On 21 October 2021, the House of Lords will debate the following motion:

Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton (Conservative) to move that this House takes note of the character and pace of threats facing the United Kingdom and its allies; and, in particular, the significance of the roles of (1) the Command Paper Defence in a Competitive Age (CP 411), and (2) the four nations of the United Kingdom, in addressing these threats.

Provisions in the command paper and integrated review

Published by the Government on 16 March 2021, Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy describes its vision for the UK’s global role over the next decade. It set objectives for UK policymaking, including to strengthen security and defence in the UK and abroad:

[The UK will strengthen] security and defence at home and overseas, working with allies and partners to help us to maximise the benefits of openness and protect our people, in the physical world and online, against a range of growing threats. These include state threats, radicalisation and terrorism, serious and organised crime, and weapons proliferation.

The accompanying command paper, Defence in a Competitive Age, set out how UK defence policy and capability will support these aims. Prominent among its provisions are how the UK armed forces will adapt to meet current and future threats.

What are the threats faced by the UK and its allies?

The integrated review describes the threat from hostile states to the UK and its allies as “growing and diversifying”, taking many different forms. This includes espionage, political interference, sabotage, assassination and poisonings, electoral interference, disinformation, propaganda, cyber operations and intellectual property theft.

Several countries continue to be a cause for concern. States such as Russia, Iran and North Korea are described in the integrated review as playing a key part in the deterioration of the security environment and weakening of international order. The command paper echoed these concerns. In particular, it stated that nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea could “threaten global stability”.

The command paper also set out non-state-based threats that the UK must consider. For instance, threats of terrorism and new cyberspace capabilities are expected to pose significant future challenges. Similarly, the increased use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons, coupled with technological advancements, are also expected to increase the risk of conflict. In addition, there are also other factors such as climate change and biodiversity loss that the MoD expects could “drive instability, migration, desertification, competition for natural resources and conflict”.

How can these threats be addressed?

The command paper set out the changing strategic context for UK defence. It echoed the integrated review by highlighting four trends that are expected to change international order. These are: geopolitical and geo-economic shifts; systematic competition between states, values and governments; increased technological change; and transnational challenges such as biosecurity risks.

As a result, the MoD stated that UK defence must evolve from one that is primarily designed to be ready for major conflict and war, to one designed for permanent and persistent global engagement. This evolution will be seen by the integration of several defence areas, including space, cyberspace, maritime, land and air.

Prominent in these plans is the Government’s Integrated Operating Concept (IOC), first published in 2020 and subsequently updated in August 2021. The IOC sets out a new approach to the use of the UK armed forces which the Government contends takes account of the context of changing information and political environments and how they affect military operations. For example, this approach could involve having a mixture of crewed, uncrewed and autonomous platforms, as well as being less dependent on fossil fuels.

With the IOC vision in mind, the command paper plans included a rebalancing of UK armed forces to be a “more proactive, forward deployed, [and] persistent presence”. For example, it proposed the increase of the number of permanently deployed personnel that can deliver defence diplomacy overseas. The MoD will also look to expand the defence attaché network and British defence staffs to co-ordinate activity across regions. (A ‘defence attaché’ is a member of the armed forces, based in an embassy, who represents their country abroad.)

The command paper also set out how UK defence will contribute towards ‘Global Britain’. For example, it committed to further integration and collaboration with UK allies, including those in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the US. The Government will also look at other alliances, including supporting the Government’s ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’. This concept refers to the Government’s plans to further engage with the Indo Pacific region. For example, it wants to increase capacity building and training across the area, increase maritime presence, and pursue closer defence cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN is made up of 10 member states, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia.

Plans for reforming the UK’s defence workforce were also included in the command paper. These proposals included the recruitment of individuals with modern and relevant skills from across the union and the Commonwealth. The MoD also aims to make the army “leaner, more lethal, nimbler, and more effectively matched to current and future threats” by restructuring it. The Government anticipates that this restructuring will reduce army personnel from 76,000 to 72,500 by 2025, without the need for redundancies:

The restructuring of the army means fewer units are required. The creation of Combat Service Support Battalions will require fewer separate units of logisticians, electrical and mechanical engineers, and medics. The Infantry will be restructured into four divisions. These divisions will comprise a balanced number of battalions offering the full range of infantry roles. No cap badges will be deleted nor any redundancies required.

In addition, the MoD committed to increased investment in UK defence capabilities, including investment in new weapons and domains for space and cyberspace, and the modernisation of UK nuclear forces by replacing the current four submarines with new, more advanced versions.

What does the command paper say about the roles of UK nations in defence?

All four nations of the UK play important parts in UK defence and security. As such, collaboration between nations is a theme that runs through the command paper and overall defence strategy.

The command paper set out the roles that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland play in supporting UK defence. For example, it noted that UK submarines, including our continuous at-sea deterrence (such as the Trident nuclear deterrent), and certain RAF aircraft are based in Scotland. Wales hosts a variety of armed forces training and the new Cardiff-based Royal Maritime Reserve. In Northern Ireland, local companies have continued to receive defence contracts. This includes Belfast-based companies that have been contracted to maintain UK land forces’ short range air defence systems, as well as a £30 million contract to design and build a prototype for the UK’s first fleet of uncrewed fighter aircraft.

Despite this, the four nations have not always agreed on the Government’s approach to UK defence policy. In particular, the UK’s nuclear deterrence policy and the operation of Trident submarines from the Clyde Naval Base in Scotland has been a point of contention between the Scottish Government, led by the Scottish National Party, and recent Coalition and Conservative Governments in Westminster.

In 2013, the then Deputy First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, wrote to the Chair of the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee, Ian Davidson, about the future of Trident nuclear weapons in an independent Scotland. In that letter, Ms Sturgeon said that Scotland had “consistently shown itself to be opposed to the possession, threat and use of nuclear weapons”. She argued that this was a view held by the majority of the Scottish Parliament, churches, trade unions, voluntary organisations, and the Scottish public. She called for the UK and Scottish Government to work together to arrange for the withdrawal of the Trident nuclear weapons system.

Three months later, in response to a written question on the location of Trident in the event of Scottish independence, the Government reiterated that it had no plans to move the nuclear deterrent out of Scotland:

The UK Government [is] not making plans for Scottish independence or to move the nuclear deterrent or other submarines from Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde. The UK Government’s position is clear: Scotland benefits from being part of the UK and the UK benefits from having Scotland within it.

In 2016, the UK Parliament again approved the replacement and renewal of the Trident submarines with four new submarines from the year 2030 onwards. During the House of Commons debate to approve the renewal of the nuclear deterrent, the then Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, argued that the nuclear deterrent was fundamental to UK defence:

We must be realistic about the growing nuclear threats to our country, and we must be equally realistic about the fact that the deterrent is a policy that we cannot now afford to relinquish.

In contrast, the SNP opposed this move, and has continued to describe nuclear weapons as “strategically, morally and financially” wrong. The Green Party and Plaid Cymru have also expressed opposition to the Trident renewal programme.

In a speech on Labour’s defence and security principles made by the Shadow Defence Secretary, John Healey, at the Royal United Services Institute in February 2021, he described Labour’s support for keeping the UK’s nuclear weapons as “non-negotiable”.

As stated in the integrated review, the Government believes that the UK’s nuclear deterrent is essential to guarantee the security of the UK and its allies.

Debate in the House of Commons on the command paper

The House of Commons considered the defence command paper in a debate on 22 March 2021. The House of Lords considered the defence command paper the following day, on 23 March 2021.

In the House of Commons debate, the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, described ‘Defence in a Competitive Age’ as an “honest assessment of what we can do and what we will do”. Mr Wallace provided an overview of the command paper, and said that the “Prime Minister’s vision for the UK in 2030 sees a stronger and more secure, prosperous and resilient union”.

Speaking for the Labour Party, John Healey, the Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, welcomed plans in the command paper for improved cyber, space and defence science capabilities. However, he raised concerns about the reduction of army personnel to 72,500 by the year 2025:

Our armed forces are rightly respected worldwide for their professionalism and all-round excellence, but size matters. Our full-time forces are already nearly 10,000 below the strength that ministers said in 2015 was needed to meet the threats Britain faces.

During the House of Lords debate on the defence command paper, peers including a previous Chief of the General Staff, Lord Dannatt (Crossbench), a previous Minister of State for Defence, Lord Robathan (Conservative), and the Lord Bishop of Portsmouth, also raised concerns about the personnel reduction and sought further clarity from the Government. A former Chief of Defence Staff, Lord Richards of Herstmonceux (Crossbench), is also cited in the Times (£) as saying that reducing personnel numbers would prove “an asymmetric attraction to one’s opponents”.

In response to concerns about the reduction of army personnel, the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, justified the decision in the debate as follows:

[O]ne of the reasons [for the personnel reduction] is Operation Spring Shield, which relates to the Turkish incursion into north-west Syria. […] It became blatantly clear that unless we modernised and updated our land forces in a proper way, they would be deeply vulnerable to those types of attacks. That is the responsibility I have to protect the men and women operating that equipment so that I can deploy them, and I will not take it lightly. If I have to have a few less people to make sure they are better protected, better equipped and better deployable, but also more lethal, that is a decision I would take, and I am sure that most members in this House would.

Also in the House of Commons debate, Stewart Malcolm McDonald, the Shadow SNP Spokesperson for Defence, welcomed investment in space research, but raised concerns about the announcement in the integrated review that the UK would increase its nuclear warheads stockpile. He described it as an “expensive folly that should be cancelled with immediate effect”. This concern was also supported by Jamie Stone, the Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Defence.

In response to concerns about the increase in the UK’s nuclear warheads, the defence secretary said that it was important to increase the stockpile to ensure that the UK’s nuclear deterrent remains credible.

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Cover image by UK MOD © Crown copyright 2021.