Well, we didn't expect that to happen so quickly.
Let's just take a quick recap of the shifts in defence and security policy over the past few years. Reviews are now normally every five years; past reviews in 2010 and 2015 were typical dilettante Cameronian fudges; the future was supranational and international, UN good, NATO good, EU better. And we've ended up with a pair of carriers that were obsolete as soon as they rolled down the slipway, so vulnerable to a new generation of hypersonic missiles that they can't be let anywhere near a war zone. Possibly useful as a platform for fishing surveillance drones, though - anchored in the North Sea, bang in the middle of our EEZ, each housing a clutch of admirals. Unless we can persuade the EU Navy to buy one. Our Type 45's may be able to detect and shoot down a cricket ball travelling at the speed of sound, but that's not much use when the enemy are using missiles a lot faster than the speed of sound rather than fast cricket balls to sink our carriers.
Anyway, from 2017 Mark Sedwill was charged with conducting a run-up to the 2020 review, which needed to be broadened to include threats from State Actors. Tanks are out, deniable actions by unmarked troops are in. As Putin has shown in the Donbass, you can get away with it. And as the Salisbury poisonings and a score more GRU assassinations elsewhere have shown, even when they know it's you, what can they do, apart from ineffective sanctions and a handful of diplomatic expulsions? So long as Germany is dependent on Putin's gas, he has a get-out-of-jail-free card. China too has been a disruptor, using state cyber attacks on other nations' infrastructures as well as armies of hackers who infiltrate and disrupt social media. Iran's shipnapping in the gulf is open.
If Cameron was a dilettante, May was Queen of Chaos. She hadn't got a clue what she wanted, so long as she could keep it secret and keep the public, non-government experts and parliament away. Catastrophe May was a brainless ditherer, a dunderhead. On the basis that any plan was better than no plan, Sedwill acted in what he genuinely thought were the nation's best interests. He went to Washington to talk with those conducting Trump's review. He sent trusted civil servants to Brussels to tentatively commit the UK to EU defence plans. He invented the 'Fusion' strategy, allowing the UK to do everything at once with an Eton mess of defence, security, economic and other resources.
None of this made it through to what was scheduled to be the 2020 defence and security review. On taking office in 2019 Boris radically altered the terms of reference and downgraded Sedwill's role. Dominic Cummings had also long been a vocal critic of the UK's disastrous defence procurement regime. When Covid demonstrated that Whitehall's procurement systems couldn't even procure a few boxes of gowns and face masks, it was also an explicit admission that our mandarins couldn't be trusted with buying stuff like ships. Dom has written on his blog, bookmarked here, that utterly unfit Whitehall procurement "has continued to squander billions of pounds, enriching some of the
worst corporate looters and corrupting public life via the revolving
door of officials/lobbyists".
Champions for the MoD such as Michael Fallon and George Robertson have tried to not only hold the UK to our 2% of GDP commitment for defence but to increase this to 2.5% or even 3%. Defence interests - the admirals and generals - have done everything they can to ringfence 'their' 2% to tanks and ships and fast jets. Simply, their ideas are as redundant as the useless carriers we've just acquired.
The USMC has just junked all its tanks.
The decades to come will mean we must fight on the battlegrounds on which we are being attacked - green men, state assassins, cyber war. The ring-fencing that the men in medals want won't work. We need a mash-up of MoD, GCHQ, SIS and MI5, FCDO and the City. We need to throw into the pot the MoD's 2% of GDP, DfID's 0.7% and the billions of secret squirrel money. On the face of it, Sedwill's 'Fusion' idea was in the right direction - but the man had a 'reservation of mind' that meant interests other than the elected government's played a part in his delivery.
And Covid buggers everything. When GDP shrinks by 20%, 2% of that smaller pot will buy far fewer F35s or anti-cricket ball destroyers. Lord Frost will have exactly the right skill set, and will be able to put together exactly the right team to deal with that new reality. And my sincere hope is that Labour's front bench under Starmer can put a broad shoulder behind the UK's national defence and security strategy - after all, they may have to live with it from 2024.