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Government Review of key UK defence strategic documents must reflect worsening economic and conflict environment to remain accurate and relevant – Lords Committee

Thursday 12 January

This is the significant conclusion reached by the cross-party House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee in a report published today after completing an in-depth inquiry exploring the Government’s ambitions for Defence as set out in two key strategic documents; the Integrated Review and the Defence Command Paper, both published in March 2021.

The report “UK Defence Policy: From aspiration to reality?” observes that amidst the current economic downturn and the large-scale open warfare ongoing in Ukraine, the economic and strategic assumptions that formed the basis for the Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper when they were published 21 months ago have changed remarkably and must be updated to remain accurate, relevant and operationally effective.

The report acknowledges the Government’s announcement that it will update both strategy documents (currently due to be produced in the first quarter of this year) but urges it to heed the Committee’s recommendations which address significant issues including a lack of clarity and purpose in the original Integrated Review. The Committee calls on the Government to set out its assessment of the developments of the last 21 months and provide a clear explanation both of its defence priorities and how it plans to translate the aspirational language of the previous reviews into practice.

Key conclusions and recommendations from the report and areas that must be addressed by the updated Integrated Review include the following:

Effects of the war in Ukraine
The outcome of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine remains uncertain. Although it is premature to draw any conclusive lessons at this stage, the conflict has served to spotlight the high attrition rates of equipment and weapons stock. The Government’s response to this report must set out its plans to replenish the equipment it has donated to Ukraine and how it will build greater resilience into its own stocks and supply chains as a matter of urgency.

Impact of the changing economic environment on the Defence budget
Current high inflation and foreign exchange rates are likely to have an adverse effect on the defence budget. It is therefore not clear whether the Government can deliver the aspirations in the Integrated Review or Defence Command Paper unless further resources are made available. The Committee recognises that any commitment to the level of allocation to the defence budget remains subject to Treasury-led decisions on spending. The Government must set out its assessment of the impact of the changing economic environment on what the Defence Secretary called the “planned marker” of raising defence expenditure to 3% of GDP by 2030; and update the Committee on the impact of inflation on defence spending when it responds to this report.

UK threat levels and Russia
There is no room for complacency about the threat Russia poses to the UK especially considering its attack on Ukraine and recent aggressive nuclear rhetoric. This reinforces the importance of maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent in the UK. The Government must remain vigilant in the face of threats from Russia and should set out its assessment of current Russian strengths and weaknesses when responding to this report. As the Government updates the Integrated Review, it should carefully consider the relative emphasis it places on conventional threats versus threats falling below the threshold of war (sub-threshold threats), particularly from Russia.

The UK and China
The Committee’s January 2021 report on the UK – China relationship concluded that the Integrated Review’s classification of China as both a “systemic competitor” and an “important partner” was ambiguous and demonstrated the lack of a coherent strategy towards China. As the Government updates the Integrated Review, it must consider carefully whether the “competitor” framing is still appropriate or whether China should be reclassified as a “threat”, particularly in the light of China’s increasingly aggressive posture towards Taiwan and its partnership with Russia. The Committee’s report on China also urged the Government to rectify Taiwan’s omission from the Integrated Review. The Committee urges the Government to clarify its policy regarding Taiwan and also revisit the low-level emphasis placed on the Middle East.

The Committee was disappointed to hear evidence that in terms of procurement the Ministry of Defence could at times be considered “one of the worst customers in the world”. The Government must address the risk of the so-called ‘Valley of Death’ in which promising theoretical innovations are not translated into practical capabilities; and calls on the Government to ensure that the implementation of the objectives as outlined in its strategic documents will address the bureaucratic obstacles faced by the defence industry and improve the procurement process.

Increased scrutiny and information on Defence capabilities
The report calls for the Government response to provide clarity on significant aspects of defence policy including: -

  • whether the Army has sufficient numbers and capabilities to deliver on the Government’s ambition;
  • more detail (as much as security will allow) on the rationale for the increased nuclear warhead stockpile ceiling; and
  • greater scrutiny of public spending with consideration given to allowing Parliamentary Committees responsible for scrutiny of the UK's defence policy to have access (on a confidential basis) to information about how funds are allocated and spent.

It is essential that the Government outlines what it wants to prioritise and which hard choices it is willing to make in the updated Independent Review and Defence Command Paper.

Research and Development
Investment in Research and Development (R&D) requires long-term planning and consistency in terms of priorities and funding. The level of R&D defence funding, as outlined by the Integrated Review and the Defence Command Paper, may be insufficient to meet the ambition of ‘sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology’. The Government should outline how the Defence Science and Technology structures will co-operate with the newly established Advanced Research and Invention Agency in their response to this report.

Culture change within the Ministry of Defence
Culture change within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is essential, including the need to evolve the MoD's approach to taking risk; the need to establish new types of partnership and cooperation with the industry and academia; and the need for clear communication, by the MoD, of its expectations, goals and requirements.

Commenting on the report, Baroness Anelay of St Johns, Chair of the International Relations and Defence Committee said:

“In the months following March 2021 when the Integrated Review and the Defence Command Paper were published our Committee’s report exploring the UK’s relationship with China highlighted a number of omissions and other issues that were unclear and needed to be addressed in both documents. Now, 21 months on, the war in Ukraine and the current economic crisis present significant challenges to converting the Government’s 2021 aspirational statements into an effective and operational reality for UK defence.

“We welcome the Government’s announcement that it will review both of their key strategic documents, but it is essential that the Government not only takes account of changes in the economic and conflict environments but also clarifies issues that were either unclear or simply omitted from the first iteration of the Integrated Review. We call on the Government to set out clear, robust and reasoned statements about:

  • their view on the role China plays in relation to the UK;
  • the status of Taiwan;
  • the emphasis that should be given to the Middle East [including Iran];
  • the relationship with and resources allocated to our NATO allies; and
  • their investment plans for our armed forces.

“The Government must not squander this opportunity to outline clearly how it plans to translate the aspirational language of the previous reviews into practice. We urge it to use the findings and recommendations in our report to inform their review to ensure an operationally effective UK defence policy.

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