The prospect of a unified European military, only recently seen by many as an inevitable step, recently received a rather important message from the voters of Britain: “Count us out.” The British vote, while closing a door on the old dream of Britain in a united Europe, opened a new one, with its own prospects and challenges. A union or confederation of the four main Westminster democracies—Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom—is being discussed under the name of Commonwealth Union, Realm Union, or, from the acronym of its four main members, CANZUK Union.
The question remains, why would four nations, each of which currently enjoys prosperity and security, consider such a radical change in their status? In the past, English-speaking polities were motivated to voluntarily form larger Unions by the prospects of greater prosperity, security, and identity. Of these, typically the most pressing, and most promptly convincing, is security. To borrow terminology from the 19th century German unification debate, it all comes down to whether it is to be primarily a Handelsverein or a Kriegsverein—a union for trade or a union for war. Without attempting specific prophecies for the coming two decades, it would be reasonable to assume that security might become high on the list of immediate concerns of the CANZUK nations. If we posit also that U.S. leadership and security guarantees might waver for a term or two, such pressures could then drive for a rapid union.
A Credible Deterrent
Security concerns could drive the commonwealth nations toward a unified defense command and an all-Union parliament with direct funding and clear oversight of key military forces. The British strategic deterrent would be the first capability to fall under unified command. An effective all-Union political authority in which office holders from all four nations had key political and military positions would be central to ensure a credible deterrent. Australians with long memories might not fully believe the validity of a British deterrent pledge, but if some of the office holders and naval officers in the decision loop were Australians, the deterrent would become more believable.
The deterrent would be part of a wider Union Navy, naval strategy, and doctrine. While the armed forces would be placed under unified all-Union command, they would not be merged, nor would the identities of the current existing services be eradicated. Canada’s failed attempt to merge its armed forces has given the world a long and expensive lesson, now finally remediated, on the folly of throwing away the sentiments, loyalties, and bonds collected dearly over time, that are encoded in the name and identity of a service. A small number of all-Union units would be created for specialized functions, and personnel, pay, and pension policies would gradually converge to a Union standard, with some form of regional cost-of-living adjustment.
The naval forces of the four nations would continue to operate as the Royal Navy and its Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand counterparts, as well as the Royal Marines. Most service personnel would continue to wear their existing uniforms and bear the initials of their national service after their names. There also would be a Royal Navy of the Union, however, which would maintain the strategic deterrent and certain highly specialized, high technology functions—such as those of space warfare and cyber warfare—that are becoming too expensive for individual forces to afford.
New Strategic Tasks
Observers may be tempted to see such a Union as a re-born British Empire and wonder whether the Empire’s strategic dilemmas would merely return in new form. There inevitably would be some such parallels, but a closer examination would show that the strategic problems of a modern Union would be quite different. A modern Union would have a vastly different makeup and would operate under a very different modern warfare context.
The British Empire after American independence was oriented around the sea link between Britain and India. The two sea routes—first around the Cape of Good Hope and secondly through the Suez Canal—had to be secured and maintained. Many of the other possessions of the Empire had been acquired to either safeguard or serve those sea routes.
Today India is a friend and useful trading partner, and perhaps a future Union ally. But the sea lanes between Britain and India would not be the central concern of a Union. Rather, the Union security apparatus would be focused on the opposite side of the globe. Its primary naval concern, after the maritime defense of its home nations, would be the Atlantic sea lanes between Britain and Canada and the Pacific sea lanes between western Canada and the ports of New Zealand and Australia. The Union’s forces would consist of a military core force stationed primarily in the United Kingdom and Australia, with rapidly deployable reinforcements held in Canada, ready to be moved quickly to the Atlantic or Pacific as needed.
Guarding the Atlantic sea lanes is one of the oldest and most basic tasks of both the Royal Navy (RN) and Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and is a large part of their NATO responsibilities. The trans-Pacific sea lanes run largely through waters of the Eastern Pacific that are under the secure control of the U.S. Navy and far from any threat. Union war planning should (given recent U.S. political trends) assume possible U.S. neutrality and establish a requirement to independently ensure the integrity of the trans-Pacific sea lanes. Such capabilities also would be very useful in ensuring Australia’s and New Zealand’s maritime access to their non-North American markets. The Union Navy would be the primary means of guarding the extremely extensive offshore economic areas and seabed claims of the four nations combined.
Compared to the old British Empire, the Union also would face the rapidly changing nature of modern war. The World Wars strained British forces because the nature of war then emphasized the ability to assemble, arm, and train enormous forces and then deploy and supply them in multiple areas of the globe simultaneously. Modern war today emphasizes relatively small quantities of extremely well-trained, well-motivated forces using high-technology force multipliers.
The armed forces of the CANZUK nations, despite recent cutbacks resulting from fiscal pressures, continue to maintain their quality, but they are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain and constantly upgrade the high-technology capabilities needed to stay relevant in today’s conflicts. The Union would permit them to develop, acquire, and deploy advanced capabilities second to no nation in quantities sufficient to meet the combined security needs of all member nations. Systems such as radar satellite constellations in low orbit performing high-quality reconnaissance can serve four customers as easily as one; cyber warfare, other intel systems, and special operations forces all can be used in any area of the globe.
Union forces probably would want to invest in more submarines and long-range transport and attack air systems than they do today. The under-ice operational capability of nuclear submarines would allow the Union to patrol and maintain sovereignty in Canada’s arctic areas in a manner that Canada simply cannot presently afford. It would also give the Union additional choices for transiting rapidly between the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Similarly, the Union forces would need substantially more long-range air transport than at present and an enhanced capability for long-range air attack, although it is not immediately obvious which kind of systems would be needed. Between the globe-spanning nature of the Union and its deep oceanic island territories, the Union could maintain a global strike capability without the need for foreign bases.
At the formation of the Union and the creation of a Union Ministry of Defense, a Union naval staff could be assembled quickly from personnel of the existing national navies. A bottom-up strategic defense review could be held on an all-Union basis. This would begin the long process of reshaping the overall force structures to meet the needs of the new Union and gradually change internal systems to adapt to new demands. Procurement processes would be examined, and no doubt some would be continued and others canceled. Procurement of major items gradually would transition to an all-Union system to take advantage of the better negotiating position of a larger buyer. It would be reasonable to assume that the Union Parliament would in normal times support a defense commitment in the range of 2 percent of gross Union product (GUP), the NATO target, as both the United Kingdom and Australia have tended to stay near that target over past decades.
Four Navies into One
At present, the aggregate ship total of the CANZUK navies is 161 vessels, of which 7 are destroyers, 38 are frigates, 4 are nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, 7 are nuclear-powered fleet attack submarines, 10 are conventional submarines, and 6 are amphibious assault/aviation vessels. The bulk of the remainder are smaller patrol and mine warfare craft. Two large aircraft carriers also are under construction, which when placed in service (2020 or beyond) will carry a complement of up to 36 F-35B attack aircraft each.
By current global standards, this is a signifiant naval force, although its operational responsibilities are particularly broad compared to other navies. It is difficult to say, prior to a strategic defense review, to what extent the current mix of ships and capabilities could fulfill the naval requirements of the Union. The greater resources of a Union, however, certainly would make an augmentation and/or a realignment of forces more feasible than if the services were to rely on their national resources alone.
Combining the four navies may allow policy makers to reconsider various defense decisions made for budgetary reasons. The Queen Elizabeth–class carriers, for example, might be fitted with catapults, making it feasible to use the F-35C or other catapult-launched aircraft instead of the F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing variant. In any event, recasting the Union navies into an integrated globe-spanning force with internally compatible systems—fully capable of interoperating with the U.S. Navy and other allied naval forces—would be the work of decades, given present-day procurement practices.
A Union naval capability could take advantage of the already unusual degree of commonality in standards and practices among these navies. The three dominions formed their navies in the mold of the Royal Navy, and each inherited much of its corporate culture. Terminology remains the same in many instances. NATO and other allied functions have created common standards to which the RN and RCN have adhered, and to which the Royal Australian Navy and Royal New Zealand Navy are frequently aligned. The Union would benefit from the Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and United States (AUSCANNZUKUS) “five-eyes” arrangement for shared information, communications, and systems interoperability that connects all four navies and the U.S. Navy, as part of a web of organizations coordinating standards and capabilities among all AUSCANNZUKUS services.
At an important symbolic level, the Queen, as head of state of all four countries, already provides a common command authority, which would not change. The Queen is also, in her own capacity or through her representatives the Governors-General, the Commander-in-Chief of the navies. An anecdote holds that a young lieutenant once pointed out to President Lyndon Johnson the aircraft on which he would be flying, saying, “Sir, there’s your plane.” Johnson replied, “Son, they’re all my planes.” Constitutionally, Queen Elizabeth would be strictly accurate in making an equivalent statement about the planes or ships of any of the Royal Services. Bringing all the Queen’s ships under common command to a form a considerable naval force ultimately would bolster the security of all parties.
Mr. Bennett is space fellow of the Economic Policy Centre in London and a research associate of the Space Policy Institute of George Washington University. This essay took second prize in 2016 International Navies Essay Contest sponsored by Leonardo Finmeccanica.