In December 2019, the British people re-elected the Conservative Party on its promise to deliver Brexit on a vision of a “Global Britain.” The Queen’s speech that followed announced the resetting of the UK’s foreign policy through an Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy (Integrated Review for short). Touted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as “the most radical reassessment of the U.K.’s place in the world since the end of the Cold War,” this all-inclusive, one-stop “national security strategy” aimed to cover the entire spectrum of international policy, from defence to diplomacy and development. It was to be released in spring 2020 but was delayed because of the COVID outbreak and is now expected to be published in the coming weeks.
Between the Queen’s announcement and the Integrated Review’s forthcoming publication, the British government has made a number of significant decisions that hint at what is to come. The creation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)—an amalgamation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the Department for International Development—and the delivery of a single document that integrates all areas of overseas policy are important steps in harnessing the U.K.’s instruments of national power. Equally, the significance of defence in the post-COVID/post-Brexit era was laid bare in Prime Minister Johnson’s spending announcement, in November 2020. This saw a £16.5 billion surge in defence spending, the largest in real terms increase since Margaret Thatcher’s time in office. Prime Minister Johnson calls the Integrated Review a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to redefine national global ambitions. In addition, he has promised to make the United Kingdom Europe’s “foremost naval power” and backed this up by saying, “If there was one policy which strengthens the United Kingdom in every possible sense, it is building more ships for the Royal Navy.” But how will the Royal Navy assist in the delivery of the U.K. government’s “Global Britain” vision?
A lot hinges on the content of the Integrated Review, and, therefore, a number of assumptions need to be made to answer this question ahead of its publication. First, the enduring foreign policy themes of promoting prosperity, protecting the rules-based international system, and remaining a “force for good” in the world will remain. Second, the U.K.’s foreign policy will make “a tilt to the Indo-Pacific,” as this region is fast becoming the “economic centre of gravity,” with 90 percent of the future growth in world trade expected to stem from the region by 2030. U.K. defence will remain engaged in European security through membership in NATO. U.K. maritime will remain committed to regional engagement in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, South Atlantic, and Middle East. The United States will remain the United Kingdom’s principal strategic partner (recognising that the United States may have other principal partners in other regions), and, last, the United Kingdom will remain a nuclear power.
Global Britain’s prosperity will be based on acquiring access to the Indo-Pacific economic trade partnerships, most likely through membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The recent AstraZeneca vaccine row may be a sign of what is to come, and Prime Minister Johnson may wish to dilute the U.K.’s economic relationship with the European Union. Whether this is a realistic option or not, Britain will stand by its membership in NATO, which it sees as the critical balance to the growing menace of Russia. It is partially for this reason that Britain will retain its nuclear deterrent.
Through its membership in the Commonwealth, Britain has historical ties to 19 nations across the Indo-Pacific region and shares the same head of state with five. It is part of a long-standing defence arrangement in the form of the Five Powers Defence Agreement (FPDA) with Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand that was signed in 1971. All other members of the Five Eyes intelligence community are also within this region, as is the U.K.’s closest European defence ally, France, which has 63 percent of its 11 million square kilometres of exclusive economic zone (the world’s largest) spread throughout the region. While Britain is no match for China militarily, its presence in the region, as a medium power, is likely to be welcome relief to the smaller states, who will have a third security option that avoids band-wagoning with either of the two major powers.
All instruments of national power should be brought to bear in the delivery of Global Britain. For defence, an implied task will be greater regional engagement throughout the Indo-Pacific. This will require a significant shift in the dynamics and methods of operating the military if it is to do more without affecting commitments elsewhere. The political necessity to operate in the same manner as it has done in Afghanistan and Iraq will need to become a thing of the past to avoid tying up too many resources in one region at the expense of others. This does not diminish the need to be able to shift to high-intensity, high-end warfighting where and when required, should the United Kingdom need to use the military to protect British interests.
The arrival of Admiral Tony Radakin as First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff in 2019 saw the release of a new vision for the Royal Navy that focuses on five main parts: (1) greater investment in the North Atlantic for the security of the U.K.’s nuclear deterrent; (2) delivery of the U.K.’s carrier strike capability; (3) delivery of the future commando force; (4) forward presence; and (5) increased use of technology and innovation. The North Atlantic is the main arterial lifeline to the United Kingdom, as well as the hiding place for its nuclear deterrent, and therefore will always be of the highest importance to the Royal Navy. Technology and innovation are driving the changing character of war and may very well become force multipliers. While both of these parts are important to Admiral Radakin’s plan, they will not be discussed further. Forward presence, carrier strike, and future commando force will all play a major role in the Royal Navy’s delivery of the U.K. government’s Global Britain vision and enduring foreign policy themes.
Forward presence initially will see the forward deployment of the Batch 2 offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) into regions where they will remain indefinitely, conducting crew rotations at a set periodicity as well as all maintenance periods. A 17 December 2019 Parliamentary announcement confirmed the forward deployment of HMS Medway to the Caribbean, HMS Trent into the Mediterranean/West Africa, and HMS Clyde into the South Atlantic. With the arrival of the two enhanced Batch 2 OPVs, HMS Spey and HMS Tamar, there is an expectation that the Integrated Review will call for them to be forward deployed to the Indo-Pacific region, thus fulfilling some of the requirement for persistent presence in this theatre.
While Clyde and Trent will have existing British military bases that sit in the middle of their operating areas (Falklands and Gibraltar), the remaining OPVs will operate without any permanent base in their operational theatre. This will allow them the freedom of manoeuvre to operate across the whole of their vast regions without a need to return to a single support hub. In the Caribbean, HMS Medway will utilise a mixture of allied military and civilian facilities, such as Fort de France in Martinique, the continental United States, the Dutch Antilles, and British Overseas Territories. In the Indo-Pacific, the two units will be able to utilise host-nation support in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Japan, and Australia, as well as Diego Garcia, India, and Oman in the Indian Ocean.
In the Middle East, HMS Montrose has been forward deployed at the British base in Bahrain since 2019 and was the trial ship for this concept. The move to forward deploy with crew rotations has effectively provided the shift in the dynamics and operating methods required to do more with the same number of ships. The intent is to replace the Batch 2 OPVs with the Type 31 multirole frigates in regions that require a more robust capabilities suite, such as in the Indo-Pacific, and this will commence in 2027. While the OPVs are equipped to undertake humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR), counterterrorism, maritime security (including counterpiracy), and defence engagement, the Type 31 will provide that extra level of self-defence and offensive capabilities necessary for enhancing peace and security where the risks from major power competition may be on the rise. The Prime Minister’s reference in his spending announcement to the development of a new class of frigate, the Type 32, may see a completely new type of ship designed specifically for forward deployment, but speculation here will be left for another time.
The operations room on board the HMS Montrose with the crew closed up at action wearing anti-flash. UK MOD News
The changes in operating methods brought about by forward presence already have resulted in a number of significant advantages to the Royal Navy. There has been an increase in the number of days on operations, as fewer days are spent in transit to and from the United Kingdom. This has, in turn, reduced fuel costs. With the same crews rotating through a single unit, regional situational awareness also has seen a marked increase, as patterns of life become second nature. However, an additional advantage seen on board Montrose was the impact of such a routine on manpower. Societal changes have been slowly eroding recruitment and retention, as sailors want to be able to plan their lives and not be dictated to by operational circumstance, usually at very short notice. The move to crew rotations has provided some of the stability they sought, and the rigid crew cycles have allowed them to plan their lives accordingly, up to three years in advance.
In support of all five globally deployed OPVs and HMS Montrose in the Gulf, the First Sea Lord’s plan is to operate at least one carrier strike group (CSG) out of the United Kingdom. This will surge as required to deliver the higher-level capabilities that may be needed anywhere in the world, but basing in the United Kingdom underlines its commitment to NATO and the Atlantic. The first deployment will see HMS Queen Elizabeth deploying to the Far East later this year, with U.S. Navy escorts and U.S. Marine Corps aircraft to provide reassurance to the region and possibly ahead of the forward deployment of the two OPVs. This will also coincide with the 50th anniversary of the FPDA.
Future Commando Force
In addition to the carrier strike group, future commando force will deliver a littoral strike capability. This is likely to be delivered through two littoral response groups (LRGs). The first will be based out of the United Kingdom to support the Northern Flank and European interests, and a second is envisaged to be based out of Duqm in Oman, where the United Kingdom has established a logistics hub to support its global “force for good” ambitions. Decisions have yet to be made on the composition of the LRG, but the Royal Navy has two landing platform docking (LPDs) vessels and three landing ships docking auxiliary (LSDAs) at its disposal. The Royal Marines will go back to their roots as a truly expeditionary littoral force that can operate in any climate, from the frozen wastes of the Arctic to the jungles of Brunei and Belize. These strike groups will be able to surge into any littoral area throughout the world to support the forward-deployed units.
There is concern that two OPVs stationed so far from home are likely to get into more trouble than they can get themselves out of. With good diplomacy and the right political messaging, this is unlikely to be the case, and a British presence will be seen as a stabilising force for good, despite China’s rhetoric that “Global Britain” is a return to colonialism. The United Kingdom has increasing economic interests as well as historic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific and, therefore, will want to preserve international peace and security to sustain the stability of the international rules-based system. Conflict and war do little for prosperity and will want to be avoided by all concerned.
China’s “nine-dash-line” claims in the South China Sea and the International Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling at The Hague in 2016 are hard to enforce through military means when the United Kingdom is in a similar international legal position. Its possession of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, contrary to a U.N. ruling by the International Court of Justice that they should be handed back to Mauritius, will leave China feeling vindicated. Britain’s support of the international rules-based system in the South China Sea is less likely to hit its mark in Beijing until this has been resolved.
The Integrated Review is long overdue but should finally provide the clarity to Prime Minister Johnson’s vision for “Global Britain.” Admiral Radakin’s plan is already delivering increased persistent presence across the globe and will greatly assist the sustained development of Global Britain policies across the diplomatic, information, military, and economic spectrums. If a tilt to Asia does materialise from the Integrated Review, then, at the strategic level, British presence will provide a middle power alternative to the major power competition on the rise. Britain may no longer be a superpower, but it has the instruments of national power necessary to influence decisions and maintain peace. Therefore, its persistent military presence will have a strategic effect, so long as it does not overplay its role. The forward deployment of a whole strike group indefinitely might be sending the wrong message, but its ability to surge from the United Kingdom should help to retain influence across the globe.
The concept of forward presence at the operational and tactical levels, based around crew rotations instead of permanent basing, is proving to be the significant shift in the dynamics and method of operating the Royal Navy as a 21st-century navy. The stability this is providing its manpower should ensure greater retention and make the service a more viable career choice for iGen’ers. The delivery of the new Type 32, whether it is a smaller littoral strike ship or a multirole frigate for general export, will be welcomed. However, if the U.K. government is to assist the work of its military, it must find a political solution to the Chagos Islands dispute. Failure to do so leaves the United Kingdom in a precarious situation when dealing with China.
All views are those of the author and not of the British Government, Ministry of Defence, or the Royal Navy.