Main Image Credit Royal Marines on Exercise Cold Response in Norway training in extreme cold conditions in March 2022. Courtesy of Defence Imagery / MOD News Licence
One year after the Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper were published, global developments prompt the question of whether a reset in the UK’s national security strategy is required.
The UK’s Integrated Review of Defence, Security, Development and Foreign Policy was published in March 2021. It was followed by numerous other ‘strategies’ required by the main review, including the Defence Command Paper, the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy and the National Space Strategy. One year on, and given the tragic events in Ukraine, it is sensible to consider whether the UK’s national strategy has aged well. There are certainly legitimate criticisms, many of which were made at the time of publication, but does the invasion of Ukraine – as Paul Cornish believes – mean the Integrated Review is not fit for purpose? There is precedent for rapidly refreshing national strategy – the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review was followed by a National Security Capability Review in 2017 – but is a reset needed?
The Integrated Review’s mercantilist tone and strategic framework remain relevant and, in an era of competition, are eminently sensible; countries compete effectively when they generate wealth. An economic and diplomatic tilt to the Indo-Pacific, therefore, and the desire to strengthen UK science and technology, match today’s reality, although a genuinely integrated strategy might have made more of the domestic education systems needed to develop UK talent. The two other parts of the strategic framework – the need to shape a new international order and build resilience – are also sound. The problem, however, is that the Review depends on too many other ‘strategies’ that have not had the same guiding mind, fall short of the lofty ambition in the capping document and do not connect the Integrated Review’s ends with the requisite ways and means. The suite of strategies is weakened as a result.
The Integrated Review is very clear about the threat from Russia, describing it as the ‘most acute direct threat to the UK’ and one that requires greater burden sharing by European countries to ensure collective security. This judgement remains valid, but the politics at the time did not allow a more nuanced acknowledgement of the EU’s importance to collective security. While NATO’s military capability dwarfs that of the EU, the EU controls vital mechanisms allowing that capability to be used – such as the regulatory framework permitting the movement of people, ammunition and equipment, and the infrastructure specifications for roads, bridges and so on – while the new Strategic Compass is intended to enhance the EU’s defence potential. Moreover, the Defence Command Paper fails to provide a clear line between the threat (Russia) and the defence response. Reductions in conventional capabilities are coupled with plans for both the Navy and Army to spend more time persistently engaged outside Europe in pursuit of a still undefined ‘Global Britain’ chimera. The focus on modernisation is sensible, but bets are made on new technology – much of it unproven – and an emphasis on configuring for challenges below the threshold of military conflict, which now looks misplaced given the scale of conventional armed forces fighting in European cities. The Review’s rather self-satisfied description of the UK as ‘the leading European Ally in NATO’ acknowledges NATO’s importance and may be true based on the size of the UK Defence budget, but with European allies such as Germany and Poland increasing mass and spending, that claim starts to look weaker, especially as the Chancellor declined to increase defence spending in his Spring Statement. A new way of describing the scale of the UK’s contribution to NATO is probably needed, one that avoids an emphasis on inputs (spending) and considers value, such as capability.
An honesty capability assessment is needed – one that ruthlessly exposes current weaknesses and unsubstantiated hopes regarding as-yet unproven technology
Many UK commentators are calling for increases in the Defence budget to 3% or more of GDP, but while the demands are understandable, caution is needed. The armed forces would struggle to absorb a large injection of extra money, lacking both the conceptual clarity on how to spend it wisely and the capacity within the department and industry to spend it quickly. The worst outcome would be to commit to buying more equipment that Defence cannot afford to use because its operating budget has not kept pace. The situation in Germany is different – the Bundeswehr had been systematically underfunded with poor levels of servicing and spares that made equipment availability very poor, although it too is likely to struggle to absorb the huge sums promised.
While more money is needed to reflect both the threat and the impact of inflation, merely increasing UK defence spending to remain the largest European defence budget – with some estimates indicating that at least another £10 billion per year would be required to get to 2.5% of GDP – is not enough. Not only would this place the UK in a bidding war with a richer country with years of neglect to fix, but it would happen when public finances are strained as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the need to build new trading relationships outside the EU, and while the tax burden is already high. Significantly, it would also not address the need to set new priorities. More sensible would be to return to the threat assessment and decide what a threat-based approach should mean for defence – in other words, what a Euro-Atlantic defence strategy would entail. This must place NATO at the centre of defence planning, because the UK is not required to face Russia alone and does not need forces that can do that. It does need forces that can work with and through NATO and add value to the Alliance. The strategy should consider what capabilities other NATO Allies can provide and what the UK’s USP might look like. Command and control, at Divisional and Corps level, as well as through the Joint Expeditionary Force, is an important feature of this, perhaps more so than trying to duplicate heavy forces that central NATO partners already have in quantity and place. It might also reinforce the decision to remain in Western Europe by switching the planned redeployment of some materiel from Canada to Oman towards Germany and Poland, where it is needed and would be contributing to deterrence in Europe.
A starting point must be an honest capability assessment – one that ruthlessly exposes current weaknesses and unsubstantiated hopes regarding as-yet unproven technology, or the belief that such technologies can compensate for a lack of mass. Politically boring but vital capabilities – such as stockpiles and logistic enablers – also need attention, as does ensuring the capabilities are available at appropriate levels of readiness. This requires additional spending in operating costs (RDEL) as well as capital items (CDEL) if the force is to be ready; Russia’s experience in Ukraine offers an insight into the problem of prioritising equipment modernisation without appropriate investment in logistics, people and realistic operational training and exercises. Reversing the planned cuts to air and land forces would help in the short term while Defence gears for the growth that will be necessary. Obvious areas for expansion in the context of European security include anti-submarine warfare capability to protect the sea lines of communication for North American reinforcements to Europe; air defence; and strengthening the ability to hold an adversary at range from the air, land and sea. This takes time: even if the money is found, limited industrial capacity means it will not be delivered quickly, but perhaps even more limiting is growing the people with the necessary skills. Investing in experimentation where technology can supplement humans, for example in lean crewing of ships, and/or reducing human skill levels would open the path to affordable mass, including through the Reserves, who despite the Reserve Forces 2030 Study were left without a clear demand signal. Just as importantly, it requires Defence leadership that can seize growth opportunities, which may be difficult for those at the top of Defence who have known only cuts to force levels since the end of the Cold War and have become proficient at managing decline. A growth mindset will be difficult to inculcate, and growth itself will be hard to deliver without a collaborative approach to partnering with allies and industry, and will inevitably involve some waste.
While it is possible that Russia will emerge from Ukraine strategically weaker and with its reputation for military credibility dented, Defence planning cannot safely take that as its baseline
Also required is a political reset in the UK’s relationship with its partners in Europe in particular: working in alliance depends on trust, which the UK has in short supply with EU members, many of whom are also NATO Allies. Despite the good work in training and equipping the Ukrainian armed forces, the UK’s wider reputation has been damaged by its slowness in sanctioning oligarchs and its unreliability over the Northern Ireland protocol, scandals over rule-breaking, and its refusal to participate in EU security cooperation – even where that would be advantageous to the UK, such as in military mobility. The idea of Global Britain remains a slogan without substance, harmed by cuts to overseas aid and a perceived weakening of emphasis on development within the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
While it is possible – even probable – that Russia will emerge from Ukraine strategically weaker and with its reputation for military credibility dented, Defence planning cannot safely take that as its baseline. Deterring Russia requires credible conventional capabilities, as many of the UK’s allies have recognised, but this will take time to generate. However, the problems cannot be fixed merely by throwing more money at Defence without thought. While we should guard against assuming that changing declaratory policy leads to real improvement, there is enough wrong with the Defence component of the Integrated Review to justify a reset. At its core, any new strategy needs a focus on deterrence and defence of the Euro-Atlantic area, in which the UK works with and not in competition against its allies and partners. While more money is needed, this must be more than a sudden surge in capital funding that ignores the practicalities of spending it or resourcing the increased running costs that result. In short, a strategic approach involving measured growth across all Defence lines of development and integrated with allies is required.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.
Director, Military Sciences