Integrated Review: UK sets out plans for nuclear deterrent, biological and chemical warfare

Updated: Mar 19

Photo credit: PA

The UK government has announced that it will reverse a reduction in its nuclear warheads.

It has also raised the prospect of a nuclear response to catastrophic chemical, biological or even cyber threats as part of a policy overhaul released by Boris Johnson.

The UK prime minister intended the review of security, defence and foreign policy — published over a year after it was first launched — to mark a new beginning in the UK’s relationship with the world, having just ended its five-decade membership of the EU.

The Integrated Review, released on Tuesday, sets out how Britain hopes to shape a world where democracies can thrive, but is ready for one marked by increased conflict and division, with China seen as the biggest state threat to economic security.

Peter Ricketts, the UK’s former national security adviser, said that in many ways, the review is “more balanced and less radical than had been foreshadowed”.

He said it presented a “nuanced” position on UK relations with China, and still “fudges” the details of Britain’s future security relationship with the EU.

Outlining the strategy to MPs, Boris Johnson said the UK would have to "relearn the art" of competing against countries with "opposing values".

However, he added the UK would remain "unswervingly committed" to the Nato defence alliance and preserving peace and security in Europe.

"The overriding purpose of this review… is to make the United Kingdom stronger, safer and more prosperous while standing up for our values," he told the House of Commons.

He described China as posing a great challenge for an open society like the UK's. But said the UK would also work with Beijing where there was consistency with the country's values and interests.

The approach has drawn criticism from Conservative party China critics, who condemned the prime minister for failing to pursue a sufficiently tough line on Beijing. Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt expressed concern about human rights abuses against the Uighurs, and questioned why China was merely being designated a systemic challenge “given the terrible events in Hong Kong and Xinjiang”.

The review’s evaluation on Russia has a different tone, with the country designated as the “most acute direct threat” to the UK. The review has pledged to help build up resilience against Moscow among its eastern European neighbours including Ukraine, where the UK already helps train the armed forces.

The review, which runs to over 100 pages, sets out UK priorities until 2030.

The UK nuclear stockpile is estimated to comprise 195 warheads, and had been due to fall to 180 by the mid-2020s under a 2010 defence review.

Nonetheless, the latest assessment says this ambition is "no longer possible" given the "evolving security environment" over the last decade.

It adds that the UK will no longer publish figures on the size of its operational stockpile, to maintain "deliberate ambiguity" for adversaries.

However, it pledges the UK will maintain the "minimum destructive power needed to guarantee that the UK's nuclear deterrent remains credible".

Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, challenged Mr Johnson on the changes.

"I voted for the renewal of Trident and the Labour Party's support for nuclear deterrence is non-negotiable but this review breaks the goal of successive prime ministers and cross-party efforts to reduce our nuclear stockpile," he said.

"It doesn't explain when, why and for what strategic purpose. So the prime minister needs to answer that question today."

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said the review demonstrated "just how hollow the brand of Global Britain is".

He also asked the prime minister "who gave his government the democratic right to renege on the UK's obligations under the nuclear proliferation treaty" referring to the government's plans on nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, central to the review is a commitment to using science and technology to boost UK prosperity and increase its “strategic advantage” against adversaries.

At least £6.6bn in defence funding will be invested to deliver an “enduring military edge” in areas such as space, lasers and advanced high-speed missiles, according to the review.