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The Security, Defence and Foreign Policy review – what’s in store?

Boris Johnson, the UK’s most comfortable Prime Minister in quite some time, has promised the ‘biggest security, defence and foreign policy review since the end of the Cold War.’

Given the Conservative Party’s comprehensive election victory at the end of 2019, Prime Minister Johnson now has the mandate to carry out his promises – and the freedom to be more forthright in his reforms. The Armed Forces, intelligence services, counter-terrorism forces and more, as well as Britain’s strategic foreign policy, will be up for serious scrutiny.

The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) describes the previous review from 2015 as depicting an internationalist, outward-facing UK that was committed to the rules-based international order. The focus included a resurgence in state-based threats – still very much an issue today. The review, according to RUSI’s Peter Roberts, did little to reset the UK’s ‘strategic posture or force design, either in terms of ambition or resources,’ though it did note a deteriorating security situation.

Some of the sounds coming from Number 10 Downing Street ahead of the 2020 security, defence and foreign policy review have been positive for the defence community – with Johnson saying that NATO must be modernised and updated for the new world order, rather than flat out abandoned. Certainly, this is in step with NATO’s own position – posting on its official site that: ‘NATO is at a crucial decision point. With new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Quantum Computing fast entering the defence domain, the role, function, method and structure of the Alliance must undergo radical change if collective deterrence and defence is to remain credible.’

But Number 10 has done little in the grand scheme of things to allay fears that the review could mean sweeping reforms – and cuts. Downing Street fired a warning shot, reported by the Financial Times, that the review will ‘seek to modernise defence capabilities, while reducing costs in the long term’ – raising the ‘spectre of budgetary constraint.’ 

Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s Senior Adviser, has the Ministry of Defence in his sights, according to the Guardian. Cummings had previously, reportedly referred to the MoD’s handling of aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales as a ‘farce.’ Their cost has risen from an initial estimate of £3.9bn to more than £6bn. With the review being run from 10 Downing Street for the first time, with previous reviews having been run from other Whitehall Departments, it’s clear that the government is taking the review more seriously than it has in the past.

That’s not a bad thing, with the need to examine Britain’s strategic foreign policy and security strategy more pressing than anytime since the end of the Cold War. With NATO shaken by recent comments from the likes of Presidents Trump and Macron, and Britain on the verge of leaving the EU, the government will need to articulate what Britain’s role in the world can be. 

There will undoubtedly be pushback, however. Defense consultant Howard Wheeldon, of Wheeldon Strategic Advisory, said: “my advice would be that (the government) remembers that every newcomer to defense procurement starts on an assumption that it must be possible to save money and do better than the past incumbents that have presided over years of cuts.”

There are multiple other areas which will be taken into account in what has been hailed as a ‘sweeping assessment’ of the UK’s global-facing capabilities. Britain’s diplomatic footprint needs scaling-up in certain parts of the world which Britain seems sure to pivot towards post-Brexit – such as Africa. According to a BFPG report last year, cited by the Economist, in 2017 Britain had 231 diplomats (excluding local hires) in 31 of sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 countries. In 16 of those British missions, only one or two diplomats were in situ. Compared to geopolitical rivals – that is well below par. 

On a number of issues, from the threat of disinformation from Russia, to the seemingly unstoppable rise of China, to governance of emerging areas such as space, Britain must articulate its position and begin to carve out a future role. The Defence and Security Review may kickstart that.



Matt Gillow

Matt is the Communications & Events Manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.