The Integrated Review Refresh or if you prefer, IR23, was produced in response to significant world events that have taken place since the 2021 strategy. Not surprisingly, given the tragic events that have unfolded in Ukraine since February 2022, IR23 has affirmed many of the trends shaping the international environment and that while some of these had been recognised in IR21, have required a better and more formal basis of understanding in relation to the various shifts in distribution of global power and of what IR23 terms as being, inter-state ‘systemic’ competition over the nature of the international order along with requirement for rapid technological change and better ability to meet transnational challenges that we face.
So, as we attempt to redefine the many years of chronic cuts and underspend on UK defence capability since 2010 and perhaps begin to realise that we placed far too much emphasis on tomorrows potential wars whilst ignoring current needs and the status quo of warfare today, what is to be our future defence spending policy post IR23 and that, if believable, will be spread over the next five years?
The answer sadly is not a lot and very clearly, not nearly as much as UK defence needs. That argument doesn’t just apply to our potentially being able one day in the future to once again hold our heads high amongst partner NATO nations in being seen to adapt to worsening geo political conditions, threats and events, but equally for the future defence of the UK itself.
The initial IR23 response last week confirmed, when the PM was in the US to sign the SSN AUKUS agreement was that an additional £5bn will be provided over the next two years, £2bn in order to bolster and replenish run down ammunition stocks and £3bn in order to modernise the UK’s nuclear enterprise and fund the next phase of the AUKUS submarine programme.
This was, in the Chancellor’s Autumn Budget Statement followed by a pledge confirming UK Government ambition to increase defence spending to 2.5% of GDP (no projections of what GDP was forecast to be were provided) in the longer term but sadly, the Chancellor fudged further required defence budget expectations saying that the Government will review defence spending after 2025 in light of this ambition.
However, in light of those remarks it is assumed that and extra £6bn will also be provided between 2025 and 2028. Of course, by then we cannot be sure who will be in Government although we do know that if Labour is elected to form the next Government at an election in 2024 or early 2025 at the latest, that another full defence review will be put in place by them.
Perhaps what angers most apart from the blatant kicking of the defence budget can further down the road together with the incessant reminders of a so called £24 billion four-year cash uplift in defence spending, a reference I presume to the commitment made by the Cameron government to (from 1st April 2016) increase the defence budget spend by 0.5% above inflation every year until 2021 meaning that during each of those years baseline spending would increase from its then £34.3bn level in 2016 to £35.1bn. Then Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon reminded that this would be the first rise in the defence budget since before 2010.
Memory dims but within the above figure was I believe an anticipation by the MOD in 2016 of receiving an extra £2.1bn from the Joint Security Fund by the end of that Parliament meaning that for the fiscal year 2020/21 the Defence Budget would have been expected to have risen by close to £5bn to £39.7bn. Of course, reading through past government commitments to increase defence spending completely ignore the many and various spending aspects moved from other government departments onto the defence budget during that period and that have the effect of wiping away much of the projected benefits. These include the addition of Trident nuclear submarine development, homeland security including cyber protection, pensions and much else that had formally been on Foreign Affairs, Home Office and other government departments.
True, in November 2020 then Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed a four-year £16.5bn increase in defence spending much of which was to be spent on a National Cyber Force and the then planned Space Command operation.
Cynics, and I am afraid that when it comes to government attitudes to defence, to defence budgets and spending, I count myself as one of them (for example defence was not mention by either the Prime Minister of Leader of the Oppositions as being in their respective top five priorities) have suggested that the £5bn + £6bn spun separately by the PM and Chancellor of the Exchequer last week could be an increase from the current actual budget rather than as an increase to the previously planned budget (aka Johnson) meaning the possibility that no actual increase will occur. I sincerely hope such thoughts are quickly proved wrong.
I do however agree that the Government is wise to keep the £3bn planned for the initial design and development of the SSN AUKUS (the future planned replacement for UK Astute submarines and which design will also form the basis of the SSN submarine that will eventually be built by Australia for the Royal Australian Navy) as a separate defence entity although I might well question why this has been allocated to the UK Defence Budget at this stage?
If you are confused by what to expect in relation to defence then all that I can say is do not be overly alarmed. Defence as far as governments of both main political parties are concerned is an irritation that just will not go away. That Government is supposed to be the custodian of defence of the realm translates these days into what is the minimum we can get away with. No matter what ‘White Paper’ is produced and how much work has been put into it, the reality is a lack of long-term strategic thinking. The pretence is sad but let us not kid ourselves that whoever is charged with responsibility for government is about to prioritise defence before the horse has bolted.
The IR Refresh promised a lot but sadly, it has delivered very little immediate defence equipment or manpower capability enhancement. Neither will it I suspect before 2025. In the meantime, UK air, maritime and land capability will remain extremely stretched but not enough in the eyes of the MOD to halt disposal of whatever it believes is saleable to third party nations.
This past weekend I note that yet another Royal Navy Type 23 Frigate, HMS Montrose has entered HM Naval Base Devonport for the last time. She will be decommissioned later this month and she joins HMS Monmouth which was decommissioned in 2021. Both ships will eventually be replaced by currently in-build Type 26 Frigates but unlike for instance the replacement of Trafalgar class submarines by Astute, not on a one in one out basis.
I note too that having retired the first of two multi-role hydrographic survey ships – HMS Echo in 2022 – a ship that was only 20 year old – her sister ship, HMS Enterprise is now at Devonport being readied for decommissioning later this month – both vessels being replaced apparently by the Royal Navy’s Future Military Data Gathering programme – a mix of drones, autonomous systems, other vessels including we are told, commercial ships in order to gather relevant required information.
Very soon the Royal Air Force will bid farewell to the RAF Brize Norton based fleet of C-130J’s – affectionately known as the workhorse of the skies and soon I expect to see the final Tranche 1 Typhoon combat jets leave the dwindling and stretched fleet of fast jet capability.
With integrity and honesty in very short supply the bottom line of the IR Refresh is that UK Defence capability continues to hang on a thread!
CHW (London – 20th March 2023)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785