On detail, President Biden will be pleased to see confirmation of the biggest sustained increase in defence spending in the UK since the end of the Cold War, announced by the Prime Minister some months ago. This will take the UK Defence budget to 2.2% of GDP, which the Review notes in absolute terms is a larger spend than any other European member of NATO, including France.
However, there is an interesting divergence of priorities regarding this Review and the recent Interim Review published by the Biden Administration. The US document identified China as the single overwhelming threat that the US now faces. Russia, in comparison, was bundled together with Iran and North Korea as only another serious problem. To demote Russia in this way will not have amused President Putin in the Kremlin.
The UK’s defence review puts it the other way around. While China is described as “the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today”, it is Russia which is described as “the greatest nuclear, conventional military and sub-threshold threat to European security”. This, however, may be a distinction without a difference reflecting the geography of the UK compared to that of the US.
America is a Pacific as well as an Atlantic power. It is the dominant power in the Pacific, a status that China aspires to grab for itself in the years to come. The UK, in comparison, is an Atlantic nation, an extension of the European landmass. When Russia grabs Crimea, destabilises the Baltic region and murders, or tries to murder, UK residents living peacefully in Britain, the Kremlin becomes our most immediate threat.
Despite the wording, in reality the US and the UK are in very close agreement as to the twin threats of China and Russia and the need to counter them.
It is also refreshing that the Review emphasises that the threat from Russia is not just limited to a conventional war. Russian policy now emphasises how one can win a conflict without war fighting in the normal sense. Using cyber attacks, disinformation, “mercenaries”, Russian soldiers pretending not to be Russians as in Eastern Ukraine, and general propaganda the Kremlin hopes to achieve at least some of its objectives without the risks and casualties that have been inseparable for starting a war.
There is one part of the review that disturbs me. In the section of the report on nuclear weapons, the government states that our nuclear weapon stockpile will be increased from not more than 225 to not more than 260 warheads. The only explanation given is “the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats”.
While this is non-specific, it likely refers both to recent Russian rhetoric that implies that nuclear weapons could be available for war fighting, not just as a deterrent, and the evidence that China is making significant increases to its nuclear arsenal.
Increasing the number of warheads without increasing the number of delivery vehicles is unlikely to make a significant difference to the UK’s nuclear weapons capability. It may be that there may be operational issues that cannot be disclosed or the UK may be considering changing its planning assumptions now that there is a potential nuclear weapons threat not just from Russia alone.
While these anxieties are understandable, the proposed increase in warheads is disturbing. It will weaken the effectiveness of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and invite severe criticism from many non-nuclear weapon states.
Given that this is the first increase in the cap of UK nuclear weapons warheads since the end of the Cold War, it would be sensible for the government to provide more information as to its rationale for this proposed change. It could do that without revealing any sensitive information or changing its policy of deliberate ambiguity which is entirely appropriate.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind was Defence Secretary and then Foreign Secretary between 1992 and 1997. From 2010-2015 he was Chairman of the intelligence and Security Committee. He is, currently, a Visiting Professor at the Dept of War Studies at King's College, London
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