A striking feature of much online debate regarding the defence of the UK is that it is conducted in abstraction, with little or any concern for the very real and fundamental constraints and, yes, opportunities, that form the essential framework for British defence policies.
So this is an attempt to summarise those fundamental realities.
To ensure thoroughness, it starts with the obvious (geography) and then moves on to the less well-known facts (demographic, economic, industrial and historical). Some will find nothing here that they didn’t already know. Others, however, may be very surprised by what they read.
To start then: the UK is an island nation, occupying most of the archipelago known as the British Isles. This is composed of more than 6 000 islands, of which the two biggest are Great Britain and Ireland. The UK occupies most of the archipelago, including all of Great Britain and the north-east of Ireland. The British Isles lie off the coast of North West Europe, in the Atlantic Ocean and its subsidiary seas (the Irish Sea, the North Sea) and straits. The Atlantic is a famously stormy ocean, and so are most of its subsidiary seas. These waters both directly link the UK to, and insulate (not isolate) it from, a huge swathe of the world. The Atlantic and North Sea also give access to the Baltic and Mediterranean and their littoral countries, as well as to the Arctic Ocean and its littoral countries (which include Russia).
The Atlantic also gives access, directly and indirectly, to the other great oceans of the world. In nautical terms, Argentina, Canada, Russia and South Africa, and every country in between, are neighbours of Britain.
The UK retains a number of mostly island overseas territories, including Gibraltar, Ascension, St Helena, the Falkland Islands (plus South Georgia and the South Sandwich Isalnds), Tristan da Cunha and Anguilla, Bermuda , British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos Islands (all in the Atlantic or Caribbean), Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean (where the US has a base), Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as Pitcairn Island in the Pacific. Many, but not all, of these territories have airports or air bases. Britain, of course, is responsible for their defence.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the UK population in mid-2018 was 66.4-million. This is forecast to rise to 69.4-million by mid-2028, more than 70-million by mid-2031 and 72.4-million by mid-2043. According to “World Population Review”, the British population is the 21st biggest in the world. In Western and Central Europe, only Germany has a larger population. The same source states that the UK is the 49th most densely populated country in the world (at 279 people per square kilometre) – Germany ranked 60th, Italy 70th, China 80th, France 94th, and the US 174th(1). So, although Britain’s population is not huge, it is, by global standards, pretty substantial.
The UK population is composed 51% of women/girls and 49% of men/boys. This is not a trivial matter. History shows that British women are strongly committed to the defence of their land and people, but women also tend to be reluctant to support pre-emptive wars. To adopt nuclear jargon, women are generally against first strike operations but will strongly support second strike operations. Like it or not, future defence policies, postures and operations will have to be justified in ways acceptable to women. In this regard, the significant increase in the number of women experts in defence, military history and strategic studies should be noted.
In nominal US dollar terms (that is, converted from sterling to dollars using the exchange rate between the two currencies) the UK has the sixth largest economy in the world. In purchasing power parity (PPP) terms (which eliminate exchange rate fluctuations but which have other issues), the British economy is the ninth biggest in the world. Either way, it is a top ten economy. In terms of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, the UK ranks 23rd (2). The economy is composed predominantly of services (more than 75%), with manufacturing and production (not just manufacturing – see below) contributing less than 21% and agriculture less that 0.6% (3). (Despite its small contribution to national GDP, British agriculture produces 60% of the country’s food needs. It does so even though it only employs less than 2% of the labour force (4)).
The state of British manufacturing is much misunderstood by those outside the sector. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, in both 2016 and 2018 the UK was the world’s number nine manufacturer. Germany was fourth, Italy seventh and France eighth in both years (5). The manufacturing sector contributes 11% of Britain’s gross value added (GVA (6)) and employs 2.7-million people (7).
The British automotive industry has an annual turnover of £71.6-billion and directly employs more than 169 000 people. The British electronics industry, however, employs more than 800 000 people, has an annual turnover of £78-billion and is the world’s fifth largest in terms of production. The defence industry contributes 142 000 direct jobs, and an annual turnover of £24-billion. The chemicals industry directly employs 105 000 people and the pharmaceuticals sector another 53 000; together, they add £15.2-billion to the British economy every year and jointly they form the country’s largest manufacturing export sector. The plastics industry is responsible for more than 170 000 direct jobs, with an annual turnover of £23.5-billion. The nuclear sector contributes more than 63 000 direct jobs and can supply more than 80% of the work needed to build new nuclear power plants. The space industry is responsible for more than 34 000 direct jobs and has an annual turnover of £11-billion. The final example of a leading British manufacturing sector is perhaps the most surprising of all: textiles and fashion. This sector provides 340 000 direct jobs and adds more than £11.5-billion to the UK economy every year. It is also the third largest fashion employer in Europe, after Italy and Germany (8). Note that five of these eight sectors (electronics, defence, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, nuclear and space) are indisputably high-technology sectors, while two (automotive and plastics) are at least partially high-technology.
British industry is 21st century industry.
The UK services sector is even less understood than the manufacturing sector. The list of economic activities covered by this category is very large. The Office for National Statistics includes, under this rubric, health, education, wholesale, retail, maintenance, transport (air, land, water, warehousing, postal and courier), accommodation and food and beverage services, information and communications (including computer programming, telecommunications, broadcasting, publishing), professional and scientific and technical activities (including accountancy and auditing, engineering and architectural, legal, and scientific research and development), administrative and support activities (including business support, rental, services to buildings, security), creative and entertainment activities, gambling, real estate, and financial and insurance services.
Note that the Merchant Navy and the country’s airliner fleets are part of the services sector. At the end of 2019, the UK-registered merchant fleet totalled 1.5-million gross tons (excluding all vessels of 100 gross tons or less) making it the 24th largest in the world. But the British Merchant Navy is much more than the UK-registered ships. It also includes all the vessels registered in the Crown Dependencies (the Isle of Man, Guernsey, Jersey) and British overseas territories (Bermuda, Caribbean islands, the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar). The UK and these territories together form the “Red Ensign Group” and their combined merchant fleet is the tenth largest in the world, with a total deadweight tonnage of 50.2-million tons.
Nearly half this total is registered in the Isle of Man.
According to the UK Department of International Trade, exports of both goods and services accounted for 31.5% of British GDP in 2019, and imports for 32.7%, meaning that trade was responsible for 64.3% of the country’s GDP. Trade with the European Union (EU) accounted for 47.3% of total British trade, with trade with non-EU countries amounting to 52.7% (10).
Given that economics is the basis of national power, I would argue that all the world’s top ten economic powers, whether measured in nominal or PPP terms, should be regarded as significant powers, but that those countries which are in the top ten when measured in both these terms can be classified as major powers. The countries in the top ten in both rankings are (in alphabetical order, with their nominal and then PPP rankings) Brazil (9th, 8th), China (2nd, 1st), France (7th, 10th), Germany (4th, 5th), India (5th, 3rd), Japan (3rd, 4th), the UK (6th, 9th), and the US (1st, 2nd). The countries that appear in the top ten only in the nominal list are Italy (ranked 8th) and Canada (10th). Their counterparts on the PPP list are Indonesia (7th) and Russia (6th)(11).
These countries, of course, are far from equal. The US still remains the sole superpower, although China is gaining on it. China, France, India and the UK have nuclear weapons. China, France and the UK have credible second strike capability, India does not yet, dropping it into a lower league. While the US alone has large-scale global intervention capability, China, France and the UK have significant long-range intervention capability, well beyond their home regions, but not global (except in cooperation with allies or, nationally, with only small, if not token, forces). India does not. Nor does Japan, Germany, Brazil (although Brazil has power projection capabilities within its home region of South America/South Atlantic).
To China, France and the UK must be added Russia, because of its possession of the second most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world and its significant (but again, not global) power projection capabilities. All four of these countries also have near-global diplomatic reach and (except for Russia) near global economic interests. I would argue that these four countries should be classified as “hemispheric powers”. Germany, Japan, Brazil (and Canada, Indonesia(12) and Italy) would rank as medium powers (with India as a “medium power plus”), along with most (if not all) of the countries ranked as having the world’s 11th to 20th biggest economies.
From economics to history: England/Britain/UK has usually fought its major wars by means of coalitions, often taking the junior role on land and the senior role at sea. Britain fought against France, from the reign of Louis XIV down to that of Napoleon, by creating alliance coalitions. Likewise, Britain fought the Crimean War as part of a coalition, with France, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and Sardinia.
The British troops in the Crimea were part of a coalition army. The UK fought both the First and Second World Wars as a member of coalitions. Britain fought the Korean War (1950-1953) as a member of a coalition, and the 1956 Suez operation was an Anglo-French (with covert cooperation with Israel) affair. Yet again, the UK fought in the 1990-1991 Gulf and 2003-2011 Iraq Wars as a member of coalitions. The 1982 Falklands War, against quasi-peer foe Argentina, was a rare aberration. Finally, of course, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and, in Far East, the Five Power Defence Agreement, are coalitions. Probably the last major war Britain fought against a peer enemy without being in a coalition was the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667), more than 350 years ago!
This combination of geographic, demographic and economic facts, including the high-technology 21st century nature of most of British industry, suggest that a defence policy centred on sea power and airpower plays to Britain’s strengths (being high in technology and low in personnel demands, as well as highly flexible), as does a policy of quality over quantity. (To give only the most obvious example, how on earth is the UK, or even the US, expected to contest with China in quantitative terms?) And creating and maintaining an army designed to fight peer foes as part of a coalition is exactly what Britain has done, with great success, for centuries.
- https//:worldpopulationreview.com accessed 11/04/2020
- www.investopedia.com/insights/worlds-top-economies/ (last updated 18/03/2020) accessed 12/04/2020
- “How the UK makes money” www.investopedia.com (accessed 12/04/2020)
- The ranking for 2016 cited by www.themanufacturer.com/uk-manufacturing-statistics/ (accessed 12/04/2020); the 2018 ranking from the World Economic Forum “These are the top 10 manufacturing countries in the world”, published 25/02/2020, www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/02/countries-manufacturing-trade-exports-economics/ (accessed 16/02/2021).
- GVA is defined (by www.investopedia.com/terms/g/gross-value-added.asp) as the measure providing monetary value for the amount of goods and services that have been produced in a country minus the cost of all inputs and raw materials that are directly attributable to that production.
- www.themanufacturer.com/uk-manufacturing-statistics/ (accessed 12/04/2020)
- See www.ons.gov.uk (accessed 12/04/2020) and Department of Transport “Shipping Fleet Statistics: 2019” published on 15 April 2020 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/884887/shipping-fleet-statistics-2019.pdf, accessed 31/05/2020.
- Department of International Trade “Trade and Investments Core Statistics Book” https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/878294/200227_Trade_and_Investment_Core_Statistics_Book.pdf and “UK Trade in Numbers February 2020”
- CIA The World Factbook, op.cit., Investopedia.com (worlds top economies) op.cit.
- Indonesia is powerful enough to apparently not be intimidated by China and to push back against Chinese incursions into its exclusive economic zone. See BenarNews “Indonesia: Jokowi Vows to Enforce Maritime Rights amid China Tensions” Radio Free Asia, www.rfa.org/english/news/china/indonesia-natuna-01082020155021.html, accessed 24/05/2020.