The UK Defence Secretary has announced that the Royal Navy’s power projection capabilities are to increase such that Britain will have the power to defeat “any adversary” “on the seven seas of the world”.
Speaking atop the Royal Navy’s largest-ever aircraft carrier, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said that the state-of-the-art HMS Queen Elizabeth meant that Britain could now combat a vast array of threats, ranging from terrorists to nation-states, from all corners of the globe. This, he indicated, was thanks to recent government defence policy whereby participation in international exercises, new naval ship acquisitions, hikes in defence spending and new overseas bases are at the forefront of a bold new approach.
The manifestation of this global reach is perhaps most obvious in Britain’s international counter-terrorism operations. In the aftermath of the Iraqi forces’ victory in Mosul, Fallon praised the efforts of British forces in the siege of the city, even adding that it was “thanks to” Britain’s forces that so-called Islamic State had finally been driven out of Iraq’s second-largest city, after their three-year stay. Shedding light on the largely secret role of UK force elements in the fight against IS, a military project known as “Operation Shader”, the Defence Secretary explained “We have trained the Iraqi forces. Over 50,000 Iraqi troops have been trained by the British Army. The RAF have flown day and night strike operations in support of ground forces and our Royal Navy has helped guard the American carrier in the Gulf from which other strikes have been flown”.
The UK’s role in counter-terrorism operations in the region has been kept largely unknown in the public domain – the standard Whitehall approach to defence matters, and in stark contrast to French and American approaches, by which it is not uncommon to expose even the most secretive special forces operations. That said, it is thought that Britain has several naval assets in the Gulf, including but not limited to reconnaissance submarines and carrier protection vessels. In addition, British bases in Cyprus (RAF Akrotiri) and Qatar (RAF Al Udeid) have been hosting UK strike and aerial reconnaissance aircraft (both manned and unmanned) which fly day and night operations over Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, a BBC report in 2016 suggested that UK special forces were one of the most active the region, with large numbers in Syria, Iraq and Libya embarking on routine operations, details of which are strictly classified.
However, the UK’s power projection capability is growing in conventional battle theatres, too. With the construction of both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales – both of which are 65,000-ton naval “super-carriers”, the opening of new Royal Navy facilities east of Suez, primarily in Bahrain, as well as the expansion of Royal Navy deployments to the Asia-Pacific region, it would appear that Britain’s military strategy is expanding to become more outward and bold in nature. Indeed, this is in line with the UK Prime Minister’s announcement in February 2017 of her “May Doctrine” of foreign policy, whereby the promotion of British interests internationally would be at the forefront of the government’s foreign policy.
Notwithstanding, this new strategy comes at a time when British forces face new defence cuts, across the board. British Army numbers are at their lowest since the time of Oliver Cromwell. Royal Marines have seen considerable cutbacks in their strength, apparently in a bid to replace them with naval officers to man the Navy’s new carriers. The RAF’s future is also uncertain, with ambiguity as to how many F-35 jets the UK will eventually purchase and the announcement that the entire Sentinel surveillance fleet would be retired by 2020. Therefore, how Britain will manage to retain its international military footprint, let alone increase it, remains to be seen. Such deep cuts also come at a time when the West faces a global rebalancing of power, with potential foes Russia and China dramatically expanding their defence budgets and power projection capabilities.