For several years, since the British people’s decision to leave the European Union in 2016, the United Kingdom has appeared lost. True, the British Armed Forces have been deployed around the world over that time, from the frigid forests of Estonia to the warm waters of the South China Sea. But, during the political hullabaloo resulting from Brexit in 2016, Britain seemed insular, in retreat, and in decline.
No longer. On Thursday, Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, made an anticipated announcement to the House of Commons in London. He pledged a hefty £16.1 billion increase in British defence spending, the largest uptick since the Cold War. This is, potentially, a revolutionary moment in Britain’s global strategic posture.
The £16.1 billion stands on top of an existing commitment – in the reigning Conservative Party’s manifesto – to boost defence spending by 0.5% per year above inflation for the duration of the current parliament (2019-2024). Taken together, this means that, between 2021 and 2025, Britain will spend some £190 billion on defence – averaging £47.5 billion per year – meaning the country will emerge as the world’s fourth largest military spender (after the United States, China and Saudi Arabia – though much of Saudi Arabia’s spending is to quell internal insecurity).
An announcement of this kind had been awaited for some time. In December, just before the last British General Election, Boris Johnson declared his intention to undertake the ‘the biggest review of Britain’s security, defence and foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.’ After Mr Jonhson won the election, the Integrated Strategic Review was officially announced in February. It was undertaken during the spring and summer, and was due to be published in November. But Covid-19 derailed the Comprehensive Spending Review, which was due to take place alongside the Integrated Strategic Review, so that the new strategy would be provisioned with sufficient financial resources.
Reports then swirled in the British media of a ruckus between the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, as to how much funding should be allocated and over what period. Boris Johnson appears to have ruled in favour of the armed forces – an intervention that should have been foreseen given his speech in Manama in 2016, when, as Foreign Secretary, he reproached the ‘defeatist’ and ‘retreatist’ Harold Wilson, then prime minister, for withdrawing British forces from ‘east of Suez’ in 1968.
Although the Integrated Strategic Review will now be delayed until the new year, the spending uplift provides a glimpse of what it will contain. Indeed, Mr Johnson announced some of the ‘big ticket’ items he intends to buy as he explained the reasoning behind the spending uplift. These items include: a National Cyber Force, a new Space Command, research and development into revolutionary new technologies such as directed- energy weapons (‘death rays’), drone swarms, and better integrated communications systems.
Such procurements make sense: the acceleration of great power competition is transforming the international system to the extent that, in the British prime minister’s words, it ‘is more perilous and intensely competitive than at any time since the cold war.’ Russia and China – both nuclear armed – are seen in London as the main rivals, meaning that competing has to evade vertical escalation, i.e., the movement to outright war. Britain’s new capabilities will allow for better horizontal and diagonal escalation in what General Sir Nicholas Carter, the British Chief of the Defence Staff, describes as ‘grey zone’ conflict, enabling Britain to better subdue its opponents – and thus deter them – beneath or outside of the vertical ladder.
Yet, competing against peers still mandates the ability to escalate vertically, particularly when rivals are investing heavily in their own armed forces. In addition, under intense competition, visibility and presence globally become increasingly important, not least in new centres of economic and geostrategic gravity – such as the Indo-Pacific. For an insular power like the United Kingdom, this means maintaining a heavy navy. It is therefore no surprise that Mr Jonhson committed ‘to restore Britain’s position as the foremost naval power in Europe.’ Accordingly, the spending uplift will be used to buy more auxiliaries, warships and submarines for the Royal Navy, including a new generation of nuclear submarines to launch Britain’s nuclear arsenal.
Undoubtedly, with this announcement, Mr Johnson is trying to signal to the world that, after four years of seemingly intractable political hullabaloo over Brexit, Britain is no longer in retreat. It is back on the world stage, ready to deter its opponents, and support its allies and partners.
This will have geostrategic implications. To its rivals – such as Russia, China and Iran – Britain is asserting its intention to compete against them, whether in response to Russia’s malicious and divisive aggression in Ukraine and Syria, Iran’s destabilising activities in the Gulf and Levant, or China’s revisionist expansion in the South China Sea.
To Britain’s allies – the United States and the European powers – the British government is signalling two things. First, and foremost, the United Kingdom is showing President-elect Joe Biden that it will remain America’s most powerful ally, with the reach and firepower to act alongside the American military, even outside Britain’s traditional Euro-Atlantic area of geographic priority. Second, but no less importantly, London is signalling – as the Brexit talks go into their final phase – to Brussels, Berlin and Paris not only that it is indispensable to the defence of Europe but also that hard capability matters more than endless debates about strategic autonomy.
And, to its partners – such as Japan, the countries of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (particularly Australia and New Zealand), India, the Gulf states, South Korea, and Chile – Britain is showing that it takes their interests increasingly seriously. This is because the naval investment will allow Global Britain to be increasingly visible in the Indo-Pacific, their area of focus, a move that is being described in London as Britain’s ‘tilt’ towards the region.
Indeed, next year, the prime minister confirmed that HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of Britain’s two new 70,000 tonne supercarriers, ‘will lead a British and allied task group on our most ambitious deployment for two decades, encompassing the Mediterranean, the Indian ocean, and East Asia.’ And he promised that the Royal Navy would deploy more of its ‘naval assets in the world’s most important regions, protecting the shipping lanes that supply our nation.’
So make no mistake: while some difficult decisions must still be taken – particularly in relation to so-called ‘legacy’ or ‘sunset’ military systems – Global Britain is under construction. As the extra defence spending kicks in, Britain may even end up being more capable and more present than at any time since the middle of the last century.
20 de noviembre de 2020
James Rogers works on British strategic policy. He has worked for the Henry Jackson Society, the Baltic Defence College, RAND Europe, and the European Union Institute for Security Studies and he has been called to give oral evidence before the Foreign Affairs, Defence and International Development committees in the Houses of Parliament.