Defence, energy and cyber security: the areas where ‘Global Britain’  needs to think strategically 

Maria Jenkinson is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.

The former British prime minister Harold Macmillan famously quipped, that what shapes the direction of foreign policy are “events, dear boy, events”. Since the advent of Brexit, Britain has had a chance to review its foreign policy to fit the view of “Global Britain”. Boris Johnson has pledged to make Britain “match-fit for a more competitive world” with the publishing of the Integrated Defence Review by the Foreign Office, which sets out three specific areas of strategic importance: defence, energy security and cyber security. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it becomes crucial to protect these strategic interests. 

Firstly, a focus on defence is now an imperative for the UK to prevent the Ukraine crisis will spill over into NATO territories – such as Poland. The UK is committed to NATO as it is “our most important alliance”. The UK is set to exceed NATO’s recommended 2% GDP expenditure to 2.2% GDP, spending £24 billion over the next four years. This would secure the UK’s place as the leading European ally and key security partner to the United States. Ensuring both a united Western response to Russian aggression through collective security, and a defence of UK interests overseas, this would contribute to securing its strategic interests. 

Crucially, the extent of the Russian threat was diagnosed in the Integrated Review stating that “Russia remains the most acute threat to our security”, a statement that will remain true for the foreseeable future. Despite this acknowledgement occurring prior to the invasion of Ukraine, the UK sent only 2,000 NLAW anti-tank missiles to bolster Ukrainian defences, before the invasion. That said the UK will now send 1,615 more. Evidently, more can be and could have been done to protect geopolitical flashpoints, such as Ukraine, from escalating conflict. As Ronald Reagan famously said of containing the USSR we must pursue “peace through strength”. Following this mantra in an era of geopolitical instability should be a priority for Global Britain.

Secondly, the importance of self-sufficiency in energy supply has become paramount. Last month, the Joint European Tours (JET) at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire produced a total of 59MJ (11MJ/sec) of energy, breaking the world record and thus proving a meaningful step towards nuclear fusion power. Nuclear energy should be seen as the closest thing to a panacea for the world’s energy crisis, as it is a reliable, low-cost alternative form of energy in the transition to renewables: it produces zero carbon emissions and only produces a small amount of radioactive waste. 

Yet, nuclear power only generates 20% of the UK’s electricity. To further remove any energy dependency on Russia, and better secure energy supplies, a Global Britain should rapidly attract investment in smaller, more compact nuclear reactors, as nuclear energy provides a good alternative form of energy in the context of the transition to renewable energy sources. Of equal importance is that this investment comes from reputable sources so that it doesn’t endanger Britain’s security. An example is Sizewell, built by a Chinese nuclear energy corporation but less likely to happen due to national concerns. 

The final but no less important pillar of post-Brexit Britain’s national security strategy lies in cyberspace. This is vital as cyber warfare and other forms of ‘Grey Zone’ warfare seem to be operating in tandem to conventional warfare, as we have seen in the Russo Ukrainian War, and this has been highlighted in the defence review, which left the navy and air force relatively unscathed but cut the army by almost 10,000, to 72,500. In addition, the MOD was planning to reduce the tank force from 227 to 148. As sort to turn Britain’s armed forces, specifically the army into a “small force modernised more extensively”. The technologies being sent over to Ukraine are important in maintaining the UK’s competitive edge in the new arenas of warfare such as cyber.  

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) urged UK businesses to patch their systems, check their data and practise good “cyber hygiene” to prepare for Russian state cyber-attacks, in the event of the escalation of cyber warfare. The urgent need to expand the UK’s cyber defence and understanding around cyber hygiene was shown when in February this year the FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) suffered a “serious cybersecurity incident”. 

The government’s review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy was established to “anticipate, prevent, prepare for, respond to and recover from” cyber-attacks. Cyber-attacks target vital national infrastructure and debilitate the networks necessary for a state to function effectively. Without continued development of cyber offence and defence, an open door is left into our critical infrastructure which Britain’s adversaries can exploit. 

Similarly, the government wants to take the lead in emerging technologies such as microprocessors and quantum technologies. These will be adopted in so-called smart homes and cities. Previously, the NCSC had expressed concern over ‘smart’ technologies. China is the lead supplier of smart city technology. The development of the UK’s own technologies to decrease reliance on China can be seen as a “bulwark against Chinese interference and industrial espionage”. This would give Britain a strategic advantage, strengthening democratically aligned countries against an authoritarian China.

In conclusion, recent events have reinforced Britain’s need to pursue peace through strength. Energy security, cyber security and conventional defence capabilities are crucial to achieving a globally competitive Britain as introduced by the Foreign Office’s Integrated Review. The government must therefore invest in emerging technologies, whilst keeping one eye on maintaining the preparedness of its war-fighting forces. The development of nuclear energy is also particularly promising and would severely harm Russia. If Britain follows this approach, it will have a national defence strategy that will be central to European security and also competitive on the world stage.

The former British prime minister Harold Macmillan famously quipped, that what shapes the direction of foreign policy are “events, dear boy, events”. Since the advent of Brexit, Britain has had a chance to review its foreign policy to fit the view of “Global Britain”. Boris Johnson has pledged to make Britain “match-fit for a more competitive world” with the publishing of the Integrated Defence Review by the Foreign Office, which sets out three specific areas of strategic importance: defence, energy security and cyber security. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it becomes crucial to protect these strategic interests. 

Firstly, a focus on defence is now an imperative for the UK to prevent the Ukraine crisis will spill over into NATO territories – such as Poland. The UK is committed to NATO as it is “our most important alliance”. The UK is set to exceed NATO’s recommended 2% GDP expenditure to 2.2% GDP, spending £24 billion over the next four years. This would secure the UK’s place as the leading European ally and key security partner to the United States. Ensuring both a united Western response to Russian aggression through collective security, and a defence of UK interests overseas, this would contribute to securing its strategic interests. 

Crucially, the extent of the Russian threat was diagnosed in the Integrated Review stating that “Russia remains the most acute threat to our security”, a statement that will remain true for the foreseeable future. Despite this acknowledgement occurring prior to the invasion of Ukraine, the UK sent only 2,000 NLAW anti-tank missiles to bolster Ukrainian defences, before the invasion. That said the UK will now send 1,615 more. Evidently, more can be and could have been done to protect geopolitical flashpoints, such as Ukraine, from escalating conflict. As Ronald Reagan famously said of containing the USSR we must pursue “peace through strength”. Following this mantra in an era of geopolitical instability should be a priority for Global Britain.

Secondly, the importance of self-sufficiency in energy supply has become paramount. Last month, the Joint European Tours (JET) at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire produced a total of 59MJ (11MJ/sec) of energy, breaking the world record and thus proving a meaningful step towards nuclear fusion power. Nuclear energy should be seen as the closest thing to a panacea for the world’s energy crisis, as it is a reliable, low-cost alternative form of energy in the transition to renewables: it produces zero carbon emissions and only produces a small amount of radioactive waste. 

Yet, nuclear power only generates 20% of the UK’s electricity. To further remove any energy dependency on Russia, and better secure energy supplies, a Global Britain should rapidly attract investment in smaller, more compact nuclear reactors, as nuclear energy provides a good alternative form of energy in the context of the transition to renewable energy sources. Of equal importance is that this investment comes from reputable sources so that it doesn’t endanger Britain’s security. An example is Sizewell, built by a Chinese nuclear energy corporation but less likely to happen due to national concerns. 

The final but no less important pillar of post-Brexit Britain’s national security strategy lies in cyberspace. This is vital as cyber warfare and other forms of ‘Grey Zone’ warfare seem to be operating in tandem to conventional warfare, as we have seen in the Russo Ukrainian War, and this has been highlighted in the defence review, which left the navy and air force relatively unscathed but cut the army by almost 10,000, to 72,500. In addition, the MOD was planning to reduce the tank force from 227 to 148. As sort to turn Britain’s armed forces, specifically the army into a “small force modernised more extensively”. The technologies being sent over to Ukraine are important in maintaining the UK’s competitive edge in the new arenas of warfare such as cyber.  

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) urged UK businesses to patch their systems, check their data and practise good “cyber hygiene” to prepare for Russian state cyber-attacks, in the event of the escalation of cyber warfare. The urgent need to expand the UK’s cyber defence and understanding around cyber hygiene was shown when in February this year the FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) suffered a “serious cybersecurity incident”. 

The government’s review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy was established to “anticipate, prevent, prepare for, respond to and recover from” cyber-attacks. Cyber-attacks target vital national infrastructure and debilitate the networks necessary for a state to function effectively. Without continued development of cyber offence and defence, an open door is left into our critical infrastructure which Britain’s adversaries can exploit. 

Similarly, the government wants to take the lead in emerging technologies such as microprocessors and quantum technologies. These will be adopted in so-called smart homes and cities. Previously, the NCSC had expressed concern over ‘smart’ technologies. China is the lead supplier of smart city technology. The development of the UK’s own technologies to decrease reliance on China can be seen as a “bulwark against Chinese interference and industrial espionage”. This would give Britain a strategic advantage, strengthening democratically aligned countries against an authoritarian China.

In conclusion, recent events have reinforced Britain’s need to pursue peace through strength. Energy security, cyber security and conventional defence capabilities are crucial to achieving a globally competitive Britain as introduced by the Foreign Office’s Integrated Review. The government must therefore invest in emerging technologies, whilst keeping one eye on maintaining the preparedness of its warfighting forces. The development of nuclear energy is also particularly promising and would severely harm Russia. If Britain follows this approach, it will have a national defence strategy that will be central to European security and also competitive on the world stage.

Image credit: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/cyber-defence-funding-worth-2-million-available-to-suppliers

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