Bombardinio is the nom de plume of a staff officer who has served in the British armed forces, with operational experience in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan. She presently works for the Ministry of Defence in London where she looks at Defence policy. She has been published in the UK, USA and further afield. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessing the Effect of the United Kingdom’s Integrated Review on Operations Below the Threshold of War
Date Originally Written: August 10, 2021.
Date Originally Published: August 23, 2021.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is a serving staff officer in the British military. The author believes in the importance of a well-resourced standing military that underpins defense policy for both national spending plans, international policies, and allied engagements.
Summary: The United Kingdom government’s decision, articulated in the Integrated Review 2021, to concentrate on operating below the threshold of war, with insufficient resource to also maintain an effective warfighting capability is a folly, formulated without regard either to historical precedent or to the contemporary international scene. In these failings, it risks national and international security and Britain’s global position of influence.
Speak softly and carry a big stick – you will go far.
‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development, and Foreign Policy’ describes the United Kingdom (UK) government’s approach to contemporary international relations. For UK Defense, it marks a de facto move from an emphasis on warfighting to one which privileges operating below the threshold of war. International competition below the threshold of war is neither new nor wholly unwelcome, the UK military have operated in this manner for centuries and this new policy recognizes the need for adaptation to reflect the changing character of warfare. The Integrated Review’s weakness lies in its ignorance of both historical experience and contemporary realities, these lacunae risk both national and international security and Britain’s global position.
The Grey Zone, that nebulous and ill-defined no-man’s land between peace and armed conflict, is fundamental to the nature of war. If war is a continuation of politics by violent means, then military operations in the Grey Zone are part of that political continuum, just short of war. The width of the Zone is variable; while at times a personal affront or assault may form sufficient pretext for war – the War of Jenkin’s Ear (1739-48) – on other occasions it will not – the Salisbury Nerve Agent Attack of 2018. This variability is determined by political appetite informed by strategic balance. Political will is not purely the domain of politicians and statesmen, public opinion can affect the resolve of leaders considering armed conflict as a political tool; conversely, the public can be, and often have been, manipulated to support a resort to armed conflict. Whilst the will to fight provides the motivation for war, this is generally tempered by an analysis of the likelihood of success; in 1739, an eight-year old incident was allowed to presage war because Great Britain was confident of military superiority over Spain, in the 2018 nerve agent attack the advantage lay with the culprit.
The decision to concentrate on operating below the threshold of war will fail without considering the danger of crossing that threshold and understanding that the threshold is not self-determined, that freedom of decision is in the hands of the opposition, which will be making its own contiguous calculations with respect to its options. In 1861, the U.S. Navy seized the British ship ‘Trent’ in international waters and arrested two Confederate emissaries heading for Europe. This event led to the deployment of significant British land forces to Canada and naval units along the American east coast. War was only averted by a rapid apology by the Lincoln administration. While not a deliberate operation below the threshold of war, the Trent Affair is illustrative of the danger posed by military operations in a heightened political environment. Those who decided to risk the ire of the British had miscalculated both the appetite of the UK government to go to war and, more significantly, Britain’s military superiority.
The key to operating below the threshold of war is thus two-fold: understanding the adversary, their policy, strategy, risk calculus and appetite for armed conflict and maintaining sufficient credible military power to deter the adversary from retaliating through a resort to war. The Integrated Review identifies two systemic competitors, Russia and China, making it clear that the United Kingdom will seek to confront these nations below the threshold of war. Much of this confrontation will be done through enhancing the ways in which the UK protects itself and its interests and by engaging internationally in an attempt to persuade other countries that the West is a more attractive partner than either Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Communist China. These activities are relatively benign; the problem for UK Defense is that, despite a significant budget, it has failed to achieve value for money; the changed emphasis must hence be financed by significant cuts to conventional capability and thus deterrent effect. In ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’, the lightweight UK has chosen to enter a tag-team wrestling match, without its heavyweight partner.
Of course, it could be argued that as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the UK retains significant deterrent mass through the Alliance, theoretically this is true – the UK’s activities below the threshold of war are protected by the Treaty – but is that a practical reality? The UK’s strategic decision to confront Russia is a reaction to widespread interference and subversion in Western societies, the perceived aim of which is to weaken and divide political resolve. The problem for the UK is that Russian interference and influence has succeeded in weakening resolve: although limited sanctions have been used by Western nations in response to Putin’s worst excesses, military action has never been in question except in protection of the territorial integrity of NATO nations. If German dependence on Russian gas, international tensions caused by Brexit, and NATO’s internal disagreements are taken into account, the likelihood of support in reaction to a targeted military strike by Russia begins to look shaky.
Recently, a British destroyer conducting a freedom of navigation mission off the coast of the Crimea was confronted by Russian ships and aircraft and ordered to leave what the Russians define as their territorial waters. Shortly after, Putin threatened that a reoccurrence would be met by weapons against which the Royal Navy would have no defense. If the recent confrontation in the Black Sea were to be repeated, at a time in the near future when the United Kingdom’s conventional deterrent is even more denuded, and a Royal Navy vessel were lost to a Russian hypersonic missile, would NATO nations go to war? Russia may calculate that it has sufficiently eroded the Western will to fight, that outside of alliance borders most allies would be unwilling to enact NATO’s Article V, and that the UK has insufficient credible fighting power to respond, unless by resort to a strategic counterstroke by nuclear or offensive cyber operations, both of which would be irrationally escalatory. In such an instance, the UK would be isolated, her global position weakened, and NATO exposed as a paper tiger. The UK can only avoid this by listening to the wisdom of ages and bolstering her conventional forces, using the other levers of power to stiffen Western resolve, and exercise caution in operating below the threshold of war.
 ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’, UK Govt (July 2021). https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/the-integrated-review-2021
 ‘Understanding the Grey Zone’, IISS Blog (April 2019). https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2019/04/understanding-the-grey-zone
 ‘The War of Jenkin’s Ear 1739-48’, Oxford Reference (August 2021). https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100019496
 ’Salisbury poisoning: What did the attack mean for the UK and Russia’, BBC Website (March 2020). https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51722301
 ‘UK second biggest defence spender in NATO’, UK Defence Journal (March 2021). https://ukdefencejournal.org.uk/britain-second-biggest-defence-spender-in-nato/
 ‘NATO 2030: “A global Alliance for all seasons”, reality or rhetoric?, European Leadership Network (June 2021). https://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/commentary/nato-2030-a-global-alliance-for-all-seasons-reality-or-rhetoric/
 ‘Why Nordstream 2 is the world’s most controversial energy project’, The Economist (July 2021). https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2021/07/14/why-nord-stream-2-is-the-worlds-most-controversial-energy-project
 ‘The UK and European Defence: will NATO be enough?, The Foreign Policy Centre (December 2020). https://fpc.org.uk/the-uk-and-european-defence-will-nato-be-enough/
 ‘British warship deliberately sailed close to Crimea, UK officials say’, The New York Times (24 June 2021). https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/24/world/europe/russia-uk-defender-crimea.html
 ‘Putin says Russian Navy can carry out ‘unpreventable strike’ if needed’, Reuters (25 June 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/putin-says-russian-navy-can-carry-out-unpreventable-strike-if-needed-2021-07-25/
 ‘No peace – no war. The future of the Russia-NATO relationship’, European Leadership Network (September 2018. https://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/commentary/no-peace-no-war-the-future-of-the-russia-nato-relationship/