The United Kingdom is Positioning Itself to be an Anchor of NATO’s New Defence and Deterrence Posture

13 February 2023

The United Kingdom plays a critical role in Euro-Atlantic and global security. British forces were quick to bolster Allied reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank in the run-up to and immediately following Russia’s unprovoked and barbaric invasion of Ukraine last February. The UK is also signalling it will play a leading role in NATO’s adaption to implement a new baseline for its deterrence and defence, a key element being a revamped new force model to back up a new policy to deter and defend forward in direct respond to Russia’s aggression.

To learn more about the UK’s individual commitments and investments as well as its role in broader Allied security and defence efforts, a delegation from the Sub-Committee on Future Security and Defence Capabilities (DSCFC) visited London, Glasgow, and Edinburgh from 31 January to 3 February. Alec Shelbrooke, Head of the Delegation of the UK to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) and Chairman of the Defence and Security Committee, led the visit. The delegation consisted of 19 parliamentarians from 10 NATO member states, as well as Sweden.

All In Behind Ukraine

Supporting Ukraine’s legitimate self-defence of its sovereign right to territorial integrity within its recognized borders is a central focus of UK policy today, Leo Docherty, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Europe, told the delegation. The UK was the first European country to provide Ukraine with lethal aid, sending thousands of NLAW anti-tank missiles just prior to Russia’s invasion. A year into the war, the UK is the second largest supplier of military aid to Ukraine after the United States: Its combined military, humanitarian, and financial support since Russia’s invasion is nearing GBP 4 billion.

According to Defence Ministry officials, the UK is working assiduously to accelerate and deepen the flow of supplies into Ukraine. Current efforts target the reinforcement and expansion of Ukraine’s heavy combined arms capabilities. The UK was the first Ally to send main battle tanks, pledging 14 Challenger 2s. It has also provided, among other lethal aid, hundreds of armoured patrol vehicles, cannon and rocket artillery and ammunition, as well as other air and missile defence systems. Further, the UK is the leading the most significant initiative to Ukrainian forces, Operation Interflex, which trained 10,000 soldiers in 2022 and aims to at least double that number in 2023. “The principal objective is clear: to help Ukraine liberate its occupied territory,” Docherty told the delegation.

The UK’s strong support for Ukraine and resistance of Russian aggression is in lockstep with NATO Allies and many international partners. Almost one year into the war, Allies’ strong unity in rebuke of Russia’s aggression remains emphatic. Allied unity has in turn led to vigorous policy response and innovation, as exemplified by the determined and continued flow of military support into Ukraine, and the wide-ranging sanctions against Russia, to include the recently enacted oil price cap. Maintaining this support is vital, officials said. One way to do so is to channel strong support behind NATO’s Madrid Summit initiatives.

A Pillar of NATO’s New Force Model

UK officials were clear: NATO remains the cornerstone of the UK’s defence and security policy. The UK’s continuous at sea strategic nuclear deterrent as well as its new aircraft carrier are committed to NATO. The UK’s investments, structure, and deployments seek to enhance Allied interoperability while striving to underwrite defence and deterrence.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, is forcing a review of UK defence policies and priorities. Key among them will be strong support for NATO’s new adaptation initiatives, particularly along the eastern flank and at sea in the Baltic, the North Atlantic and in the High North, where the UK will likely play a leading role.

The UK is already a leading Ally supporting the defence of NATO’s north-eastern flank. It has invested heavily in efforts to reinforce and strengthen the region since Russia’s 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea. Most visibly, it serves as the framework nation for the multinational battlegroup in Estonia and leads the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) with NATO’s Nordic and Baltic Allies and partners. It has also increased its Baltic air and maritime patrols. UK MoD officials noted they view Sweden and Finland’s proposed accession as ‘essential’ to NATO’s future - as one official stressed, “Allies must meet in Vilnius at 32.” 

Maintaining an Eye on NATO’s Strategic Seas

A less advertised, but still essential, element of NATO Allies’ surge to reinforce the eastern flank has been the significant maritime response. NATO’s Standing Naval Groups were full for the first time in the last 30 years. NATO had 50 vessels, including frigates, destroyers and minesweepers available, making it the second largest fleet in the Alliance, second only to the United States, officials at NATO Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM) told the delegation. 

MARCOM Commander, Vice Admiral Mike Utley, stressed the increased role the Alliance’s strategic seas will play in an active forward defence policy. NATO Allies will need to continue to forward deploy, and share with NATO, their maritime assets to increase their presence across these water spaces. As Sidharth Kaushal, an expert at Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said: “The longer strategic environment facing Allies will be shaped by the degree to which Russia will be able to control or hold the Alliance’s strategic seas at risk.”

Russia’s ability to disrupt sea lanes of communication, block sea access, and threaten critical seabed infrastructure remains a clear and present danger. This threat was brought into sharp relief by the sabotage of the North Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic last September. 

More Eyes on the Seabed  

The UK is particularly vulnerable to seabed infrastructure threats; up to 95% of its gas supplies are delivered through undersea pipelines and 98% of its data received via undersea cables. This infrastructure is relatively easy to destroy and difficult to replace, making it a critical point of leverage for Russia. Russia has invested significantly in undersea vessels capable of threatening undersea infrastructure, RUSI experts told the delegation. 

To mitigate the threat, the UK is investing more in maritime assets capable of better surveillance and defence of critical seabed infrastructure. UK officials noted the purchase of a multi-role ocean surveillance ship (MROSS) and the planned construction of another in the coming years. The MROSS will act as a mothership for a suite of unmanned vessel and sensor deployments.

A Focus on Future Force Construction

As James Heappey, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, stated, UK armed forces adaptation is being done with an eye for both UK and broader Allied defence. “There is a shift in military thinking: the war in Ukraine is forcing all Allies to think about what investments are needed for future force construction,” he told the delegation. 

A key lesson from the war in Ukraine, Heappey noted, is the speed at which an opponent can be found and then struck with precision. This requires sophisticated C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) networks working across domains and the investment in industry to not only develop and innovate the types of precision-guided weaponry needed, but also to produce them in sufficient quantities. Heappey warned of the growing near peer technological challenge facing Allies: “Allies must therefore invest wisely to not just maintain, but in fact advance their competitive edge.”

Recognising the reality of depleting stockpiles as Allies increase their flow of military support to Ukraine, Heappey noted the need for Allies to support their national industries as they adapt to meet the levels of production needed. He called upon Allies to recognise and fix the strategic vulnerability of offshoring any supply chains related to the defence industry: “We can no longer build systems that rely on anything from adversaries, we must bring all of these supply chains into the Alliance or with trusted partners.”

Industry Taking Note of Future Needs 

In Scotland, parliamentarians heard from representatives of the British defence industry applying lessons learned from the war in Ukraine with regards to production, innovation, development and cooperation. At Thales UK in Glasgow, the delegation learned how the company’s products have played critical roles in support of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF). Thales’s Lightweight Multirole Missiles (LMM) and STARStreak missiles, for example, were vital early elements in the UAF’s denial of Russia’s attempts to control the airspace over Ukraine. Officials noted the lessons learned from the war are filtering their way into the production of existing weapons systems and the design of new ones.

A visit to Babcock International highlighted the evolution of the UK’s shipbuilding industry within the framework of the UK’s National Shipbuilding Strategy. A key to the success of existing and future programmes, officials noted, is the guaranteed flow of financing, which allows industry players to avoid the scale up and scale down of individual projects, which results in a loss of skilled labour and knowhow. Another necessary element is the ability to create joint international ventures to create the scale of production necessary to sustain a larger platform. 

Babcock’s Type 31 frigate was highlighted as an example of this successful approach. Guaranteed financing is allowing for the shipyard to deliver five Type 31s to the Royal Navy by 2028. Babcock has also partnered with several other nations who are seeking to incorporate the Type 31 into their navies - Its modern standard combat systems and modern design are adaptable and exportable worldwide.

Additional topics of discussion during the visit included:

  • Allied aerospace capabilities and strategic implications in Ukraine
  • Political and economic ramifications of the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine
  • Balancing sovereign capabilities with Allied defence cooperation
  • Western unity vs. limitation of Russian power
  • Global partnerships and Allied global maritime challenges

The delegation also met with the following speakers:

Ministry of Defence

  • Damian Parmenter, Director General, Delivery and Strategy, MoD
  • Anthony Rimington, Navy Strategy Policy Director, MoD
  • Matt Baugh, Director, Euro-Atlantic Policy, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of the United Kingdom

Think tanks & Academic

  • Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow, Military Aerospace, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)
  • Dr Nigel Gould-Davies, Editor, Strategic Survey, and Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia, IISS
  • Nick Childs, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security, IISS
  • Dr Sidharth Kaushal, Research Fellow, Sea Power, RUSI       
  • Dr Paul GK Little, Principal and CEO, City of Glasgow College 

The delegation also held an exchange of views with the following members of the Defence Select Committee of the House of Commons 

  • Tobias Ellwood, Chair, Defence Select Committee
  • Dave Doogan
  • Sarah Atherton
  • Emma Lewell-Buck
  • Gavin Robinson
  • John Spellar

At NATO MARCOM, Parliamentarians also had the opportunity to visit the Maritime Operational Centre. The DSCFC visit concluded with a salute on the HMS Prince of Wales – a British aircraft carrier symbolising the UK’s continued role in global maritime affairs. 

Photos of the visit

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