Abigail Watson and Liam Walpole

27 March 2020

Authors' note: Thanks to Peter Apps, Josh Arnold Forster and Dr Bence Nemeth for their help with this Explainer (all mistakes are the authors’ own).

After the election of a Conservative majority government in December 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson committed to deliver the most substantial defence and security review since the Cold War. The review is planned to cover all areas of the UK’s international policy. For that reason, it has been named the ‘Integrated Security, Defence, Development and Diplomacy Review’, or ‘Integrated Review’ for short. The Integrated Review is expected to conclude later this year (with reports that the Coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic will delay it until after July 2020, the planned release date).

The Integrated Review comes at a pivotal moment for the UK and will be a key part of Johnson’s efforts to redefine the UK’s role as an active global player outside of the European Union. It also comes during one of the largest global pandemics in living memory, which is likely to have lasting defence and security implications for the international community. As a starting point for informed debate, this Explainer is aimed at those confused by the numerous reports and rumours and will explore what the Integrated Review is, why it is being done and what it might contain.

Party 2019
Conservatives 365
Labour 203
SNP 48
Lib Dem 11
Sinn Fein 7
Green 1
Alliance 1

Figure 1: Graphic and table of Conservative majority in the House of Commons based on 2019 UK Election. 


The Integrated Review was announced in the Queen’s Speech soon after Boris Johnson’s electoral victory. In it, the Government said that the review would “promote and expand the United Kingdom’s influence in the world..., covering all aspects of international policy from defence to diplomacy and development.” It will do this across five key areas:

  1. “Define the Government's ambition for the UK's role in the world and the long-term strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy".
  2. “Set out the way in which the UK will be a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation, examining how we work more effectively with our allies".
  3. "Determine the capabilities we need for the next decade and beyond to pursue our objectives and address the risks and threats we face".
  4. "Identify the necessary reforms to Government systems and structures to achieve these goals".
  5. “Outline a clear approach to implementation over the next decade and set out how we will evaluate delivery of our aims".

Figure 2: Graphic of the Review's five objectives. 


Since 2010, UK governments have chosen to undertake a defence review once every five years. This is partly as a result of the Fixed Termed Parliament Act  which was introduced under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government, making it customary for governments to consider the state of the nation’s defence and security every five years. This is not to say that governments didn’t undertake reviews of defence policy prior to 2010. Rather, strategic reviews tended to be on a more ad hoc basis, such as the 1957 and 1966 Defence White Papers and the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. Regular discussion of defence also happened through annual statements on defence policy or the annual defence estimate.

Under the Blair Government there were three defence focussed reviews, one in 1998, and two much smaller ones in 2002 and 2003. During the 1997 election, Labour committed to conducting a review to re-assess the UK’s place in the post-Cold War strategic environment. In 1998, this was the task the review set itself, stating it intended “to provide the country with modern, effective and affordable Armed Forces which meet today's challenges but are also flexible enough to adapt to change.” This review also involved extensive engagement with key stakeholders inside and outside the UK Government and military. In his introduction, then-Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, said: “Hundreds of experts from within the [Ministry of Defence], the Armed Forces” fed into the “reshaping of our Armed Forces.” In 2002, the review sought to re-examine the UK’s defence posture in response to the events of 11 September 2001, examining the ways in which the UK needed to adapt to address the threat of terrorism and violent non-state groups. The 2003 Defence White Paper, titled Delivering Security in a Changing World, supplemented the 2002 review and outlined a restructuring of the British military.

Under Prime Minister David Cameron, the Government committed its successors to undertake a review every five years “to ensure the resources we have meet the ambitions of the National Security Strategy.” The two reviews under his premiership had a much broader focus than previous reviews (which were defence-only), incorporating “defence, security, intelligence, resilience, development and foreign affairs capabilities.”

The first was in 2010; the Strategic Defence and Security Review was conducted under a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. It was the first since the financial crash and much of its focus was on cost-saving, though the Conservatives had also intended to use the review to “ensure that resources for our armed forces are matched to our foreign policy requirements.” The second was in 2015 - the first review under a Conservative-majority government for decades. It promised to “harness all the tools of national power ... to deliver a ‘full-spectrum approach’”, to “protect our people”, “project our global influence” and “promote our prosperity.”

Since the 2015 review there have been a series of strategy documents on the UK’s foreign policy. In July 2017, for example, Theresa May’s Government launched the National Security Capability Review (NSCR) to ensure that the UK’s investment in national security capabilities is “as joined-up, effective and efficient as possible, to meet current national security challenges.” Following a protracted political row between the Ministry of Defence, the government’s National Security Adviser, and senior Conservative MPs about using the review to rein in defence spending, Prime Minister May agreed to allow the Ministry of Defence to launch a separate, defence-led review: the Modernising Defence Programme (MDP). The MDP was released in December 2018 and represented the military contribution to the NSCR.

To fall in line with the five-year timetable since 2010, it was expected that the UK Government would conduct a review in 2020. Indeed, both the Labour and Conservative Parties pledged to conduct a review in their 2019 general election manifestos. The Johnson Government, at least before the COVID-19 outbreak, seemed keen to use its Integrated Review as an opportunity to reassess the UK’s foreign policy – and the government departments needed to support its successful implementation – in the face of a changed world.


Defence and security reviews are an important tool to set out “(a) what the UK wants to achieve; (b) how it intends to achieve it; and (c) what capabilities are required.” It could be argued that such a process is more important now than ever given the last five years have seen dramatic changes, both inside the UK and internationally, which will impact the review.

Domestic factors

Domestically, Boris Johnson’s strong electoral victory at the end of 2019 presents a unique opportunity for him and his closest advisers to implement their vision of the UK’s place in the world. Before the election Johnson’s actions were often dictated by the divisions within the Conservative Party – and Parliament more broadly.  This is less the case now –  after winning a large parliamentary majority, the Government has greater flexibility to implement changes to the machinery of government.

Figure 3: Graphic of Boris Johnson's statement on the Review. 

The Integrated Review is also a chance to define what a post-Brexit Britain could look like. In a statement on the review, the Prime Minister’s office has said: “The UK’s departure from the EU presents new opportunities to define and strengthen Britain’s place in the world at a time when the global landscape is changing dramatically.” This is a sentiment that has been echoed from many within Cabinet. For instance, in September 2019, ahead of his trip to the UN, Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab said: “As we make progress in our Brexit negotiations, we are also taking our vision of a truly Global Britain to the UN – leading by example as a force for good in the world.” The Integrated Review presents an opportunity for the Johnson Government to set out the strategic priorities that will define ‘Global Britain’ and what this will mean in practice. Whether they take this opportunity is a different matter.

International factors

There are also several changes in the international system which may impact the Integrated Review. There has been an increased focus on state-based threats, the UK’s relations with allies and global issues (particularly climate change and, now, pandemic response).

First, while the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review mentioned state-based threats, the last few years have seen this concern increase in foreign policy debates. International tensions between Russia and the UK were noted in the 2015 SDSR and have only worsened in the last five years. Most dramatically, in 2018, a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned in the UK by a nerve agent, in an attack "almost certainly" approved by the Russian state. The last five years have also seen worsening tensions with Iran; from the US pulling out of  the Iran nuclear deal to UK calls for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe (a dual British-Iranian citizen who is imprisoned in Iran on charges of spying); to the UK impounding an Iranian oil tanker bound for Syria and, in retaliation, Iran seizing a UK-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz in September 2019. Practitioners, policymakers and experts (both in the UK and internationally) have also been split over how to approach the rise of China. For instance, there were a number of splits within the Conservative Party and between UK allies over the decision to include the Chinese telecoms company, Huawei, as part of the roll-out of the UK’s 5G network.

Second, the situation has not been much simpler with UK allies. As well as an increasingly acrimonious relationship between the UK and other European leaders in Brexit negotiations, the election of President Donald Trump has created challenges for UK-US cooperation. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said in evidence to the Defence Committee that the UK was not informed before the US announcement that it would pull its troops out of Syria. In fact, Wallace later said the UK “must be prepared to fight wars without the US.” This may be even truer following the US response to the COVID-19 outbreak, with some saying it will “no longer be seen as an international leader because of its…narrow self-interest and bungling incompetence” – an effect that may have far-reaching consequences for the Euro-Atlantic relationship.

Third, beyond relations between states, several global issues will likely play a key role in the review, including climate change. Climate change was mentioned 26 times in the 2015 SDSR and the problems have only worsened since, demonstrated, for instance, by the wildfires in Australia or the UK’s own deployments to help people impacted by hurricanes in the Caribbean.

Responding to global pandemics is likely to feature in the review. In just a few months, the spread of COVID-19 has ground the UK and many countries across the world to a standstill. This will have huge defence and security implications. Domestically, the Integrated Review may well consider how the UK can better prepare public resilience for a global health crisis like this again in the future. Internationally, the International Crisis Group has said “the global outbreak has the potential to wreak havoc in fragile states, trigger widespread unrest and severely test international crisis management systems.”


The impact of these international and domestic changes may well be dictated by what the review process actually looks like. How will decisions be made? Which areas are considered a priority (and by whom)? Which areas do key decision makers consider open for debate? And who is consulted and how? In attempting to predict this, it is worth exploring some of the speculation around both the process and the priorities of those leading the review.


As the renaming implies (from the Strategic Defence and Security Review to the Integrated Security, Defence, Development and Diplomacy Review), the Government intends to have a much broader discussion than just defence and security, and instead will cover the whole of government. The Prime Minister’s announcement about the review  promised to “go beyond the parameters of a traditional review by considering the totality of global opportunities and challenges the UK faces and determining how the whole of government can be structured, equipped and mobilised to meet them.” It said that the ultimate aim will be “creating a more coherent and strategic approach to our overseas activity.”

This aligns with a renewed focus on whole-of-government thinking since the 2018 National Security Capability Review announced the new fusion approach which aimed to “strengthen [the UK’s] collective approach to national security.” This announcement represents the latest iteration of efforts – which have been ongoing since the 1990s – to bring different departments together to respond as one when addressing instability and threats abroad. However, Fusion Doctrine aims to build on and improve these previous efforts. One of Fusion Doctrine’s main architects – Sir Mark Sedwill – is reportedly staying in Cabinet Office longer to oversee the review process. The Prime Minister’s announcement also said the review would solicit input from “[d]epartments across Whitehall.”

Figure 4: Diagram of Fusion Doctrine.

In the same statement, the Government also said that it “will utilise expertise from both inside and outside government for the review, ensuring the UK’s best foreign policy minds are feeding into its conclusions and offering constructive challenge to traditional Whitehall assumptions and thinking.” In fact, a number of statements from the Government have indicated they will seek expertise "beyond Whitehall" in the UK and "among our allies” For instance, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, joint minister at the FCO and DfID, said: “The review will engage with a range of stakeholders here and abroad to ensure proper consultation and challenge. We will listen and learn from different voices across the UK and internationally including civil society.” John Bew, the eminent historian and adviser at No 10, will also be leading a task force to support the cross-Whitehall team working on the review. This task force is one of the first of its kind and represents a departure from previous reviews which have been led by civil servants.

Bew has also been positive about the role of Parliament in helping the UK develop strategy, indicating that he may be open to it playing such a role in the review. In a paper for Policy Exchange last year, he and Gabriel Elefteriu, Head of Space Policy & Senior Defence Fellow at Policy Exchange, argued that Parliament has “a rich tradition of serious engagement with, and high-quality debate about, international affairs and Britain’s place in the world. … parliament has also acted as the focal point for a healthy and robust dissenting tradition that challenges the core assumptions of the government of the day.” The Government has also said that Parliament will be kept "fully informed."

Government rhetoric suggests it plans for the review to be, in many ways, more ambitious than previous iterations. However, the ability of the Government to meet this ambition for wide-ranging consultation across government, Parliament and civil society (in the UK and elsewhere) may be hindered by the timeline set for the review.

Even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, commentators were sceptical that the Government would finish the review by July 2020. Experts interviewed by Oxford Research Group who worked on the 1998 UK review and the 2015 Canadian review (both of which involved wide engagement with key stakeholders) said that to make the process useful it needs to be given sufficient time and consideration and cannot be treated as a tick-box exercise.

Since the outbreak, Lord Stirrup (former Chief of Defence Staff) and Lord Ricketts (former National Security Adviser) have said that, with the pandemic, the timelines are now “impossible”. Ministers and senior military leaders have already discussed how the review and the Comprehensive Spending Review are likely to be delayed, not least because individuals working on the review will likely now have been re-assigned to respond to COVID-19.

When the review does take place, it is worth bearing in mind that the Prime Minister’s office has said that “[d]ecisions on the review will ultimately be made by the National Security Council [(NSC)], chaired by the Prime Minister.” The openness of those within the NSC to taking on board comments and concerns from inside and outside of government will also impact the extent to which views solicited from outside are fed into the review’s final conclusions.  Much of this will depend on the sincerity of government calls for external input into the review. If this is absent, the review may well simply reflect the priorities of the key individuals involved.


Even given the international and domestic changes facing the UK, it is important to note that this review is unlikely to completely rewrite UK defence and security policy. Historically, UK defence reviews rarely significantly change the main priorities and programmes of the military. As Matthew Uttley, Benedict Wilkinson and Armida van Rij argue:

…over 20 years of defence reviews the UK has made little more than incremental and limited forms of change to the higher-level ‘ends’ (objectives of defence policy), ‘ways’ (courses of action intended to achieve the ends) and ‘means’ (instruments by which the ends can be achieved) of its defence policy.

However, given the promises of a substantial review, it is likely that the 2020 Integrated Review will see – at the very least – a change in tone and priorities for UK defence and security.

Certainly, the election of Johnson has meant that there are a new set of people and personalities asking difficult questions about the UK’s future. For instance, Dominic Cummings, the architect of the successful ‘Vote Leave’ campaign and Johnson’s electoral victory in December 2019, is now placed at the centre of a government willing to make significant changes to the UK political system. For example, there is already evidence that the Government is keen to increase the country’s focus on harnessing advances in technology, a key area of interest for Cummings. Indeed, he has made personal calls for more people with knowledge of data science, AI and cognitive technologies to join government, as part of a general effort to find “innovative ways” to improve UK decision-making and international engagement, including on UK defence. Although he was dismissed in February this year, the “super forecaster” Andrew Sabisky was perhaps an example of the sorts of individuals that Cummings had hoped to bring into the decision-making process affecting the Integrated Review as a means to challenge established thinking.

Figure 5: Copy of Dominic Cummings' "advert" on his blog.

It was also reported by the Times that some of the arguments around the review process were focussed on a belief by some that “has-beens” had been put in charge of it. Cummings has also been said to be very critical of the Ministry of Defence’s procurement strategy.  In fact, in a blog post he published at the end of last year he described the procurement process as a farce that “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”. This is likely to play into the review process. It should be noted that this is not a new challenge. In fact, it was almost ten years ago that the Conservatives under the leadership of David Cameron promised to tackle the “hopeless mismanagement of defence procurement” it blamed the previous Labour Government for, pledging to reform “the procurement process to ensure the delivery of equipment on time and on budget”. This suggests it won’t be an easy problem to overcome.

This same value-for-money focus may also drive efforts to make the Development of International Development (DFID) more aligned with foreign policy objectives. In particular, there are reports DFID could be merged (if not completely, at least to a greater extent) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Johnson has previously expressed support for the two departments to be merged. Despite falling short of a full merger between the FCO and DFID – a move strongly opposed by the UK’s NGO community but supported by Conservatives keen to reorient aid spending to focus on national security priorities – the government reshuffle in February 2020 saw Johnson merge the ministerial roles at the FCO with those at DFID. This is a process that would follow the trajectory already set by Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May who, when Prime Minister, appointed a number of junior ministers to share portfolios across the FCO and DFID. Though the limits on the number of salaried and non-salaried ministers may have also played its part during May’s time in office, the appointments made by Johnson appear to open the way for a greater amalgamation in the future.


How these different interests, debates, issues and concerns play out in discussions over the review will be critical in deciding what the eventual Integrated Review looks like and, therefore, are important to bear in mind. It is worth considering whether – for instance – the Conservative Government will, like some have in the past, cut defence spending and prioritise domestic crisis-management responses? Alternatively, will the increasing importance of global issues, like climate change or pandemics, see a renewed focus on Global Britain and a commitment to multilateralism? Or will these same factors lead the UK to pursue a narrower version of British national interests? Only time will tell how these processes, priorities and personalities interplay and impact the final product.


Want to learn more?

WarPod Ep #10 | Looking Ahead to the UK’s National Security Review

Fusion Doctrine in Five Steps: Lessons Learned from Remote Warfare in Africa 

The case for integrating a Climate Security approach into the National Security Strategy 

ORG Explains #12: The UK’s Pivot to the Sahel

Inconclusive Conclusions: The Modernising Defence Programme So Far  

Linking spending to strategic priorities: why the MDP should be published in full

Remote Warfare: Cost-Effective Warfighting?

Image credit: Defence Images/Flickr. 

About the authors

Abigail Watson is the Research Manager at ORG's Remote Warfare Programme. 

Liam Walpole is the Policy Manager at ORG's Remote Warfare Programme.