by Conrad Waters, Co-Editor in-Chief, Maritime Security & Defence
March 2021 saw the conclusion of a long-awaited review of the United Kingdom’s future security and defence policy with the publication of two important documents aimed at setting out a framework for the post-Brexit era. Whilst squarely directed towards defining “Global Britain’s” strategic relationship with the rest of the world, the review’s conclusions contain much of relevance to other western democracies struggling to chart a course against the backdrop of a fast-changing world order. Moreover, both documents provide some insights into the political and technological factors that will influence future global maritime developments.
Launched on 26 February 2020, the UK’s Integrated Review of foreign policy, defence, security and international development has been trumpeted as the most significant British security revamp since the Cold War’s end. Its conclusions were finally published in Global Britain in a competitive age on Tuesday 16 March 2021 after delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps inevitably, the long shadow of Brexit has been a major influence. Some, particularly in Europe, may perceive that the review marks a further distancing in engagement with the continent. Arguably, the reality is more complex. In essence, the review attempts to balance a continued commitment to European – and NATO – security with a desire to develop a more persistent worldwide presence.
Seeking to make Britain “match-fit for a competitive world”, it looks to adapt to a more difficult and fluid international environment and combat the rising danger posed by threats ranging from cyber-attacks to the use of weapons of mass destruction. Amongst headline-catching announcements were a decision to increase the stockpile of warheads deployed on the Royal Navy’s strategic submarines from no more than 180 to no more than 260. This is to ensure the nuclear deterrent remains credible against a full spectrum of state-based nuclear threats.
Whilst Global Britain in a competitive age set the direction of travel, it was the Defence Command Paper Defence in a competitive age published the following week that explained the means by which this journey will be achieved. The authorised strength of the British Army will be reduced by nearly 10,000 to just 72,500 trained personnel as part of a move towards a more maritime focused, techno-centric strategy. This will be accompanied by the wholesale early retirement of so-called “legacy equipment” – including two Type 23 frigates – to help fund new systems that include a substantial programme of naval shipping.
Amongst the many inferences that can be drawn from the Integrated Review’s conclusions, three stand out in this editor’s mind. The first was revealed sometime before its publication when, in November 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a GBP24.1Bn (c. 14%) increase in the defence budget over the following four years to help fund the review’s conclusions. The uplift, marking the largest sustained expansion in British military spending since the Cold War, is all the more remarkable given the havoc on government finances caused by the coronavirus pandemic. It certainly speaks volumes about the deteriorating international environment. Following on from similar increases in spending announced by other NATO members and partners, it is yet another indication that the lengthy period of real-terms defence reductions suffered by many of the western armed forces have now reached a conclusion.
Secondly, a particularly notable feature of Global Britain in a competitive age is its focus on Russia and China as security threats. This is a clear reflection of the return to great power rivalry that has become increasingly evident over the past decade, with all the consequences for a re-prioritisation of naval warfighting technologies over stabilisation operations that this implies. However, whilst Russia is singled out as “the most acute threat”, the stance taken towards China’s emerging power is more nuanced. The inherent conflict that exists between China’s leading contribution to driving forward global trade and its less benign role as a systemic challenger to western values in the South China Sea and elsewhere is one that will not be easy to resolve.
Finally, and by contrast, Defence in a competitive age propounds a much clearer technological vision. The threats of today will be met by the technology of tomorrow, with investment in space and autonomy accorded a high priority. For the Royal Navy, one consequence will be the eventual replacement of all of its existing manned HUNT and SANDOWN class mine countermeasures vessels (MCMVs) with autonomous mine hunting and clearance equipment. Again reflecting trends apparent in other navy’s future plans, the influence of artificial intelligence in maritime operations appears to be gaining momentum.
Many of these themes – be they the revitalisation of Russian naval power, the need for Europe to develop a considered response to an emergent China and the changing nature of MCMVs – are explored further in this edition of MSD. We hope they make interesting reading.
Conrad Waters, Co-Editor in-Chief, Maritime Security & Defence