The Russo-Ukraine War is not expected to impact the assumptions in the UK government’s Integrated Review of defence that was published in 2021, according to senior officials at the department. But defence analysts argue that the MoD is "closing its eyes to reality" if it does not anticipate major changes as a result of the war.
In early April, David Williams, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence and Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the new chief of the defence staff, addressed the Institute for Government stating that the review is still relevant despite the war in Ukraine. Far from making changes, Williams said there would instead be a “doubling down” on delivering the IR.
Radakin said that it was “still too soon” to tell what conclusions can be drawn from the conflict at this point. He asserted the IR’s “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific theatre does not require a massive commitment from defence and “won’t lead to an imbalance elsewhere”.
Williams insisted that the IR was right about the return to state-based competition, highlighting Russia as a danger to Europe. He admitted that whilst the MoD’s “calculation of the immediacy and brutality of that threat was a bit off,” the whole-of-government and internationalised approach was still relevant.
Delivering the IR reforms is “not about more people or more money”, Radakin claimed, but “about picking up the pace” and responding to the government's direction, having ambition and “focusing on delivery.”
The IR came with funding of £24bn that Williams and Radakin said was “generous” considering the circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic and was as good a financial settlement as there had been in defence reviews for some time.
However, independent defence analyst Howard Wheeldon told CSW that Radakin “is simply playing to the gallery” and “to suggest that Defence’s needs and ambitions are not about more money or people simply beggars belief. Ambition is all well and good but it can only be achieved if it is genuinely funded.”
"To suggest that Defence’s needs and ambitions are not about more money or people simply beggars belief. Ambition is all well and good but it can only be achieved if it is genuinely funded"
He added: “The so-called £24bn increase in defence budget spread over four years has already been eroded. Even if the intention was to be considered genuine and honest it would merely make up some of the shortfall since the Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010.”
The SDSR that year saw the incoming Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government introduce huge cuts to the armed services, some of which were only partially reversed in the following SDSR in 2015.
Wheeldon said that whilst there are aspects of the IR that make sense, “the failure to accept that the UK lacks sufficient equipment and manpower capacity in order to meet its heady ambitions demonstrate that, like his predecessor, the permanent secretary sees this only from a financial perspective as opposed to realisation of capability needs.”
Despite the emphasis on delivery at the IfG event, there was no mention of the recent defence equipment acquisition failures at the MoD – the worst of which has seen the £5.4bn Ajax armoured reconnaissance vehicle unlikely to be delivered to the Army.
Instead, Williams said the vast majority of contracts are delivered on time and to budget and the “challenge” is only in the “small number of high profile complex projects that the services need.” He added he is not a fan of wholesale or fundamental reviews of acquisition – saying there had been 13 reviews in the past 30 years – instead preferring to get on with delivering through a process of “continuous improvement”.
Williams’s modernisation agenda includes six priorities divided into three “whats” and three “hows”. The first “what” is to deliver the IR reforms, the second is to recapitalise the nuclear deterrent and the third is to improve defence capability and output. The first “how” priority is to complete a transformation programme across the department to modernise digital processes, the second is to focus on a head office to provide strategic direction, and the third is the cultural aspect of the department.
However, Wheeldon said that the MoD “lacks credibility” on the transformation agenda and “has insufficient internally generated experience to match such heady ambitions.” He added: “We have eroded Dstl and Defence Headquarters is playing with words that it does not even understand the meaning of.”
Williams said that the reforms to the MoD head office mean that it will be led by a self-styled “quad” senior leadership team consisting of Williams, Radakin, second permanent secretary Lawrence Lee and Vice Chief Admiral Tim Fraser to provide strategic direction and “articulate priorities.”
But Wheeldon was dismissive. He told CSW that the head office lacks strength in this area after key personnel have left the MoD and due to its inability to promote experienced and qualified individuals because the system allows the Treasury and Cabinet Office to “essentially block or veto” appointments.
“The IR was a hastily put together policy announcement that pretended to be strategy. Once again the UK is closing its eyes to reality – It is almost as if nothing has changed and that they believe Ukraine will soon be over and that we can all return to normality,” Wheeldon said.
Tim Fish is a defence journalist