Following years of a discreet but increasing British military presence in the regions ‘East of Suez’, the British tilt to the Indo-Pacific officially comes as policy in 2021.
Establishing Britain as the European country with the most prominent military presence in the region within a decade is its main objective.
This is an opinion piece, please note that the opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect that of the UK Defence Journal.
An ambitious goal but not beyond Britain’s resources.
On 16 March 2021, the British Government published its long-awaited ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age: Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy‘, or simply Integrated Review. One week later, the Ministry of Defence released a Command Paper, named Defence in a Competitive Age, outlining the changes and how the Armed Forces would meet the objectives of the Integrated Review.
However, an important announcement given in November 2020 had already disclosed preliminary information about the future budget of the Ministry of Defence. According to the Prime Minister, the British defence budget would receive an additional £16.5bn over four years, resulting in a 2024 budget roughly £7bn higher than it would have been without the November announcement. Even without the first effects of this decision, the annual report of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) indicated that Britain’s defence spending had surpassed Russia’s spending in 2020, reaching US$61.5bn, only behind the United States (738bn), China (193.3bn) and India (64.1bn).
The Review seemed to have room for decisions while establishing a new strategy for the country in a “Competitive Age” without significant defence cuts, delays or ambiguity. Despite that, it is worth noting that the British defence budget has been facing successive funding problems since the 1990s. In the early 2000s, Britain had already reduced its defence spending by more than 35% since the end of the Cold War and engaged in several military operations overseas.
While the ‘peace dividend’ cuts of the early 1990s were not exclusively a British decision within NATO, the new military commitments and operations increasingly pressured the shrinking budget. The Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 and the subsequent austerity-driven 2010 Defence Review only aggravated the situation of the Armed Forces. Thus, although the £16.5bn increase remains positive news, what the Integrated Review could deliver remained relatively constrained by enduring funding issues.
Throughout the Integrated Review and the Command Paper, some specific decisions can be highlighted. Foreign policy objectives and statements include maintaining a productive relationship with the European Union while having in the United States its most important bilateral partner and ally. The document identifies Russia as the” most acute” threat to the UK and takes a lighter note on China compared to Russia.
The East Asian country is a “systemic challenge” to British security while indicating that London does not discard a positive economic relationship between the two nations. In addition, the Review indicates the British Government’s willingness to maintain the UK as the “leading European member” of NATO and strengthen the Five Eyes, an intelligence alliance comprising the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.
Most of these points have been present in previous defence reviews.
Nevertheless, the 2021 Integrated Review brings a new foreign policy objective: Within a decade, the UK must be “deeply engaged” in the Indo-Pacific region, having the most significant and most persistent presence in the region than any other European country. The British Government calls this aim a “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific. Considering that the United Kingdom never truly withdrew from “East of Suez”, performing an incomplete retreat in 1971, the country has the potential to expand on existing assets and partnerships to achieve its goal.
However, if London wants the position of the most considerable military presence of a European country in the Indo-Pacific, it must look at France and its territories throughout the area. French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Wallis and Fortuna, and Réunion offer different degrees of military utility to France, granting the French Government a relatively comfortable strategic position in the Mozambique Channel and the Pacific Ocean. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), in 2020, excluding the French presence in Djibouti (1,450 personnel) and the United Arab Emirates (650), France had 4,050 troops throughout its overseas departments in the region. Considering the military presence in Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates, France crosses the mark of 6,000 troops “East of Suez”.
In 2019, the French ministry of defence (Ministère des Armées) published a report titled “France and Security in the Indo-Pacific”, which indicated that the number of French personnel in the region was 6,940 troops.
On the other hand, the UK has the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) and the remote Pitcairn Islands. The IISS states that London has only a permanent military presence in the BIOT – also known as Diego Garcia, its largest island – while the four islands that constitute the Pitcairn territory have no military presence. Pitcairn Island is home to 40 to 50 inhabitants, being the world’s least populated national jurisdiction. The island has five km² (1.9 sq mi), while the whole territory has no more than 47 km² (18 sq mi). In addition, its distant location and volcanic geography make it unviable for military purposes.
Between 2000 and 2020, the British military only visited the islands twice. A deployment occurred in September 2000 through HMS Sutherland and RFA Bayleaf, and the last one happened almost two decades later, in January 2019, when HMS Montrose reached the territory following a visit to Chile. The absence of a regular British military presence in the vicinity leaves Pitcairn dependent on ships from the French and New Zealand navies for patrolling duties. For example, in March 2018, months before HMS Montrose patrolled the waters around the possession, the French coastal patrol vessel (Arago) assigned to French Polynesia performed similar duties.
Operating on Diego Garcia, there is the “British Forces British Indian Ocean Territories”. The island is considered a Permanent Joint Operating Base (PJOB) residence, having in the 40-50 members of the Naval Party 1002 the majority of the British presence on Diego Garcia. The Naval Party is responsible for the daily administration of the territory. Despite this relatively small presence, Diego Garcia is an important military asset to Britain and the United States. Following a deal between London and Washington in 1971 that allowed the Americans to build a large airbase and harbour capable of receiving American aircraft carriers, an Anglo-American base operates on the territory’s main island. Although the United States is the main user of the military installations, Britain does not need American authorisation to use the base.
Therefore, in the most favourable estimates, the British Government bolster no more than 50 personnel permanently deployed on its territories East of Suez. However, Britain has a more persistent military presence in regional partner nations than France. In 2020, Britain had a military presence in Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Singapore, Brunei, and Kenya. The British military presence in Bahrain is roughly 160 troops, plus a naval presence in the Persian Gulf that forms the long-standing Operation Kipion. Since the mid-2010s, at least one frigate, one RFA vessel and four mine countermeasures vessels have been forming this British naval presence in the Gulf. This force of six ships represents the largest British naval presence East of Suez.
Nevertheless, London has been planning to replace its mine hunters and countermeasures vessels with autonomous systems leaving unclear the future characteristics of its presence in the Persian Gulf. According to a statement dating from November 2020 by the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, the five new Type 32 frigates mentioned by the Integrated Review are intended to have some form of “mothership” role for the new autonomous systems.
France has three D’Entrecasteaux-class patrol vessels (or “multi-mission ship”, each ship has an empty displacement of 1,500 tonnes and length of 65 metres) and four Floréal-class frigates (“surveillance frigates”, designed for low-threat environments, displacing 2,500 tonnes and initially armed with surface-to-surface Exocet missiles). In 2014, the Floréal frigates had their Exocet launchers removed as the missile’s life cycle ended, and the French Government had no intentions of procuring a replacement. Despite that, each ship of the class has one 100 mm CADAM turret and two 20 mm modèle F2 guns. Therefore, the British presence in the Gulf almost rivals the French naval forces spread throughout the Indo-Pacific, but securing the freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf is the strategic focus and rationale backing Operation Kipion. Thus, the Operation is more involved with Middle East matters than the Indo-Pacific.
Beyond Bahrain and its naval forces in the Gulf, Britain has one Gurkha Infantry Battalion based in Brunei. In total, the number of British forces in the Southeast Asian country is roughly 2,000. Military infrastructure such as the vast training centre for jungle warfare consolidates Brunei as one of Britain’s closest partners throughout the region. Additionally, there are 350 troops in Kenya, 200 in the United Arab Emirates, around 100 in Oman, and 50 members of the Naval Party 1022 in Singapore.
Considering that the UK Joint Logistics Support Base (UKJLSB) in Oman has been subject to expansions since its official opening in late 2018, the number of personnel deployed there has not reached its peak. Amongst the plans for increased local capabilities, the British Government announced in September 2020 that the Support Base would be tripled in size. During and after the 2021 Carrier Strike Group deployment to the Indo-Pacific, the British military base in Oman is set to increase in importance and numbers of personnel.
It is worth noting that since 2019 the UKJLSB has been one of two bases maintained by London in Oman. Envisaging the enhancement of British and Omani military interoperability and training, Britain established a joint training area in the country. With its 4,000 square kilometres (1,500 square miles), the Omani-British Joint Training Area has assumed the position of the largest training field used by the British Army, larger than the Training Unit Suffield (BATUS) in Canada.
Moreover, since the 2010s a detachment of 60 British officers from the Army has been stationed in Nepal recruiting Gurkhas. In 2020, the total number of British troops permanently based East of Suez was 2,860. These numbers include Kenya and Bahrain and exclude the recruiting team in Nepal and the crew of British ships in the Gulf. When considering the crew of these vessels, the total would not reach the mark of 3,400 troops throughout the Indo-Pacific.
Accordingly, at least in quantitative measurement, Britain’s military presence in the Indo-Pacific is less than half of France’s. If the British Government desires to have the most capable European military presence in the area, the French indicates what Britain needs to consider and surpass.
Thus, at first sight, Britain is lagging behind France in the race for the position of the “foremost European military presence in the Indo-Pacific”. However, since the 2014 announcement that the Royal Navy would re-open its naval base in Bahrain, the British military presence – or at least the military infrastructure – have been expanding. Adding to the Naval Support Facility (HMS Jufair) in Bahrain, Britain reproached Oman in 2018, establishing the previously mentioned training and naval bases in the country.
In December 2018, the then Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, declared that the Government was looking for two new permanent military bases in the Caribbean and South-East Asia. Singapore and Brunei were reported to be the future sites of those bases. Despite the lack of information concerning the unfolding of this policy, the statement should be seen through the context of an increasing desire in London to perform a “British return to East of Suez” even though Britain never completely left the region. An indication of this continued presence is that both considered locations for new military bases – Singapore and Brunei – already have different forms of British military presence.
Therefore, when the 2021 Integrated Review and Command Paper laid the foundations of how the country will achieve its Indo-Pacific goal, the two documents are simply formalising a strategic tendency present in London since at least 2014. In the short term and bearing in mind the characteristics of the French position in the region, the decisions of the Command Paper seem unable to achieve the Government’s objectives, but after 2023, this military presence will expand if the current plans are followed without cutbacks.
The permanent deployment of a Batch 2 River-class patrol vessel in 2021 is the primary short-term improvement to the British naval forces in the Indo-Pacific. In the late 2020s or early 2030s – but no earlier than 2027 – Type 31 frigates are going to be permanently based in the region, patrolling the British Overseas Territories and paying visits to friendly nations. By 2023, Britain will have established a Littoral Response Group (LRG) permanently based in the Indian Ocean. On 19 May 2021, the Royal Navy confirmed that the plans for the LRG designed it to be a permanent deployment. This LRG is the second of two Littoral Response Group; the first is assigned to Northern Europe and includes one Albion-class amphibious transport dock vessel, one Type 23 frigate, and one Bay-class landing ship dock of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Additionally, according to the Royal Navy, the first LRG operates “Wildcat helicopters from 847 Naval Air Squadron and Royal Marines from 45 and 30 Commando”. In total, this force can deploy roughly 1,000 sailors and Royal Marines.
Beyond that, the Review and Command Paper declare that the country will have a more persistent presence regionally, having frequent naval deployments and training exercises with local partners. The Carrier Strike Group fulfils one of these “more persistent” deployments while temporarily overshadowing the French presence in the region. The British Government also indicates its desire to transform and deepen its bilateral relations with India and Japan, two important regional actors. In spite of that, according to the Government, the partners “at the heart” of the British tilt will be Canada, Australia and New Zealand “as we work to support them to tackle the security challenges in the region”. Lastly, through the Command Paper, London recognises the relevance of the partnership with Oman and the centrality of the British Indian Ocean Territory for future operations.
Thus, within the background of increasing Great Power competition, the decisions of the British Government display a willingness to “return” Britain as a relevant strategic actor in the Indo-Pacific. Although still facing the consequences of years of austerity-driven cuts, the growing defence budget is a positive base for the current ambitions in a region that Britain will be competing with other Great Powers for relevance while defending its security and economic interests.
Achieving the position of the foremost European military presence in the Indo-Pacific is not beyond Britain’s resources. During the next decade, the lack of resolve of the British Government might be the greatest threat to the success of this tilt, even though the security and stability of the Indo-Pacific are increasingly intertwined with Britain’s security and prosperity.