The Government is conducting what it describes as the largest review of the UK’s foreign, defence, security and development policy since the end of the Cold War. This ‘integrated’ review is looking at ways to:

  • define the Government’s ambition for the UK’s role in the world and the long-term strategic aims for UK national security and foreign policy;
  • set out how the UK will be a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation, examining how to work more effectively with allies;
  • determine UK capabilities needed for the next decade and beyond to pursue its objectives and address threats; and
  • identify the necessary reforms to government systems and structures needed to achieve these goals.

The UK’s defence policy is also supported by bilateral defence relationships. The UK collaborates bilaterally with several countries on issues such as defence policy development, training, and joint military deployment.

Bilateral defence cooperation with EU countries

UK-France defence cooperation

The UK and France have had a bilateral defence relationship for over a decade. In 2010, both countries signed the two Lancaster House treaties. The first treaty is a defence and security agreement that promotes closer cooperation between the countries’ armed forces through a series of joint efforts, including:

  • exercises and training;
  • work on military doctrine;
  • military personnel exchange programmes;
  • the facilitation of one’s access to the other’s defence market; and
  • force and capability pooling in military operations.

The second treaty aimed at enhancing cooperation between the UK and France on:

  • nuclear weapons safety and security;
  • stockpile certification; and
  • nuclear or radiological counterterrorism effort.

A key goal of the Lancaster House treaties was to establish the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF). This is a combined force made up of UK and French personnel who conduct offensive and defensive operations on land, in the air, and at sea. In November 2020, the Government said that the CJEF had reached full operating capacity. It could now rapidly deploy over 10,000 personnel in response to a range of tasks including high intensity operations, peacekeeping, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance.

Several 10-year goals were also set alongside the CJEF. This included: building a joint nuclear facility; increasing cooperation around the aircraft carriers; and developing the UK and French complex weapons systems. The Government confirmed that all of these goals were achieved within the 10-year time framework and that both countries will continue to build on the existing work.

The potential effect of the UK’s departure from the EU on UK-France cooperation has been considered. In a 2017 paper, research organisation Rand suggested that UK-France cooperation would be unaffected. However, it highlighted complications that could occur in practice, including logistical issues for the defence industry. For example, an Airbus senior executive was cited as expressing concerns about how easily staff would be able to circulate between Airbus sites without visas.

Lord Ricketts (Crossbench), a former Ambassador to France and trustee of the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) think tank, has also suggested that the case for UK-France collaboration has not been weakened by the UK leaving the EU. However, he noted the absence of any planned events between the two countries to mark the 10th anniversary of the Lancaster House treaties as “striking”. He suggested that this could either be a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, or evidence that bilateral defence cooperation was “losing momentum”.

In an interview to mark the 10th anniversary of the Lancaster House treaties, the Ambassadors from the UK and France said that both countries continue to support each other and expect the bilateral relationship to “flourish far into the future”. In a joint declaration also marking the anniversary, the French Minister for the Armed Forces and the British Secretary of State for Defence committed to building on Lancaster House and continuing to work closely together bilaterally:

We commit to building on the achievements of the first ten years of the Lancaster House accords in the decade to come—including at the UK-France Summit in 2021. Thus, France and the UK will continue to consult each other closely and at all levels on key international defence and security matters. Only the preservation of a deep and ambitious bilateral cooperation will allow our two Nations to provide an appropriate response to the current and future threats and challenges.

UK-Germany defence cooperation

The UK signed a joint vision statement with Germany in October 2018. This bilateral agreement committed both countries to future cooperation on military and defence policy. Since the agreement, cooperation has included German and UK air forces conducting combined training as part of NATO’s air policing mission. The first UK-Germany Defence Ministerial Council took place at RAF Brize Norton in March 2019.

The statement was first finalised in 2016. However, the signing of the joint vision statement with Germany was postponed for two years due to uncertainty about the UK’s future outside of the EU.

A Policy Institute project report on defence cooperation stated that military cooperation between the UK and Germany had “traditionally taken a back seat” when compared to other partnerships. However, it described the UK-German cooperation as a “largely untapped resource” that has potential to be used more efficiently.

UK-Netherlands defence cooperation

The UK and the Netherlands have cooperated on defence for many years. In 1972, the United Kingdom/Netherlands Amphibious Force (UKNLAF) was formed. The UKNLAF was designed to conduct operations and training as a single force. In 2017, the then UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon signed a joint vision statement with the Netherlands to strengthen defence relations.

In September 2020, the UK and the Netherlands joined forces in the Mediterranean. The Royal Navy said that the purpose of this meet-up was to conduct combined training between the two navies. This included practising joint manoeuvres, a mock air attack, and a close-range sail past.

Bilateral defence cooperation with non-EU countries

UK-US defence cooperation

The UK-US defence relationship is long-standing. This has seen both countries collaborate on various defence operations, engagements and agreements.

For example, the UK Ministry of Defence and the US Department of Defense signed the UK-US Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty in 2007. This aimed to facilitate the movement of certain categories of equipment and information between both countries.

The UK and US have also cooperated in several defence operations, including in Afghanistan. Evidence from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to a 2010 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry on UK-US relations said that the FCO had worked with the US to develop their civilian plans, shared UK experiences in Helmand, and assisted with national level development programmes. In 2009, military cooperation between the UK and US increased even further due to joint operations in Helmand.

Peter Roberts, the Director of Military Sciences at Rusi, has recently questioned the extent of the UK‑US ‘special relationship’. Mr Roberts suggested that the military value the UK brings to the UK-US relationship has declined in recent years. He argued that not only has the UK’s contribution in terms of GDP percentage decreased, but also the UK’s deployed presence in areas such as Afghanistan have “lacked the military enablers and supporting infrastructure to make it useful”.

In January 2021, the Prime Minister spoke to the new US President Joe Biden about building upon the UK and US’s historical cooperation in security and defence. In a statement published by the Prime Minister’s offence following the call, both leaders “recommitted to the NATO alliance and our shared values in promoting human rights and protecting democracy”.

UK-Japan defence cooperation

There have been several UK military deployments to Asia in recent years. In 2016, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force hosted the UK in the first joint exercise with RAF Typhoon fighters. Several further deployments, hosted by Japan and the UK reciprocally, have also taken place.

An article by the think tank Rusi suggested an increase in the UK and Japan’s cooperation on policy development. For example, both countries signed a cross services agreement in 2017. This enables UK and Japanese defence forces to act together in joint exercises and disaster relief operations.

In February 2020, the Government announced the UK’s long-term commitment to working with Japan. The Government said this would “uphold the security of the Indo-Pacific and demonstrate the value of a unified approach to facing global challenges”. The Government announced plans to deploy a new carrier strike group, CSG21, that would be led by the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth later this year.

Integrated review: impact on UK’s bilateral defence relationships

The potential impact of the integrated review on bilateral relationships remains uncertain.

The review was originally scheduled to be published in Autumn 2020, alongside the comprehensive spending review (CSR). However, following the cancellation of the CSR because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Prime Minister announced in November 2020 that the integrated review would conclude in early 2021. During a recent House of Commons debate, the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, James Cleverly, confirmed that the review would be published in March 2021.

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Cover image from GOV.UK website.