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The government has no national plan to defend the UK in a war – despite renewed risks of conflict

Sky News has learned that despite the renewed threat of conflict, the government has no national plan to defend the UK or mobilize its people and industry in a war.

Ministers warn that Britain is moving into a “pre-war world” and concerns are growing Russia, China And Iranit can be revealed that officials have begun developing a cross-government “national defense plan.”

But any return to a Cold War-style war-ready posture would require political leaders to return defense to a truly national effort — rather than something done only by the armed forces, according to interviews with several defense sources , former senior officers and academics.

They said such a move would require much more investment in defense and much better communication with the public about the need for everyone to play their part in strengthening Britain’s resilience and deterring aggression.

“We must have a national defense plan,” said a senior defense source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“This should be about what government arrangements would look like in the period before armed conflict and the transition to war.”

British soldiers take part in military exercises at Winter Camp 23 near Tapa, Estonia, on Tuesday, February 7, 2023. The winter camp exercises are regular exercises conducted by the NATO Multinational Battle Group in Estonia, led by the United Kingdom. This year, troops from Estonia, France, Denmark and the United Kingdom are conducting two-week exercises involving tanks, infantry, engineers and artillery. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
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British soldiers during exercises near Tapa, Estonia. Image: AP

It can also be revealed:

• A two-day “war game” is scheduled to take place next week, bringing together officials from the Defense Ministry, Cabinet, Home Office and other departments to discuss how the country would respond to an armed attack

• A paper is circulating in Whitehall that examines what can be learned from an old but comprehensive planning system called the Government War Book, now in the National Archives, which once detailed how the United Kingdom would move from peace to war

• Sources said lessons could also be learned from how the UK mobilized its industrial base before the Second World War, when it created a network of “shadow factories” that significantly expanded production capacity for aircraft such as Spitfires

Picture: AS1 Amber Mayall RAF/PA Wire Undated Ministry of Defense handout photo of F-35B Lightning jets on the flight deck of the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales en route to the largest NATO exercise since the Cold War
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An RAF F-35B Lightning jet. Image: PA

Grant Shappsthe defense minister used a speech in January to do this conjuring up the specter of a “pre-war world.”.

He also predicted that in five years “we could have many theaters involving Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.”

Given the warning signs, Sky News has decided to investigate how prepared the British government, its military and the wider nation are for the possibility of armed conflict.

We also looked back at the last period when Britain was in a pre-war world, the five years before the Second World War, which broke out in 1939, and how that country subsequently dealt with the possibility of a Third World War, including nuclear war Attack during the Cold War years.

In the first part of a series entitled Prepared For War? – We visited the National Archives to view a government war book; traveled to an old nuclear bunker, once part of a secret plan to support the nation in the event of a nuclear war; and examined the legacy of the shadow factories of World War II that produced the weapons that helped defeat the Nazis.

Deborah Haynes war preparation feature
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In the nuclear bunker

“The problem is, there is no plan”

Keith Dear, a former regular, presents the challenge Royal Air Force Intelligence officer who worked as an advisor to the Prime Minister between 2020 and 2021 Boris Johnson When he was in power, he said he had failed to come up with any detailed plan for the war during his reign.

He said concrete planning was needed to explain “what we think might happen and who specifically needs to do what and when to respond effectively.”

In an exclusive article for Sky News, he wrote: “Such plans are important not only to avoid unrest and early defeats, but also to deter our opponents, impressed by our preparedness, from fighting at all.”

“The problem is that there is no plan.”

Instead, defense sources now rely on its nuclear arsenal and membership in the NATO military alliance to deter threats.

“The government assumes that deterrence will always work, but no one stops and asks, ‘What if it doesn’t work?’” claimed the senior defense source.

Deborah Haynes war preparation feature
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Deborah Haynes examines a holographic map

The apparent lack of a national defense plan means that the army, Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force – let alone the readiness of the civilian population and industrial base – were not designed to fight a sustained war of survival, defense sources said.

“Our air defense [the ability to fend off incoming enemy missiles and drones] is dangerously thin and coastal defenses are almost non-existent,” the senior defense source said.

There are also shortages of weapons and ammunition, while the size of all three forces, both regular and reserve, is only a fraction of the forces that were maintained at a high level of readiness in the event of a Third World War during the Cold War.

General Sir Richard Barrons, a former commander-in-chief, said he raised the idea within the government just over a decade ago that national defense and resilience needed to be rebuilt in the face of the growing threat from Moscow.

But “the implications of thinking about reviving a risk from Russia were unpleasant and expensive, and denial was, frankly, cheaper,” he said.

Deborah Haynes War Preparation Feature – Barrons
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General Sir Richard Barrons speaks to Deborah Haynes

War books

In the wake of the all-out invasion of Russia Ukraine Two years ago, NATO updated its war plans to defend the entire alliance, which now includes 32 nations.

But the UK previously had its own relevant national plans – set out in the Government War Book – which would trigger certain internal actions if the alliance decided to transition from peace to war.

Hayne's war preparation function
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Sky News has looked at a preview war book

A copy of the 1976 War Book – a large bundle of handwritten pages tied together with twine – gave a sense of how seriously the UK once took national defense planning.

The War Book, held at the National Archives in Kew, west London, contained detailed lists and pointed the way to complementary plans for how to mobilize not only the military but also civilians and industry in a crisis, and how to close schools, evacuate hospitals, ration food and even the preservation of national treasures.

Hayne's war preparation function
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The War Book contains plans for various contingencies

Conceived towards the end of the First World War, the government’s collection of top secret, regularly rehearsed and updated war books ensured that the United Kingdom was one of the best prepared and most resilient nations in the world at the height of the Cold War.

That changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Western governments no longer felt the existential threat of global war.

In the early 2000s, the UK’s entire war record system, which cost a lot to maintain, was quietly shelved as the government of the day focused on the threat of Islamist terrorism and the waging of foreign wars Afghanistan And Iraq.

This means that most senior civil servants in Whitehall today will have little professional memory of how the state functioned during the Cold War years, let alone the two world wars.

Jonathan Boff, professor of military history at the University of Birmingham, said Britain should consider creating a modern version of the war books.

“Some of these mindsets – the mindsets that take you from ‘We don’t have to worry about this’ to ‘If we want to worry about this, how could we do that?’ – I think that’s really important.” he said.

The Royal Navy's aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales leads fifteen ship formations as jets fly past for exercise Nordic Response 24 at sea. Photo: MOD/AP
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HMS Prince of Wales leads a formation of 15 ships. Image: MOD/AP

Risk register and resilience framework

Asked about the claim that the UK does not have a national plan for the outbreak of war, a Cabinet Office spokesman said the country had “robust plans for a range of potential emergencies and scenarios, with plans and supporting arrangements developed, refined and tested”. for many years.”

These include the Civil Contingencies Act, a government resilience framework, a national risk register and strengthening relationships with a network of local resilience forums across the country tasked with responding to emergencies. There is also a new directorate in the Cabinet Office tasked with further strengthening resilience.

Picture: AS1 Amber Mayall RAF/PA Wire Undated Ministry of Defense handout photo of pilots of F-35B Lightning jets on the flight deck of the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales en route to the largest NATO exercise since the Cold War.
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Pilots of RAF F-35B Lightning jets. Image: PA

“As part of comprehensive emergency response capabilities, all local resilience forums have plans in place to respond to a range of scenarios,” the spokesperson said.

“The government continues to assess the risk landscape, including threats to the UK from abroad.”

But a look at the National Risk Register provides much more information about floods, pandemics, terrorism and cyberattacks than about what to do in the event of war.

Several local resilience forums contacted by Sky News also confirmed that they have no concrete war plans or plans for a nuclear strike – something that would have been a top priority for local governments during the Cold War.

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Shadow Factories

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, funding priorities changed for many NATO allies, including the United Kingdom, and investment shifted from defense to areas such as health and social services that were more popular in peacetime.

This has begun to reverse subsequently Vladimir Putin’s The invasion of Ukraine is planned, but defense sources said it must be done with much greater urgency – especially as Russia is on a war footing and has even threatened to use nuclear weapons.

In 1935, with war looming with Adolf Hitler’s Germany, the United Kingdom began rapidly expanding its manufacturing base to build more aircraft, converting automobile factories to produce Spitfires, Hurricanes, Lancaster bombers, and other equipment.

Deborah Haynes war preparation feature
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“Shadow factories” were built in the 1930s

A program called the “shadow plan” by the then Aviation Ministry called for the construction of “shadow factories” next to existing automobile factories.

However, the UK manufacturing landscape has consolidated in recent years, while many weapons are imported, making it more difficult to quickly revive sovereign industrial capacity.

Keith Dear, the former Downing Street adviser, highlighted Britain’s difficulties in increasing production of artillery shells and other munitions to support Ukraine.

“Our inability to provide Ukraine with anywhere near enough ammunition or weapons shows how exhausted we have become by purchasing and building military forces without a coherent war plan,” he wrote. “Weapons without ammunition are useless.”

Image: UK Ministry of Defense/Ministry of Defense The Royal Navy's Merlin helicopter from 820 Naval Air Squadron fires flares from HMS Prince of Wales while embarked for the NATO Exercise Steadfast Defender 2024, at an undisclosed location in this handout image, which was published on February 28, 2024. British Ministry of Defense/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
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A Royal Navy Merlin helicopter fires flares during a NATO exercise. Image: Reuters

“We are not ready yet – but don’t tell Putin”

Southampton is a reminder of the UK’s past wartime resilience.

Home of the Spitfire, production lines were scattered across the city after German bombers attacked its two main aircraft factories at the start of World War II.

Today, local man Alan Matlock runs a group called the Spitfire Makers Charitable Trust, which raises awareness of the historic bravery of Southampton residents.

“The front line actually ran through these factories,” he said. “And there were a lot of them [of people] Who paid the highest price?

Vera Saxby, who turns 100 in August, decided to work as a wartime secretary for a company that made parts for Spitfires after a German bomb exploded in her garden.

“We really thought we were doing something good,” she said.

Deborah Haynes war preparation feature
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Former Spitfire employee Vera Saxby

But as she rested in an armchair at her home in the suburbs of Southampton, Ms Saxby said she no longer considered Britain to be very resilient – pointing in particular to the decline of heavy industry, such as steel mills and car factories, which were so important during the crisis last war.

Asked if it was worrying, Ms Saxby said: “It is, but I’m too old to worry anymore… I can’t imagine how we’re going to defend ourselves – but don’t tell Putin that. “

A Ministry of Defense spokesman said: “We have a range of plans to secure and defend the country, which are reviewed and adjusted in response to international security developments… These plans are integrated as part of our contribution to the ongoing work on a cross-government National Defense Plan “Development that will further improve our preparedness and strengthen our deterrence capability for the future.”

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