UK Carrier Strike Group (CSG) units assemble for the start of Exercise Joint Warrior (UK MoD)

BELFAST — The new United Kingdom Labour government is set to forego the opportunity to negotiate a groundbreaking security pact with the European Union because it could take a “long time” to ratify, and will instead likely settle for a joint declaration, opening the way for closer defense cooperation between the two sides, according to a Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank analyst.

The former Conservative government decided against negotiating a bespoke defense and security agreement during Brexit discussions with the EU, leading to the UK being excluded from top level initiatives including European Defense Fund (EDF) projects.

Defense and security issues between the UK and EU are currently covered under a basic Trade and Cooperation Agreement, but it “by no means match[es] the level of economic integration that existed while the UK was an EU Member State,” according to the European Commission.

In the wake of the Ukraine war, Brussels and London have, however, significantly increased defense cooperation, including intelligence sharing, sanctions coordination, and collaborating on equipping and training Ukrainian troops, noted a report from The UK in a Changing Europe, an academic think tank.

In an attempt to end the Brexit era, UK Foreign Secretary David Lammy indicated that he wants to reset relations with the EU and is “seeking” a joint declaration, reported the Guardian newspaper on Sunday.

On the face of it, the decision to push for a joint declaration appears to rip up a clearly stated Labour manifesto pledge to “seek an ambitious new UK-EU security pact to strengthen co-operation on the threats we face.”

Such a pact “is very difficult to firstly negotiate and then [to] ratify, it takes a long time,” said Ed Arnold, research fellow for European security at RUSI, during a media event held virtually by the think tank on Monday.

“So it seems to be that the chosen method is going to be through a joint declaration which is relatively easy” to reach agreement on, he added. “Look at the EU-NATO [joint declaration] which is only one page with some substantive areas” covered relating to closer cooperation.

Settling on exact details of the joint declaration will likely take another six months, based on the US presidential elections and Poland taking over the EU presidency in January 2025, said Arnold, adding that “it is probably good to set the direction of travel now.”

In the meantime, he recommended the UK lean on relationships, such as positive ties with Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, to develop the foundations of the declaration.

Once a favorite to become NATO’s new secretary general — since handed to former Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte — Kallas was nominated last month for the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy role.

If she lands the job, “that will make things a lot easier” for the UK, said Arnold.

The extent to which any joint declaration will lead to greater economic prosperity for UK industry remains to be seen, as Labour wants to stay outside the EU’s single market and customs union.

In a bid to ramp up weapons production across Europe to support Ukraine’s cause, the EU has leaned heavily on joint procurements by member states, something London’s single market approach has “largely excluded” it from, noted the UK in a Changing Europe.

In Odessa today with @ZelenskyyUa I made clear that Britain’s commitment to stand with the Ukrainian people is steadfast.

We will step up UK support for Ukraine with a new military aid package and stand shoulder to shoulder with our Ukrainian friends for as long as it takes.

— John Healey (@JohnHealey_MP) July 7, 2024

As part of a campaign to rebuild European partnerships, Labour has also committed to increase defense cooperation “with key European allies” including France and Germany. Additionally, it plans on securing new bilateral agreements with Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) partners.

“Two of the big structural issues in which the new government has promised to make progress” concern European security architecture and a forthcoming strategic defense review, slated to be delivered in July 2025, said Malcolm Chambers, deputy director-general of RUSI.

The review will take stock of “the threats that we face, the capabilities we need … and [make] the resources available,” said John Healey, UK defence minister in April.

In the opening days of taking up his new role, Healey visited Odesa, Ukraine, meeting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Defence Minister Rustem Umerov in the process and announcing a new military aid package for Kyiv covering artillery guns, a quarter of a million ammunition rounds and close to 100 MBDA-made Brimstone missiles.

For years, the UK’s ability to wage war in a sustained way against a modern adversary has been called into question by lawmakers, allies and analysts, but Russia’s threat has intensified criticism.

New RUSI analysis is particularly scathing of the inability of the UK’s carrier strike group to perform operations as planned.

“Two Type 23 frigates and two Type 45 destroyers would — on most days — be all that the current Navy could sustain for major operations beyond an additional frigate as the Fleet Ready Escort for home waters,” wrote Matthew Savill, director of military sciences at RUSI. “Protecting it with a hunter-killer submarine would also be taxing, given the UK generally only has one or two deployed at any given time.”

Additionally, he noted that “the slow buildup of the F-35B force” has led to too few pilots being qualified for carrier operations, equating to less than a single squadron.

📸UK Carrier Strike Group units assembled for the start of Ex Joint Warrior, a UK led exercise forming part of NATO Ex Steadfast Defender.

👉Steadfast Defender will be the largest NATO exercise in decades, taking place across many months and nations.

— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) March 4, 2024

Discussing procurement delays and challenges facing Labour as it takes on the new defense review, Savil said the problems linked to the New Medium Helicopter (NMH) acquisition, designed to source a replacement for Puma HC2 aircraft, “is a perfect example of a challenge that the procurement system has since time immemorial … which is that as things essentially delay or [decisions are] deferred, the programs, overall, become more expensive.”

Valued at around £1.2 billion ($1.5 billion), the UK has long said the NMH effort will see “up to” 44 new helicopters acquired, but Nick Laird, managing director of European space and defence at Spirit AeroSystems, said in May that the figure stands at “circa 30,” units, and corresponds to requirements set out in the latest invitation to negotiate (ITN) phase.

Those comments were the second time in the span of 10 months that industry officials publicly revealed a reduced buy is on the table.

Breaking Defense first reported the apparent downsizing last year after speaking with Lenny Brown, managing director of Airbus Helicopters UK, who said the UK MoD wants between 25-35 aircraft as a “kind of best effort with the funding available.”

Three aircraft are under consideration for NMH. Airbus UK is offering the H175 super-medium platform, while Leonardo is pitching the AW149 multirole rotorcraft and Lockheed Martin UK campaigns with the S-70M Black Hawk.

Unnamed sources have suggested Lockheed could walk away from the acquisition without formally submitting a bid, according to a Flight Global report.

“Lockheed Martin continues its dialogue on the Invitation to Negotiate (ITN) with the MOD,” a spokesperson for the company told Breaking Defense in a statement.