Russia and Global Security Risks
Rule the Waves Again: Britain’s Post-Brexit Military Ambitions

On the geopolitical side, the British plans for additional spending on the military sphere are a manifestation of a desire to play a more global role — largely linked to the arguments of Brexit supporters that a UK separate from the EU will have its hands freed in the global economic and political system, writes Alexander Yermakov, RIAC expert.

A year ago, on February 1, 2020, the United Kingdom officially left the European Union, and on January 1, 2021, an agreement was launched establishing a new relationship between Albion and the continent. The dream of the sovereignty supporters has come true, and now the government is declaring its readiness to invest heavily into the military sphere, which is key for its status.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a defence spending growth programme on November 19, 2021, which he touted as the “largest in thirty years”. Over the next four years, the UK plans to spend an additional £24.1 billion on the military compared to the current level, which is £16.5 billion more than the previously undertaken commitments to raise the share of military spending to 2.2% of GDP ... This means an increase in the budget of the Ministry of Defence in 2024-25 by about £10 billion in absolute terms, excluding inflation.

According to the prime minister, the current crisis should not affect the long-term financing of the armed forces, which, by the nature of their purchases, must plan their expenditures “for the long term”. The goals are also proclaimed, as is expected, in the public speeches of English politicians, for example “to end the era of retreat, renew our military, strengthen our global reach, unite and protect our people and the free societies we deeply believe in”. However, aside from such pathos, the UK will really have to pay much more if it plans to play a more serious role on the world stage — and even as an important NATO member and the first ally of the United States. London will have to compete with the European countries, demonstrating to everyone that Brexit made the country more significant, and not vice versa. It is noteworthy that much in the British plans demonstrate precisely the global status, in spite of the European Union, which is largely confined to the regional issues.

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What are the plans to spend the additional funds?

  • to support programmes for the construction of frigates of types 26 and 31 and provide supplies to ships experiencing typical problems with cost overruns and delayed implementation

  • it is planned to start a programme for the construction of new frigates: type 32. The details of the project are unknown and it is still at the concept stage, at the moment, according to a statement made by the Ministry of Defence. It is planned to focus on anti-submarine defence and the fight against sea mines. In addition, it is separately indicated that the frigate will serve as a carrier for autonomous underwater vehicles. Their entry into the fleet, however, should not be expected earlier than in 2030. In addition, it is planned to create some “multipurpose research ships”, the purpose of which could be very broad — the simplest option is reconnaissance.

  • additional funding will be delivered to the programme for the development of a promising “Tempest” fighter (the FCAS programme). The English programme competes with the Franco-German programme, which is also at an early stage of development — it is also called FCAS, in combination with the NGF fighter programme. The British managed to attract Italy to their “team”, Sweden is also showing interest, and the French and Germans have connected Spain. However, the European fighter of the conditional sixth generation will only get a real chance at implementation if all efforts are combined, and the competition is now, probably, for a share in the merger

  • the formation of the British Space Command, which will, among other things, be engaged in launches of military satellites from the cosmodrome for light rockets under construction in the north of Scotland.

  • additional funding for National Cyber Forces and for the establishment of an artificial intelligence centre

  • a total of additional £1.5 billion for research and development programmes, possibly partially including those mentioned above

Perhaps the key place in Johnson’s speech was given to the strengthening of the Royal Navy, which was called a policy “that has always strengthened Britain in every possible sense”. Ordering ships from national shipyards will be a key contribution to the creation of additional jobs, up to 10 thousand annually. The Royal Navy must regularly deploy forces in key regions of the world. Its core will be two aircraft carrier strike groups, after the second aircraft carrier, the Prince of Wales, in 2023 will get operational readiness.

An example of the future activities of the Royal Navy should be the first operational deployment this spring of the new series of aircraft carriers. In the spring, Queen Elizabeth is to go to the shores of East Asia. Joint exercises are planned with a number of countries, for example, with Japan. Undoubtedly, South Korea will also show great interest: Seoul, judging by the available information, plans to build its promising light aircraft carrier with the participation of British firms. American participation will be the broadest — the US destroyer DDG-68 The Sullivans will be part of the ship group, and the aircraft carrier’s air group will include the US Marine Corps F-35B squadron. The UK plans to demonstrate its presence in what’s the most important region of the world — today and in the near future.

Obviously, this will be negatively perceived in Beijing, but showing up as a global, rather than regional ally of the United States of America seems to be a more important task.

Johnson also confirmed the plans to renew the UK’s strategic nuclear forces (SNF), currently its four missile submarines. The Trident II missiles, which are also used by the Americans, cannot be replaced in the coming decades, unlike subs: as in the United States, a programme for the development of a new nuclear missile submarine (SSBN) has been initiated in Great Britain. The type received the name “Dreadnought” after the first sub and will have common structural elements with the promising American Columbia-class SSBN, particularly its missile compartments. This “all-union” nature of the programme, along with the desire, despite the protests of anti-nuclear forces, to preserve the nation’s great power nuclear status, supports the programme of updating the British strategic nuclear forces. The Secretary of Defence recently confirmed that despite the pandemic, the Dreadnought programme is being implemented without significant delays, with the first patrols planned for the early 2030s. The next five-year period will be the key one for the programme and the most costly, so some of the additional funds will probably be directed to it. Interestingly, Brexit could indirectly hit the British strategic nuclear forces — the submarine base is located in Scotland, and if Edinburgh achieves independence, this will lead to serious problems with their redeployment.

It is noteworthy that in the speeches and discussions of potential beneficiaries of additional funding, extremely little attention was paid to the British ground forces. If we assume that the interests of the United Kingdom will now, as previously, be located “east of Suez”, then the armies may well save money — all the talk about allied unity and “containment of Russia” in the Baltics can basically be provided to the Europeans.

It is possible that the British plans for additional spending on the military sphere are not destined to come true amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis, which hit Britain especially hard. On the other hand, government investment in its military-industrial complex may well be seen as a means of subsidising industry and job creation.

On the geopolitical side, these plans are a manifestation of a desire to play a more global role — largely linked to the arguments of Brexit supporters that a UK separate from the EU will have its hands freed in the global economic and political system. This is reinforced by the nostalgia for British greatness, which was most vividly embodied in the notion of having a Royal Navy that could reach the other side of the world. And if you do not achieve greatness, then you can at least become more significant, and not in the list of “EU members”, separated by commas. Wouldn’t it be better to go from the harbour of old Europe to the places praised by Kipling:

“Ship me somewhere east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,

Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst.”

Defence Budget Growth in 2020
After seven years of continuous growth, global defence spending surged to 1.9% in 2020, according to defence spending data provided by Jane's
Infographics
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.