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The UK government has committed to a GBP 5 Bn (EUR 5.65 Bn) boost in defence spending amid a revamping of the country’s defence strategy “to meet the challenges of an increasingly volatile and complex world”, a government press release indicated on 13 March 2023.

The ‘Integrated Review Refresh 2023: Responding to a More Contested and Volatile World’ (IR23) was published on 13 March and confirms that an additional GBP 5 Bn will be provided to the UK Ministry of Defence over the next two years.

Inflation, however, will inevitably take its toll in this uplift. According to UK Treasury accounting UK defence spending was GBP 71.4 Bn in 2021/22, so, with UK inflation currently running at 10.1% (January 2023), the UK defence budget would need to be GBP 78.6 Bn for the year just to keep pace with it – and a GBP5 Bn rise over two years does not reach that figure. UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace had argued for a GBP 10 Bn spending boost. Thus, unless inflation can be tamed, the announced additional GBP 5 Bn will see no increase in defence spending in real terms.

As UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak prepared to meet US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in San Diego on 13 March to discuss the next stage of the countries’ 2021 AUKUS pact, it was announced that Sunak would also set out an ambition to increase UK defence spending to 2.5% of GDP over the longer term. The UK government also stated that it “will lead a conversation with Allies on future posture and burden sharing at the NATO Summit in Lithuania this summer” and would review defence spending after 2025 in light of that ambition.

The BBC reported Downing Street as stating that, from the GBP 5 Bn defence spending uplift, GBP 3 Bn would be earmarked to support the AUKUS pact, along with boosting defence-industrial infrastructure and maintaining the UK’s nuclear submarines, while the rest of the funds would be used to replace weapons and equipment sent to Ukraine and to improve the UK’s munitions infrastructure. The latter has become important after donations of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine exposed the fact that the UK – along with a number of other countries in Western Europe – did not have the supply chain or production capacity to support their armed forces’ munitions requirements over a prolonged period of conflict.

IR23 was commissioned to respond to emerging geopolitical threats, from Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine to Chinese coercion and increased competition between states, a government press release explained, noting that these trends were identified in the original 2021 Integrated Review but have intensified over the last two years, “with far-reaching consequences for the security and prosperity of the British people”.

Under IR23, the press release stated, the first and foremost priority “is dealing with the fundamental risk posed to European security by Russia, and denying Moscow any benefit from their illegal invasion of Ukraine”.

Regarding the “Chinese Communist Party’s increasingly concerning military, financial and diplomatic activity”, IR23 “contains new measures to bolster the UK’s economic security, technology capabilities and international development offer in the face of that threat”, the government stated, adding that the “Prime Minister has set the direction across government for a consistent, coherent and robust approach to China, rooted in the national interest and aligned with our allies”.

Sunak himself was quoted as saying, “As the world becomes more volatile and competition between states becomes more intense, the UK must be ready to stand our ground.

“By investing in our armed forces for the long term, we will be ready for the challenges of today and of the future. As I will discuss with our American and Australian allies in the US today, the UK will remain a leading contributor to NATO and a reliable international partner, standing up for our values from Ukraine to the South China Seas.”

Notably, Sunak added, “We have seen all too clearly in the last year how global crises impact us at home, with Russia’s appalling invasion of Ukraine driving up energy and food prices. We will fortify our national defences, from economic security to technology supply chains and intelligence expertise, to ensure we are never again vulnerable to the actions of a hostile power.”

That statement effectively reveals the political reality in the UK that a rise in defence spending requires something close to an existential threat to the country before it can be effected. Polls continually show how highly the British public value their armed forces, but that hardly ever translates to sanctioning stronger defence spending.

Also subject to some debate in the UK is the extent to which the British armed forces are still able to – and should be required to – project power across the globe. The AUKUS pact, however, signed in September 2021, committed to the UK to assisting US and Australian efforts to contain Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific region.

Most crucially, the pact committed the UK and US to providing Australia with a new fleet of submarines that, unlike the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN’s) current Collins-class diesel-electric boats, would be nuclear powered (the US Navy and Royal Navy only operate nuclear-powered submarines). Just what form this new fleet of RAN submarines takes is on the agenda for Sunak, Biden, and Albanese in San Diego. Some reports have suggested that Australia could decide to build a modified version of the Royal Navy’s Astute-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN), which would support the country’s shipbuilding industry, while also receiving up to five US Virginia-class SSNs.

IR23 also sets out a number of additional priorities for the UK’s defence strategy:

  • The creation of a new National Protective Security Authority within the UK’s MI5 domestic counter-intelligence and security agency, established with immediate effect, to provide a wide range of UK businesses and other organisations with immediate access to expert security advice;
  • The establishment of an Economic Deterrence Initiative to strengthen the power of UK sanctions enforcement, closing off routes for human rights abusers and oligarchs to evade sanctions;
  • A doubling in funding for a government-wide China Capabilities programme, including investing in Mandarin language training and diplomatic China expertise. A College for National Security curriculum will also be rolled out to bolster national security capabilities across government;
  • The setting up of a new Integrated Security Fund worth GBP 1 Bn to deliver on the core objectives of the Integrated Review at home and around the world, including in economic and cyber security, counter-terrorism and human rights initiatives. This replaces the existing Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF);
  • A refresh of the UK’s Critical Minerals Strategy to ensure the UK has reliable access to the vital components for everyday and future technology;
  • An additional GBP 20 M in funding for the BBC World Service, ensuring it can continue to provide 42 vital language services – including in countries targeted by hostile states for disinformation.

Peter Felstead