By Alchemmy’s Paola Fusaro
Although the publication of the Integrated Review Refresh 2023 provides lessons on the key strategic priorities that will shape the United Kingdom’s policy on the world stage, it does not deliver sufficient guidance on the tools to implement them. The government may look to the private sector’s expertise to support their implementation in a time of uncertainty.
The publication of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy in March 2021 (IR21) materialised the government’s ambition to define a cross-government set of strategic principles aimed at mitigating the threats faced by the UK. To address growing systemic competition driven by Russia and China, the pace of innovation and worsening transnational challenges, the UK sought to achieve a policy of active engagement on the world stage branded ‘Global Britain’, centred on preserving the international order and making the UK a Science and Technology (S&T) ‘superpower.’
Within two years, the risks and threats identified in the IR21 unexpectedly intensified. Less than a year after its publication, the UK and its European neighbours witnessed the large-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, marking the return of war on the European continent. The deterioration of Europe’s security, the wave of European military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine and the impact of the rise in oil, gas and food prices across Europe all have had a direct effect on the ambitions stated in the IR21. For example, strong inflation in the UK has directly impacted the cost of the Ministry of Defence (MOD)’s spending programmes. Beyond Europe, the United States and its allies have continued to voice concern over China’s military manoeuvres near Taiwan and in the South China Sea and its apparent espionage attempts in North America.
Consequently, the government decided in September 2022 to undertake a ‘Refresh’ of the IR21, leading to the publication of the Integrated Review Refresh in March 2023. Similar to the IR21, the 2023 Integrated Review (IR23) depicts a ‘multipolar, fragmented, and contested’ world characterised by systemic competition above and below the threshold of armed conflict and persisting transnational security challenges (e.g. illegal immigration). However, unlike in 2021, it also remarks that the world’s volatility is ‘likely to last beyond the 2030s’.
In this context, the IR23 outlines a new framework articulated around four pillars, namely: ‘shaping the international environment’, ‘deter, defend, and compete across domains’, ‘address vulnerabilities through resilience’, and ‘generate strategic advantage’. From a foreign policy perspective, the IR23 highlights many priorities, including, but not limited to:
Looking at our activities, the IR23 makes several pledges of particular importance. This blog post summarises the five main takeaways for our clients:
A welcomed, yet likely insufficient £5 billion defence spending uplift.
One of the major updates from the IR23 is the government’s decision to increase UK Defence spending by £5 billion over the next two financial years. This comprises £3 billion to fund the next phase of AUKUS and modernise the UK’s nuclear enterprise, and £2 billion aimed at replenishing munition stockpiles, hence adding to the £560 million war stock replenishments announced in 2022. This uplift does not include the renewed provision of military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine over the next financial year.
As the war in Ukraine unfolds, this announcement is a positive outcome. The additional investments will increase the UK’s defence spending as a percentage of GDP from an estimated 2.16% in 2022 to 2.2% in 2023 (or 2.29% when including its support to Ukraine), thereby making the UK defence expenditure one of the highest in NATO in comparison to the 2022 estimates in countries of similar size, such as France (about 1.9%). This increase is likely to be welcomed by the UK’s NATO allies, as many of them still struggle to meet the 2% threshold. In addition, the emphasis on modernising the Defence nuclear enterprise could bring job opportunities across the UK and embed Defence as an instrument of national prosperity.
Nonetheless, this increase is less than the £11 billion uplift reportedly requested by the UK Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, in February 2023. If the UK wishes to meet the ambitions outlined in the IR23, including preparing for complex technology-driven conflicts against defence heavyweights such as China, further personnel and equipment investments will be needed. The UK MOD, however, is already suffering from military personnel shortfalls and constrained finances. For instance, the National Audit Office (NAO) assessment of the 2022 – 2023 Equipment Plan resulting from the IR21 identified a potential £7.3 billion deficit if all the risks the NAO had identified materialised. It should be noted that the Equipment Plan was based on data collected before the war in Ukraine and therefore did not take into consideration the levels of inflation and fuel costs we are experiencing today. The NAO’s assessment of the future 2023-2033 Equipment Plan will therefore be crucial in measuring the financial viability of the UK’s ambitions over the next decade. Renewed investments in the nuclear enterprise could also bring a number of risks as the modernisation of the UK’s nuclear assets has continuously been the source of delays and cost overruns.
Furthermore, the IR23 unveils the long-term ambition of spending 2.5% of its GDP on defence expenditure. There are, however, no indicative timelines provided. This contrasts with former Prime Minister Liz Truss’ commitment to reach 3% by 2030 and reflects the IR23’s generally cautious approach to budget commitments. This in itself is indicative of wider uncertainty as a global recession looks likely.
The contours of the future UK Armed Forces.
The IR23 provides several hints outlining what the desired future Armed Forces may look like. First, there is a continued emphasis on reinforcing the UK’s naval assets, mainly to maintain freedom of navigation and maritime security, which are essential to preserving access to vital trade routes. Furthermore, the war in Ukraine has led to renewed interest in ensuring the Armed Forces are prepared for high-intensity warfare in the land domain. Other lessons learned from Ukraine include the need to secure supply chains against disruptions and the importance of munitions stockpiling.
The digitalisation of the Armed Forces is a recurring theme throughout the IR23. It states the UK’s aspiration to procure ‘digitally-enabled, more lethal, and more capable’ battle-winning platforms. This ambition is being pursued via the sixth-generation Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) with Italy and Japan and through prioritising the Army’s Future Soldier programme. Investments in the UK’s cyber and space forces and assets are also paramount in the Refresh. Given the costs of developing, testing, and integrating technologies into platforms, the UK’s ability to share the economic burden with its allies will be imperative.
However, the means to implement these ambitions are lacking. The IR23 fails to provide details on the future plans for equipment investment and the distribution of personnel and assets across the different military branches. The upcoming Defence Command Paper update should fill these gaps. Furthermore, preparing the Armed Forces for future technology-driven conflicts should be paired with a strategy to address the many underlying acquisition and personnel challenges such as rigid procurement requirements, defence production inefficiencies, poor programme management and delivery, challenges around nurturing, attracting, and retaining technical skills and the need to modernise the military culture to accommodate new work practices.
The consolidation of domestic resilience as the backbone of the UK’s national security.
As in the IR21, ‘resilience’ is a pivotal topic in the Refresh. Building on the government’s Resilience Framework which outlines its approach to anticipate, assess, mitigate, respond to and recover from risks, the IR23 aims to shift its focus from risks to wider strategic vulnerabilities, with the latter defined as the ‘underlying economic, societal, technological, environmental, and infrastructural factors that leave the UK exposed to crises and attacks’. In parallel, the IR23 unveils a ‘security through resilience’ model through which government’s efforts will be reprioritised towards ‘protective and preparatory action’ to allow operational activity to focus on long-term commitments to address its main vulnerabilities.
In this context, the IR23 lists a number of key strategic vulnerabilities and resilience priorities over the coming years. The following announcements are of particular interest to our activities:
The reaffirmation of S&T as a tool of strategic advantage.
Further to the IR21 which announced the UK’s aspiration to become an ‘S&T superpower’, the IR23 confirms the centrality of S&T as an instrument to generate military and economic strategic advantage. This is underpinned by the newly published 2023 S&T Framework which outlines the key priority actions in this area. These range from iteratively identifying critical technologies, to increasing public and private investments in Research and Development, developing STEM skills, and leveraging the ‘own-access-collaborate’ framework to decide on the best approach to procure technologies. It should also be noted that the different departments have also been working on articulating their own S&T strategies, such as the MOD’s S&T strategy 2020 or the National Police Chief’s Council’s new S&T strategy.
Importantly, the IR23 and the S&T Framework identify five priority technology areas for the UK, namely Artificial Intelligence (AI), semiconductors, quantum technologies, future telecommunications and engineering biology. The development of these technologies will be guided by the National AI Strategy, as well as the new Quantum Strategy and Telecommunications guidelines and will soon be informed by the Semiconductors Strategy.
The IR23 and S&T Framework stress the importance of forging a set of AI and digital regulation and standards. Indeed, the systematic coupling of technology investments with the adoption of technology regulations, standards and ethical principles will be essential for the UK to consistently implement its S&T strategy. Their development will be challenging and require balancing between incentivising innovation in the UK and attracting international investments, while protecting the UK against state competitors and the activities of the Big Tech companies.
Finally, the UK seeks to take part in shaping the international ‘emerging digital and technology order’, which requires working closely with other countries to align their standards. This will stimulate business cooperation while ensuring digital ethical rules are guaranteed across countries. It is a topic that Alchemmy has been actively involved in via the voice of its Executive Director, Rob Price, who co-founded the global Corporate Digital Responsibility movement.
The crucial role of cyber security in addressing state and transnational challenges.
The IR23 notes the rise of ransomware and offensive cyber techniques deployed by state and non-state actors to undermine the UK and its allies. As security threats impact networks and information systems, the emphasis of the IR23 has rightly shifted towards improving reaction times and recovering efficiently from incidents, stressing that the UK must develop the tools to deter, defend and compete in the cyberspace. The IR23 also pinpoints the need to establish an international consensus on the rules, norms and principles governing cyberspace.
As the IR23 calls for more investment in better operational resilience, both public and private sector organisations will need to strengthen security defences as part of a whole-society approach to safeguarding the UK. These investments will be fundamental in protecting corporate reputation, stimulating foreign investments and attracting future cyber talents.
Overall, although the IR23 is a useful guidance for the UK’s government agencies and its economic actors, it is aspirational. Its implementation will depend on yet unknown economic and fiscal constraints and on the changing UK’s political context, particularly ahead of the 2025 General Election. To navigate this overall uncertainty, the UK will need to rely on the combined cross-sectoral experience, brainpower and agility of its academia, industry, and private sector. In this context, the IR23 offers many avenues for Alchemmy to highlight and leverage its defence and security expertise and its proven capabilities, particularly in digital transformation, people & change, data & digital and cyber resilience. A partner to the UK’s government agencies, Alchemmy will use its experience to help decisionmakers implement the strategic objectives outlined in the IR23 while adapting its offering to the geopolitical, economic, and technological constraints weighing on the government.
If you would like to find out more about what Alchemmy can do for you, please get in touch!