resources in security, defence, development and foreign policy. Britain is effectively adopting a ‘super-Harmel’ strategy by both seeking dialogue with regional adversary Russia and trade with global competitor China, whilst also preparing to defend against the very considerable ‘sub threshold’ threats they pose and across bio-security, climate change, violent extremism and CBRN.  By focusing on agility at the higher end of the conflict spectrum Britain is also seeking to reinforce its importance to NATO and the US through a greater capacity to share transatlantic burdens, even as it effectively withdraws from the land defence of Europe. In other words, the politics of this review will need to be as agile as the force it seeks to create. 

Drivers of the review: 1. Britain must in future meet the high-end ‘force-on-force’ challenge across a mosaic of hybrid war, cyber war and hyperwar that China and Russia are mounting, whilst also facing a hybrid and cyber war challenge from lesser powers and terrorists. 2. COVID-19 and the search for assured energy supplies have both accelerated and intensified dangerous global strategic competition; 3. The nature and scope of new military technology and the 5Ds of ‘sub-threshold’ continuous warfare (deception, disinformation, destabilisation, disruption and coercion through implied or actual destruction) with which Britain must contend demands a new concept of defence and new methods of deterrence; 4. Post-Brexit Britain must pivot away from Europe and “tilt towards” the high-growth Indo-Pacific (there is to be a new British ambassador to ASEAN); 5. Invest significant energy to deal with a host of wider transnational challenges, such as climate change, global health, terrorism and organised crime; and 6. Use the ship-building programme for the Royal Navy to support jobs in Scotland to weaken the appeal of Scottish independence.  

Defence-strategic aims: 1. To make British Future Force the most technologically-advanced ‘agile’ force in Europe by 2030 thus affording London a coalition leadership role and post-Brexit influence in Washington, NATO and other capitals; 2. To demonstrably invest in the defence Special Relationship by creating a British Future Force able to operate with US forces at the high end of integrated military effect across the multi-domains of air, sea, land, cyber, space (including protection of resilient space-based systems), information and knowledge as part of a new concept of deterrent escalation across a spectrum of information war, conventional war, digital/cyber war and ‘continuous at sea’ nuclear deterrence to 2070 at least. 3. To generate sufficient information, digital and defence power to enable post-Brexit Britain to exert some continued influence over European and other allies and partners, as well as being a ‘force for good’ in and of itself; 4. To generate greater strategic influence through the efficient integration of high-end military force with intelligence, diplomacy and aid and development to maintain a global presence across the civil-military spectrum, and thus retain a seat as a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council; 5) Deliver an increased British capacity to compete below the threshold of armed conflict; 6) To better defend sea-lines of communications (both surface and sub-surface) that are critical to British economic interests. 7) To restore Britain’s defence outreach by rebuilding the network of defence attaches and other elements of defence diplomacy. 

Defence in a competitive age: Britain is clearly taking a significant risk with its defence-strategic choices in the Defence Command Paper, the defence component of IR2021. The implicit post-Brexit message to the US is that alone amongst Europeans it is Britain that will maintain high-end interoperability with the US future force, but at what cost?   The message to other Europeans is that even though Britain is a nuclear-tipped island the British are still willing to defend Europe (through what it calls ‘collective action and co-creation’) but only if Britain is treated equitably by the EU and only on British terms. Indeed, the review effectively marks the end of the October 1954 commitment to station a large British land force on the European continent in support of NATO collective defence. There is also an implicit assumption that Britain will never again engage in another Afghanistan or Iraq and is thus pivoting away from land-centric extended stabilisation and reconstruction campaigns. The British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) it is not and Britain’s commitment to the future defence of Europe will be made through a profound shift of posture to one of engagement in the hybrid, cyber, hyperwar domains (across air, sea, cyber, space, nuclear and information warfare). Indeed, in 2017 when NATO assigned capability targets Britain committed to the provision of two land divisions which is now impossible. 

Whilst it survives the British-led deployable headquarters, the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC), is by and large absent from the review, which is strange given the centrality of NATO and the regional threat posed by Russia to the planning. A ‘manoeuvre division’ (3 UK Div) will be maintained in the Army’s order of battle (ORBAT), although it would not be a formation that either General Cavoli or General Gerasimov would recognise as such. The Army will also create four new US Ranger-type battalions similar to the US Green Berets, which is ironic given that the US Rangers emerged from a colonial era British force.  All of this points to transformation of Britain’s armed forces into a small, high-end strategic raider force capable of commanding complex coalitions during limited span first responder defence and deterrence operations.  However, the British will be unable to conduct extended campaigns over space, time and contact, as there will certainly be a significant further reduction in large-scale fighting power. For example, there will be no armoured infantry fighting vehicle (AIFV) with the Warrior to be replaced with a lightly armed, battlefield mobile, wheeled Boxer vehicle and there will be a paucity of tracked capability.  What presence Britain does maintain in the rest of Europe will be penny packet formations such as the battlegroup in Estonia that leads NATO’s enhanced forward presence (eFP) therein, a reconnaissance squadron in Poland as part of the US-led eFP, and the UK will also continue to support the training of Ukrainian forces, mainly through the Royal Navy.  

Defence Command Paper and Integrated Force 2030: 

Royal Navy

The Navy will invest £40m in the Royal Marines Future Commando Force over the next four years, whilst an additional £50m will be spent on converting a Bay-class support ship into a littoral strike ship, although that does raise questions about the future of HMS Bulwark and/or HMS Albion.  Two Littoral Response Groups will also be stood up and deployed first to the Euro-Atlantic Area of Operations in 2021, and then to the Indo-Pacific in 2023. All Mine Counter Measures Vessels will be retired as an automated Mine Hunting Capability (MHC) that has been developed in partnership with France is brought into service.

Several Offshore Patrol Vessels will be permanently deployed to the Falklands, the Caribbean, Gibraltar, and the Gulf to enable RN frigates and destroyers to be used more efficiently and effectively. Type 31 and Type 32 frigates will be brought into service and will provide protection for the Littoral Response Groups and be able to conduct strikes from the sea in support of resilient Ship to Objective Manoeuvre (STOM).  The air defence Type 45 destroyers are to be upgraded but the Harpoon anti-ship system phased out. A concept and assessment phase will also be commissioned for a new ‘Type 83 Destroyer’ designed to replace the Type 45 by the late 2030s. Three new Fleet Solid Support Ships will be constructed around a Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance capability, and two Multi-Role Support Ships (MRSS) by the early 2030s.


The Army will be reduced from a ‘Full-time Trade Trained’ strength of 76,000 today to 72,500 by 2025 and re-organised around two heavy Brigade Combat Teams.  The future force will be organised around 2 Heavy Brigade Combat Teams comprised of BoxerAjax and Challenger 3, 2 Light Brigade Combat Teams, 1 Deep Recce Strike Brigade Combat Team, an Air Manoeuvre Brigade Combat Team, together with a Combat Aviation Brigade Combat Team. 

148 Challenger 2 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) to be upgraded (and called Challenger 3 under a £1.3bn modernisation programme, whilst the rest will be scrapped. All Warrior AIFVs are to be retired and replaced by an up-armed BoxerMechanised Infantry Vehicle (MIV) currently under construction at a plant near Stockport with the programme due for completion in 2025.  The plan to procure Ajax Fighting Vehicles is confirmed. 

A new Ranger Regiment will be stood up in August 2020 and will form the core of a new Army Special Operations Brigade, which will draw its personnel from Specialised Infantry Battalions, such as 1 SCOTS, 2 PWRR, 2 LANCS and 4 RIFLES. £120m will be invested in the force over the next four years.  A Security Force Assistance Brigade will also be stood up to be deployed regularly at short notice world-wide in support of British defence outreach. 

£250m will be invested by 2030 in longer-range artillery fires such as the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System(GMLRS) and £800m will also be invested over 10 years in a new ‘Mobile Fires Platform’.  The Exactor missile system will be retained and upgraded for longer-term use. 

Some older Chinook helicopters will be retired from what is meant to be the Joint Helicopter Command, and newer extended range variants purchased, along with a new medium-lift helicopter by 2025 as part of a consolidation of the Army’s fleet. The Army will also upgrade Watchkeeper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

Royal Air Force

The RAF will retire its Tranche 1 Eurofighter Typhoons and Hawk T1 trainers/Red Team aircraft by 2025, whilst the C130J Hercules fleet will be retired by 2023 and replaced by the Airbus A400M, which will boost maintenance costs significantly and raises questions about suitability for some missions. However, the Typhoon force will be upgraded with new weapons systems, such as the SPEAR Cap 3 air-launched precision guided missile and the so-called Radar 2programme.  Strategic lift has been maintained with retention of the RAF’s eight Globemaster C-17 aircraft and a major capability gap has recently been filled with the procurement of five, soon to be six, Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft (MPA).

£2bn will also be invested in the Tempest Future Combat Air System (FCAS) over the next four years, whilst the E3D Sentry will be retired in 2021 as the three new E-7A Wedgetails come into service. The current order of 48 F-35B Lightning 2s will be increased to a number as yet to be specified, but probably not as high as the 138 originally envisaged. However, Britain will invest in the software and weapons upgrades to ensure the F-35 force has the constant data interface upgrades which is the sine qua non of the aircraft and which will make it in time a force hub for an array of deployed ‘loyal wingmen’ drones. This is important given that by 2030 the RAF believes 80% of air operations will be unmanned. 

The British Future Force: The spear-tip of IR2021 will be a small, high-end, maritime-amphibious-centric ‘strategic raider’ force. As such, the review emphasises both Britain’s traditional role as a blue water naval power and a coalition command designed first and foremost to share transatlantic burdens more effectively and equitably.  Indeed, buying influence in Washington is clearly central to the whole exercise. However, the trade-off is that that development of relatively small Special Forces, air-mobile and sea-mobile forces comes at the expense of the British Army which is to be further cut to fund modernisation elsewhere.  The regular Army will be cut from the current planned 82,500 to 72,500. Given that the Army is in fact already some 7500 personnel below its peacetime establishment much of the required reduction will come through euphemistic ‘natural wastage’. The shift to new technologies will also lead to further reductions in the Britain’s 227 main battle tanks, whilst the Royal Navy will in time receive additional Type 26and 31 frigates, plus a commitment to build a Type 32 frigate, even though the decommissioning of Type 23 frigates will see a temporary reduction from 19 principle surface craft to 17.  The seven planned Astute-class nuclear attack submarines will be delivered, and in time a new class of four Dreadnought nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines will replace the Vanguard class that will come towards the end of their useful operational lives from 2030 onwards.    

Value versus cost: The four-year defence deal at the heart of IR2021 will be worth £16.5bn ($21.8 billion) of additional moneys, which given that the annual defence budget is some £40bn ($56bn) such represents a yearly increase of about 10%, far beyond any comparable commitment by any other major European state.  However, (and as ever) there is some quibbling over the figures. For example, the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests there will only be £7bn ($10bn) of new money for the annual defence budget by 2025. The discrepancy is explained by the fact that existing planning envisaged the defence budget rising to £45bn ($63bn) by 2025, whilst the new plan will now see it rise to £52bn ($73bn). Downing Street’s response is thus: “The £16.5 billion extra in the Ministry of Defence’s budget over the next four years is the amount over and above the manifesto commitment. The Government has already pledged to increase defence spending by 0.5 per cent above inflation for every year of this parliament. On existing forecasts, this is an overall cash increase of £24.1bn ($33bn) over four years compared to last year’s budget”. 

Affordability: One of the many paradoxes of IR2020 is how the plan is to be afforded given that the GDP to debt ratio is just over 100.2%. In the wake of World War Two that ratio stood at 250% and London paid for it with cheap US loans and bonds issued with low yield over many years.  That approach will again be adopted. Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that Britain’s borrowing power is not what it was back in the late 1940s.  That is questionable in a world awash with credit much of it seeking a stable and long term yield.  In other words, precisely because Britain is in such debt affording the defence strategy is paradoxically cheap because the British will again take on cheap long-term debt. 

New structures:  1) a new US-style Situation Centre that will give more weight to the National Security Council and Britain’s crisis management operation; 2) a new National Cyber Force that will centralise both offensive and defensive capabilities through a fusion of both GCHQ and the Joint Forces Command; 3) a new UK Space Command that reinforces the Space Operations Centre at Air Command in High Wycombe including a launch site in Scotland. This is a deep joint force and involves personnel from the Royal Navy, British Army and the Royal Air Force and is in line (albeit far more modestly) with US Future Force planning, particularly the development of US Space Command.  The so-called ‘high frontier’ is now regarded as future war theatre for military operations. 4) Defence Intelligence believes much of forces’ equipment is some fifteen years out of date, particularly artillery and other ‘fires’.  Britain will thus create a military Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics capability with the focus on developing intelligent drone swarms, autonomous vehicles and target recognition, with a significant part of the new investment devoted to research and technology. 3) an increase in available yield-adjusted nuclear warheads from not more than 180 by 2025 to not more than 260 to provide more “operational flexibility” for the four Vanguard class British nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines; 4) a new Counter-Terrorism Operations Centre that will far more effectively combine police, intelligence and legal advice. 

Defence-industrial strategy (DIS): The just published Defence and Security Investment Strategy: A strategic approach to the UK’s security and defence industrial sectors emphasises innovation as so many of its predecessors have, and the need for a robust and appropriate skills base.  Indeed, because of the emphasis on science and technology and the development of the future force in the review it will also highlight the need to exploit the entire national (and beyond) knowledge base and supply chains far beyond the traditional defence-industrial sector.  Much of the focus will be on a major investment in science and technology which is expected to reach 2.7% GDP by 2025.  Indeed, the fusion of national and defence investment strategies across the civilian and military spectrum will be based on the applications of research. Much of the military investment will go into new technologies such as space systems, cyber, directed energy weapons, AI, biotech and quantum computing.  Much is made of the need to build supply chain resilience by actively defending it, imposing tougher requirements on foreign direct investment, creating a national tech-industrial base, harmonising trade and export practices with the US, and looking to better exploit multilateral institutions and bilateral relationships.  Critically, a defence Artificial Intelligence (AI) strategy and a defence AI centre will be forged together with investment in what the paper calls a Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) to identify innovative solutions to key challenges. 


Return to Suez? Global Britain is an attempt to fuse geopolitics and geo-economics using defence strategy as the glue.  Indeed, Britain will even seek to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). At times it is an uncertain fix being neither one thing nor another with the narrative at times over-reaching.  Indeed, after a forty or so year European detour, might well be the ultimate incarnation of London’s post-Suez strategy.  In spite of the commitment to maintain traditional ties to states in the Persian Gulf and the promise of a permanent presence in the Pacific (Singapore?) Global Britain does not envisage a return in military strength east of Suez, rather a return to the policy of never crossing the Americans on any big strategic issue.  Indeed, the plan rests on continued assured access to US technologies. Some will thus suggest that whilst the poodle will have grown a few more teeth it is still a poodle. There are clearly tensions between the civilian grand strategy and the defence strategy which is apparent in the so-called Defence Command Paper.  This effectively makes the British even more dependent on the US for enablers at the high-end of military action, the centre of the entire plan. 

Global Britain, European defence? For all the talk about the Indo-Pacific and Britain’s future influence therein the essential tension in the strategy is between London’s implicit post-Brexit mercantilist ambitions and its putative defence strategy. The latter only works if the UK adds value to the US effort and it can only really do that given the planned force posture somewhere between Spitzbergen and North Cape and the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap (GIUK) and the Greenland-Iceland-Norway (GIN) gaps or at a stretch by projecting influence into North African and the eastern Mediterranean.  Whilst much is made of the importance of NATO reading between the many lines of Global Britain it would appear Five Eyes is the real centre of strategic gravity for the British with close links to the Americans reinforced by reinvigorating traditional links to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and interestingly Japan.  This shift to more informal groupings than the Alliance is reinforced by London’s emphasis on the D10 group of global democracies (the Global West?) and to some extent the Commonwealth. 

Grandstanding Britain? There is, as ever, some significant leger de main in the implication that Britain once again seeks to become a global military power by having a quasi-permanent presence in the Indo-Pacific.  London could only ever countenance the planned deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth and the UK Carrier Strike Group into the South China Sea with strong US support, which it will have later this year, and tacit Chinese acceptance at a moment that is still reasonably permissive when Beijing would not seriously countenance an attack on a British aircraft carrier. The Chinese are simply not that dumb. If the situation was really that dangerous sending the strike group close to China would be akin to the sending of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse to deter the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1941 without air power, i.e. extremely dangerous posturing and really dumb. The reason the Americans are willing to support the deployment on this occasion is because of the messaging it sends about the Global West and the democracies standing together in the face of Chinese bullying in support of freedom of navigation. However, if the Americans gain the impression they are being played by London to make Global Britain look Global (and not for the first time) at the cost of more stress on US forces they will pull the plug, rapidly and rightly. Moreover, even for the extended deployment of one carrier strike group to the Indo-Pacific the logistics and other components needed to make such a capability credible are tight to say the least, implying even greater reliance on the US.

Ten Year Plan? The real defence vision at the heart of the Defence Command Paper is of a small, high-end coalition command force with a maritime-amphibious focus that is designed primarily to ease pressure on the US in the eastern and northern Atlantic. From that perspective the ‘plan’ makes some sense but only if London actually means it – big if – and aspiration is turned into fact.  There is much in the plan about the role of future tech in this British future force, including the development of directed energy weapons, drone swarms and their associated capabilities and sensors, the joint development of hypersonic missile systems with the US, and enhanced anti-submarine capabilities.  However, all defence technology strategies inevitably involve trade-offs in democracies and past experience suggests that this latest ten year plan might only last five dashing any hope that the Armed Forces can for once plan with certainty will be dashed. 

Beyond 2030: A June 2020 report by the National Audit Office entitled, Carrier Strike – Preparing for Deploymentcaptured the tension implicit in British defence strategy between the need to both afford the present threat whilst investing in future threat.  The decision to procure more of the F-35B Lightning 2’s above the current order for 48 is to be welcomed if it is acted upon. The two heavy aircraft carriers are at the core of Carrier-Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) and thus central to the defence strategy. Under CEPP HMS Queen Elizabeth is to be supported by HMS Prince of Wales, which is kept at a lower state of readiness, although the two ships could be used together to generate a ‘surge’ of capability if needs be.  In such circumstances, they would both operate twenty-four strike aircraft (more if needs be) which means the minimum number of aircraft needed to maintain such a capability given refits and training etc. would be between sixty and seventy.  Certainly, 48 F35s is not enough to make efficient use of the two extremely expensive ‘assets’ in which Britain has just invested over £6bn which reinforces the need for the two ships to normally operate relatively close to their home base, often in support of the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), and usually afforded some protection by land-based air power, which is somewhat ironic. 

Super-Uber? Swarms of future drones will certainly one day operate from the carriers but only when UAV and UCAV systems are far more integrated with artificial intelligence packages reinforced by advanced machine-learning, resilient quantum computing and hyper-fast command algorithms.  Another option would be to correct Philip Hammond’s false economy and refit the two carriers at considerable expense with ‘cats and traps’ and buy US capability off the shelf, quite possibly the F-35C Mark III or IV complete with an arsenal of loyal wingmen drones for deployed air defence and autonomous strike. There is one other option: the Royal Navy simply becomes a super-Uber for the US Marines Corps taking the Americans wherever they want to go (burden-sharing or burden-carrying?).  Still, unlike the French and Germans the British actually have their hands on a working 5G platform that will be developed extensively over its life cycle.

Well beyond 2030? London is also making much of the Tempest Future Combat Air System (FCAS) which if ever realised will afford the RAF an impressive command and strike platform for an array of manned and unmanned systems.  However, at present Tempest is little more than a concept circulating amongst a group of companies in Lancashire.  Past experience of such advanced British projects suggests that if Tempest ever does get off the ground it will need a bigger consortium than Italy and Sweden (possibly with France and Germany and Berlin is certainly inching towards such a deal), it will also be far more expensive than planned, and take far more time than envisaged.  London suggests Tempest could be in service by 2035. Experience again suggest it will be 2045 at the earliest before the aircraft carriers ever see the plane on their decks at which time they will be towards the end of their operating lives.  

The real challenge of force modernisation: The critical force modernisation and military-strategic challenge implicit in the defence strategy is the planned shift from counterinsurgency (COIN) force, with all of its supporting doctrines and mind-sets, into the future war strategic raider force envisaged.  In other words, the transformation of the force will need to take place in parallel with the complete rebuilding of combat support, combat support services, logistics et al which successive British governments have shamefully hollowed out. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has also said that the force will be the “right size” to face modern threats. Only time will tell. The reduction of the Army to 72,500 personnel will make it the smallest it has been since 1824 in the wake of the Congress of Vienna and the Napoleonic Wars.  Former Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Richards is right when he says that mass has a quality in and of itself because whatever the nature of an operation there will always be hard yards to be gained and, critically, held.  The tiny size of the British Army has already been noted by General Gerasimov and does afford the Russians an “asymmetric attraction”. 

The planned expanded SOF, Ranger Regiment, and Future Commando Force will also need to be constantly exercised and worked up which is expensive, however realistic synthetic simulation technologies.  The removal of any elements due to an unexpected COIN contingency would have a disproportionate effect on the cohesion of the force as a whole.  The planned force transformation will also be as much about mind-set as ‘manoeuvre’ because the future force at the heart of IR2021 will need to be a deeply joint, highly-combined, resilient command hub able to operate across air, sea, land and space whilst at the same time interfacing with the digital and information domains across the mosaic of hybrid, cyber and hyper war of not-so-future warfare. Strategic Command will thus need to really strategic. 

Communicating strategy? The various elements of Global Britain and the way it has been rolled out in packages reveal both the ambition and the complexity therein.  Precisely because the review seeks to cover so many bases it is at times confused and confusing resulting in a not unreasonable assumption that because mercantilist Britain is looking to the Indo-Pacific so is the British future force. Much of it is also aspirational and will depend on future British governments continuing to invest in an expensive strategy during a period of post-Brexit, post-COVID economic duress when how such a strategy can be afforded is not at all clear given the many other pressures on the Exchequer. Critically, and in spite of the planned boost to defence investment, the black hole in Britain’s defence equipment budget is yet to be fully closed and could well act as a continuing brake. 


European defence: What are the implications for European defence? For all of the above, if followed though, and assuming the investment is reasonably well-managed (a very big ‘if’) IR2021 could go a long way to promoting a sound British security, defence and credible twenty-first century defence and deterrence posture through a properly established Strategic Framework overseen by a suitably empowered National Security Council. Certainly, the Global Britain ‘strategy’ is far better than anything that has emerged from the rest of Europe of late, partly because Britain is far better placed on future war stuff like AI, robotics and hypersonics etc.  Global Britain also marks a return to strategic responsibility and the need for Britain to help shape the international order. Still, the ‘plan’ is only credible if Britain sees itself for what it is – an important regional-strategic but mid-ranking power capable of doing impressive things but only if properly embedded in the Alliance and enabled by the Americans.  Only then does London assertion that capability matters more than numbers start to make sense given the numbers are so small. Indeed, Global Britain is really about an adapting NATO and its strategic centre of gravity should ideally involve adding real European heft to the NATO Military Strategy, the Defence and Deterrence of the Euro-Atlantic Area Concept and a military vision for a future NATO Strategic Concept

The regional-strategic political challenge: The real problem for Global Britain is the rest of Europe and the crisis over the place and use of force in which most of it is mired. Other Europeans, such as The Netherlands, only pretend to ‘love’ the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy because they are free riders and refuse to pull their weight in the Alliance, whilst Germany continues to pretend that the future land defence of Europe will depend on Berlin’s military leadership, and the French call for Europe to be strategically and militarily autonomous without the means or the ends, whilst quietly courting the British (look at the interest in Paris in IR2021).  All of this whilst the power-obsessed European Commission poisons the vital strategic defence relationship by constantly seeking to punish post-Brexit Britain for leaving its orb and by demanding a much higher standard of border control on the inner-Irish border than anywhere else around the EU’s lamentable external border. If such tensions continue trust and cohesion amongst the European allies will be destroyed. Indeed, if the European Commission and President Macron really do seek to impose a latter day version of Napoleon’s post-Treaty of Tilsit Continental Strategy on Britain then as a nuclear-armed island with excellent intelligence and counter-terrorism capabilities IR2021 reaffirms that Britain would simply turn even further from the future defence of Europe – a lose-lose situation for all – and look for allies elsewhere (Five Eyes plus Japan?). 

At the very least, Europeans must stop attacking each other for narrow political reasons and return to the shared realisation that given the geopolitical pressures the Americans face, and given the relative weight of ALL Europeans in the twenty-first century world, the frighteningly big picture imposes on them a first and foremost need to become effective, collective high end first responders to all and any threat in, around and to Europe. The British are at least trying to balance the ends, ways and means for their part in such a force, but are they welcome? The rest of Europe is not even trying. Just talking. Indeed, with the possible exception of France, Britain is the one European power that seems to have noticed that there is a ‘world’ beyond Europe.

At the core of Europe’s future war, future defence there will need to be a European future force able to act as a first responder at the high end of deterrence and thus credible as a force across air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge.  That is precisely the ambition implicit in IR 2021 and perhaps its greatest paradox: the plan only really makes sense as a command hub to enable a NATO-centric high-end, first response European future force that helps to ease the burden on the US just at the moment Britain is both disengaging from the defence of Europe and being forced out by the European Commission. 


Does IR2021 pass the geopolitical smell test?  Is the strategic ambition implicit in the review appropriate for the world’s fifth or sixth largest economy given the scope and nature of threats and opportunities Britain faces?  The good news, on balance, is that the answer is yes.  The two prior reviews (SDSR 2010 and SDSR 2015) were little more than politics dressed up as strategy and built on the dangerous premise of how much threat London believed Britain could afford.  IR 2021 is at least an attempt to systematically identify what threats must be afforded, in what opportunities Britain should invest and the ends, ways and means needed to realise such a balance. IR2021 is thus appropriate for a Britain that has the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world and over the coming years will shift much of its trading patterns from Europe to the growth centres of the Indo-Pacific via high added value trade (the real message of the document). However, whilst the increase in the defence budget is to be welcomed is it enough?  If one breaks down all the military tasks and their associated costs the required investment would be closer to 3% GDP compared with the 2.2% GDP of today.  

Ultimately, IR2021 is a deterrence and punishment review designed to put discretion over the use of British force firmly back in the hands of the British prime minister.  As such, it will be measured in the decade to come by the effects and influence it generates across the hybrid, cyber and hyper war spectrums.  It says to the Americans that Britain in future will ease the burden of force entry at the higher end of operations by having the capability to get in, hit hard and get out fast. However, Britain will not clear up afterwards by staying for extended periods in dangerous places.  The focus is on national security and defence, in particular the new deterrence that stretches across the information, digital, conventional and nuclear spectrum, but which also implicitly recognises that if World War Three really does break out we are all screwed whatever the size of the British force. Many will complain of the loss of another Army battalion and over one hundred aircraft from the inventory but much of what is to be cut is in any case obsolete.  

Above all, the vision in the Defence Command Paper is for a Plug, Play and Fire Coalition Force, available to Five Eyes as much as NATO, a force for a good D10 as much as an additional ‘US’ component force. For once the force envisioned by and large matches the threat assessment in Global Britain and suggests a new balance between ends, ways and means.  Not the ends, ways and means of the future force itself, but the civil-military fusion that will be needed to mount a twenty-first century multi-domain defence across 5D warfare. A fusion of force and resource that will require a level of unity of effort and purpose and transformed ways of working hitherto unknown across Whitehall and beyond, and demanding of Britain’s political leadership immersion in defence they have avoided for several generations, including playing themselves in regular exercises and increasingly important synthetic simulation.  As such, a particular onus will fall on the National Security Council that will need the status, the structure and the people its importance will demand if critical ‘competitive advantage’ really is the goal.  Above all, this is a bridging review between an analogue past and a truly digital future in which driven by AI, machine-learning and quantum computing the speed of command will be such that all defence systems could one day be by and large unmanned. 

Finally, IR2021 is not only a choice, it is also a gamble that will set the strategic direction of travel of British foreign, security and defence policy for a generation.  But, at least it IS a choice, not the little bit of everything but not much of anything nonsense that has imposed such attrition on the force for so long and as such it is to be commended. So, Global Britain? Possibly not.  Little Britain? No, it is better than that. Rather, IR2021 is a down-payment on a strategically serious Britain, even if the tension between the future war vision at its core and the peacetime funding that ‘supports’ it remains. 

Julian Lindley-French,

March 2021