A Tilt Too Far? UK Defence and Security Policy Post-Brexit

6 Feb 2022

We are pleased to reprint below a copy of a speech made by our Executive Member Graham Jones to the Oxford Branch of the United Nations Association

When Daniel suggested I might like to talk about Britain's new relationship with the rest of Europe, as Chair of Oxford Region of the European Movement and a member of the Movements' National Council, I thought it might be useful to focus on one aspect, and to do so in a way that allowed discussion. Half of us wanted to stay in the EU in 2016. Half of us didn't and my side lost. The narrowness of the vote ensures the issue remains historically unsettled, but for now and perhaps for the next ten to twenty years our future lies outside one iteration of Europe, the European Movement. Our involvement in others continues, from the Council of Europe to the European Broadcasting Union. Everywhere our presence is valued, and nowhere more so than in NATO, which for all that it appears dominated from the other side of the Pond is essential, with a very few exceptions, a defensive alliance of the nation states of our Continent.

How appropriate that we are having this discussion after Remembrance Sunday. One mistake among Remainers has been to assert our own patriotism while dismissing that of Leavers as xenophobia. No section of the British people has more right to feel attached to the flag than those communities, many of them in Left Behind towns in post-industrial regions, who have sent generations of their sons to fight and die in foreign fields. That such areas voted heavily to leave the European Union was not unconnected with a sense of patriotism derived largely from deep-rooted pride in the armed services.

Engaging with the military at key points over the past fifty-plus years, it's impossible not to be impressed by their professionalism and their grit. Every person in this room has family memories that testify to that. My paternal grandfather had two recurring nightmares: in one his platoon was pinned down on the beach at Gallipoli, the other was seeing his best friend's head blown off on the Somme. Last week I talked with someone who survived the fatal blowing-up of his armoured vehicle in Helmand. It took me back to conversations with Simon Weston, telling what it was like in the inferno on board Sir Galahad, and with tank crews before and after the liberation of Kuwait and hearing how one group were affected by the sight of what remained of the crew of a destroyed Iraqi tank. Experiencing an armoured car patrol down Pineapple, i.e. Grenade Alley in the Aden Emergency is the closest I've ever come to bombs and bullets, but it left me with huge respect reinforced many times, whether in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, or in Berlin, struggling into nuclear and biological warfare gear, taking the controls of a Challenger battle-tank, or riding a Chinook down the East German death strip.

Our new aircraft carriers, Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, have Stealth radar protection and the latest armoured steel, but they and their crews remain slow-moving floating targets. Many would argue the ¬£18 billion would have been better spent elsewhere, but they're now in service and the issue is where their naval and airforce crews are best deployed.

Earlier this year the transatlantic think tank the German Marshall Foundation arranged a panel discussion in which two senior US generals, both of them having served as White House advisers, discussed their new book Future War and the Defence of Europe.

Gen John Allen is president of the Brookings Institute and former commander of US forces in Afghanistan; Lt Gen Ben Hodges is a former commander of the US Army in Europe. One thing they were agreed struck me as highly significant for this country: the US, they told us, can no longer guarantee to its European allies that it has the capacity to conduct operations on two fronts at once.

It should come as no surprise that a question from the floor was about Britain's contribution to future operations in which the two nations saw themselves responding to common threats.

If the US, with more than 1,400 F35 fighter/strike aircraft, was stretched to deal with crises in two global theatres at the same time, what hope had Britain, still waiting to complete her order for 48? Queen Elizabeth, as we well know, sailed to Guam and back this summer with American F35s on its flight deck.

The answer from Generals Allen and Hodges was that Washington would probably be advising the UK to concentrate on Europe and the North Atlantic.

But that does not seem to be the thrust of the Prime Minister's position on defence policy, which is much more about Global Britain and the tilt to the Indo- or Asia-Pacific.

The German Marshall panel event was in May. Since then we have had Conservative MPs with military service close to tears in the Commons over the ignominious Afghan debacle. Even more recently we've had the diplomatic fall-out over the AUKUS deal. Then the day after Armistice Day, the Daily Telegraph's lead story was that US defence chiefs were warning that Russia might invade Ukraine... even as we are still digesting the dangers of the migrant and asylum-seekers stand-off between Belarus and her NATO neighbours, against the backdrop of Russia's stranglehold on gas supplies.

What if China decided to invade Taiwan in the same week that Putin decided to annexe the Donbas? Generals Allen and Hodges say that would leave the US in a very difficult position. More to the point for us, where would it leave the UK? Hence my question for discussion: Is the UK's tilt to the Indo-Pacific a tilt too far?

A further key question for you as a branch of the United Nations Association is the issue's relevance to the UN's concerns, one easily answered by Britain's continued membership of the Security Council, whose prime purpose since the UN's founding has been the resolution of disputes in pursuance of world peace.

It has been part of the Government's Brexit narrative that the UK wishes to widen its focus beyond Europe. Putting aside the objection that EU membership did not prevent us from doing so, what was the Government signalling by this policy objective? Partly it had to do with the Vote Leave argument that the Asia-Pacific region's share of world trade was rising while Europe's was falling. That ignored, for example, the fact that Germany's trade with India was greater than ours, but again let that be. In more specific and tangible, as well as emotional terms, it has fitted this government's ideological stance to have Australia loom large. During and since the Brexit campaign, an 'Australian-style' trade deal was held out as a post-Brexit gain (it wasn't, despite the assertions of Liz Truss, the Trade Secretary, but again no matter), 'Australian-style' migration rules were held out as a model for our own, with the Home Secretary Priti Patel recently promoting the Australian practice of outsourcing asylum applications to some foreign shore - theirs to a guarded compound in Papua-New Guinea, ours to Ascension Island, or perhaps, in partnership with Denmark, to Rwanda) Australia's former PM Tony Abbott, criticised for his views on migration, climate, and women's and LGBT rights, was named an adviser to the UK Board of Trade last year. Australia's role in the Five Eyes secret intelligence consortium is often cited, and now the UK stands accused by her defence partner France of deceitful complicity in Australia's reneging on its submarines deal with France in order instead to buy nuclear submarines from the Americans as part of AUKUS, a defence alliance for a region which includes French possessions but about which France was kept in the dark.

This spat has wide ramifications, not least in relation to our European commitments because of the potential impact on UK-French defence cooperation, which only a decade ago was put on a higher footing with the Lancaster House treaty of 2010. That arrangement is based on the premise that two nations with shared values (not to mention shared history) can improve their defensive capabilities by mutual dependence: each provides a plank that saves the other the cost of providing it for themselves. It has also produced the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force, 10,000 personnel from the three services including two infantry brigades, a British and a French, under a single command and on constant standby for independent action across a range of scenarios. It is now, from this year, fully operational.

Rear-Admiral Luc Pages, a former French defence attaché in London, speaking at an Oxford Strategic Studies seminar very recently, pointed out other, no less important aspects of the Lancaster House treaty: Nuclear cooperation (the two countries have conducted their nuclear tests in common for the past 50 years to save on the enormous cost); an annual joint planning conference, from procurement teams to general staffs; a complex industrial web including a centre of excellence; and high-value weapon development with either the UK or France in the lead.

Admiral Pages was quick to point out how much the success of such cooperation relies on political willingness, as it does with the UK's other partnership within NATO, the UK Joint Expeditionary Force. This delivers joint exercises, inter-operability, planning, and procurement with a group of Scandinavian states which includes Sweden, significant given that country's historic neutrality.

Yet one sees little to contradict the admiral's conclusion, echoed by panellists from defence institutes in both countries, that a result of Brexit, now exacerbated by AUKUS, has been a loss of trust between the UK and its European allies generally and, crucially, with France in particular. Indeed that was already evident during the Trade and Cooperation Agreement negotiations, and it is clearly on display as we speak, whether over fishing rights or the Northern Ireland Protocol. In case anyone doubts that trust matters in international defence and security arrangements, let me quote a remark made by a very senior US general to a group of us visiting Supreme Headquarters Allied Forces Europe. He was convinced that the existence of the European Union added materially to NATO's effectiveness. Why? Because politicians and officials of different nationalities involved in NATO policy worked together in other settings week in, week out, regardless of party and which member state they represented.

One wonders to what extent the UK's Prime Minister believes his own rhetoric, whether mocking the French with 'Donnez-moi un break' or blaming the EU for dragging its feet over Northern Ireland while delaying the launch of the TCA Parliamentary Assembly and its committees, intended to oil the wheels of resolution. Reading the government's recent Integrated Defence Review, for which he signed the Foreword, one notices that the word 'Europe' occurs 59 times, while Indo-Pacific occurs 34 times. The UK, with infantry deployed on Estonia's border with Russia, is clearly committed to European defence. Indeed, the review clearly states that the UK's security focus is 'primarily on the Euro-Atlantic region'. So our question remains: can it continue to do so while also committed to backing the US on the other side of the globe?

We need to be realistic about the UK's military ranking. Setting aside our nuclear weapons, GlobalFirepower.com ranks us No. 8 behind India, Japan, South Korea, and France, and slightly ahead of Brazil and Pakistan.

Our active personnel number 195,000, while Russia could field a million-plus.

We have 119 fighters/interceptors compared with Russia's 789.

Our dedicated attack aircraft number 15 against Russia's 742.

We have 11 submarines, Russia 64.

Only in surface naval strength do we come close to, or indeed match Russia: 2 aircraft carriers (Russia 1), 6 destroyers (Russia 15), and 13 frigates (Russia 11).

Of course, if one matches Russia against the combined strength of the European members of NATO, the balance swings the other way: Russia's 4,144 aircraft of all types are outnumbered, for a start. France has 1,057, Italy 876, the UK 738, Germany 701, and so on. But NATO's effectiveness depends on things like operability, standardisation, joint procurement, and above all political will and leadership. The UK likes to lay claim to the latter, but leaders need to be trusted.

It is also the case that the nature of war is changing. Too often in the past, Britain lagged behind or failed to refresh its top commands. Now the number of infantry or aircraft matters less as we enter the age of asymmetrical warfare. Space commands may see odd to those of my generation, but this is one of the essential elements of future conflict, together with artificial intelligence and robotics.

This is another element to be considered in relation to our capacity to commit to two global fronts. And for all the importance of our historic and current European commitments, there are four major reasons why, tilt or no tilt, it might be argued that we have a duty to retain some engagement in the Indo-Pacific: in no order of priority, they are Commonwealth loyalties, freedom of navigation, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

Three of the four involve China, and an aspect of AUKUS which worries many is the possibility that we might find ourselves drawn into a shooting war with China over the independence or autonomy of Taiwan. Both world wars began in defence of a smaller nation: in 1914 it was Belgium, in 1939 Poland (and it might have been Czechoslovakia).

A Taiwanese student of politics described to me recently the state of the island's defences and the impossibility of holding out for any great of time against invasion from the mainland. A senior Sinologist in Oxford says the US will have 72 hours to decide on its response. Say Washington issues an ultimatum which is ignored; what then? Say there is a British warship, the aircraft carrier then at sea, even, within striking distance of its jets.

The same Sinologist laid out for me how Beijing sees things. China's front door opens out on the Pacific, specifically the South China Sea. From South Korea and Japan to Thailand and Indonesia she sees allies of her greatest rival, the United States. That, he says, is why China builds artificial islands in the South China Sea, past which British warships sail from time to time in defence of freedom of navigation.

The UK's tilt to the Indo-Pacific will inevitably involve us in larger and riskier commitments. Post-Covid, our capacity for public spending will be constrained. Can we afford, materially, let alone morally, to de drawn further into that theatre while allies on our doorstep are looking for a trustworthy partner in an increasingly febrile European neighbourhood? That's the question and I'm eager to hear your responses. Thank you for your kind attention.

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