Army Technology interviewed Lord Ashton, Chair of the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee (IRDC), to discuss the committee’s latest inquiry, one that examines the lessons learned in the war in Ukraine and their implications on UK defence and procurement. 

It is the intention of the IRDC to complete the inquiry by the end of June, with the possibility for a follow-up inquiry before the end of 2024, says Lord Ashton, in the event of a late General Election

According to evidence already delivered in oral sessions, the conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the potential for conventional warfare in Europe, leading to a reassessment of the threat posed by Russia and the need to enhance deterrence measures, and underscoring the importance of resilience and preparedness in the face of hybrid threats, including cyber warfare and disinformation campaigns. 

The conflict has raised questions about resource allocation within the defence budget, with discussions on reprioritising spending to address new and emerging security threats.

Lord Ashton reflected on Russia’s spending 6% of GDP, 30% of its federal budget, on defence. “It’s a massive change, and of course, that will have huge implications for Russia, in future, but it’s moving to a wartime economy.

“I don’t want to draw any conclusions yet, because one of the things we try and do is write our reports based on the evidence we hear rather than preconceived opinions, but I can’t help feeling that you underestimate Russian resilience at your peril.

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“And we see that historically, but they’re also moving much more quickly than we are to a wartime economy,” said Ashton, after remarking that the UK is spending 2.2% of GDP and 5% of its national budget on defence expenditure. 

The war in Ukraine has highlighted the need for the UK to adapt its defence strategies to counter hybrid warfare tactics employed by adversaries, including a focus on cyber resilience and unconventional threats. Significant attention was paid by the IRDC to the employment of drone technology in Ukraine for these purposes. 

“Drones are new, in many ways, and in their uses there have been a lot of innovations, but they aren’t the be-all-and-end-all, they’re not a magic bullet, and they’re complimentary with more traditional equipment,” said Lord Ashton. “So for example, you still need ordinary artillery – drones alone won’t work. Secondly, they’re not necessarily the cheap option that everyone might think they are, because they constantly need to be upgraded to cope with the electronic warfare element, so you need a lot of R&D behind them to make them effective.”

The committee also heard evidence that UK has been prompted to review its strategic defence planning to address emerging challenges and align defence priorities with national security interests. The conflict has emphasised the critical role of intelligence capabilities and information sharing in anticipating and countering potential threats, leading to calls for improvements in this area.

“It’s very difficult to be offensive nowadays because the battlefield is much more transparent. It’s very difficult to concentrate your forces to make an attack because a whole load of drones appear out of the sky because everyone knows where you are the whole time.

“The sensing technology against your electronic communications is much increased, so you have to be very careful about your communications. That always used to be [a] benefit to us, in the sense that our training for junior officers and junior NCOs gave them much more power in decision making than the Soviet forces. I don’t know if that is still true. I suspect it is actually.“