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UK defence policy: from aspiration to reality?

12 January 2023

The House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee has today published its report looking at the UK’s defence policy, entitled ‘UK defence policy: from aspiration to reality?’

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.

Chair's comments

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.”

Key conclusions

Key conclusions of the report include:

  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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 urges the Government to clarify its policy regarding Taiwan.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Further information

Image: Stuart Hill © Crown Copyright (via UK MOD)