More nukes And a Regional Pivot: Britain Unveils its Long-Awaited Defense Review

More nukes And a Regional Pivot: Britain Unveils its Long-Awaited Defense Review
Royal Navy Cmdr. Nathan Gray lands his F-35B jet onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth on Sept. 26, 2018, in Portsmouth, England. (Kyle Heller/British Defence Ministry via Getty Images)

LONDON — Britain is to substantially increase its stockpile of nuclear warheads in response to a deteriorating security environment, the government said in a long-awaited review of defense, security and foreign policy released March 16.

The move would see Britain increase the inventory to no more than 260 warheads, reversing a decision made a decade ago to cut the maximum from 225 to 180 by the mid-2020s.

Depending on exactly how many warheads the country intends to acquire, it could see the strategic weapons count increase by more than 40 percent.

Britain is deliberately ambiguous about how many nuclear warheads it possesses, but that hasn’t always been the case. In 2015, then-Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced that the reduction would see Vanguard-class submarines carry 40 warheads and no more than eight Trident missiles. One of the Royal Navy’s fleet of four Vanguard subs is always at sea and armed.

The government said its decision in the Integrated Review to raise warhead numbers is justified by developing technological and doctrinal threats.

“Some states are now significantly increasing and diversifying their nuclear arsenals. They are investing in novel nuclear technologies and developing new ‘warfighting’ nuclear systems which they are integrating into their military strategies and doctrines and into their political rhetoric to seek to coerce others,” the review read. “The increase in global competition, challenges to the international order, and proliferation of potentially disruptive technologies all pose a threat to strategic stability.”

Britain is in the early stages of designing a new warhead to eventually arm the four Dreadnought-class submarines destined to replace the Vanguard boats starting early in the next decade. The review said construction of the first Dreadnought-class sub is going according to budget and schedule.

What else did the review say?

Announcing the new warhead numbers was one of several major initiatives emerging from what Prime Minister Boris Johnson previously labeled Britain’s biggest foreign policy and defense shakeup since the end of the Cold War.

The review confirmed the government’s previously cited intention to pivot foreign and defense policy toward the Asia-Pacific region. The “tilt’ toward the region, as the review put it, is Britain’s response to the growing economic power of regional countries and China’s increasing influence on its neighbors and beyond. It’s no coincidence the first deployment of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, is to take place in the region later this year.

The review warned that while “China presents the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security,” London will have to continue to deal with Beijing on trade and international issues like climate change, even while verbally scraping over problems like Hong Kong’s autonomy and human rights violations in Xinjiang.

“We will continue to pursue a positive economic relationship, including deeper trade links and more Chinese investment in the UK. At the same time, we will increase protection of our critical national infrastructure, institutions and sensitive technology, and strengthen the resilience of our critical supply chains,” said the review

Howard Wheeldon, of Wheeldon Strategic Advisory, sees Britain’s revived interest in the Asia-Pacific region as trade-focused.

“This would appear on the surface to be more about securing a place at the future international table and, of course the most important element for government, protecting and enhancing our international trade. Equally true is that this is also about securing lost trust with our allies,” he told Defense News

What’s next for Britain’s military?

A second part of the review and a new defense-industrial base strategy are scheduled to be published next week, when the Ministry of Defence reveals the winners and losers in a big shakeup of the military.

The first part of the Integrated Review signaled some potential changes are on the way. Ships, armored vehicles, combat aircraft and Army personnel numbers are all in the firing line as Britain cut capabilities, in part to create financial headroom for new investments in the areas of space, cyber and artificial intelligence, among other new technologies.

It’s unclear whether the government can deliver on the optimistic tone struck by the review, Wheeldon said.

“Actions always speak louder than words, but that takes nothing away from what is contained in today’s section of the Integrated Review process: increasing the U.K.’s stockpile of nuclear missiles; full commitment to Dreadnought; investment in AI; Space Command; cyber; growing U.K. science and technology power; building U.K. national resilience; protecting national interests on a global scale; reaching out in respect [to] conflict and stability; homeland security’ U.K. national resilience and countering state threats; defense; disruption and deterrence,” he said.

“This is a big document full of intentions and hope.”

Next up, according to the review, is the implementation of “a new defense and security industrial strategy aligned with the Government’s plan for growth. It will constitute a more strategic approach to our core industrial base.”

“The Government will move away from the 2012 policy of ‘competition by default’ and prioritize UK industrial capability where required for national security and operational reasons. We will also reform and revitalize our approach to acquisition, exports and international collaboration, including greater use of government-to-government arrangements,” the review explained.

Paul Everitt, the chief executive of the lobbying group ADS, said the shift away from competition by default is the right way to go to support local industry.

“The government’s intention to move away from ‘competition by default’ as the primary route to achieving value for money in defense procurement is welcomed by industry,” Everitt told Defense News. “Under this approach, the U.K.’s defense and security sectors can deepen their partnership with government to better support our national ambitions and secure the U.K.’s national security objectives.”

More nukes And a Regional Pivot: Britain Unveils its Long-Awaited Defense Review
A Trident II D5 missile breaks the surface of the water having been fired from HMS Vanguard, a British strategic missile submarine. (British Defence Ministry)

Meanwhile, in Parliament …

The unveiling of the Integrated Review coincided with the publication of the parliamentary Public Account Committee’s annual look at the state of the MoD’s procurement plans. The committee’s figures suggest that while the ministry may have big ambitions, it also has big financial problems, despite the government making available a large amount of cash to help balance the books and fund modernization.

As has become customary, the report on the ministry’s equipment plans and finances made for grim reading. For the fourth year running, the committee labelled the equipment plan “unaffordable.”

The worst-case scenario is a “potential £17.4 billion black hole” (U.S. $24.2 billion) in the equipment program between 2020 and 2029, the committee said. That’s substantially more than last year, when the committee estimated that potential “black hole” for 2019-2029 at £13 billion.

The MoD, on the other hand, found the expected funding shortfall for the current 10-year period is £7.3 billion.

Johnson’s government last November pledged an additional £16.5 billion for the next four financial years to help fund military modernization. Together, with an annual 0.5 percent real-term increase for the subsequent six years after 2024, the defense budget is expected to receive a boost of £30 billion over 10 years.

None of the figures in the committee’s report count the cost of military modernization as part of the Integrated Review. Whatever the modernization costs turn out to be, some of the additional money appropriated for defense will go toward plugging that financial “black hole.” Ministry officials have already indicated that not all of the money would go toward acquiring new and revolutionary kit.

The committee warned the MoD to get its modernization effort under control as well as find savings and make cuts before any new strategy is delivered.

Meg Hillier, the committee chair, put it this way: ”What is crucial is that this new money is not just eaten up, once again, by the constant, debilitating time and budget overruns that have been eroding our national defense and security for years.”