The British are coming (back)
11 Dec 2015|

HMS Queen Elizabeth following her naming ceremony conducted at Rosyth Dockyard.

It’s been 40 years since a UK defence review meant much to Australia and the Asia–Pacific, but the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, released last month, signals a sea change. In it, the UK not only commits to increasing its contribution to the apparently ageless Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), but makes an explicit promise to include its new aircraft carriers in future FPDA exercises.

Why does this matter? Because, for the first time since 1979, the UK is about to acquire a viable, independent, strike-carrier capability; which the government says will be second only to the United States Navy. When operational, this carrier force will constitute a new fact in the global distribution of naval power. And for FPDA members—long used to token UK interest—the ships herald a changed equation.

As the review states: ‘We will increase our contribution (to the FPDA), in particular through exercises, including with our new aircraft carriers, and joint training.’ So for countries such as Australia and Singapore that invest heavily in amphibious capabilities, the promise of organic air power brings dramatically expanded scope to the exercises FPDA can conduct, and consequently the potential for FPDA as a vehicle for regional security.

The carriers in question, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, are gigantic compared with the Invincible-class ships they replace. At 70,600 tonnes, they are also 50% bigger than the Royal Navy’s previous biggest warship, the old HMS Ark Royal — whose 1979 demise signalled the effective end of independent Royal Navy operations East of Suez. When the ships commission, in 2018 and 2020 respectively, only the USN will possesses larger aircraft carriers.

What makes the 2015 strategic defence review relevant is the decision to give both ships teeth. Before the 2014 NATO summit in Cardiff, it looked doubtful if Prince of Wales would even see a commission. The Queen Elizabeth, meanwhile, sharing the fiscal attrition of all F-35 partners (including the US), prepared to welcome just 12 of the jump-jet F-35s into her capacious hanger.

Now, the UK has decisively bitten the F-35 bullet. It has committed to a full 138-aircraft purchase, and doubled its pre-2023 carrier-specific procurement. The result: the Royal Navy will get a fully-equipped, two-ship carrier force, with each ship eventually able to operate up to 36 fifth-generation jets.

Outside the NATO area, the carriers will constitute a dominating force, in almost all conceivable maritime and littoral environments. And, critically, the UK has the Sampson-equipped destroyers and high-endurance attack submarines to protect them.

This decision deserves attention in Asia–Pacific because it expresses a shift in UK security priorities. The UK’s designated expeditionary force is to be doubled to 50,000 personnel; special forces’ budgeting will also be doubled; and two new rapid-strike brigades formed. The Review creates the force structure behind the ambition for ‘… global reach and influence’. The inherent corollary: European security has finally ceased to dominate UK defence spending.

This shouldn’t shock a realist-minded analyst. The UK’s interests are shifting. The share of UK trade for which the EU accounts has fallen consistently since 1999, and is now less than 50 percent. Between 1999 and 2013, exports to non-EU countries grew at almost twice the pace of exports to EU, and whereas overall trade with EU suffers from chronic, deteriorating deficits, non-EU trade is healthily in surplus. Commercial imperatives underlie Mr. Cameron’s’ quest to build a trading future ‘in the Far East.’

Similarly the City of London is more global than at any time since the Sterling Area era. As its financial and professional services jostle New York for global pre-eminence, the ‘Asian Century’ has come to matter in Westminster. London’s enthusiasm for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (heedless of Washington’s concerns) and the offshore renminbi trade are meaningful watersheds. The UK has a vital and growing interest in the stability and security of the Asia–Pacific region.

Hence, the startlingly global outlook of the security review, which includes setting up new defence staffs in Asia–Pacific. The UK is ‘…strengthening considerably our defence, political and diplomatic cooperation with Japan, our closest security partner in Asia’. This involves building on joint counter-piracy operations with Japan, and collaborating on joint deployments — regionally and worldwide. And to make clear the UK’s trade-centric view of security, the desire to deepen defence engagement is twinned with an endorsement of opportunities for expanding UK–Japan trade and investment.

Besides Japan, Australia and New Zealand are singled out as countries with which the UK will ‘seek to strengthen co-operation on settling international and regional disputes. The commitment to ‘developing new capabilities’ with Australia could just be a tilt at the RAN’s ANZAC replacements, given growing confidence in the Type 26’s Artisan–Sea Ceptor combination But the desire to deepen security engagement with the region is a recurring theme, which new capabilities make relevant.

In practical terms, this means that when the Royal Navy sails east, FPDA members will play with multiple squadrons of sea-based strike-fighters, instead of the 8-10 Sea Harriers that maxed-out the old carriers’ decks. Australia’s two new Canberra-class amphibious ships will exercise against more aggressively-framed scenarios, and more importantly, so will the Hobart class air-warfare destroyers. And since the giant ships will carry a large, mixed bag of anti-submarine, attack, early warning and transport helicopters, the range of operations will expand too.

There are geo-strategic caveats, of course. Putin’s dreams could drag the UK back to old familiar postures. ISIL loomed large in the Review’s media spin—though terrorists are more afraid of ridicule than retaliation, a lesson the UK learned in Ireland. And the F-3B itself has much to prove—though its target-finding finesse plus other vehicles’ missiles looks a formidable combination.

For Australia, the re-emergence of expeditionary UK doctrines—backed by interest, not sentiment—should provoke some forward-thinking. Relationships in Southeast Asia are changing. The assumptions that underpin the China Rising narrative may or may not survive that country’s epic macro-financial tangles. But the UK’s naval build up, at the front end of its own economic cycle, offer opportunities for Australia. And new facts to play with.