The UK has revealed its hand for its new national security strategy, released on 13 March. Or has it? In this new long read, Richard Reeve argues that the UK is placing three big, long bets in its Integrated Review Refresh with major consequences and opportunity costs for tackling the environmental and social crises that threaten us all.

What a difference half-a-year makes. Begun amidst a major European war and the ideological turmoil of Liz Truss’s brief premiership with promises of an extra £157 billion for the Ministry of Defence, the ‘refresh’ of the UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy was released on 13 March not only with a below-inflation uplift to defence spending but without an accompanying Defence policy update.

Yet there is some sleight of hand in this strategic Refresh, whose diplomatic nuance, appreciation of European and Atlantic allies, and attention to trade, technology and energy tends to distract from a steadily toughening attitude in Asia matched by a potentially big shift in military resources to the region. Moreover, the UK is placing big bets on nuclear energy and technological competition at the expense of a green transition, sustainable development and common security. As the stakes rise, it is saying many of the right things, but putting its money in riskier places.

An integrated approach?

Compared to the original Integrated Review of March 2021 (IR21), which was realistically gloomy about mid-21st century geopolitics but scattershot in its prioritisation of risk and response, this update (IRR23) is refreshingly clear in its structured approach. It is possible to see its objectives, its levers of influence and their interlinkages across government. Without the 77 jumbled ‘priority actions’ of IR21 it may even be possible to evaluate this one against its own commitments.

Its tone is sombre and gone is the Johnsonian hubris of ‘Global Britain’, the framing device of IR21, titled Global Britain in a Competitive Age; the term does not appear here once. Instead, the Europe-shaped hole in IR21 is filled in some depth, although it is NATO (134 mentions!) and other Euro-Atlantic security institutions that are talked up; the EU itself (just 3 mentions) is talked around.

But can we really talk about this as integrated approach? IRR23 is explicitly not a successor to IR21 but its supplement. So they have to be read together, as well as alongside the myriad of other strategies that have spun off IR21 in the last two or three years. Not surprisingly, this leads to some confusion about regions and topics seemingly deprioritised, not least the Middle East, Africa, conflict prevention and human rights.

While IRR23 witnesses a meaningful conversation on national strategy both within the merged Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO, on diplomacy and development) and between the FCDO and departments of International Trade and (newly formed) Science, Innovation and Technology, there is a new gap in the Review where Defence should be. This is partly that the Ministry of Defence (MOD), having cheer-led the Refresh last year when it hoped to reap a big financial boost, was seemingly not ready to contribute its inputs. It has until mid-year to deliver its updated Defence Command Paper.

It may be that the FCDO is talking more softly while the MOD carries a bigger stick, but it is also not clear that the MOD is quite signed-up to the same integrated international strategy as the rest of government. While the tone of both IR21 and IRR23 has been of greater specialisation and focus of resources, Defence has been producing its own papers committing to ever greater, wider global presence since at least 2020, when its Integrated Operating Concept reframed the UK as being already involved in a global war. New military commitments to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ around IRR23 step up this ambition considerably. But unless the MOD knows something that we don’t about future government spending plans, this is all currently looking decidedly over-ambitious.

A hedging strategy?

Perhaps part of the rationale for this dichotomous approach is that London is here trying to speak to two unreconciled international audiences: Europe and the ‘Anglosphere’ (or, at least, the United States and Australia). As such, it is hedging its bets. Not on Russia (whose full-scale invasion of Ukraine has essentially reconciled the approaches of UK, US, EU and even Pacific states like Japan, Australia and South Korea), but on China, on which Europe and the United States have differing strategic approaches.

Rishi Sunak’s hesitant new framing is of ‘Atlantic-Pacific’ partnership. To his credit, he has faced down (for now) the China hawks in his party and resisted relabelling China as a threat to the UK, upgrading it from competitor to ‘systemic challenger’. Unlike the recent US National Security Strategy, IRR23 explicitly recognises that a shift from Western hegemony to mutlipolarity is underway and needs to be engaged with. Moreover, it eschews the ‘with us or against us’ rationale of Cold War and War on Terror in recognising that ‘middle-ground powers’ have their own interests and legitimate reasons not to want to align with the US/NATO, Russia or China. These would presumably include India, Brazil, Indonesia and other G20 members sceptical of East-West confrontations. Sensibly, it commits to a significant investment in UK government personnel actually understanding Chinese culture, language and institutions.

On the other hand, IRR23 talks tougher on China than the EU or most other European states and goes further in pushing the idea of resilience or ‘de-risking’ against Chinese leverage, including on supply chains, intellectual property and information. For me, in its two pages devoted to UK China strategy, the IRR23 strikes a reasonable balance of precaution towards an ambitious techno-autocracy with the necessity of engagement and coexistence with an emergent superpower.

AUKUS: a twist in the tilt

As so often in international affairs, the trouble lies beyond these well-chosen words, in what is actually happening militarily in parallel to this diplomatic nuance. The same day as the IRR23 was released in London, Sunak was in California launching the next phase of the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) partnership, including a commitment to base a Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarine in Australia from 2027. The previous week, he met with President Macron to pledge a coordinated, potentially permanent, presence of British and French aircraft carrier strike groups in the ‘Indo-Pacific’. Other than nuclear weapons, these are the two most potent weapons systems that the UK possesses. So their deployment to the other side of the world is a big deal, just as it would be if China announced standing deployments of its carriers and submarines to the North Atlantic. I also suspect it will be unachievable within existing resources and commitments.

Herein lies one of the points of confusion of the IRR23. Whereas the 2021 Review marked a much-discussed ‘Tilt to the Indo-Pacific’ (a phrase itself hedging on the US’s decade-old ‘Pivot to Asia’), the IRR23 describes the Tilt as having been delivered and shifts its narrative focus back towards Europe and Russia. Just as many analysts misunderstood the first phase of the Tilt and overstated its military focus relative to trade and diplomacy, so most commentators have missed the more robust, sustained and risky military shift of this second phase.

It remains to be seen whether this harder approach in Asia being pushed by the MOD will be made apparent in the eventual Defence Command Paper this summer, or to what extent the posture of the Navy will be squared with the Army’s renewed focus on Europe. But for now, while trying to hedge between US and EU positions on China, it is Washington that has the ascendancy thanks to its predominant role in backstopping Ukraine and NATO. Thus, while the IRR23’s defining phrase is of a constructive UK helping to revive the UN Charter and “shape an open and stable international order”, including an eyes-open dialogue with Beijing on its initiatives and global challenges, the actual direction of travel is towards greater confrontation, containment and militarised competition.

A holding strategy

The other thing to note about IRR23 is its shelf life. There have been no less than four UK national security reviews in the last 7.5 years and this one is almost certain to be superseded within two years by a change of government. While the Labour Party’s approach to foreign and defence policy is hardly marked by commitment to radical change – notwithstanding its apparent willingness to recognise Chinese actions in Xinjiang as genocide – it has promised a major review within its first year of government if it does win a general election in 2024. Civil servants on Whitehall will already be making preparations towards this.

It is imperative in such a context that a Labour government pursues a much more open security review process that engages with the people of the UK as a whole on their security needs and priorities, as well as their impacts on the rest of the world. Rethinking Security has been critical of the external consultation and challenge aspects of all recent UK reviews, but the IRR23 took this to a new level, failing even to provide a terms of reference for the refresh.

Meanwhile, and despite a shelf-life that friends and foes alike expect to be short, the IRR23 places three big bets on the future which will to varying extent bind its successors to particular courses of action.

Bet 1: The United States and NATO

The first big stakes gamble of the IRR23 is so vast and obvious that it cannot be mentioned in any UK strategy. It is that the UK will remain embedded with and critically dependent on the United States as it security patron. As we’ve seen, this alliance has a shaping role in the UK’s approach to China, as well as to Russia, the Middle East and elsewhere. For almost all of the last 80 years this looked a predictable relationship, with the US the dominant economic and military power globally and its commitment to Europe via NATO unquestioned. That changed with the Trump presidency (2017-2020); it is no longer clear that any future Republican president will be committed to backstopping Ukraine, Europe and the UK in the manner that this and all recent British security strategies have assumed. While there may be political benefits from greater independence from US geostrategy, the economic costs of such independence may be significant in the medium term.

Within Europe, there are increasingly similar questions around the reliability of the UK’s secondary alliance with France should the poll-leading populist far right come to power there at the 2027 presidential election, or perhaps even earlier. And, of course, many other NATO countries face the same electoral challenges or, as in Hungary, Italy and Poland, are already led by far-right parties or coalitions.

Bet 2: The Nuclear Enterprise

After IR21’s shock announcement on raising the ceiling on the UK’s stocks of nuclear warheads after decades of incremental reductions, IRR23 adds nothing new on UK nuclear weapons posture or capabilities except some extra money to begin paying for new warheads. As far as the government is concerned, the public debate on UK nuclear weapons policy closed with the 2016 ‘maingate’ vote in parliament on the £41 billion programme to build four new Dreadnought class nuclear-armed submarines. This is regrettable for many reasons, not least that parliament has never debated, let alone approved, the secretive estimated £20 billion Nuclear Warhead Capability Sustainment Programme currently underway, nor that preparations appear to be underway for the US Air Force to redeploy nuclear weapons on UK territory (Suffolk’s RAF Lakenheath) for the first time in 15 years. Perhaps the forthcoming UK Defence Nuclear Strategy will tell us more; more likely it won’t.

Instead, the new big gamble is on nuclear reactors, both for civil energy production (something trailed a year ago in the British Energy Security Strategy and encouraged in the March 2023 budget) and for the propulsion of submarines. Linking factors include Rolls Royce’s small modular reactors (SMRs), which potentially allow submarine-sized reactors for commercial use, and the human skills base needed for civil and military nuclear technologies. As the IRR23 puts it, “We will proactively look for opportunities to align delivery of the civil and defence nuclear enterprises, seeking synergies where appropriate”. This is to say that the civil energy sector is needed to subsidise the ‘defence nuclear enterprise’. In paying the high price for developing and running new nuclear power stations, consumers and taxpayers will develop a skills and resource base that is crucial for nuclear weapons and nuclear propulsion.

As Andy Stirling and Phil Johnstone have shown, it was ever so. The newest dynamic is that, under AUKUS, Rolls Royce will be supplying the pressurised water reactors for Australia’s eight new submarines. It also hopes in the medium term to start producing and exporting its SMRs for civilian energy production. All of this is supposed to regenerate a skills base and economies of scale for small reactor production. But there are significant risks, including whether Australia will stay the course of devoting something like $10 billion every year for the next 30 years into its submarine programme, and whether SMRs are really safe and economically viable.

Few realise the sheer cost and technical difficulty of designing and building nuclear-powered submarines, something only five countries have so far mastered.  That compares to 13 countries independently capable of launching orbital space craft. The UK’s currently planned 11 nuclear-powered submarines (7 Astute class; 4 Dreadnought class) will cost something like £53 billion in direct costs just to design and build. Warheads, missiles, infrastructure, operating and decommissioning costs add tens of billions more.

That has a huge opportunity cost, whether in terms of other ships and military equipment, investment in sustainable technologies, or spending that would contribute to human security. And it comes with huge risks of project failure. In IRR23, we see the government doubling down on subsidies to this sector that is now too big, or too central to its militarised global strategy, to fail. As such, it locks in risks and costs for governments and generations to come.

Bet 3: Technology Superpower

The final big bet placed by IRR23 is on the UK’s ability to develop itself as a “Science and Technology Superpower”. While the phrase from IR21 has disappeared from IRR23, evidently no one told the brand new Department of Science, Innovation and Technology, whose spin-off International Technology Strategy (ITS) still uses the term liberally. This is a tough call given that not one UK company appears among the top 100 tech firms by market capitalisation. Indeed, given the IRR23’s focus on resilience and economic de-risking, the UK’s (and Europe’s) lack of cutting edge tech production may be a key vulnerability, especially to Pacific states where all the real tech superpowers (US, China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan) and most critical mineral suppliers (e.g. China, Chile, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam) are located.

The five critical tech sectors in which the UK government says it will prioritise investment are: artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, engineering biology, semiconductors, and next gen telecoms. Even with a superficial knowledge of science, it is not hard to see the case for not getting left behind in these key sectors. Or to see how strategically China and Taiwan have positioned their own research and development around them. Less obviously, they also tie in to the AUKUS pact’s ‘Second Pillar’ commitments on developing advanced military technologies, especially quantum computing and AI. On such technologies the UK government is aiming high, with something like £9 billion per year in tax subsidies and capital investment write-offs for R&D announced in the 15 March budget.

More surprising is what is left out from the new science priorities. There is barely any mention in the IRR23 or ITS of green technology or life sciences. The UK is a true leader in life sciences, third only to the US and Germany, as seen in its pioneering development of the first COVID vaccine in 2020. Green tech like renewable energy production and battery storage is not something the UK has traditionally led on but absolutely crucial to its plans for achieving Net Zero and a sustainable ecosystem. These are tech sectors in which the outputs are not just economically beneficial and in high demand globally but demonstrably good for people and planet, of existential importance. So why are they not being prioritised in our national strategies?

The answer is perhaps hinted at in the text of the ITS. The five priority sectors are ostensibly defined via last month’s Science and Technology Framework, which uses eight assessment criteria, including sustainable environment, health/life sciences, and national security/defence. Yet not all of these criteria appear equally in the ITS. There are just five mentions each of health and climate/environment in the strategy; references to national security and defence are 26 and 21, respectively. It appears, then, that the hugely expensive thrust of the UK’s quest for technological superpowers is aimed squarely at competing on sensitive military technologies. Again, this has a massive opportunity cost for the development of socially useful science.

While there was much mention of encouraging green technologies in the government’s revised Net Zero strategy released on 30 March, a lot of the emphasis was on fairly speculative technologies that many experts are sceptical of, including carbon capture and storage, hydrogen and nuclear (both fission and fusion). Carbon capture is particularly controversial as it is used by government to justify continued expansion of UK oil and gas production and explicitly referenced in IRR23 as something the UK will cooperate on with Gulf States, which have a massive vested interest in distracting from actual green technologies. As I’ve argued elsewhere, this fits both with the lobbying of UK-based fossil energy firms and the focus of traditional UK international strategies on using naval power to exercise control over global seaborne energy and trade flows. Once reclassified by the government as a sustainable energy source, nuclear energy will presumably suck much of the private investment back out of renewables.

Development starts at home

Two further omissions from the IRR23 are worth commenting on. The first is the sad decline of development assistance in UK national strategy.

On the plus side, under Sunak the UK has in Andrew Mitchell a minister who has deep experience and cares about international development. As well as a seat in cabinet, he now has a seat on the expanded National Security Council, as does the secretary of state for Science, Innovation and Technology. Various reforms and initiatives suggest that international development is finally finding its place and voice within the FCDO, 2.5 years after DFID’s demoralising merger into the foreign office.

On the negative side, we have learned since the IRR23 quite how gutted the development budget has become. Not only is it indefinitely cut from 0.7% GNI to 0.5% but that 0.5% is treated as an absolute maximum and official development assistance (ODA) is therefore being deliberately underspent. And nearly one-third of ODA is being spent within the UK by the Home Office on mismanaging a self-inflicted crisis in the asylum system. The UK has therefore surrendered its global reputation and advantage as a development leader just as peers like France, Germany, Japan and others have stepped up aid.

More mysteriously, the IRR23 simply has no content on conflict prevention, peacebuilding, mediation or other efforts to tackle conflict and instability at root. Is it that the slightly encouraging text of the IR21 – and the work done by the new Office for Conflict, Stability and Mediation (OCSM) within the FCDO – still applies? Or is it that such work is now even lower in priority? We are told that the main funding mechanism for such work will grow to £1 billion/year but focus ominously on economic and cyber security and counter terrorism. A written statement from Mitchell on 30 March revealed that funding for the OCSM’s work would be cut by 27% in this new financial year to just £13.3 million.

Whither open societies?

The second omission is the disappearance of ‘open societies’ as the leitmotif of IR21. Oddly, ‘open societies and human rights’ is one of the very few ODA items in the FCDO’s new budget that is set to increase this year (by 11%). Yet the phrase, which appeared dozens of times in IR21, is absent from IRR23. ‘Human rights’ garners a few mentions in IRR23, but almost always in relation to the harm that China and Russia do, no longer the good that the UK aspires to promote.

How to explain this? Perhaps the government was simply too embarrassed by the hypocrisy of its own actions and agenda on democracy and civil liberties as it worked hard at home to remove rights to vote and to protest and international legal obligations to facilitate asylum claims. Perhaps it noted the ridicule that greeted Liz Truss’s short-lived espousal of a ‘Network of Liberty’ that somehow sought to incorporate Egypt, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia alongside European democracies. Perhaps it is recognising the difficulty of engaging with actively anti-imperial ‘middle-ground’ powers like India and Vietnam from the perspective of rights.

Certainly we have seen no shift in the government’s attitude to engagement with autocratic and repressive states since the Refresh was launched. Indeed, barely a week later, and in the context of their own concerted efforts to close down democratic and judicial rights and to intensify their 56-year occupation and settlement of the West Bank, Israeli leaders were welcomed to London to sign new agreements on trade, security, defence and, most centrally, technology. The partnership preamble of the new 2030 Roadmap for UK-Israel bilateral relations is perhaps illustrative of the direction of travel of the Integrated Review Refresh:

“Israel and the UK are united in the common belief that a democracy – which empowers citizens with the opportunity to innovate, create, and fulfil their dreams – is the finest form of government. We are clear that democratic norms are the mainstay for maintaining a rules-based international system and respect for universal human rights. As outward-looking patriotic nations, we know that a mutually prosperous future lies in stronger economic, technological and security ties with likeminded partners.”

2030 Roadmap for UK-Israel bilateral relations

There are performative nods to gender, climate, development and health in the Roadmap but its thrust is very much towards developing and prospering from securitised technologies within the veneer of outward-looking, procedurally democratic ‘start-up nations’ beset by a hostile and unstable world.

Stability in the Anthropocene

What does power and influence look like in the Anthropocene age? What does success look like in what the IRR23 calls a “more contested and volatile world”? The refreshed UK strategy places its bets on a US-backed alliance of its enemies’ enemies, nuclear power, and dominance over next generation technologies. As such, it is tilting at the existential threats to Pax Americana, the world order that succeeded the even less just or stable Pax Britannica a century ago. It is not hard to see how that squares with established notions of British national interests and national security.

What it is not aiming squarely at is the existential threats that face British people as surely as the rest of humanity. Right now we face the planetary security challenges of climate and ecological breakdown that will have reshaped the global landscape, literally and geopolitically, by the time the next generation of nuclear submarines reach the Pacific. We face a crisis of extraordinary injustice and inequality, of haves and have nots, exploiters and exploited, that will not cease to generate violent oppression and violent resistance. We have lived through one global pandemic and know that worse will come. We face the fast-paced new risks of technological change like AI, gene-editing, cyber and hypersonic weapons. And we face the revived older threat of nuclear annihilation as one war is fought with Russia and another is prepared for with China.

The Refresh is not wrong to see the world as a volatile and increasingly contested place. Nor is it wrong to see technological advancement as a path to meeting some of the global challenges of the next decades. But those challenges will not be resolved without existential cooperation that transcends the partnerships we are most comfortable with. As in China, Israel or the United States, security will not come from ignoring the exclusion, injustice and insecurity within our own society, nor that which we create abroad. Right now, the stakes for our common security could not be higher and the big money bets are being placed on some very risky propositions.  

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

This article is based on a presentation to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Global Security and Non-Proliferation on 28 March 2023, and benefits from thoughts shared by Bronwen Maddox, Director of Chatham House, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, former National Security Adviser, Hilary Benn MP and Lords Hannay of Chiswick, Browne of Ladyton, and West of Spithead. All views expressed here, and any errors, are those of the author alone.

Image Credit: Map of the Indo-Pacific, from page 26 of the Integrated Review Refresh 2023.

2 thoughts on “Stick and Twist: The UK bets big on existential competition

Leave a Reply