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Since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and indeed in the build-up to the invasion, the reactionariat on Twitter and in the media have been loudly calling for the Integrated Review (IR) to be re-written on the basis that we can now see how it has set us on the wrong strategic path. The principal criticism is of the IR’s commitment to an Indo-Pacific tilt, which is seen as having led to cuts in the Army, now exposed as foolish by Russia’s deployment of land forces, and specifically armoured forces, in Ukraine.
First, we should note – as Civil Servant ‘Matthew’ pointed out earlier in the Wavell Room, that the IR is not the Command Paper. The cross-Government process of drafting the IR – the UK’s strategic direction to 2030 – was taken by the MOD as strategic direction, to which it responded with the Command Paper. In this it set out its own plans to achieve the goals set, within the constraints of the MOD’s budget deficit, eased but not offset by the increase in spending announced in the Spending Review. This might seem a wonkish point. But if we wish to improve things in the future, it is important to focus criticism correctly.
Notwithstanding this, for some critics, the IR itself is the problem. In the midst of this debate, it is timely to review the IR’s strategic direction in the current strategic context.
The IR argued that to 2030 the UK faced an era of systemic competition between nation states, a shift away from the focus on terrorism and insurgency as the principal threats – even if there could be no complacency regarding the former. That this competition would be principally geoeconomic, played out in the competition for science and technological advantage. It argued that while China was the most important systemic competitor, Russia was the most acute threat. It noted the centrality and importance of NATO and the Euro-Atlantic to UK security. And it argued for a post-BREXIT ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific, a focus on following the economic centre of gravity East to the world’s fastest-growing markets.
It was focused on 2030, not 2022. Has that path and the challenge along the way changed so dramatically to invalidate it?
Russia’s willingness to use nuclear blackmail as part of its offensive strategy and diplomacy, its proclivity to disregard norms, and now the greater likelihood of internal instability will probably validate the IR’s judgement that Russia is and will remain the most acute threat to 2030.
But Russia’s relative power is likely to decline as a result of sanctions. Russia’s conventional military strength will suffer too – from direct losses in Ukraine, from loss of components to sanctions, and from pressure on funding as Russia’s economy contracts. Russia’s mercenaries in the Wagner Group are being recalled from around the world to fight in Ukraine, reducing its ability to project influence abroad. Far from extending his influence and hold over allies, Putin is asking favours of them – within his borders from Kadyrov in Chechnya and Lukashenko in Belarus, beyond his borders with Assad in Syria, and other allies in Libya and Serbia – and notably from reluctant ally China. Finally, Russia’s ability to make mischief through organised crime is also now being reduced, as sanctions target oligarchs and illicit finance.
The strength and reach of the threat from Russia has reduced and is reducing. In Russia’s depleted state, massed tank battles on the continent between Russia and NATO are even less likely, still more so once account is taken of the changing balance of forces in Europe.
Continental powers are now building continental armies. Biden’s realpolitik has worked where years of past-presidential cajoling and Trump’s bluster failed. Germany will be spending roughly $113BN on defence, giving it the third largest budget globally. Sweden is set to double its defence budget. Denmark has announced spending increases to meet the NATO 2% ‘target’. Romania will increase spending to 2.5% of GDP, Poland to 3%, and across NATO nations talk is all of higher defence spending. By comparison Russia spends c.$70BN, and will have to make difficult trade offs if is to sustain this as its economy contracts.
Those nations now building continental armies will draw their own lessons from the war in Ukraine, military history and analysis of emerging technologies to decide on where to invest to deter, and if necessary defeat, a Russian attack – the debates around mass, ‘exquisite’ capabilities, drones, armour and emerging tech will be settled differently nation-by-nation. But whatever the precise composition, Europe will soon have the conventional forces designed to more than match Russia’s armour and armed forces, the principal concern of many critics of the IR.
Ignoring China as a result of Ukraine would be a huge error. It remains the UK and democracies’ main systemic competitor to 2030. It may emerge stronger as a result of the war in Ukraine, no longer needing to worry about the strength of its neighbour to the north – albeit perhaps with a weather-eye on its internal stability – and enriched by Russian economic dependence on it.
Given that strategic context, from a US point of view, the increase in continental Europe’s defence spending and decrease in the strength of Russia’s conventional threat will better support its pivot to Asia, where the global economic centre of gravity now rests and the principal, epoch-defining ideological struggle is taking place.
Britain is finding its niche within this emerging world. In the Telegraph last month, Air Marshal Edward Stringer described how the UK’s actions in support of Ukraine have been precisely aligned with the IR’s direction. Britain’s agility and willingness to work in more flexible groupings made a catalytic contribution to the Ukraine crisis – see the trilateral U.K.-Poland-Ukraine pact in mid-February. The tilt continued with the UK’s Foreign and Defence Secretaries meeting for a security pact with Australian allies even as British NLAWS and Javelins arrived in Ukraine. Euro-Atlantic security remaining central even as the tilt continues. Furthermore, even critics of the UK’s Prime Minister are being forced to concede he is popular in Ukraine, making clear a point that should not need stating: reassuring allies of the solidity of your support doesn’t have to mean deploying tanks.
Now is not the time to start trying to build a large land force for fighting tank battles in Europe. Firstly, such a force takes time to generate. Recent history suggests years, not months. The Ajax armoured vehicle programme, with no in-service date yet declared, began in 1992. The order of 148 Challenger 3 tanks for the British Army made in 2021 won’t see the first tank delivered before 2027 and is targeting full operational capability by 2030. Fixing procurement is another urgent issue. But as things stand by the time a British armoured division was ready for deployment the strategic situation will be different. Secondly, it would be premature, but not unreasonable to conclude that the performance of anti-tank weapons and Bayraktar drones have made large tank battles on the European Plain less likely anyway. But thirdly, and most importantly, Europe’s rebuilt militaries won’t need our tanks to counter Russia’s.
They will still need our support. Economically, in niche military capabilities and training on land, in arms shipments, at sea, in the air, in cyberspace, in space, through intelligence sharing and tackling subversion, sabotage and geoeconomic manipulation. In short, in all the areas that the UK must defend to protect our nation, our island, our overseas territories, our interests, and our global allies.
Land Power proponents have long argued that ground forces, and particularly armoured forces, are the most powerful expression of a nation’s willingness to fight. Thus, their deployment signals a solidity of commitment and thereby a psychological reassurance to allies and deterrent to adversaries that cannot be matched by other forces. Such a claim is at least contestable. One could equally assert that it is the willingness to bleed and fight alongside an ally that signals commitment, and that it is the effectiveness of the overall force facing it that best deters an adversary.
Still, might we need an armoured division to deploy as a catalyst, a display of will to encourage other nations to do same? Perhaps. But is hard to see the UK deploying an armoured division without first winning NATO (or at least US) support, at which point we will be offering something they have plenty of already, and spending on a capability more suited to a Continental power than an island nation with maritime, air, cyber and space dependencies, and global interests. We would be making trade offs against our own defence and security interests for an uncertain assertion that land forces are more reassuring, more catalytic, than other forms of power.
Consequently, the UK should seek to offer complimentary capabilities aiming to make the alliance as collectively effective as possible, while seeking to create alliance dependencies, to balance the ever-present risk of abandonment or entrapment.
The Integrated Review has not unravelled – its Grand Strategic view remains sound. Separately, the case for developing a large Continental army is no stronger now than it was in March 2021. Indeed it may be considerably weaker.
Dr Keith Dear was a senior advisor on the Integrated Review Taskforce in No10, leading on Defence, Science and Technology. He is now Director AI Innovation at Fujitsu Defence and National Security, and a reservist Group Captain with the RAF's 601 Squadron.