The U.K. Doubles Down on Covert Operations

Two weeks ago, the British government published its most significant review of defense, security, and foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. It will likely usher in a new era of British covert interventionism.

The 114-page integrated review, titled “Global Britain in a Competitive Age,” emphasizes “Global Britain,” a slogan coined by the governing Conservative Party in the aftermath of the country’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016. The review highlights that the British government wants to maintain global influence, including by tilting toward the geographically distant Indo-Pacific region. At the same time, however, Britain perennially lacks the capabilities sufficient to meet its ambitions—and even more so now given the damage Covid-19 has done to the British economy.

In an attempt to reconcile global ambitions with limited means, the review, together with an accompanying Defence Command Paper, emphasizes secret intelligence, special operations forces, and offensive cyber capabilities. They will be used to disrupt, deter, deny, and degrade Britain’s adversaries. All are tools of force multiplication; the power of the hidden hand will allow Britain to do more with less.

The review and the command paper have several strengths. The ambition, reach, and commitment to allies deserve praise. The attempt to integrate special operations forces into strategic planning is especially beneficial. But there are important weaknesses too. The objectives are unclear, leaving little sense of how or whether the means will match the ends. And the identity of the partners with whom the UK will discreetly operate is left vague.

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