Many inside the UK’s Conservative Party are calling for an uplift to the country’s defence budget in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But unsurprisingly, leaks from Cabinet discussions indicate the Treasury is less supportive, arguing defence already enjoyed a substantial increase as part of the government’s last Spending Review.
Aside from the usual suspects – such as the heads of the Defence and Foreign Affairs Select Committees – those calling for an increase include Lord Frost, former Cabinet Office minister and close ally of Boris Johnson, and former Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon. Probably of more political concern for Johnson is they also include former UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, a potential alternative prime minister.
Outside the Conservative Party, proponents for increased defence spending also include several with close links to industry as well a number of retired generals – all of them calling for an abandonment of Britain’s ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific outlined in the 2021 Integrated Review (IR), in favour of a return to the Cold War position of maintaining a large British Army presence in Germany – or possibly Poland – committed to NATO.
Yet it is entirely possible for the UK government to argue the IR does not need substantial change given that it identified both Russia and China as potential threats to British interests. And there is a genuine danger that if those advocating a resurrection of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) are listened to, then the threat posed by China will be neglected.
Protecting global trade access is paramount
For centuries, British foreign policy has been consistent in seeking to maintain a peaceful and stable Europe so it can trade both with the continental mainland and critically beyond it. The protection of access to global trade is critical for UK success and so the IR is right in that the real question is how to manage the risks and threats from both Russia and China.
But certain areas of the IR are already being unpicked. The decision to pivot out of the Middle East has been unpicked by the decision to reduce Britain’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels and the prime minister has already visited some Gulf states to seek an alternative supply in the short-term – this will add to the UK’s defence commitments and is a lesson on how critical it is to ensure actions today do not store up problems for the future. It is imperative policymakers think both strategically and creatively about issues such as energy security, rather than focus on short-term solutions.
Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine also highlights the inherent flaw in the IR – the disconnect between the vision set out by the prime minister and the requisite means. The IR was predicated on the UK ‘free-riding’ on the US commitment to NATO while deferring many of its defence needs to the second half of this decade at the earliest. The most recent UK National Audit Office (NAO) report on the Ministry of Defence (MoD) Equipment Plan highlights a funding shortfall, a series of immediate short-term savings, and the deferral of several defence programmes.
With a substantial increase in defence spending already announced by Germany, and no doubt to come from France plus others, this is a hard position for the UK government to sustain. It has already doubled its commitment to Estonia in the short-term and the forthcoming NATO Defence Ministerial meeting – and subsequent meeting of political leaders – is likely to see substantial pressure on all members to increase their defence spending. The UK’s traditional place as Europe’s largest defence spender is under threat.
UK strategy must fit international needs
Any increase in UK defence capabilities must be part of a wider international response. Doubts within the Conservative leadership about remaining a nuclear power have been swept aside by Putin’s nuclear threats, but the conventional response offers more options. BAOR advocates note continuing doubts surrounding the government’s ability to think and act strategically – a debate started more than a decade ago.
With proposed German rearmament, it may be in the UK’s – and NATO’s – interests for the UK to focus on reinforcing the High North and Scandinavia rather than deploying troops to Germany or Poland, especially if either Sweden or Finland join NATO. But regardless, any notion of UK free-riding is over and defence capabilities for both Europe and the Indo-Pacific must be developed in parallel.
The UK’s wider defence support in Africa and elsewhere is also likely to be revised, along with the planned use of defence as part of the government’s wider ‘levelling up’ campaign. Significantly, increased spending on defence inevitably must be funded either by greater taxation and/or cuts in other areas of government expenditure – both would be unpopular now and explain the Treasury’s opposition.
The need to understand consequences
The implementation of sanctions on Russia highlights both the interconnectivity of supply lines and the need to understand second and third order effects. Defence remains a major producer of greenhouse gases and expanding Britain’s defence forces is likely to exacerbate this, calling into question the UK commitment to tackling climate change.
Deploying a carrier battle group to the Indo-Pacific in 2021 had a significant environmental cost, while buying more aircraft with more aviation fuel or buying vehicles and ships which use diesel all runs counter to environmental targets which the IR incorporated. The commitment to net zero is likely to be deferred. This suggests that having an effective and capable armed force is only part of the equation.