British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced the most significant strategic and defence reorientation of the UK’s Armed Forces since the Cold War, with major investments in conventional next-generation capabilities across the joint force set to better position the UK to counter peer and near-peer competitors in Europe and around the world.
As the UK continues to grapple with the ongoing economic, political and strategic realities of COVID-19 and the potential of a second wave of lockdowns, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's long-awaited review and consolidation of British military capability appears to be here.
Under this ambitious and wide-reaching review, PM Johnson turned the attention towards the rapidly developing multi-polar world order, particularly in eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific, as he sought to reestablish the UK as a pre-eminent global military, economic and political power in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum.
This radical approach echoes comments made by former UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson in early 2019, when he promised a "major departure and reorientation" and the first major shift in UK defence policy for the first time since the introduction of the 'east of Suez' doctrine in the 1960s.
At the time, Williamson described the post-Brexit era as "our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can recast ourselves in a different way, we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world expects us to play".
Williamson said that this shift would see the UK become a "true global player" following Brexit, stepping into a leadership role in an increasingly troubled world.
Expanding on this, then-secretary Williamson explained there would be a specific focus on enhancing the strategic relationships between the UK and key Commonwealth partners around the world, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Caribbean and nations across Africa.
This renewed focus on traditionally British areas of influence and strategic responsibility – specifically in the Caribbean and, more importantly for Australia's economic and strategic stability, Indo-Pacific Asia – aims to secure the UK's national interests and global alliances.
Part of the existing decisions shaping UK's strategic realignment towards a return to 'great power' status has seen the former global power commit to a range of capability acquisitions and force structure developments, including:
- Recapitalisation and modernisation of the Royal Navy – including the acquisition of the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, the Type 26 Global Combat Ships and the planned development and acquisition of the Type 31e frigates to supplement the capability delivered by the Type 45 Daring Class guided missile destroyers and the Astute Class fast attack submarines;
- The restructuring of the British Army to focus on power projection and rapid expeditionary capability as part of the Army 2020 plan – this plan is designed to support concurrent deployments in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Indo-Pacific;
- Modernisation of the Royal Air Force to include fifth-generation air combat capabilities in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the E-7A Wedgetail and upgrades for the Eurofighter Typhoon – while supporting increased airlift capabilities and a focus on the future, including the beginning of development on the sixth-generation Tempest air superiority fighter; and
- A modernisation of the British nuclear deterrence force – with the planned construction of the Dreadnought Class ballistic missile submarines.
A key focus for the Prime Minister is countering foreign influence, including 'grey zone' tactics and political warfare, methods increasingly favoured by totalitarian regimes in Russia and China – with asymmetric threats like violent extremism also figuring strongly in the proposed holistic national security response.
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Overnight, Prime Minister Johnson has lifted the lid on the most consequential military modernisation and strategic reorientation of the UK Armed Forces since the Cold War, with a very clear agenda: returning the UK to a true 'great power'.
Prime Minister Johnson established this policy shift, explaining, "The international situation is more perilous and more intensely competitive than at any time since the Cold War and Britain must be true to our history and stand alongside our allies. To achieve this we need to upgrade our capabilities across the board.
"This is our chance to end the era of retreat, transform our Armed Forces, bolster our global influence, unite and level up our country, pioneer new technology and defend our people and way of life."
An increase in expenditure, delivering cutting-edge capability
Much like the recently announced Australian 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2020 Force Structure Plan and the associated $270 billion tied to modernising and enhancing the capability of the Australian Defence Force, the British announcement will see a major cash injection into the UK Armed Forces.
Prime Minister Johnson announced £16.5 billion ($29.95 billion) extra in funding over the next four years, with forward estimates identifying an overall cash increase of £24.1 billion ($43.7 billion) over four years compared with last year’s budget – cementing the UK's position as the largest defence spender in Europe and the second largest in NATO.
As part of this investment, the UK government will establish a range of measures and capability developments, including a new agency dedicated to artificial intelligence (AI), as well as the creation of a National Cyber Force and a new Space Command, with the ambitious task of launching the first British rocket by 2022.
In addition to these, the UK government will also see an extra £1.5 billion ($2.7 billion) and a total £5.8 billion ($10.5 billion) earmarked for military research and development, particularly supporting the development of the Tempest Future Combat Air System (FCAS) and supporting the creation of an estimated 10,000 jobs annually across the UK, rebuilding the British industrial base from the ground up.
UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace added, "This settlement secures UK jobs and livelihoods, allows us to invest in our fantastic shipyards and aerospace industry, spreading prosperity to every corner of the UK."
Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves
By far one of the largest investments is in the expansion of British naval shipbuilding, which will see an additional £16.5 billion ($29.95 billion) allocated over four years to support the expansion of the Royal Navy and reposition it as one of the world's premier power projection, blue water navies.
In particular, this will see the full funding for the construction of eight BAE-designed and built Type 26 Global Combat Ship frigates, five Type 31 frigates and a commitment to developing and locally building a new generation of warship, the Type 32, as well as the construction of two multi-role research vessels and the construction of fleet solid support ships to support the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales aircraft carriers and their associated strike groups.
Prime Minister Johnson said, "If there is one policy which strengthens the UK in every possible sense, it is building more ships for the Royal Navy. Our extra defence spending will restore Britain’s position as the foremost naval power in Europe, creating thousands of jobs, reinforcing the Union and levelling up our country.
"It will spur a renaissance of British shipbuilding across the UK – in Glasgow and Rosyth, Belfast, Appledore and Birkenhead – lighting up the benefits of the Union in gleaming steel."
The new Type 32 frigates will be entirely built in the UK and will afford the Royal Navy with an increased capacity to deploy and conduct missions such as the interception and disruption of those breaching international maritime law, intelligence collection and protecting commercial shipping.
This range of capabilities is designed to enhance the UK's position as a resurgent world power, and aims to enhance other measures of soft and hard power, namely cultural influence and economic power with more physical, tangible examples of the UK.
Prime Minister Johnson explained the importance of holistically exercising national power, particularly for the UK, saying, "Next year will be a year of British leadership, when we preside over the G7, host COP26 in Glasgow and celebrate the 75th anniversary of the of the first United Nations General Assembly.
"Britain must be true to our history and stand alongside our allies, sharing the burdens and bringing our expertise to bear on the world’s toughest problems. The returns of this investment will go far beyond our Armed Forces, creating thousands of jobs, reinforcing the Union and levelling up our country."
For both Australia and the UK, the path forward in the increasingly challenging contemporary geo-political, economic and strategic environment is murky and subject to change as technology, regional and global challenges, and both state and non-state actors continue to directly impact the broader security of both Australia and the UK – this evolving environment will require nuance and collaboration to navigate safely.