After more than 3 years in gestation, the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy entitled “Global Britain in a Competitive Age” was published today. This is an ambitious and wide-ranging document that has much merit but for the Armed Forces, the devil will be in the detail that will follow in the Defence Command Paper published next week.
The IR can be described as comprehensive, coherent and well crafted. Unlike previous SDSRs, this is not just about defence and security but an attempt to respond to all the very diverse threats to UK peace and prosperity using hard and soft power levers. There are enormous challenges that span climate change, biosecurity, terrorism, grey zone activity, space, cyber, financial, conventional and nuclear threats. The post-Brexit Global Britain agenda is very much at the forefront and the aims represent something of a tour de force of global ambition. Promising so much is easy but delivering the programme will be extremely challenging, not only from a financial perspective but in breaking away from ingrained patterns of institutional behaviour.
The IR headlines will be dominated by the stated intention to increase the nuclear warhead stockpile from “180 to no more than 260 warheads”. For context, the UK still has the smallest stockpile of any declared nuclear state which pale in comparison to the 5,800 of the US and 6,375 of Russia. It should be noted the Russians are investing heavily in many kinds of new strategic and tactical nuclear weapon delivery systems. This modest increase is partly to do with the overlap in updating the existing Holbrook warhead stocks to a new design. If required, it would also allow the Trident submarine to embark more missiles and warheads than the present reduced level, although the deterrent posture is unlikely to change any time soon. If a deterrent is to remain fully credible more warheads may need to be launched at a given target to ensure the penetration of improving anti-ballistic missile defences.
The temporary retreat from the very significant 0.7% GDP commitment to overseas development aid is also controversial. Many have advocated redirecting these funds to the MoD but ODA is an important tool in the eradication of poverty, disease, migration, terrorism and conflicts at source and if well directed, benefits the UK as much as the recipients.
There is a further recognition that the disastrous feast and famine procurement order cycle and laissez-faire approach to the defence industrial base must end. All aspect of UK science, research and industry have a part to play in the defence of the realm and more strategic planning and long-term certainty can help with the North-South levelling up agenda and help boost the post-COVID economy. The Defence Secretary, who also doubles as the ‘Shipbuilding Tsar’, announced today that the UK National Shipbuilding Strategy will be refreshed and broadened to go beyond just the construction of hulls and include the complete supply chain. All government-owned vessels (over 150 tonnes) will be the subject of a 30-year procurement plan and their manufacture is likely to be restricted to predominantly UK companies.
Maritime front and centre
Other commentators will provide a deeper and broader analysis of the IR, but from a Royal Navy perspective, the direction of travel is mostly satisfactory. The RN is at the heart of many aspects of this document while the rapidly declining enthusiasm for putting boots on the ground overseas in anything but small numbers means the British Army is hardly mentioned. Many of the Army’s problems are of their own making, although a diminished Army should be a concern for everyone – ultimately conflicts are decided on land. While the Army leadership may be suffering a torrent of criticism, particularly for its mishandling of vehicle procurement, it should be noted the RN endured years of accusations and misinformation around the carrier project but has now successfully navigated stormy political seas and is assured that both ships will be retained in service. The Carrier Strike Group deployment is now the third most significant activity on the government’s foreign policy agenda (after chairing the G7 and the UN Climate Change Conference).
The RAF, is of course, deeply involved with the carrier project and the number of F-35s that will be ordered should become clear next week. the original plan for 138 jets has faded but it now seems probable there will be a second tranche of orders beyond the initial 48. The RAF will take leadership of what the IR calls the “integrated space policy”, although expenditure on space will comprise a very small part of the defence budget. More widely, the RAF is likely to cut air mobility aircraft and reduce Typhoon numbers while betting big on the Tempest FCAS, which has heavy political backing as the future of the UK aerospace industry.
The IR identifies Russia as the biggest single actor threatening the UK, but adopts a more blurred approach to the rise of China which it describes as a “competitor” rather than specifically accusing them of undermining international laws and the established world order. The UK tilt towards the Indo-Pacific is a significant part of the document and emphasises trade and security with other partner nations. This obviously has major implications for the RN which is contemplating how to maintain a more persistent presence in the region.
Beyond the important, but transitory CSG21 deployment, how to sustain a forward-deployed naval force that is more than token is challenging. Basing a carrier east of Suez would impose a heavy financial cost and logistic burden and could be seen as being contrary to a strategy that sees Russia as the main threat. Duqm in Oman is now a viable base for aircraft carrier operations and/or other naval forces, should the tilt become a more significant pivot. The IR outlines plans to invest further existing overseas bases in Gibraltar, Cyprus, Oman and Singapore. Development of what are termed “strategic hubs” are designed to increase the reach of the armed forces and the RN in particular. The First Sea Lord confirmed HMS Tamar will be forward-deployed later this year. Whether she will base based in Singapore or another port in the Indo-Pacific is yet to be seen, although this would be more of an initial gesture of support as the presence of an OPV would have only minor military significance.
Unsurprisingly the IR names the United States as Britain’s most important ally and Trans-Atlantic trade looks likely to increase. There is deeply ingrained military and intelligence co-operation at many levels but the links between the RN and USN are especially strong. Whether it’s in the underseas domain, the naval aviation community, the Marine Corps or the surface ship world, there is mutual respect, exchanges of personnel and few secrets. The RN has lead the way in developing bonds with our increasingly important US partners, something that may be worth considering when politicians come to select the new Chief of Defence staff.
The IR document’s only concrete offering about the RN Equipment plan is to confirm what is already known, promising to: “develop the next generation of naval vessels, including Type 32 frigates and Fleet Solid Support ships, and deliver our plans for eight Type 26 and five Type 31 frigates.” Although two frigates and the minehunters will definitely go, the mood music emanating from the RN is positive, apparently having escaped some of the direst pre-review predictions about force reductions (including axing Wildcat). In our next article, we will try to make sense of the confusion around future surface escort numbers.