The Government’s announcement yesterday of the greatest budget increase for the armed forces since the Cold War came as a pleasant surprise after the dark mutterings of cuts that have surrounded the forthcoming SDSR. At his best — and admittedly at his worst — the Prime Minister is given to announcing grand, ambitious infrastructural projects, and in this case his pledge to make the UK “the foremost naval power in Europe” is both welcome and achievable.
Johnson was surely correct to observe that “the international situation is more perilous and more intensely competitive than at any time since the Cold War,” and as an island nation dependent on the free flow of world trade, reversing the decades of cuts which saw our surface fleet dwindle to dangerously thin levels is an unalloyed good.
What this means for Britain’s strategic posture is not entirely clear: if the emphasis on the Navy is reflected by a de-emphasis on the Army, perhaps including a reduction in the size of our armoured force, then it implies we do not intend our future NATO role to be centred on a significant deployment to Eastern Europe to deter potential Russian aggression. This is not a bad thing in itself, and has been urged by some defence analysts for some time — Poland is already modernising its armed forces for just such a role, and we can expect the incoming Biden administration to continue Trump’s chiding of Germany for shirking its NATO responsibilities in this area.
Similarly, we can hope that the emphasis on sea power will allow our planners time to decide what it is we want the Army to do in future, and give us breathing space to rebuild our creaking military infrastructure. We are living through a period of rapid technological change likely to dramatically change the battlespace of the near future, as shown by the recently concluded war in Karabakh, and space to coolly assess its full implications is not necessarily a bad thing. The deployment of a new generation of combat drones by the middle-sized powers likely to be our future adversaries presents a challenge without a clear solution, and Johnson’s pledge to invest in defence research and development, including Directed Energy Weapons and accelerated space research, is an encouraging sign.
As a predominantly naval power, if this is the plan, Britain will have two potential roles around which our grand strategy will revolve. The first is a modest task as a North Atlantic power, protecting the sea lanes around our home islands and up to the high Arctic, which is a realistic and modest aspiration likely to be encouraged by the US. The second aspiration — implied by Johnson’s urging us not to “curl up in our island” — is as a force projecting, expeditionary power, likely focussed on the Pacific and Far East, a declaration of intent shown by the deployment of the new Carrier Strike Group East of Suez next year.
As I’ve argued in these pages, we should be wary of Global Britain rhetoric pushing us into a future naval confrontation with China. China’s naval arms race with the US will be one of the central facts of the coming decades of great power rivalry, and British prime ministers of the near future will likely find themselves urged to take part in a subordinate role. The greater our naval capacity, the greater the temptation to use it, whether or not it’s in our national interest to do so.
Yesterday’s announcement was a welcome sign that Britain’s leadership is taking defence seriously once again, and is to be commended: but a coherent strategic vision is the other great gap in Britain’s defence planning, and we can hope that clarity on our future role as an upper-second tier power will also soon be forthcoming.