Is Britain’s defence policy strong enough to face modern challenges?
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought the defence priorities and capabilities of European countries into stark focus. The United Kingdom is playing a critical role in supporting Ukraine in its efforts to defend itself, building on the success of Operation Orbital, a British training mission in Ukraine launched in 2015 in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Against that background, the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee launched an inquiry into the UK’s overall defence strategy and the extent to which it responds adequately to the threats and challenges the UK will face in 2022 and beyond.
Our inquiry, “Defence concepts and capabilities: from aspiration to reality,” scrutinises two documents published last year – the Integrated Review and the Defence Command Paper – which outline the government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world and the contribution of defence to that vision.
The Defence Command Paper evaluates the overarching trends that will be of particular importance to the UK’s security and defence policy. It highlights that Russia “continues to pose the greatest nuclear, conventional military and sub-threshold threat to European security” – a warning borne out of Russia’s illegal and unjustified invasion of Ukraine.
We have heard mixed reviews of the adequacy of the government’s stated defence policy in the face of modern challenges
The paper also highlights the increasing challenge of warfare that falls below the threshold of armed conflict (often referred to as “sub-threshold” or “grey-zone” threats). This includes threats relating to cybersecurity, terrorism and targeted attacks, such as the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine follows a more conventional path, a key theme in our inquiry is questioning whether the government has over-emphasised sub-threshold threats at the expense of preparing for conventional armed warfare. Indeed, the Defence Command Paper also announced a further slashing of the armed forces, from 82,000 to 72,500 by 2025, raising questions about the extent to which the UK can adequately respond to conventional warfare challenges with fewer boots on the ground.
We have heard mixed reviews of the adequacy of the government’s stated defence policy in the face of modern challenges. Michael Clarke, former director general of the RUSI and professor at King’s College London, told us that the Integrated Review clearly sets out the challenges facing the UK.
However, Jamie Gaskarth, professor of foreign policy and international relations at the Open University, felt it “does not really make any fundamental changes” and “most of it could have been written in 2015”.
Experts have also highlighted the government’s “bet” on science and technology for solving many of the challenges faced by the UK and its armed forces. Professor Clarke told us that there is “a lot of faith in science and technology”, but that it is not quite clear how these ambitions will be achieved.
The events of the last year have shone a critical light on the adequacy of the government’s defence policy. Over the remainder of this year, the committee will continue to scrutinise the government’s approach, taking evidence from experts in the defence and military sectors, including General Sir Adrian Bradshaw, former commander land forces and deputy supreme allied commander Europe; Air Marshal Philip Osborn, former chief of defence intelligence; and Air Marshal Edward Stringer, former director-general of the Defence Academy.
We take evidence from the current chief of the defence staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, in a public session on 22 June, and will hear from the Secretary of State for Defence in the autumn. The Committee aims to publish its report at the beginning of 2023.
Baroness Anely is a Conservative peer.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.