Lacking ‘clarity or purpose’, UK’s strategic policy receives heavy criticism from the House of Lords
The House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee found a 'strategic vacuum' in government policy on China, and questions the UK Minister of Defence for his remarks supporting the reunification of China and Taiwan. Andrew Salerno-Garthwaite reports.
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The UK’s cross-party House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee (IRDC) released a trenchant rebuke of the Government’s strategic policy, as set forth in the 2021 Integrated Review and the Defence Command Paper, finding it had a ‘lack of clarity or purpose’ and held little detail for how the UK could achieve its defence ambitions.
In a report, 'UK defence policy: from aspiration to reality?', the IRDC called on the Government to set out “clear, robust and reasoned statements” about its 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, in particular Iran; the relationship with NATO allies and the resources they are allocated; and the Government’s investment plans for the UK Armed Forces.
A government spokesperson said that the IRDC’s report “acknowledges the work taking place across government to update the Integrated Review,” adding that the new paper will be published in the coming months “to ensure the UK’s diplomatic, military and security architecture is keeping pace with evolving threats posed by hostile nations”.
The 2021 Integrated Review was published on 16 March of that year and set out a broad range of aspirations describing the Government’s vision of its role in the world for the next decade, reviewing the UK’s defence, development, and foreign policy. The Defence Command Paper was published a week later to outline the contribution of defence to the Integrated Review.
It is understood the refresh of the Integrated Review will be published in Spring of 2023.
In March of 2022 the IRDC began its inquiry into the current Integrated Review and the Defence Command Paper, questioning whether the assumptions and judgements set out in the key strategic documents remain accurate and relevant in light of the Russian invasion into Ukraine.
Across the duration of the IRDC inquiry, the UK Treasury suffered considerable economic shocks, with an increase to its cost of borrowing and inflationary trends that hampered spending plans across all areas of government procurement. Then in September of 2022 - six months into the IRDC’s inquiry - former Prime Minister Liz Truss commissioned an updated Integrated Review, reasoning that the original had been published “before Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine created the greatest security challenge ever experienced by NATO”.
Need for clarity in the Integrated Review
Speaking with Global Defence Technology, Baroness Anelay of St Johns, chair of the IRDC, said that the committee “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.”
Baroness Anelay of St Johns went on to say that even during the inquiry in 2022, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and its Secretary of State, Ben Wallace, were not prepared to admit the need to set priorities or prepared to tell the committee what their priorities were, even as economic pressures and financial concerns heightened.
Much of the inquiry report continues in this tone, reflecting on the 2021 Integrated Review’s lack of detail for its aims.
The Government’s desire to achieve world-leading research and design capabilities was found to be undermined by the subpar investment decisions declared in its key strategic documents. It committed to only a further £6.6bn for research, development, and experimentation in defence, a sum enough only to bring the UK up to the average for OECD countries, and less than Samsung alone spends on general R&D, according to Dr Ben Wilkinson of RAND Europe.
Elsewhere, and throughout the Integrated Review, the Government holds the ambition to run continuous operations and have an outsized military presence that is persistent in almost every theatre and domain across the globe. This was part of a vision for a ‘Global Britain’ - one that was characterised in evidence to the IRDC by Professor Michael Clarke of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) - but it underplays the strategic partnerships with other nations that make the foundation of military action, for example, alongside western European allies in a tilt towards the Indo-Pacific.
“Even when it was published, [the 2021 Integrated Review] didn’t actually clarify what the Government’s priorities were and how they were going to deliver on their ambitions,” said Baroness Anelay, before noting that the subsequent changes in economic and geopolitical realities left Government policy further out of joint. “We were trying to put a bit of realism - I would put it - a bit of realism back into the promises that were made in 2021.”
// Chair of the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee Baroness Anelay of St Johns in London, on July 12, 2016. (Photo by Kate Green/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Within the IRDC report the committee set forth a series of recommendations for the Government to consider in its updated 2023 Integrated Review, asking it to make clear the ‘difficult decisions’ it intends to make to achieve its spending targets of 3% GDP on defence, considering the recent financial crisis and inflationary trends.
“This is something we actually did put to Ben Wallace, the Secretary of State, when he gave evidence,” said Baroness Anelay, “and his response was that he was prepared to defend the defence budget against the impact of inflation."
We welcome that. What we want to know is how he’s going to do that?
Baroness Anelay continued: “We appreciate in the real world, it’s the Treasury-led decisions that will really decide how much the MoD gets, whether it reaches that 3% level, and indeed then, does that 3% level get spent effectively?”
Integrated international relations
The report found that there was a “strategic void” concerning the UK policy toward China, with ambiguous language in the Integrated Review that classified the nation as once both a “systemic competitor” and an “important partner”.
Regarding Taiwan, on 1 November 2022 Wallace was heard to say in evidence to the committee: “It is in China’s plan to reunify Taiwan to mainland China. That has been in its 50-year plan, or whatever the plan is called, so it is not a secret. Britain wants a peaceful process towards that.”
The committee has asked Wallace to clarify his language and what is meant by it. Global Defence Technology sought clarification from MoD, but at the time of publication it had not received a response.
The IRDC report accepts that the Integrated Review was quite right to give weight to the economic and diplomatic importance of the Indo-Pacific region, and correctly identified Russia as the greatest threat to UK interests, the committee felt that the Government underplayed their reference to the Middle East and the Gulf in particular. “Subsequently, we’ve seen the way in which Iran is playing the game of supporting Putin - very dangerous,” noted Baroness Anelay.
The IRDC recommended that in the forthcoming update of the Integrated Review, the Government “must be wary of over-committing defence resources to the Indo-Pacific at a time when the European security situation is worsening.”
Support for Ukraine
The UK Government has a multi-billion-pound contract in place to deliver essential firepower to the British military over the next 15 years, providing the MoD with what it needs to protect the UK and its people from threats. However, the IRDC was concerned that it still needs to set out plans for how it will replenish the equipment is has donated to Ukraine.
The IRDC report highlights a specific example from Professor Clarke, former director-general of RUSI: “Britain gave the Ukrainians all our NLAW stock of anti-tank weapons. They have done extremely well, with apparently a hit rate of over 90%… but they have used them all up, in a month of war.”
Addressing this, the chair of the IRDC was clear that the “Government is doing the right thing by supplying, for example, NLAWs to Ukraine. Absolutely right, full support from the committee for that, but it has depleted our stocks, and we are now in the position, of course like others, of putting in our orders for NLAWs in a very different economic climate.”
Regarding defence stockpiles, a government spokesperson said the UK remained "fully engaged with industry, allies and partners to ensure we can continue to provide vital supplies to Ukraine’s frontlines while replenishing UK stock as quickly as possible.”
The MoD as a customer
In evidence to the IRDC, several witnesses were critical of the MoD as a customer for innovative R&D, suggesting that the MoD was risk averse in the procurement of new technologies.
“They want to see that there is going to be an end product that works before they get the investment, and as we know, that’s not how really innovative R&D works,” said Baroness Anelay.
The IRDC was “especially disturbed” by the evidence from the military sector describing bureaucratic impediments to projects connected to emerging and disruptive technologies. one witness from a defence start-up. Oliver Lewis, co-founder of Rebellion Defence, an AI software start-up, characterised the MoD as “one of the worst customers in the world”.
In the forthcoming 2023 Integrated Review, the IRDC recommended the Government reconsider its approach to technology start-up companies, to make the most of possible opportunities, and avoid the “valley of death” between the MoD describing what it wants and acquiring it as a core capability.
Baroness Anelay points to the success of the Royal Navy’s innovation in marine autonomous vehicles as an example of innovative procurement performed well by the UK Government. “It can be done, but I think the MoD itself is still rather resistant to being more innovative and risk taking, and risk averse, per say, rather than trying to evaluate risk perhaps a little more…not less cautiously - I don’t mean that…but a little more adventurously, put it that way.”
// Main image: The Ministry of Defence Headquarters building, behind a bronze statue of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Hugh Montague Trenchard. (Credit: photo by Harland Quarrington via MoD.)