Proposed Examination of United Kingdom Future Grand Strategy

DefenceSynergia (DS) has articulated the need for a National Strategy since it was formed more than 10 years ago. We hold to this position today. As do many observers of British Foreign and Defence policy.

Now there is a new Strategic dynamic for UK to address. The hegemonic intentions of China.

The border integrity of neighbouring States like India and military expansion into the Indian Ocean, South China Sea and Pacific regions have led the USA, Japan and Australia to increase defence funding in their respective areas of responsibility and for UK to contemplate an enduring Naval presence EAST OF SUEZ.

A version of the DS short paper below has been sent to various Parliamentary Committees with the aim of stimulating debate. Is the UK about to re-engage militarily in the Asia/Pacific region creating a dual front strategy – West and East? If so how?

Proposed Examination of United Kingdom Future Grand Strategy

Summary

For the past 10 years DefenceSynergia (DS) has advocated that Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) articulate a National Grand Strategy. Despite many others asking for strategic clarity HMG has obfuscated, offering all manner of policy, plans and political direction as strategy. The term ‘Global Britain’ is a buzz phrase not a strategy. It is ‘all things to all men’ and provides no meaningful guidance.

In the past few weeks various HMG and Ministry of Defence (MOD) announcements have emerged indicating that the UK is thinking of adding the Far East to its geopolitical gaze whilst maintaining her national commitments to NATO. The dual peer on peer threat that Russia and China present to UK and allied national interests worldwide is, apparently, now recognised.

Whilst the revanchism of Russia is a focus of defence plans, there has been a sea change in the UK and allied relationship with China. Tensions in the South China Sea; aggressive (wolf Warrior) diplomacy; trade anomalies; belt and road; the Huawei 5G security threat; Hong Kong; military build up on land, at sea, in the air, in space and cyber environments. This now challenges, much more overtly, the international rules based order and borders; thus requiring a full and proper reappraisal of Chinese intentions which must affect the UK’s Strategic posture from a NATO/EU centric to a dual front focus.

Main Discussion

Since the much-admired 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR98), successive governments have resisted articulating a Grand Strategy for the UK. Despite the formation of the National Security Council (NSC) by the 2010 Coalition Government, successive Prime Ministers and cabinets have preferred to obfuscate and confuse policy and plans as strategy. All the while HM Forces have adopted the only option available to them: adapting the available Operational Capability to fall within a Defence Budget that is already overstretched. This budget is provided mainly in the context of a NATO Article 5 operation only. A major difficulty in doing this has been that all arguments for it and criticisms of it can be subsumed in the context of the NATO alliance where any apparent gaps in operational capability are covered, in the main, by United States (USA) forces.

Budget has been the driver of strategy not the other way round. This coupled with a short term view of the budget and lack of industrial policy has resulted in considerable overspend because neither industry or the Front Line Commands have been able to plan beyond the present year and maybe the one after. This is no way for a strategy to deliver the results being sort.

It is this short termism that has given Russia and even more China the openings that they have been looking for to exploit weak links in the UK’s and arguably western nations effectiveness in protecting their people and way of life.

The results have been non-cohesive manpower and equipment plans that stem from ‘grandfathered-in’ NATO commitments which fall within a Northern Hemisphere (almost Continental) Defence Policy that the UK has never really been very comfortable with. With the exception of the Falklands in 1982, HM Forces have not seen active military involvement South of the Equator since the UK East of Suez policy was enacted in the mid 1970s.

Incursions into Georgia and Ukraine and subsequent support for Assad’s Syrian regime by Russia has defined the UK appraisal of the threat to NATO/EU. And budgets, plans and equipment within the Atlantic Council nations have largely been directed at this vector of threat, with limited active operations directed towards Islamic State and other Counter Terrorism operations. The Far East being more the focus for the USA, Japan and Australia than UK.

However, China’s unilateral changes to the treaty on Hong Kong (one country two systems), the border clashes with India and claims to territory within the South China Sea region – Singapore, The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia all being at risk – are a major concern to the international community, not least because of the potential disruption to trade along the various connected sea lines of communication (SLOC).

Since 1971 the UK has been a signatory to the Fiver Powers Defence Arrangements(FPDA) with Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore whereby “…the five powers are to consult each other immediately in the event or threat of an armed attack on any of these five countries for the purpose of deciding what measures should be taken jointly or separately in response.1” Taiwan lies just 180 miles from the coast of China and has been under constant threat since 1949. Japan and Australia are so concerned at the threat indicators they are both building up their defence forces believing Chinese intentions to be hegemonic.

The response in the UK has been slow but probably inevitable. The Foreign Office and Secret Services now admit that the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese commercial enterprises are indivisible. Internationally the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing alliance was threatened until UK revised its Huawei 5G technology policy and our Indian Ocean and Far Eastern allies are looking for kindred allies and US leadership. Alongside the MOD announcement that the first deployment of its new Carrier Group will be to the Far East in 2021, it is alleged in more recent briefings that one of UK’s new carriers could be based well East of Suez. If true, this would be a positive statement of British intent. However, to be credible it will require a clear Strategy for the UK to be defined.

For such a task force to be credible it would need to consist, not just of an aircraft carrier, but, at least, two Type 45 air defence destroyers, two Type 23 anti-submarine Frigates, one Hunter Killer submarine and supporting Fleet support ships as well as embarked RAF and Army air assets, support and personnel. On the well established basis that a ship can only be in one place at one time such a Strategy must force a rethink of the British commitment to NATO. Without a major increase in Defence Funding to provide for two operational carrier groups – East and West of Suez – the UK’s RN order of battle (ORBAT) within NATO will need to be reassessed.

One solution could be for the UK to accept that its primary naval power will be directed at supporting a Far Eastern coalition, providing NATO with surface and subsurface assets as part of a Standing NATO Naval Force in the Greenland Iceland UK Gap (GIUK) and defending the British Coastline with the remaining fleet. The British Army and RAF would be assigned to NATO and Home and Overseas Territory (OT) Defence with increased emphasis on rapid mobility and combat enablers that ensure the UK can react in days, not weeks or months, to any NATO region Article 5. This would mean a two front Strategy that provides for forces East and West of Suez.

Conclusion

The UK has not articulated its Grand Strategy preferring to rely upon policy documents and departmental plans to guide ministers. Therefore the time has come for HMG to clearly state its National aims and goals and put meaning to the term ‘Global Britain’.

The two recognised major protagonists for the foreseeable future are Russia and China. Facing Russia is the long established and mature NATO defence alliance but, since the demise of SEATO in the Far East and notwithstanding the FPDA, nothing comparable exists facing China.

However, without additional UK Defence spending it is difficult to see how the UK can provide an enduring Naval presence East of Suez as well as commit to NATO in the West with its current order of battle – not least a single Carrier Group. Therefore, a Strategic declaration of intent to operate concurrently East and West of Suez (or not) must be made and the consequences of that decision – for all three Services and NATO – must, for the first time since the demise of the Warsaw Pact, result in properly funded Armed Forces tailored to an agreed and documented National Strategy.