One outcome of the Integrated Review might be one or more of the Type 23 frigates leaving RN service. (Photo: UK MoD)

A supermassive black hole?

As the UK grapples with a COVID-19-induced recession and awaits the Integrated Review, analysts are left to wonder where the RN stands with regard to the exponentially expanding economic chasm.

Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas

The Integrated Review is nearly upon us, finally providing the strategic direction to the UK’s armed forces and shaping them to the demands and requirements of the battlefields of the future.

And like any good UK defence project, it’s suffered from a number of delays as sections, paragraphs, notes and amendments doubtless needed reworking following input from the services, as well as the realisation that an economy that has crashed due to the restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic will provide less funding for defence than hoped.

Given, according to World Bank data, the UK economy grew by around 6% between 2015 and 2019, the near double-digit recession the country experienced at the back end of 2020 will have wiped out hard-won gains. This is not good news for a defence budget with a fiscal black hole that is gradually munching its way through any leeway the MoD had. Even a pledge of an additional £16 billion ($22.4 billion) over a four-year period will barely scrape the sides of the problem.

Where does this leave the RN then, with its aspirations to be the focus for the UK’s aims for a Global Britain (a strikingly similar catchphrase to one I saw displayed during embassy functions during my time in Oman a decade ago) and flagbearer of its armed forces? Its position is possibly quite good, or not; it’s actually hard to tell.

Cast your eyes through defence social media threads and you will see any number of rumours of capabilities that are going to be cut, and personnel being issued leaflets about the prospects awaiting them in the pandemic-forged landscape that extends the length and breadth of the country.

Sell a carrier? Sell some frigates? Amphibious assault has to go? Chop Royal Marine capacity as eagerly as felling a rubber tree in a rainforest?

Before all this, the UK has to understand what the navy is for in terms of geopolitical and military direction. Might a rush to sail East of Suez in a scramble towards the Indo-Pacific leave home defence a little lacklustre?

A debate broke out during a March sitting of the UK defence committee as it gathered evidence into the perennial angst that afflicts the MoD and wider political class – the UK-US relationship and its role in the NATO alliance. This debate, with academics and defence experts on the virtual stand as it were, failed to find a firm consensus as to where the focus should be.

Should it be in the Indo-Pacific? Well, perhaps yes. More than one defence commentator has said that there is very little point in sending a carrier strike group over there as part of a one-off global tour, as the word ‘presence’ implies a necessary persistence. Maybe more forward-deployed assets should be sent into the Gulf instead.

But then focus on the Indo-Pacific and the Middle East and where does that leave the North Atlantic, GIUK Gap, Barents Sea or Arctic? How should the UK involve itself in the Eastern Mediterranean, where NATO member Turkey looks as though it may well be keen on leaving the alliance’s orbit, preferring the riches and political obligations of Russia and China?

Well, until we know what the content of the Integrated Review actually is, most of us are throwing darts into the dark and hoping for the best. I say most because there’s always an exception to the rule, and one can expect that given the sheer quantity of discourse that has been shared on the topic, someone, somewhere, will be right.

Will the 2021 outcome be more 2015 than 2010, a combination of both, neither or others? Send your suggestions on whatever the digital equivalent of a postcard these days; you’ve got as much chance as anyone else of hitting the nail on the head.