Ukraine visit highlights tough decisions for new defence secretary amid growing global conflicts

UK

A trip to Ukraine by the UK’s new defence secretary within 48 hours of taking office underlines the importance attached by the new government to helping Ukrainian forces in their war with Russia.

But, despite positive-sounding statements about new military assistance, John Healey does not have a magic tap that he can instantly turn on to offer the volume of weapons and ammunition – in particular artillery shells – that Kyiv most urgently needs.

Instead, he is taking charge of military matters at a time when UK defence is in crisis after months of drift under the Conservatives and decades of demise.

Rishi Sunak, the previous prime minister, only appeared to grasp the vital importance of defence a few weeks before he called the general election. He declared in April that he was putting the British defence industry on a “war footing” and promised to spend 2.5% of national income on the armed forces by the end of the decade, up from just over 2% now.

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Pic: MoD/PA

Sir Keir Starmer has made a point of emphasising that defence and national security are the first duty of his government.

However, a detailed focus on fixing the hollowed-out military has been notably absent from his initial public statements even though the world is increasingly dangerous, given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the threat of a widening conflict in the Middle East and tensions with China over Taiwan.

The new prime minister and his defence secretary will talk about their plans for defence this week – such as when they will lift UK defence spending to 2.5% of GDP – as they meet world leaders at a major NATO summit in Washington.

More on Defence

Labour has long promised to conduct a review of defence within its first year in charge – with expectations growing of an announcement about the launch of this piece of work.

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But the problems faced by the Royal Navy, army and Royal Air Force as well as the branch of the Ministry of Defence charged with procuring military equipment are all too well known.

Yet another lengthy review – the last government only refreshed its defence blueprint a year ago – simply risks delaying difficult decisions that, in the absence of significant new funding, will have to be taken to cut some capabilities and prioritise others.

A lighter touch review might make more sense given that presumably many of the officials who will be asked to produce information will be the same ones who did it last time around.

Whatever happens, Mr Healey will want to attempt to drive through genuine reform of defence procurement to deliver better value for money when buying anything from boots to nuclear-armed submarines.

He has also said he will appoint a national armaments director to oversee the ramping up of defence industrial capacity to produce more weapons and ammunition to replenish the UK’s stocks as well as to keep a supply of munition going to Ukraine.

Speaking in the southern city of Odesa, Mr Healey said: “There may have been a change in government, but the UK is united for Ukraine…

“This government is steadfast in our commitment to continue supplying military assistance and will stand shoulder to shoulder with our Ukrainian friends for as long as it takes.”

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