Capabilities and Commitments: The Integrated Review and AUKUS
The challenge of defence reviews in the UK has always been to align capabilities with commitments. Until 1990 this normally meant cutting back on commitments because it was no longer possible to afford the capabilities. Defence reviews were the natural accompaniment to a financial crisis. This was the driver behind John Nott’s 1981 defence review, entitled ‘The Way Forward’, which proposed drastic cuts to numbers of warships, including aircraft carriers. The next year Argentina invaded the Falklands and the warships proved vital. The carriers had to be reprieved. Something similar happened as the Cold War came to an end, when at last it seemed as if it would be possible to cut back on defence expenditure without putting national security at risk. On 25 July 1990, Tom King, Secretary of Defence, told Parliament that the aim of a new review (blandly named ‘Options for Change’ although it was essentially ‘Options for Cuts’) for the future was a ‘smaller force, better equipped, properly trained and housed and well-motivated.’ A week later Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Instead of the end of the Cold War introducing a calmer and more peaceful period the following three decades saw the armed forces continually busy – in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. The only commitment that was no longer so pressing was Northern Ireland. Moreover, the developing complexity of the international system meant that it now seemed appropriate to review defence not on its own but as part of a wider review of security. This allowed such matters as cyberattacks and information campaigns to be addressed. Since 2010 these matters are expected to be reviewed on a regular basis – in principle every five years, although the last one was delayed by a year. They should not only occur as a response to a financial or international emergency.
It has still proved hard to keep up. The Labour Government’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review addressed the demands of humanitarian intervention but then needed a ‘new chapter’ added after the shock of al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001. In the case of the March 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (IR 2021) the challenge came less than a year later in February 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine. Instead of a ‘new chapter’ this time we have a complete ‘refresh’, published on 13 March (IR 2023). In this case the government argues that while the underlying judgements behind the 2021 review remain valid their application needs to be reviewed because subsequent events, notably Russian aggression against Ukraine, have thrown them into sharp relief. In addition, the AUKUS arrangements, with the US and Australia, have not only put more substance into the government’s promise in 2021 to pay more attention to the Indo-Pacific region but also a need for more investment in future nuclear-submarine building.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Comment is Freed to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.