To be cut? Royal Marine commandos coming ashore during a major exercise in the Baltic where Russia is increasingly seen as a danger. Photo: US Navy.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s priorities for the next decade – his so-called ‘golden age’ for Britain – were set out in the Queen’s Speech at the opening of a new Parliamentary session in December. The speech and the debate afterwards promised 36 bills – many of them initiatives that have been held up by the three-year deadlock over Brexit in Parliament. Defence came last, like an apologetic footnote.

In the final paragraph there was a commitment to an ‘Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review’, which, after a pause caused by the COVID-19 pandemic (to assess likely direction as the UK weathers human and economic misery) is now underway again.

The signs do not look promising, with a national newspaper report  suggesting the amphibious forces could be gutted and the RAF’s airlift capabilities hacked back. The Army will supposedly lose 19,000 soldiers alongside a potentially rather premature discarding of the entire Royal Navy mine-hunter force. The latter continues to provide a reassuring presence and do very valuable work around the globe. For example, the mine-hunters clear up unexploded mines in European waters and ensure the strategically important Strait of Hormuz stays open.

Under threat: A Royal Navy mine-hunter leads a coalition group in Arabian waters, helping to ensure sea lanes stay open for trade. Photo: US Navy.

The peerless 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines – which led the fight to retrieve the Falklands in 1982, spearheaded the UK part of 2003 invasion of Iraq and fought valiantly against the Taliban in Afghanistan – will supposedly be broken up. Its amphibious ships, which can perform so many valuable roles for the UK, will be decommissioned at the very moment nations with global interests – like the Global Britain that Bo Jo desires – are expanding their fleets of such vessels.

In effect, the alleged proposed cuts would discard the UK’s ability to project conventional power around the world, abandoning the ability to rescue British citizens from war zones, while removing its best means of guaranteeing the delivery of Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HA/DR) into devastated regions. Or on the homeland front, to provide the NHS with offshore medical and logistical support to fight coronavirus if asked.

Gone also would be the British ability to contribute significantantly to a coalition campaign on land, in the air or at sea, with the UK slumping to the status of a malformed military weakling with imbalanced forces – bloated at one end with nuclear missile submarines and strike carriers while being malnourished at the other, with hardly any tanks, ships, aircraft or troops.

NATO Allies Abandoned by UK ‘Space Cadets’

Taking massive gambles by discarding whole capabilities, such cuts would, for example, remove the best options for reinforcing and defending NATO’s northern flank ashore at a time of rising Russian military presence in the Arctic. They would wipe away the ability to deploy rapid reaction forces to protect the many British Overseas Territories and enable Britain to pull its weight in elements of collective security.

The suggestion has been made by anonymous sources that the UK government’s commitment to devoting two per cent of GDP to Defence will be achieved by discarding the aforementioned key elements of the UK Armed Forces, so money can be poured into ‘Space’ and ‘Cyber Defence’.

As has been pointed out before by this magazine, two per cent of GDP is the minimum NATO requires, not the actual target a nation should aim for in order to meet its defence needs. To describe the process of fulfilling this unambitious target in such weasel-worded fashion – meeting ‘the two per cent promised in the Tory manifesto’ – is an insult to our intelligence and worrying sign of Defence unreality at the heart of government.

Nobody would argue against a need to invest in these areas or in drones and A.I. – because Britain’s likely foes are doing the same – but to suggest that maintaining the minimum spend required by NATO is possible via what is, in effect, wholesale disarmament is one of the nuttiest propositions ever.

Not needed? The amphibious warfare vessel HMS Albion making a successful defence diplomacy visit to Japan while also upholding maritime security in Asia-Pacific. Photo: US Navy. Photo: US Navy.

Boris the Wrecker

If the cuts proposals are to be believed, while recovering from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic the UK is on the cusp of further hollowing out its Armed Forces. They are already a shadow of their former selves due to endless, debilitating defence cuts since 1991, with deep problems that in war will be found out swiftly by enemies. The UK is heading off at a potentially catastrophic tangent at a time when Russia and China are expanding their military hard power, not least investing in the very capabilities the UK may discard.

Britain does face a major economic crisis, but such cuts would be madness while confronted with rising hard power threats. They cannot be met by reckless disarmament in the very areas likely foes are strengthening, whether it is amphibious forces and airlift, Cyber and A.I. It is all needed and maybe two per cent of GDP is just not enough? Boris Johnson wants the UK to ‘build, build, build’ its way out of this tricky situation but apparently, when it comes to the military, he (or his advisors) favour ‘wreck, wreck, wreck.’

Cutting the Forces Enemies are Boosting

Should the cuts outlined in the newspaper story come to pass, the UK will be putting up a white flag and inviting malign actors around the world to come and targets its strategic weaknesses. It will get rid of some key capabilities that underpin the UK’s global position and security. It is the height of arrogant foolery to expect NATO allies to provide all the heavy-lifting while your cyber warriors sit on their backsides in some office drinking coffee and theorising about ‘space frontiers.’

Good luck with deterring an adversary from taking a slice of British territory, and you’ll stand no chance of getting any of it back – and why should NATO allies sacrifice the very hard power capabilities you have binned to save the UK’s skin? Why on earth would a single Dutch, French or Italian amphibious ship, along with its crew and marines, be worth risking to help the UK out when it cannot help itself?

Likewise, no nerd at a keyboard or ‘space cadet’ can deliver aid to a hurricane or earthquake-stricken part of the world, tend to the sick or evacuate people to safety. For that you need Hercules aircraft, amphibious warships with landing craft, helicopters and hospital facilities along with the ability to transport tonnes of supplies and fresh water. Oh, and highly trained people and plenty of them – people who can offer the hand of mercy while also being prepared to enforce law and order when it breaks down due to chaos in the wake of natural disaster.

Not much use? One of HMS Albion’s landing craft sending vehicles and equipment ashore, demonstrating the sort of utility that can be drawn upon in the wake of a natural disaster or during a war. Photo: US Navy.

Johnson’s Legacy of Strategic Defeat Beckons

Paper tiger Britain will be laughed at around the world by enemies and ignored by allies, while those dependencies that have seen it as offering security and succour will know it cannot be totally relied upon any more. Nobody will take such an under-funded, poorly equipped, ill-suited military seriously. When it comes to real Defence, in peacetime crisis or wartime conflagration, the UK will be about as useful as chocolate fireguard.

Boris Johnson’s hero is said to be Winston Churchill. Should these barking mad proposals come to pass Boris will be regarded as the biggest, most blundering villain. Bo Jo will be forever remembered as a hopeless leader who lost the Defence plot, leaving a legacy of declining global status, military irrelevance and likely strategic defeat.

Minor elements of this commentary were published in the February 2020 edition of WARSHIPS IFR. Iain Ballantyne is the Editor of WARSHIPS IFR and Peter Hore its Associate Editor. Peter is also a former Head of Defence Studies in the Royal Navy.
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