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Tory hopefuls promise to spend billions on imperial military fantasies

Jeremy Hunt promises £15bn extra, while on Boris Johnson’s side a former defence secretary wants to buy huge floating bases the navy would be hard pressed to defend.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
1 July 2019
Rigid inflatable boat speeding across the water, blond man standing on it with arm raised
Boris projecting power
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Sean Dempsey/PA Archive/PA Images

As the Conservative Party leadership campaign evolves, most of the campaigning is on Brexit with little or nothing on other issues. It is perhaps inevitable: the electorate of around 160,000 is drawn primarily from older and wealthier white males, reportedly leavened by over 20,000 recent joiners from the ranks of UKIP and the Brexit Party. Thus the adult care crisis, growing NHS waiting lists, crumbling schools, homelessness, pay-day debt, food banks and the rest appear nowhere in the rhetoric because they are scarcely relevant to this small electorate.

There is one issue that is not strictly Brexit which is permeating its way into the campaigning, though: defence. Boosting Britain’s military power is a key part in the greater scheme of ‘Making Britain Great Again’.

Of the two candidates, it is Jeremy Hunt, the underdog who has been more explicit on this issue. He has called for an early 25% increase in defence spending to around 2.5% of GNP by 2023-24. He had earlier called for a doubling to 4.0% by that date but it is the 25% increase is currently getting the attention.

It is not clear where that extra £15 billion will come from, still less the doubling, but we were assured last week by a spokesperson that all expenditure “will be affordable as we will stick to our fiscal rule to keep debt falling relative to GDP over the cycle”. Perhaps more indicative was this view: “Our policies will attract even more international investment and ensure that we keep Britain safe and walk tall in the world.”

Boris Johnson’s campaign has so far been less explicit on defence policy, concentrating more on tax concessions for the wealthy. His supporters in Parliament, however, have been vocal in wanting a substantial boost to the military budget, none more so than the former defence secretary Gavin Williamson, who was a Johnson campaign manager for the earlier parliamentary polling.

Politicians who want to make Britain great again tend to emphasise the Royal Navy and especially the two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, the largest warships ever built for the navy. It is an issue that has been in the background for two decades – I covered it in openDemocracy a dozen years ago – but has come to the fore in the current campaigning for the Conservative leadership.

Before he left office, Williamson sought to flesh out plans for remaking the UK as a global power. One clear indicator of this ambition was a proposal to construct what amounts to two floating military bases that could be located anywhere in the world to support power projection. These ‘littoral strike ships’ would be modelled on the US ‘expeditionary transfer docks’, vessels which the UK Defence Journal describes as “typically a large auxiliary support ship to facilitate the ‘seabasing’ of an amphibious landing force by acting as a floating base or transfer station that can be prepositioned off the target area”. They are very large vessels about the same size as the new carriers. The British versions would be essential components of sea-to-land strike groups and ensure the UK had a global naval capability for the first time since the days of empire, presumably in the hope that it could “walk tall” again.

As Williamson put it four months ago:

Our vision is for these ships to form part of 2 Littoral Strike Groups complete with escorts, support vessels and helicopters. One would be based East of Suez in the Indo-Pacific and one based West of Suez in the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Baltic. And, if we ever need them to, our two Littoral Strike Ships, our two aircraft carriers, our two amphibious assault ships Albion and Bulwark, and our three Bay Class landing ships can come together in one amphibious task force. This will give us sovereign, lethal, amphibious force. This will be one of the largest and best such forces anywhere in the world.

Thus, Britain will rule the waves once again, outshine the French, keep the Chinese in their place and even earn the respect of the US. It also fits in with existing developments, including the re-opened military base HMS Juffair in Bahrain and the base being built at Duqm in Oman, both likely to be involved in a war with Iran.

It all sounds great but in naval circles it will be met either with polite questioning or, more likely, hollow laughter. For a start the Royal Navy has a major personnel crisis and cannot even crew its existing ships. Secondly, even a single Littoral Strike Group would require a considerable defensive force including destroyers, frigates, nuclear-powered attack submarines and an array of Royal Fleet Auxiliary supply ships providing dry stores, fuel and munitions.

Furthermore, if you want one warship on long-term deployment you normally require three ships – one in refit or repair, another in transit to or from its home port, and one actually on station. Williamson’s combined “sovereign, lethal, amphibious force” would use just about every warship in the entire navy and still leave a gap. It is one of the open secrets of the small Falklands War back in 1982 that almost every modern warship of the Royal Navy was deployed to the South Atlantic for months on end at the height of the Cold War, and the navy was much larger then than now,

So much of Williamson’s stirring vision is a world away from the reality of the UK’s defence debacle, with its litany of mistakes, cost overruns, faulty equipment and political indecision. These include the decade-long failure to have a long-range maritime reconnaissance capability after the Nimrod MRA4 cancellation in 2010, the persistent problems of engine failure in the Type-45 Daring-class destroyers and the independent Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s assessment last year that the number of ‘red-flagged’ projects in serious trouble had risen from one to five. Whatever the overall case for particular levels of military spending, whether increasing or decreasing, more effective management would save a considerable amount of money.

This means little in the context of the Conservative leadership campaign but, like so many things, it will become apparent all too soon if the new government survives more than a year or so. At some stage there will need to be a serious political debate around Britain’s role in world affairs, not least its approach to global socio-economic marginalisation and climate breakdown. But that will appear nowhere in the current campaigning, which is far more rooted in the notion of empire than in modern-day realities.

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