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The UK Wants To Send Its Military Across Eurasia

February 12, 2019

The HMS Queen Elizabeth. Via Wikimedia Commons.

With Brexit looming and the primacy of the West challenged everywhere, the UK’s own Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson shared a bold strategy to assert the country’s power. It isn’t surprising how Asia is the focal point and the Royal Navy are tasked with defending its vulnerable sea lanes. Williamson didn’t mince words either, citing both Russia and China as potent adversaries responsible for “gray zone” conflict. His remarks were shared before an audience at the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI) offices and subsequently publicized by the UK’s defense ministry and local media.

A full transcript of Williamson’s RUSI speech can be read here.

It isn’t surprising how the UK’s newfound marching orders overlap with those of the US when it comes to China and Russia. Although Williamson does mention Al Qaeda and Islamic State as longstanding enemies, none of the military deployments he described appear to be suited for counter-terrorism. Indeed, it was Vladimir Putin’s Russia that drew the brunt of his ire, with only a passing mention for China, whose numerous territorial disputes weren’t cited.

According to Williamson, Russia is now “rebuilding its military arsenal and seeking to bring the independent countries of the former Soviet Union…back into its orbit…while China is developing its modern military capability and its commercial power.”

But as Williamson hailed Britain’s exceptionalism even in the wake of Brexit, he did specify the role alliances such as the “Five Eyes” (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, US, UK) will play in extending the UK’s power. Just as vital for Williamson are rekindling new agreements with Southeast Asian nations plus India, Japan, and South Korea. If these locations were pinned on a map, it’s apparent the UK is building a military presence stretching from the Suez until the Sea of Japan–in geopolitical terms London wants its fleet to straddle the “world island.”

Then Williamson got specific and named locations from where the Royal Navy and Air Force can replenish and resupply. “The Duqm port facilities in Oman are large enough to be able to support our aircraft carriers,” he told his audience at RUSI. “The Al Minhad and Al Udeid Air Bases, in the Emirates and Qatar respectively, provide strategically important capabilities,” Williamson added. “In Bahrain, our naval base and our long-standing Maritime Command make a major contribution to our activities in the region but also beyond.”

Without too much bravado, Williamson did mention other bases such as those in Singapore and Brunei, giving credence to rumors that London is negotiating for expanded military facilities in Southeast Asia.

Williamson made sure to explain the use of the “Transformation Fund,” a budgetary tool for purchasing advanced technology, and how each branch benefits from it. For the Royal Navy in particular, Williamson envisions two “littoral strike groups” led by carriers for Asian and European missions. The demarcation for both is the Suez Canal, with one strike group responsible for the Baltics and Mediterranean and another for the “Indo-Pacific.” There was an implied possibility of a genuine war scenario in the near future too, as Williamson described how the navy’s two carriers, two strike groups, and five largest amphibious transports may combine to form an armada should the need arise.

It seems the army and air force fall behind the navy in the next decade. Williamson’s key program for the ground forces is a “warfighting division” together with a parachute regiment for instantaneous deployments abroad should the need arise. As for the Royal Air Force, Williamson is eager to stock up on US-made F-35’s and P-8 Poseidons with a token boost of seven squadrons for the homegrown Typhoon multirole fighter and drone swarms paid for by the Transformation Fund.

What’s undeniable after Williamson’s speech is whatever the outcome of the UK’s separation from the EU, the defense ministry has laid down plans for the ill-defined Cold War that is now simmering between China, Russia, and the West. Without a shadow of doubt, naval strength is in vogue once more and the UK is ready to flex it where it matters–the Eurasian landmass.

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