The UK as a European Power

Main Image Credit Firm support: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hosts Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on a visit to the UK on 8 February. Image: Number 10 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Through its efforts to support Ukraine against Russia’s invasion, the UK has demonstrated the strength of its commitment to European security.

Over the last year, the UK has built on its previous position as Ukraine’s strongest European supporter to place itself at the centre of efforts to accelerate allied military support. At the recent Munich Security Conference, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stated that ‘The security of our European continent will always be our overriding priority’.

In contrast to France and Germany, the UK government has not had to negotiate domestic political support for its robust Ukraine policy. Although the country has had three prime ministers since February 2022, all have supported the same approach, which has also enjoyed strong support from the Labour opposition. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has provided a level of experience, personal commitment and political clout that has proved invaluable in ensuring continuity. Having turned down the prospect of standing for the party leadership, Wallace is now the third longest-serving defence secretary since 1945 (only Denis Healey and Geoff Hoon have served longer). This has helped.

Two decades of commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan, together with the much-heralded ‘Indo-Pacific Tilt’ in Boris Johnson’s Integrated Review and the government’s post-Brexit interpretation of ‘Global Britain’, had led some to question the priority given by the UK to European security.

Yet, after Russia’s first invasion in 2014, the UK quickly developed a strong bilateral relationship with Ukraine’s armed forces. 22,000 Ukrainian troops were trained by the UK’s Operation Orbital prior to the 2022 invasion. The 2021 agreement to help Ukraine build a new Black Sea naval base, armed with UK-supplied vessels, and the decision to undertake a ‘freedom of navigation’ operation near the Crimean coast, were further indications of the UK’s willingness to support Ukraine’s security.

Boiling the Frog

Since the war started, the UK has built on this foundation, and has been more forward-leaning than many of its allies. As a nuclear weapon state, it shares Washington’s belief that the risks of escalation need to be taken seriously. But it is prepared to make its own judgements as to how to handle these risks, even as it is careful not to get too far ahead of its principal ally in doing so.

In contrast to France and Germany, the UK government has not had to negotiate domestic political support for its robust Ukraine policy

Most visibly, the UK has been at the front of the pack on arms deliveries. It was the first European state to provide lethal aid (anti-tank missiles) to Ukraine, followed by cyber support, electronic warfare capabilities, drones, air defence and combat vehicles. It is providing large-scale training of Ukrainian armed forces in the UK itself, leading a wider group of countries in doing so. In December, it became the first country to agree to provide Western main battle tanks to Ukraine, along with large numbers of other armoured vehicles from its own stocks. In February, it offered training for the country’s pilots, and helped to restart alliance discussion of the issue of future supply of combat jets. All these initiatives together mean that the UK remains the biggest European defence donor to Ukraine, with assistance totalling some £2.3 billion in the 2022/23 fiscal year, and another £2.3 billion in prospect for 2023/24.

European Dividends

These efforts have paid dividends for the UK's efforts to repair its relationship with its European neighbours after Brexit. Much of the Johnson premiership was characterised by a strong focus on defence cooperation with northern and eastern Europe, exemplified by the emphasis on the Joint Expeditionary Force. Ministers were wary of any action that might be seen as direct cooperation with the EU itself.

The Ukraine war is changing this. UK and EU officials worked closely together on sanctions policy and implementation from the start of the conflict. The UK became an active participant in the founding summit of the new European Political Community in October 2022. The agreement to join PESCO’s Military Mobility Programme, while arguably of limited operational value, was an important symbol of a new pragmatism. And, if there is now a resolution of the Northern Ireland Protocol issue, this will not only allow a return to the Horizon programme for research cooperation, but in time, it could also create the political space for wider foreign and security policy cooperation.

Tilting Concepts

All powerful political concepts combine resonating messages with ambiguous content. This has certainly been true of both ‘Global Britain’ and the ‘Indo-Pacific Tilt’. It remains to be seen to what extent either concept survives the refresh of the Integrated Review, due to be published in March. What is clear is that the UK military faces new pressures to meet NATO requirements. As a result, even strong advocates of the Tilt are emphasising that it was never intended to be a recipe for a large-scale shift of military effort to East Asia.

There are likely to be many new opportunities for defence industrial cooperation with the UK's Indo-Pacific friends and allies. The largest, and potentially most fruitful, is the Global Combat Air Programme (formerly Tempest), recently launched in partnership with Japan and Italy. The central purpose of such cooperation for the UK is to increase the cost-effectiveness of procurement through scale economies and the sharing of advanced technologies. It does not require the UK to take on large new operational commitments that could potentially divert resources from NATO roles closer to home.

Capabilities and Cash

There has been much debate about the need to address gaps in capabilities revealed by the war, and the urgent requirement to reinforce NATO deterrence. The last year has seen several allies – especially those closest to Russia – announcing big increases in spending. The EU’s two largest military powers – France and Germany – have announced large multi-year increases in their own defence budgets, albeit short of details on timing or specific capabilities.

Today’s priority is to help Ukraine win, even at the expense of some short-term risk to the UK’s own military capability

In the UK's case, there has so far been no such announcement. Because of higher-than-anticipated inflation, current spending plans mean that core defence spending is due to rise by only 5% in real terms between 2019/20 and 2024/25. The chancellor is expected to provide some increased resources, both to compensate for additional inflation in equipment costs and to address urgent stockpile requirements. We will see how much this amounts to when the Budget is published on 15 March.

One of the problems highlighted by the war is that, during the long period when counterinsurgency was the priority mission, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) took capability decisions that meant that the military was no longer optimised for large-scale conventional war. This began to change after 2014. The 2020 Spending Review increased the 10-year procurement budget for Army Command from £19 billion to £28.7 billion, much of which was focused on peer conflict requirements. But more will be needed if the Army is to meet its ambition to have a sovereign warfighting division capable of sustained high-intensity conflict. The other services have comparable requirements.

While there is a broad political consensus in support of the UK meeting its 2% commitment to NATO, this consensus does not appear to extend to a significant increase in the percentage of GDP devoted to defence, which would require increasing tax revenues (as a proportion of GDP) to pay for it. The MoD will therefore have to make hard capability choices, either this year or in whatever review follows the next election. Meanwhile, today’s priority is to help Ukraine win, even at the expense of some short-term risk to the UK’s own military capability.

The Interim Review

While there is now much speculation about the likely content of the forthcoming Integrated Review Refresh (IRR), it is unlikely to deviate substantially from the original document for two reasons.

First, it is hard to decide on long-term shifts in defence policy when no one knows how the war is going to end. This would be comparable to the UK conducting a 10-year strategic defence review in 1915, three years before the First World War’s conclusion. The most plausible scenario is that, at some stage, the intensity of the conflict diminishes, leaving both sides exhausted but with neither having gained a decisive victory. But it remains possible that one side or the other will run out of critical resources – soldiers, ammunition, fuel, money – and its military position will collapse (as Germany’s did in 1918). The time for a long-term defence review will come when the outcome of the war is clearer.

Second, by the time that the IRR has been translated into a new Defence Command Paper and this has then been fed through into additions (and deletions) to the long-term equipment plan, the next election could be barely a year away. Some course changes will be necessary. But, by the autumn of 2023, there will be a strong case for delaying fundamental policy shifts until the outcome of the election is known and the new government has had time to decide on its own fiscal and strategic priorities.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Malcolm Chalmers

Deputy Director-General

Senior Management

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