In this article Professor Basil Germond summarises the maritime aspects of the Integrated Review Refresh (IR23) announced on 13th March.
Publication of IR23 coincided with the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, attending two high level meetings with strategic partners (French President Macron on 10 March and US President Biden and Australian Prime Minister Albanese on 13 March). Both resulted in agreements that will have long-lasting impacts on global naval affairs. In a period of geopolitical instability not seen since the Cold War, IR23 addresses important questions as to the implementation of Britain’s maritime objectives.
The March 2021 Integrated Review (IR21), and its accompanying Defence Command Paper, defined very ambitious goals for what was then called ‘Global Britain’. The strong emphasis put on the importance of the maritime domain for the UK’s security and prosperity got a positive reception in the naval circles.
For the first time in decades, the UK would make the most of its intrinsic strengths as a maritime nation to deliver on its ambitions to shape the rapidly changing world order in partnership with like-minded states. Yet, the deployment of Carrier Strike Group in 2021, led by HMS Queen Elizabeth, to the Indo-Pacific region in 2021 could not hide the limitation of this strategy: the Royal Navy’s overstretched resources.
IR23 accounts for the current strategic acceleration whereby risks and threats at the higher end of the military spectrum have increased, as demonstrated by the occurrence of a large-scale conventional war on the European continent. It also anticipates the impending global leadership challenge posed by China.
In this context, IR23 suggests that the UK capitalizes on its inherent strengths (in particular Science & Technology) and maximizes opportunities (for instance Britain’s extended network of partners) to “generate strategic advantage” despite limited resources. The refreshed strategy offers pragmatic options to address the issue of overstretched maritime assets, increased risks and threats (including from climate change) and sharper demands on the Royal Navy in home waters and overseas.
IR23 makes an important choice: the Euro-Atlantic theatre is clearly prioritized at a higher strategic level. In the current geopolitical context, this is a sound decision. However, the Indo-Pacific region is crucial for the protection of the all-important global maritime supply chain. And leadership over the international maritime order has been instrumental for the west to contain Russia since its invasion of Ukraine.
Maritime power is best enacted as a collective effort within the ‘solidaristic society of maritime nations’. With limited means at its disposal, HM Government has devised pragmatic solutions to achieve its maritime objectives by empowering partners to complement Britain’s contribution to security in distant maritime regions.
IR23 assigns an important role to the “new network of ‘Atlantic-Pacific’ partnerships”. This includes the Australia-UK-US trilateral partnership AUKUS that will facilitate the procurement of conventionally-armed, yet nuclear-powered submarines to Canberra. Strengthening the capacity of the Australian Navy by transferring technology is a cost-efficient way to outsource maritime security to a trusted partner as well as an opportunity to promote British industry.
Cooperation with France is strongly emphasised with plans to establish a “permanent European maritime presence in the region through coordinated carrier deployments”. This is a logical step for the UK. Indeed, France is a Pacific power with interests, assets and diplomatic ties in the region.
The importance of soft power for ocean governance and resilience to climate change is also reflected in the ‘Partners in the Blue Pacific‘ initiative that, although not focused on defence, will strengthen cooperation with Pacific island states and reinforce Britain’s soft power in the region.
The strategy consisting in cementing regional (maritime) partnerships is not limited to the Indo-Pacific. For instance, JEF partners – Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden – are key stakeholders in the defence of the Arctic, whose strategic importance has increased as a result of the growing tensions with Russia in the High North.
Avoiding sea blindness
IR23 demonstrates bold yet realistic maritime objectives, in particular protecting the global supply chain, upholding freedom of navigation and energy security (see its para 36). Yet, two shortcomings are apparent. Firstly, the 2022 National Strategy for Maritime Security is not mentioned alongside other supporting national strategies whereas it represents a crucial step forward towards addressing maritime crime and sustainability challenges at sea by implementing a whole-of-government approach that also relies on public-private partnerships.
Secondly, IR23 somewhat ignores the rapidly changing naval seascape. It mentions the need to adapt to “the changing nature of warfare – notably in the land domain” but does not mention naval warfare. Yet, the Ukraine war has demonstrated the vulnerability of naval platforms (especially surface units) to land-based missiles and the role played by maritime drones. This can impact on western navies’ operations in war and peace and lessons learned are crucial.
As IR23 enters its implementation phase, it is crucial not to forget or downplay the central role the sea plays for the UK’s defence, security and prosperity. To prevent any resurgence of sea blindness, maritime stakeholders are invited to remain vigilant and continue to promote an understanding of the sea and its significance for a maritime nation like the UK.
Article by Basil Germond, Professor, Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, Lancaster University
Funding follows strategy?
The chancellor Jeremy Hunt confirmed on 15th March that the Defence Budget will rise by £11bn over 5 years. More immediately, an extra £5bn will be available to the MoD over the next two years. £3bn of this will be spent to support the defence nuclear enterprise and enable the AUKUS Submarine delivery programme, although Australia will also be making its own investments in UK infrastructure. The remaining £2bn will be spent on replenishing munition stocks. It can be assumed this is primarily for Army munitions depleted by the war in Ukraine and will of little benefit to the RN’s similarly thin naval weapon stocks.
This takes UK defence spending to around 2.25% of GDP but Hunt only made the vaguest of commitment to further increases, saying he would implement a rise to 2.5% only “as soon as fiscal and economic circumstances allow”. The new and very focused funding falls well short of what the Defence Secretary had demanded and will not fully mitigate the effects of inflation which will result in hard choices in the near future. These will become clearer in the revised Defence Command Paper (DCP) to be published in June which will detail the revised structure of the armed forces following IR23 and MoD budget allocation.