By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
MARCH 2019—Given the machinations of exiting the European Union (a process commonly known as “Brexit”), it may appear that Great Britain is turning inward and withdrawing from the world. Indeed, many observers argue that leaving the EU will shrink Britain’s already-diminished global role, and that’s certainly possible. But it’s also possible that Brexit may have the effect of untethering Britain from the EU’s smothering bureaucracy and inertia—and empowering Britain to reassert its sovereignty and renew its historic role as a global force. That’s exactly how British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson sees post-Brexit Britain.
Americans should encourage Williamson’s efforts and applaud Britain’s return to the world stage.
In mid-2018, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis warned British leaders that without major policy changes, France would replace Britain as “the U.S. partner of choice.” He openly worried about Britain’s “ability to continue to provide this critical military foundation for diplomatic success,” bluntly adding that “a global nation like the U.K., with interests and commitments around the world, will require a level of defense spending beyond what we would expect from allies with only regional interests.”
Washington was putting London on notice that the “special relationship”—the unique bond that has assured Britain a privileged place in American foreign policy and America a dependable partner in a dangerous world—was at risk. If Great Britain wanted to keep that privileged place, it would need to start living up to its name—or else be viewed by Washington as no more than a middling regional power.
Mattis’s message was received loud and clear. The most obvious—indeed the biggest—piece of evidence pointing toward Britain’s return is the HMS Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s newest aircraft carrier. The massive warship—the largest ever deployed by Britain—is entering service this year, thus ending Britain’s nine-year hiatus without an aircraft carrier in its arsenal. (Britain deployed three carriers in the 1990s but scrapped its carrier fleet in 2010 amid the austerity measures of the Great Recession.) Britain will put to sea a second brand-new aircraft carrier, the HMS Prince of Wales, next year. Each ship will carry 36 F-35 stealth fight-bombers.
Promising the return of a “Global Britain,” Williamson recently reported that the HMS Queen Elizabeth’s first mission will include maneuvers in the Mediterranean, Middle East and Pacific. “We must be prepared to compete for our interests and our values far, far from home,” he said, adding that Britain’s newest warship will be carrying both British and American F-35s.
In fact, the first plane to land on the HMS Queen Elizabeth was an American F-35 flown by an American pilot. Moreover, to keep British naval aviators proficient during their decade without a carrier, the U.S. allowed its closest ally to deploy personnel on American carriers for both flight operations and flight-crew training. This naval-exchange program underscores the deep connections and trust between Britain and America.
The HMS Queen Elizabeth is only the most obvious example of Britain’s reemergence as a power-projecting nation. There are many others.
To answer Beijing’s illegal island-building efforts in the South China Sea, British warships have teamed up with American warships for joint maneuvers in the vital international waterway. Williamson says the Royal Navy is committed to “sailing through the South China Sea and making it clear our navy has a right to do that…We absolutely support the U.S. approach on this.”
British forces also have joined the U.S., Japan and France for military exercises around Guam and Tinian.
To deter Russian aggression, British troops are spearheading NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Estonia.
Related, as part of its “High North initiative,” Britain is expanding its role in the Arctic, with the Royal Marines conducting annual training ops in Norway. “As part of the new Arctic strategy, the Marines’ training will become joint with Norway on a long-term basis and integrated into Norway’s defense plan,” Williamson recently reported. Britain also is deploying submarines inside the Arctic Circle.
Britain recently sent a warship into the Black Sea in response to Russia’s outlaw behavior against Ukrainian vessels. And British troops have trained 9,500 Ukrainian military personnel since 2015. “As long as Ukraine faces Russian hostilities, it will find a steadfast partner in the United Kingdom,” according to Williamson.
In Syria and Iraq, British warplanes are conducting ongoing airstrikes against ISIS. The Congressional Research Service reports that British air assets have conducted strike, surveillance and refueling operations in Iraq and Syria, while British ground units have led coalition efforts to provide training and equipment to the Iraqi military.
Moreover, when Washington sought partners to punish Assad for using chemical weapons in 2018, British Prime Minister Theresa May dispatched RAF Tornado fighter-bombers to join France and the U.S. in airstrikes targeting Assad’s military. “We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalized,” she said. This served as a striking and welcome contrast from 2013, when Parliament rejected then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to carry out airstrikes in response to Assad’s initial use of WMDs—triggering what one member of the British government described as a period of “national soul-searching about our role in the world.”
To its credit, Britain has stood with America in Afghanistan from the very beginning of the war on terror. Today, around 1,000 British troops are deployed in Afghanistan leading the Kabul Security Force. As of this writing 455 British troops have been killed in Afghanistan; another 181 died fighting Saddam Hussein’s terrorist tyranny in Iraq.
All told, British troops are currently deployed in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Kenya, South Sudan, Gabon. Malawi, Estonia, Poland, Belize, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, Gibraltar, Germany, Iraq and the Falkland Islands.
“The U.K. is a global power with truly global interests,” Williamson points out. “A nation with the fifth biggest economy on the planet. A nation with the world’s fifth biggest defense budget and the second largest defense exporter.”
“The U.K.’s global leadership, underpinned by a capable military, makes the world safer for the U.S. and our allies,” adds acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan.
The British military clearly intends to remain a global power for the foreseeable future.
For example, the British Defense Ministry recently announced it was reversing an earlier decision to close its base in Germany. “We will not be closing our facilities in Germany, and instead will use them to forward-base the Army,” Williamson announced in last fall.
Britain is standing up a permanent base in Bahrain, which already hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Half-a-dozen Royal Navy ships and some 1,200 British personnel are deployed in the Persian Gulf.
In addition, Britain is launching two new “Littoral Strike Groups”—one based in the Indo-Pacific for operations in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean, and one based in the Mediterranean/Atlantic for operations in the Med, Baltic Sea and Atlantic Ocean. To complement these groups, Britain is creating an on-call Warfighting Division, with troops ready for short-notice deployments anywhere on earth.
Regarding procurement and investment, Britain’s defense budget has jumped almost 7 percent since 2013. As a result, the RAF is increasing the number of its Typhoon fighter-bomber squadrons from five to seven, purchasing 138 F-35s, and ordering new maritime patrol aircraft to counter Russian submarine activity in and around the Arctic.
Britain may not yet be back, but it appears to be coming back. And that should be welcome news on this side of the Atlantic.
A Britain with both the means and the will to remain engaged in the world can serve as a vital partner in defending the liberal international order America and Britain began building after World War II.
Winston Churchill, one of the chief architects of that postwar order, observed that “Britain and America must work together…When we divide, we lose.”
Echoing Churchill, President Ronald Reagan noted in a speech before Parliament, “Together, we…have come through the worst. Let us now begin a major effort to secure the best—a crusade for freedom.”
What was true in the aftermath of World War II and throughout the Cold War remains just true today: The United States and the United Kingdom must work together.