James Rogers examines the role of a stronger Royal Navy in relation to hostile states and systemic competitors
If the geopolitics of the 20th century was primarily continental and European, the geopolitics of the 21st century appears to be increasingly maritime and global. The rise of Germany and Russia (later the Soviet Union) forced the United Kingdom to concentrate its naval and military resources on Europe, the focus of three major conflicts. The first two were waged to subdue a Germany that was geopolitically ‘revisionist’ – seeking a fundamental change in the world order. The third was pursued to contain the Soviet Union by means of a ‘continental commitment’ to Europe manifested through a treaty-based alliance: NATO.
Despite the continuing threat to British interests from Russia’s authoritarian kleptocracy, the Kremlin’s power base is far weaker than that of the Soviet empire. Likewise, the democratic reconstruction of Germany has been so successful that the UK now urges Berlin to spend more on defence, not less. And although Britain has played a vital role in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence, with more troops deployed to more NATO allies than any other ally, it is still a relatively small commitment – just 1,200 British troops in total, compared to the 55,000 in West Germany at the height of the Cold War.
Today, with the rise of the Indo-Pacific region, the geopolitical environment is increasingly maritime. What is more, the strategic centre of gravity is now further away from Britain than it was in the past. The emergence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a great regional power with revisionist intent has forced the United States, unchallenged for two decades after the Cold War, as well as Japan, Australia, France and many other countries, to review their geostrategic postures. Insofar as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) aims to revise many of the rules that gained broad international acceptance following the Cold War, the very foundations of the open international order are coming under threat.
China’s rapid industrialisation has given it considerable geoeconomic heft and geopolitical leverage. It is now the world’s largest producer of such products as steel, cars and computer parts which it is prepared to use strategically to secure its interests. The PRC is also engaged in a sweeping modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army, including its naval arm. Although the Chinese navy still trails behind the US Navy, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force and the Royal Navy in technological sophistication and projectability, more warships have been added to the Chinese fleet in recent years than have been added to the fleets of the US, UK and Japan.
If the task for British strategists in the 20th century was to marshal British power to deal with the rise of Germany and the Soviet Union in Central and Eastern Europe, their task today is to deter the Kremlin from destabilising Eastern Europe while helping Indo-Pacific allies and partners uphold a regional order that is open and free. In some ways, this new agenda makes British strategy more complex; in others, it plays to the UK’s strengths as a maritime power.
Arise, ‘Global Britain’
The British government plans to meet the challenge of growing geopolitical competition through Global Britain. Although there was much squabbling over the meaning of this term when it emerged in the aftermath of the EU membership referendum in 2016, the concept of Global Britain has been gradually fleshed out, and it has taken on an official form with the completion of the ‘Integrated Review’. This review, undertaken throughout 2020 and published in March 2021, comprises two documents: firstly, Global Britain in a Competitive Age, which identifies how the UK should respond to the threats and opportunities of the mid-21st century; secondly, Defence in a Competitive Age, which establishes how the British armed forces should shape the evolving strategic landscape.
The Integrated Review identifies ‘hostile states’ (Russia) and ‘systemic competitors’(the PRC) as the greatest challenge facing the UK. It is particularly concerned by the attempts of these two powers to close off or claim special legal rights over specific maritime spaces, such as parts of the Black Sea and the South China Sea. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which governs international maritime law, has come under direct threat. Without freedom of navigation, an open international order could not exist in any meaningful form. For an archipelagic country such as the UK, whose prosperity depends on free trade and navigation, this is a particularly concerning development. In the Integrated Review’s words: ‘Much of the UK’s trade with Asia depends on shipping that goes through a range of Indo-Pacific choke points. Preserving freedom of navigation is therefore essential to the UK’s national interests.’
The UK’s ambition to play a more significant role in collective security is at the heart of the Integrated Review. Without solid alliances and partnerships, Britain cannot project power effectively because it lacks the mass to back up its punch. Therefore, Global Britain intends to underpin its existing alliances and security groupings, such as NATO and the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), while also, importantly, developing new ones, such as ‘AUKUS’. This new pact involving Australia, the UK and the United States is designed to provide the Royal Australian Navy with nuclear-propulsion technology, as well as long-throw cruise missiles for the next generation of its attack submarines.
In this sense, Global Britain is about more than merely responding to Brexit or embracing a global perspective; it is also designed to stitch the UK into alliances and partnerships in geostrategically important regions. By empowering groups of free and open countries, the UK aims to ensure a more favourable balance of power, both in the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific, which will help keep the international order open.
The Royal Navy: extending Global Britain
Although the Royal Navy had always been considered the ‘Senior Service’, the counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq during the 2000s and 2010s focused military resources on the British Army and Royal Air Force. However, the Integrated Review’s focus on geopolitical competition and upholding freedom of navigation has put the Royal Navy back in the driving seat.
Countering the geopolitical intrigues of revisionist powers such as the PRC and Russia – and even regional rogues like Iran – requires a more strategic set of instruments, for which the Royal Navy fits the bill. The British fleet will grow in size in the 2020s and 2030s as new generations of frigates are built, taking the size of the escort fleet from 19 to 24 vessels. New generations of submarines and destroyers will also be developed.
These new vessels are required because a Global Britain has to do more than merely empower allies and partners with advanced technology. Given the areas of contention, the Integrated Review foresees more persistent engagement in the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific for the UK. ‘Active’ or ‘forward’ deterrence is therefore central to the Integrated Review.
The British government has already provided a taste of things to come. In April, the Royal Navy’s Carrier Strike Group – led by HMS Queen Elizabeth – began its maiden deployment to the Indo-Pacific region to demonstrate the geostrategic reach of Global Britain, develop interoperability with Indo-Pacific allies and partners, and uphold freedom of navigation. Indeed, as the group passed through the Mediterranean in June, HMS Defender broke away to challenge Russia’s illegitimate claim to Ukraine’s territorial waters around Crimea. Meanwhile, in late September, HMS Richmond separated from the group and steamed through the Taiwan Strait. The same month, the Ministry of Defence also announced that two River class patrol vessels – HMS Spey and HMS Tamar – would be sent to Southeast Asia on a five-year mission to uphold freedom of navigation and deter aggression.
If the British government seeks to influence international affairs – even European affairs – during a new age of geopolitical competition, the UK’s insular nature means that it must be able to extend its power over long distances. Therefore, it is of no surprise that the Royal Navy has done relatively well out of the Integrated Review. It has suffered few capability cuts and looks set to grow in terms of both displacement tonnage and surface combatants. A rising defence budget underpins this ambition, which the British government – through the personal intervention of the prime minister – approved in late November 2020. Even greater resources may eventually be required, but this £24.1 billion hike over the next four years should provide the Royal Navy with the means to begin realising the Integrated Review’s ambition – that of a Global Britain, stitched into the fabric of an open international order, and ready to deter threats from geopolitical revisionists.
James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy, a think tank founded in March 2021 to help make the United Kingdom, as well as other free and open countries, more united, stronger and greener.