The war in Ukraine has created a distraction from Boris Johnson's domestic political troubles and given him an opportunity to play a role on the global stage. But it has also raised questions about Britain's national security strategy as it was laid out in an Integrated Review of Defence, Security, Development and Foreign Policy almost exactly a year ago.
The review identified Russia as the "most acute, direct threat" to Britain but it called for a tilt towards the Indo-Pacific and suggested that the future would belong to ad hoc coalitions of the willing rather than formal alliances or multilateral organisations. It said that a post-Brexit "Global Britain" could become "the European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo- Pacific".
Britain would remain committed to European defence as part of Nato at the same time as it once again projected military power east of Suez. It would do this with a small navy, a diminishing air force and a shrinking army that will soon be down to 72,500.
In a new paper (https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/uks-integrated-review-one-year-fit-purpose)for the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), its director of military sciences, Paul O'Neill, notes that the politics of last year did not allow the Integrated Review to acknowledge the European Union's importance to collective security.
"While Nato's military capability dwarfs that of the EU, the EU controls vital mechanisms allowing that capability to be used – such as the regulatory framework permitting the movement of people, ammunition and equipment, and the infrastructure specifications for roads, bridges and so on – while the new strategic compass is intended to enhance the EU's defence potential. Moreover, the defence command paper fails to provide a clear line between the threat (Russia) and the defence response. Reductions in conventional capabilities are coupled with plans for both the navy and army to spend more time persistently engaged outside Europe in pursuit of a still-undefined 'Global Britain' chimera," he says.
In a speech at Tufts University in Massachusetts on Thursday, Labour's shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, said Britain could play a leading role in the debate about the future of European security. But it could only do so if it put behind it what he called the "petty diplomatic spats" Johnson's government was pursuing to serve short-term, domestic political interests.
"The British government must stop putting peace on the island of Ireland at risk with its reckless threats to the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement. We need a government that can rebuild relations of trust and mutual respect with our closest neighbours on the continent, based on our shared values and common interests," he said.
“As war ravages parts of our continent we need to put past Brexit divisions behind us, stop seeking rows with European partners and use this moment to explore new ways to rebuild relations with European allies through a new UK-EU security pact.”
Lammy called for the Integrated Review to be revisited to ensure that the Indo-Pacific tilt should not come at the cost of European security. And he called for defence cuts to be reversed, a plea that will find support among hawkish Conservative MPs who want Britain to increase defence spending to ensure that Germany does not surpass it as the biggest European contributor to Nato.
Rishi Sunak refused to increase defence spending in last week's Spring Statement and Britain's economic circumstances are set to get worse, with sluggish growth forecast to fall further in the next few years. O'Neill argues that throwing money at the armed forces is not a solution and that absorbing a sudden infusion of cash would create problems of its own.
“At its core, any new strategy needs a focus on deterrence and defence of the Euro-Atlantic area, in which the UK works with and not in competition against its allies and partners. While more money is needed, this must be more than a sudden surge in capital funding that ignores the practicalities of spending it or resourcing the increased running costs that result. In short, a strategic approach involving measured growth across all defence lines of development and integrated with allies is required,” he says.