UK defence policy must adapt in the face of new challenges
The United Kingdom enters 2023 facing some of the most serious security circumstances since the Cold War.
The outbreak of large-scale warfare in Europe and the deteriorating economic climate poses major challenges to the government’s defence policies, originally set out in the Integrated Review and the Defence Command Paper in March 2021.
In this context, the cross-party House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee, which I chair, has today published a report which assesses whether the UK’s defence policies remain deliverable and relevant. This report is the culmination of an inquiry which began in April last year.
The original Integrated Review did not do enough to define priorities and face up to hard choices
Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has fundamentally changed the European security environment. The government correctly identified the Russian threat in the original Integrated Review, but it must remain vigilant. While wary in drawing premature conclusions from the Ukrainian battlefield, we have been struck by the high attrition rates of weapons and ammunition, and the need for the UK to build up its own resilience in response.
The war has also highlighted the importance of Nato and other alliances to UK defence, particularly in generating the military mass that the UK can no longer deploy alone. These alliances must be sustained, and we were particularly concerned by the post-Brexit deterioration in relations with France. The much-vaunted “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific region need not be incompatible with prioritising the defence of Europe – provided that the UK does not over-commit resources in the Pacific that are needed closer to home.
In addition, the worsening economic outlook risks undermining the government’s defence plans; with high inflation, the defence budget will need more money to stand still, let alone increase to 3 per cent of GDP. Pending future decisions from the government on defence spending, we have asked them to set out the impact of inflation on defence.
In translating the aspirations of the original Integrated Review into reality, each of the three services faces its own challenges. Plans for increased investment in the Royal Navy are vulnerable to inflation. The British army faces fundamental questions, particularly given controversial plans to reduce numbers of personnel. Size, however, is not everything; the real question is what we want the army to do and whether it is capable of doing it. For the RAF, closer cooperation with our European Nato allies is a top priority.
The continued credibility of the nuclear deterrent is vital. However, there is a case for greater parliamentary scrutiny of nuclear weapons policy and spending. Clearly some secrecy is needed, but the government could consider allowing parliamentary committees confidential access to information about how funds on the deterrent are allocated and spent.
The government has championed the benefits of new defence technologies, an emphasis which some have characterised as a “bet”. Yet it has only pledged to increase R&D spending to 2.4 per cent of GDP, which is merely in line with the OECD average. More work is also needed to translate promising innovations into practical capabilities.
Culture change is needed across the Ministry of Defence, not least to encourage greater institutional tolerance for risk. The Department also needs to transform its relationships with external stakeholders; one industry witness described the Ministry of Defence as “one of the worst customers in the world.”
The original Integrated Review did not do enough to define priorities and face up to hard choices, meaning that the Defence Command Paper lacked focus. The forthcoming updates to these two documents are an opportunity for the government to rectify this, while also reflecting the changed economic and security climate. In doing so, they should take into account the conclusions of our committee’s report.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns is a Conservative peer and chair of the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee.
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