LONDON — Russia’s war on Ukraine is raising questions about whether the Conservative government here needs to rethink a recent review of its defense plans while digging deeper to fund possible changes.
It has been just 12 months since the government took the wraps off what it called the “Integrated Review” of defense, security and foreign policy. Among the changes to be implemented was a pivot to the Asia-Pacific region and a transformation of the military towards hi-tech capabilities like space, cyber, and artificial intelligence, away from conventional weapons like main battle tanks.
Now, there are mixed views about just what the war in the Ukraine means for British thinking. Some say a wholesale refresh of the Integrated Review will be necessary. Others are not entirely sure.
The Royal Institute of International Affairs think tank, better known as Chatham House, reckons the British remain largely on the right track, although analysts say the scramble to secure oil and gas supplies to offset Russian deliveries is already driving change.
“It is entirely possible for the U.K. government to argue the Integrated Review does not need substantial change, given that it identified both Russia and China as potential threats to British interests,” the think tank argued in a recent commentary piece.
Its analysts warned there were dangers involved in swinging too far back towards Europe.
“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,” the paper said. “The real question is how to manage the risks and threats from both Russia and China,” it added.
Dan Darling, the senior European military analyst at U.S.-based Forecast International, said it’s too early to be drawing many conclusions from the conflict in Europe.
“How do you measure tomorrow’s conflict scenarios based upon a few weeks of a war that, so far, indicate Russia is not the conventional military threat that previous analyses suggested?” he asked.
“The review certainly noted Russia as a security threat, but how much emphasis should be given to protection of Eastern and Northern Europe versus the touted tilt towards the Asia-Pacific? The answer to that could in turn affect downstream procurement goals and British force posture in different regions of the world,” he said.
Either way, no discussion about British defense policy goes on for long without the issue of funding, or rather lack of it, raising its head.
The Chatham House commentary was no exception. It said the invasion of Ukraine highlighted the “inherent flaw” in the plan: a disconnect between the vision set out by the prime minister and the requisite means.
“The review was predicated on the U.K. ‘free-riding’ on the U.S. commitment to NATO while deferring many of its defense needs to the second half of this decade, at the earliest,” analysts wrote.
Labour, Britain’s main opposition party in Parliament, has also waded into the debate, finding itself in agreement with many Conservative lawmakers advocating for more cash for defense and a rethink of the review.
John Healey, the shadow defense secretary, said the government should respond to the crisis in a similar fashion to how Britain reacted to the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
“Ministers must respond to new threats to U.K. and European security, just as the Labour government did after the 9/11 attacks with the largest sustained increase in defense spending for two decades,” Healey told the Guardian newspaper Mar 30.
The Integrated Review didn’t forecast “either a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan or invasion of the Ukraine,” he said. The tilt towards the Indo-Pacific had taken European security for grant and needed to be looked at again, the Labour politician argued.
Howard Wheeldon, a defense consultant at Wheeldon Strategic Advisory in London, agreed that the Russian invasion required the government to look again at its underlying assumptions.
“There is now a clear need for a serious Integrated Review refresh,” he said. “However, it is clear that the U.K. has no intention yet of following Germany in respect of raising the defense budget.”
Some analysts and politician’s here were hoping Chancellor Rishi Sunak would address the question of funding when he took the wraps off a mini-budget on Mar 23.
In unveiling that economic forecast, military spending didn’t get a mention, as Sunak preferred to talk about domestic tax issues and soaring cost-of-living increases. Defense was already sufficiently funded through a £24.1 billion increase in equipment spending earmarked over the next four years, the government argued.
Darling says those arguing for more money face an uphill fight for more cash, given spending requirements elsewhere in government.
“How do you convince Treasury to approve more spending for defense so soon after Boris Johnson outlined the £24.1 billion top-up?” he asked. “The answer, judging by Sunak’s recent financial update to parliament last week, appears to be that you do not,” he said.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.