British PM Boris Johnson has billed it as the most significant rethink of the UK’s foreign and defence policy since the Cold War, and now he has set a deadline for what could be the foundation for the UK’s repositioning as a great power in the 21st century.
Following a resounding electoral victory and the ensuing political certainty established under the leadership of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the UK has turned its attentions to the rapidly developing multi-polar world order, particularly as the nation untangles itself from the bureaucratic confines of the European Union.
Following his appointment in late-July, PM Johnson declared: "Today, at this pivotal moment in our history, we again have to reconcile two noble sets of instincts between the deep desire for friendship and free trade and mutual support and security and defence between Britain and our European partners and the simultaneous desire, equally deep and heartfelt, for democratic self-government in this country."
Part of the UK's strategic realignment towards '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 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.
PM Johnson's proposed response would incorporate the combined efforts of the British Armed Forces, foreign and domestic intelligence services, counter terrorism and law enforcement agencies to respond in an era of great power competition – with the aim of delivering the review by the end of this year.
Recognising this, the British Prime Minister has doubled down on his efforts to realign and reposition the UK on the global stage, prompting the PM to step up the government's review in a statement to the public service:
"We need to grasp the opportunities of the next decade and deliver upon the government’s priorities. This is a defining moment in how the UK relates to the rest of the world and we want to take this unique opportunity to reassess our priorities and our approach to delivering them."
Building on this, the Prime Minister set forth a list of objectives focused on what is described as defining the government's "ambition for the UK’s role in the world and set out the long-term strategic aims for national security and foreign policy".
Additionally, the Prime Minister's statement articulates a need to clearly identify the capabilities the globally ascended UK will require to future-proof its position: "determine the capabilities we need for the next decade and beyond to pursue our objectives and address the risks and threats we face".
Singing from the same song sheet
The efforts identified by the British Prime Minister are echoed Australia's Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, who articulated a growing need for closer collaboration between Australia and the UK.
"We are seeing grey zone tactics being used to undermine the foundation of the current international rules-based system and, I would argue, of democracy itself. It is incumbent on all nations to work together to strengthen and adapt the global order and an international system that allows all nations to thrive, and to do so in peace. We need one that is fit for purpose in the 21st century," Minister Reynolds said earlier in the year.
"So that leads to the first question for us both – where do we start? As we look to that task of defining an international order in an evolving context, Australia is committed to working closely with traditional partners like the United Kingdom."
The rapidly deteriorating state of the contemporary geo-political and strategic environment, driven by a resurgent Russia and increasingly assertive China, combined with the rising threat of asymmetric threats, serve to challenge the capacity of both nations to support the continuation of the 'rules-based order' without a commitment to deepening the bonds between the two nations and, more broadly, the Five Eyes network.
"Together, working with other trusted partners, particularly Canada, New Zealand and the United States, we can do much more to provide security for ourselves and stability for the world. And few countries can claim ties as close as those that Australia shares with the United Kingdom. When I visit the United Kingdom I am reminded in a very personal way of the values we share; and our shared commitment to meeting challenges," Minister Reynolds said.
"But the question we need to ask ourselves now is whether our close and longstanding partnership is up to the challenges that lie ahead – challenges that pose new risks for the integrity of the global order.
"It is worth reminding ourselves of just how profoundly some of these challenges are impacting the strategic environment and, in very direct ways, contesting our values."
For both nations, 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.