1. What is the background to the report?

1.1 Integrated review 2021

In February 2020, then prime minister, Boris Johnson, launched an integrated review of foreign policy, defence, security and international development. The purpose of the review was to “cover all aspects of the UK’s place in the world”, ranging from the role of the diplomatic service and approaches to development to capabilities of the armed forces and security agencies.

In March 2021, the government published the findings of its integrated review of the UK’s national security and international policy, ‘Global Britain in a competitive age’. The integrated review identified four overarching trends facing the UK in the period to 2030:

  • geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts such as China’s increasing power, the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific, the emergence of new markets and growth of the global middle class
  • systemic competition and the “intensification of competition” between states and non-state actors
  • rapid technological change with the power to reshape societies, economies and change relationships—both between states, and between the citizen, private sector and state
  • transnational challenges which would require collective action and urgent multilateral cooperation; for example, climate change, global health risks, illicit finance, serious and organised crime, and terrorism

In response to these trends, the integrated review set out a strategic framework comprising four overarching and mutually supporting national security and international policy objectives to 2025:

  • sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology
  • shaping the open international order of the future
  • strengthening security and defence at home and overseas
  • building resilience at home and overseas

Discussing the relationship between specific countries and the UK, the government said that Russia remained “the most acute direct threat to our security” and described China’s “increasing power and international assertiveness” as “likely to be the most significant geopolitical factor of the 2020s”.

1.2 Defence command paper 2021

In the same month, the government published its defence command paper, ‘Defence in a competitive age’. The defence command paper outlined the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) role in achieving the overarching objectives set out in the integrated review and provided detail on how it would utilise the additional £16.5bn to its budget that it received in 2020 to “transform the armed forces to meet the threats of the future”.

In the command paper, the MoD announced several further reviews and strategies, including those focused on accommodation, career management and pay. In addition, the MoD made several financial commitments, such as allocating £1.4bn over the next decade to provide wraparound childcare for parents facing deployment at short notice. At the same time, the paper announced a reduction in the army’s full-time strength to 72,500 by 2025, replacing the previous target of 82,000 outlined in the ‘National security strategy and strategic defence and security review 2015’.

These reforms were the focus of much of the committee’s attention, as discussed below.

2. House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee inquiry into UK defence policy 2022

In April 2022, the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee launched an inquiry examining the government’s “ambitions for defence”, including how the MoD sought to translate its aspirations into reality, and the extent to which the Russian invasion of Ukraine had changed the UK’s assessment of risk.

On 12 January 2023, the committee published its report, ‘UK defence policy: From aspiration to reality?’. The report examined a wide range of issues, including:

  • the defence command paper and its alignment with the integrated review
  • the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
  • the UK’s assessment of and ability to respond to ‘sub-threshold threats’
  • the size of the armed forces
  • the culture within MoD’s approach to risk and whether change was needed

In its report, the committee said that neither the integrated review nor the defence command paper “gave a sense of priorities” and what ranked at the top of the government’s agenda. Furthermore, since their publication in 2021, it said that the strategic assumptions which underpinned the integrated review and defence command paper had changed. In particular, the committee noted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the “deterioration” of the economic environment had raised “serious challenges” for the scope and extent of UK defence policy.

Focusing on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the committee stated that it “wholeheartedly welcome[d]” the government’s continued support for Ukraine. However, it also highlighted that the conflict had “exposed the inadequacy” of ammunition and weapons stocks across all three UK defence services. It stated that addressing this issue “should be one of the highest priorities for the government”.

Discussing troop numbers, the committee said that it agreed with the government that headline troop numbers were “not the most appropriate metric” for evaluating the army’s capabilities. Instead, the committee said that the “more important question” was whether the army possessed the resources and capabilities to achieve the government’s objectives. This, the committee argued, was dependent on not only the number of troops but also their level of equipment and training.

The committee also stated that the integrated review “did not do enough” to outline the government’s priorities and the “hard choices” that it had to make, resulting in a “lack of focus” in the defence command paper. However, the committee acknowledged the government’s intention to update both strategy documents at the beginning of 2023, which it said presented an opportunity to address recent developments and outline how the government planned to transform previous objectives into practical measures and the consequences of the changed economic context.

To that end, the committee made several recommendations for the government, including:

  • Ministers must remain “vigilant” in the face of threats from Russia. The committee called on the government to provide an assessment of Russia’s capabilities and vulnerabilities. It also recommended that the government set out how it planned to replenish the equipment it had donated to Ukraine and how it would “build greater resilience” into its own stocks and supply chains “as a matter of urgency”.
  • The government should detail its assessment of how the changing economic environment was affecting its goal of increasing defence expenditure to 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030, and should update the committee on the impact of inflation on defence spending.
  • Ministers should consider whether China should be reclassified as a “threat, particularly in response to its partnership with Russia” and “aggressive posture” towards Taiwan. The committee also urged the government to clarify its policy towards Taiwan.
  • The government should tackle the risk of the so-called “valley of death” in research and development, whereby theoretical innovations were not translated into practical capabilities, ensuring that the implementation of the objectives outlined in its strategic documents addressed the “bureaucratic obstacles” faced by the defence industry and improved the procurement process.
  • The government should provide clarity on “significant” aspects of defence policy, including whether the army had “sufficient” numbers and capabilities to deliver on its ambition, and the rationale for increasing the UK’s nuclear warhead stockpile ceiling.
  • The government should consider allowing parliamentary committees responsible for scrutiny of the UK’s defence policy access (on a confidential basis) to information detailing how funds are allocated and spent.
  • Ministers should ensure clear communication of expectations, goals and requirements for culture change within the MoD, including the need to evolve its approach to risk-taking.

3. How did the government respond?

The government published its response to the committee’s report on 11 March 2023. It said that it welcomed the report and stated that the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, had commissioned an update to the integrated review which had “impacted” the government’s ability to respond to the report’s recommendations. Therefore, the government said it had only been able to publish its response to certain recommendations. These included the following:

  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The government said that it recognised that Russia remained the “most acute nuclear, conventional military and sub-threshold threat” to European security. It also said that it continued to monitor and analyse events in Ukraine. However, it declined to share its assessments on Russia’s capabilities publicly, warning that it would “create an operational risk”. Discussing the replenishment of equipment donated to Ukraine, the government said that a number of “substantial contracts” had already been placed to directly replenish stockpiles. These included the replenishment of high velocity missiles and next generation light anti-tank weapons.
  • Changing economic environment. The government said that increasing defence spending to address the challenges facing the UK remained a priority, with projected spending anticipated to reach 2.3 percent of GDP. This increase was attributed to additional investments in the UK defence industry and in allocating £2.3bn of support for Ukraine. However, the government also acknowledged that the current strategic and delivery context had created a “less favourable” economic and security environment in the short term, posing difficulties in achieving the objectives of the integrated review and directly reducing the purchasing power of the existing defence budget.
  • China. The government reiterated its view that China’s “growing international stature” was the “most significant geopolitical factor in the world today”, impacting British values, interests and the international order. To address what it described as “systemic competition” with China, the government said that a “collective response” was required, including collaboration with the Five Eyes partnership (comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US), NATO and regional allies. Discussing Taiwan, the government reiterated that its “longstanding policy” on Taiwan had “not changed”, emphasising the issue as one that should be “settled peacefully” by China and Taiwan “without the threat or use of force or coercion”. The government noted that further information on its policies concerning China and Taiwan would be provided in the update to the integrated review.
  • Research and development. The government said that there was “considerable” work underway to deliver an efficient and effective end-to-end system that ensured that the MoD’s research and development investment had generated military capability at pace. This involved addressing barriers within the system as well as trialling new approaches and tools.
  • Defence capabilities. The government did not respond to this recommendation directly but discussed the capabilities of the UK’s armed forces more generally. It stated that the armed forces were supported by a “fully funded” £242bn 10-year equipment plan, which would allow the UK to lead in NATO, provide crucial support to Ukraine, and operate in alignment with British interests worldwide. In addition, it noted that £41bn was being invested over 10 years to ensure the army had modern and high-quality battlefield equipment.
  • Increasing nuclear capabilities. The government said that the security situation had worsened since the coalition government’s declaration in 2010 that it intended to reduce the nuclear warhead stockpile to no more than 180 warheads by 2050. Therefore, the government said that it would “maintain the minimum destructive power needed” for a credible and effective nuclear deterrent against various threats. It also clarified that the overall stockpile of no more than 260 warheads announced in the integrated review was “neither a target nor our current stockpile number”, instead representing “the upper limit which may be required to maintain the credibility of the deterrent”.
  • Scrutiny. The government said that the MoD was committed to transparency wherever possible on its policies and programmes. Yet, it added that some costs associated with defence programmes were not publicly disclosed for reasons relating to national security, the capability of the armed forces, international relations, or commercial sensitivities. The government also noted that defence spending was detailed in its defence equipment plan 2022 to 2032, published in November 2022, and in its annual reports and accounts, which are audited by the National Audit Office and which are scrutinised by the House of Commons Defence Committee and House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, respectively.
  • Cultural change. The government stated that it “recognise[d] the value” of the committee’s recommendation on this issue and said that it would use the update to the integrated review and the defence command paper to outline an “adaptive strategy” which “recognises the need to build, test, and judge our defence enterprise”.

The government also committed to publishing “a more detailed response” after publication of the update to the integrated review and defence command paper.

4. Recent developments since the government’s response

4.1 Integrated review refresh 2023

In March 2023, the government published its update to the integrated review, ‘Integrated review refresh 2023: Responding to a more contested and volatile world’. In the foreword to the update to the integrated review, Rishi Sunak detailed the factors since 2021 that had led to its publication:

Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, weaponisation of energy and food supplies and irresponsible nuclear rhetoric, combined with China’s more aggressive stance in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, are threatening to create a world defined by danger, disorder and division—and an international order more favourable to authoritarianism.

In the update, the government stated that its previous overarching assessment remained broadly correct but that it recognised that further investment and a greater proportion of natural resources would be needed in defence and national security “now and in the future” to deliver its objectives. It also said that the government would build on the approach of the integrated review through four key pillars, which would establish the approach through which the UK intended to achieve those objectives:

  • shape the international environment
  • deter, defend and compete across all domains
  • address vulnerabilities through resilience
  • generate strategic advantage

In terms of priorities, the review said that the security of the Euro-Atlantic region remained the UK’s primary concern, and the government emphasised the need to strengthen European relationships to support this aim. It stated that the threat posed by Russia to European security was the most urgent national security and foreign policy concern in the short to medium term, and that the region’s “collective security” was “intrinsically linked to the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine”.

In the update, the government also detailed the UK’s approach to China, which it described as an “evolving and epoch-defining challenge”. The approach would involve three main elements: strengthening national security measures in areas where actions by the Chinese Communist Party posed a threat; expanding cooperation and alignment with “core allies” and other partners; and engaging with China directly through bilateral and international channels whilst promoting “open, constructive and predictable relations”.

As above, the committee noted that the government led by Liz Truss stated that it intended to raise defence spending to 3 percent of GDP by the end of the decade. This pledge was not taken forward by the Rishi Sunak government. Instead, the government response to the committee set out a commitment to spend £5bn of additional funding on defence over two years. It said that this would bring defence spending to 2.2 percent of GDP in 2023. Additionally, the government expressed a new aspiration to increase defence spending to 2.5 percent of GDP, though it did not provide a timeframe for achieving this target.

In response to the publication of the update, the current chair of the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee, Lord Ashton of Hyde, wrote to Ben Wallace requesting further clarity on issues raised in the committee’s report. This included information on:

  • the MoD’s plans to strengthen its relationship with industry, replenish equipment, and enhance resilience in ammunitions and weapons stocks
  • ways the government intended to address the UK’s “hard power capabilities” considering the conflict in Ukraine, specifically the allocation of £2bn over two years from the Spring Budget 2023
  • the UK’s strategic approach to the Middle East

The government has yet to respond to the committee’s request.

4.2 Update to the defence command paper

Following the publication of the update to the integrated review, the government stated that it had commissioned plans to update its 2021 defence command paper. In March 2023, it called for submissions for the next defence command paper to “generate fresh thinking to shape the way that defence thinks, operates, conducts business, and fights”. The closing date for submissions was 14 April 2023. In May 2023, the government said that it expected the command paper to be published in June 2023.

5. Read more

Cover image by Dominic King, UK MOD © Crown copyright 2014 on Flickr.