A naval officer looks up at the fluttering White ensign flag hoisted at the stern during the Commissioning Ceremony for the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth at HM Naval Base in Portsmouth, southern England on December 7, 2017.Her Majesty The Queen, accompanied by Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal, attended the Commissioning Ceremony of the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, the largest warship ever built for the Royal Navy. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / RICHARD POHLE
A naval officer looks up at the fluttering White ensign flag hoisted at the stern during the Commissioning Ceremony for the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth at HM Naval Base in Portsmouth, southern England on December 7, 2017. Photo: AFP/ Richard Pohle

The United Kingdom has outlined a vision for its defense and foreign-engagement priorities in its latest Integrated Review and Defense Command Paper. 

The paradigm of defense reviews in the UK goes back at least to the 1950s. The new document, published in March, has implications ranging from raising and appropriating defense spending to setting up new international bureaucratic structures and strategic nuclear signaling that nobody expected. 

It is no exaggeration to say that the document is Britain’s plan to remain relevant in a world where it sees threats proliferating, while its finances are shrinking.

Cummings couldn’t ‘cut’ it

Boris Johnson, the current British prime minister, promised an integrated review during his election campaign in 2019. However, at the time, Dominic Cummings, the technocratic chief adviser to the PM, was thought to be influencing the review. Until his exit from Downing Street in November last year, there was a lot of speculation on the review bringing a lot of cuts. 

Cummings was thought to prefer investment in high-tech solutions and wouldn’t shrink from cutting personnel and conventional security and war-fighting capabilities in the belief that they’d be obsolete in the very near future.

But in the end, in the final document, the cuts are not as severe as initially thought, though the focus on high-tech solutions and new war-fighting domains like cyber, artificial intelligence, space and information technology remain.

In several places throughout the document, Russia has been identified as a major “active threat” to the UK and China as a “systemic competitor,” which broadly conforms to the general alignment and policies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

In response, the Russian ambassador to the UK, Andrei Kelin, has said that the “political relationship between Moscow and London is nearly dead” – under the circumstances, not an unfair observation.  

Dramatic shift in nuclear posture

The most significant headline grabber has been the decision to increase the upper limit on the number of nuclear warheads by almost 40%, more specifically, to 260 from the currently known 180. Moreover, the UK will not publish data on operational warheads. 

The reason cited by Ben Wallace, the UK’s defense secretary, during a BBC interview was the proliferation of Russian ABM (anti-ballistic missile) capabilities, and therefore to maintain credible nuclear deterrence, the UK needed to increase the number of warheads it could field.

Ambassador Kelin has also commented on the increase being illegal, and a violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty that the UK has been a signatory and party to since the 1970s.

C-130 cut contradicts commitment

The Integrated Review makes several references and commitments to enhancing the expeditionary capabilities of the British armed forces.

However, the decision to withdraw from service by 2023 the entire fleet of C-130 transport planes makes no sense, especially since many of the airframes have more than a decade of life left in them. The loss of the C-130 fleet will reduce by almost a quarter the Royal Air Force’s long-range airlift capability. 

Homeland security, terrorist threat

In its opening pages containing a foreword by Johnson, the review mentions that the UK will “recruit an extra 20,000 police officers.”

The review also predicts that there might be a chemical, biological or nuclear terrorist attack by 2030; this could be “Islamist and Northern Ireland-related terrorism, and far-right, far-left, anarchist and single-issue terrorism.” 

The UK has one of the most robust intelligence apparatuses in the world, and the Integrated Review puts the annual expenditure on it at around £3 billion (US$4.1 billion). With the recent violence in Northern Ireland, it seems the perceived threat is not without substance.

Royal Navy, expeditionary forces

The most notable developments highlighted by the Integrated Review and Command Paper for the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and British Army are envisaged forward deployments and a rejuvenated expeditionary and strike capability.

The enhancement will amount to the proliferation of surface combatants, which will be at their highest 24 escort warships, meaning a combination of both destroyers and frigates capable of omni-role combat capabilities around the two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. The carriers on their own pack a lethal punch with their F-35 fighters.

The UK’s F-35 procurement has also been confirmed to go beyond the already ordered 48 units, but there is still ambiguity on whether it will go as high as 138, which was the original plan.

Surveillance ships, mine-hunting

Furthermore, taking stock of the strategic importance of the global hydrography race, the UK has chosen to invest in a multi-role ocean surveillance ship (MROSS), which will fulfill the role of an oceanography and hydrography vessel.

The UK is also looking to replace its entire fleet of crewed mine countermeasure vessels (MCMVs) with autonomous systems, an exciting but hard-to-imagine goal, especially with only a decade to execute it. 

In conclusion, the overall impact of the Integrated Review on British forces remains to be seen, but with its first operational deployment of a carrier strike group to the Indian Ocean, the UK seems poised to try its hand at a more global approach to its security in 2021.

Aditya Pareek is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution, an independent, networked think-tank and public-policy school based in Bangalore.