Paris Gourtsoyannis: can UK afford to maintain its naval power?

HMS Queen Elizabeth at Rosyth. Scotland is set to become  an increasingly important part of the UK's defence complex. Picture: Getty Images
HMS Queen Elizabeth at Rosyth. Scotland is set to become an increasingly important part of the UK's defence complex. Picture: Getty Images
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Naval hardware could be the currency of the next decade. But can the UK afford it, asks Paris Gourtsoyannis

As a record-setting feat of engineering and a new emblem for Scotland, the Queensferry Crossing, which saw the final portion of its span lifted into place this week, is just one example of the soft power projected by the UK to attract visitors and trade to this country. In its shadow, also nearing completion, are two tools of a familiar kind of hard power that will become increasingly important as the UK leaves the EU.

The first of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers begins sea trials next month. In December, the UK’s ambassador to the United States said that when they enter active service in the 2020s, they “will be seen in the Pacific” and may even be sent through the South China Sea.

There could be no clearer statement of the UK’s desire to return to its historic status as a leading naval power, after years without any aircraft carrier, than inserting the Royal Navy into a hostile confrontation on the opposite side of the world. While the west has been distracted by conflicts in the Middle East, Asian countries have been bracing themselves for a stand-off that could define the 21st century in the way that the relationship between the west and the Soviet Union shaped the 20th century.

Tensions between states surrounding the South China Sea have risen steadily over Chinese attempts to assert control over an area that is already a crossroads of international trade, and could become an important source of oil and gas. China’s construction of military bases on tiny reefs and sandbars in the Paracel and Spratly island groups, in a bid to extend territorial claims over international seas and airspace, have become a matter of global concern.

It is a confrontation that will take place over water, and it is restoring the importance of naval might after a half-century hiatus since the battle for the Pacific in the Second World War. More than thirty years ago, China began a quest for an aircraft carrier of its own. It has culminated in the launch of the Liaoning, bought from Ukraine almost 20 years ago as a stripped out, rusting hulk under the cover of turning it into a floating casino in Macau harbour.

Now set to begin operations and with more under construction, the Liaoning has been heralded as a return of ‘gunboat diplomacy’. Its range is too short to threaten the west, but it is powerful enough to threaten smaller neighbours like Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Since the end of the Cold War, smaller countries in Europe have been able to fall back on the collective defence of Nato and the protection of an international system of rule of law to protect themselves from Russia. An Estonian politician told me recently that mutual respect for international law was their “nuclear deterrent” – a peaceful alternative to mutually assured destruction. In the South China Sea, where China is already flouting international law, that protective umbrella is battered and threadbare. The inevitable result is a naval arms race.

In the past decade, defence spending in southeast Asia has risen by roughly a third, according to US journalist Robert Kaplan. Indonesia and Singapore have doubled their arms imports. Malaysia has increased weapons purchases by seven times. Much of that investment is being spent on new naval and air systems, as well as missile submarines.

Countries that see their soft power eroded turn to hard power instead. Eclipsed as the world’s leading economic challenger to the United States by the rise of China, Japan has sought to reverse half a century of constitutionally-enforced pacifism and carve out a larger role for its defence forces. At odds with neighbours over its tough asylum policies and facing an increasingly powerful China, Australia signed a historic defence agreement with the Obama administration to host US troops.

As the UK leaves the EU and its single market, ends the free movement of people from Europe, and continues to squeeze migration from further afield, it too may turn to the tools of hard power more and more. A withdrawal by the US under President Trump from its role as the guardian of peace in the west will add to pressure to do so.

This should be good news for Scotland’s heartlands of shipbuilding on the Forth and Clyde, where the UK’s new aircraft carriers were built and assembled. But questions hover over the MoD’s preparedness. Problems have dogged the Royal Navy’s new Type 45 destroyers, which must undergo refits due to engine failures in warm waters. The Type 26 frigate programme, vital to securing shipbuilding skills in Scotland, was scaled back from 13 vessels to eight, and faced delays amid claims the MoD didn’t have the money to deliver it. Work on Type 26 is set to begin this summer, but there is no confirmation yet on cost or numbers of the lighter Type 31 frigates intended to fill the gap in fleet numbers.

Meanwhile, replacement of the four Vanguard-class submarines that carry the UK’s trident missiles poses a major headache. Reports suggest completion of four new Dreadnought-class vessels could cost £6 billion more than expected. Overall, the latest annual equipment plan shows the cost of military kit is set to rise by 20 over the next decade, to £82 billion.

Experts warn that rising costs could force the MoD to choose between new ships, tanks and planes. Malcolm Chalmers, the deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute and former special adviser to two Labour foreign secretaries, warned this week that the MoD may be taking on more than it can afford.

Assumptions built into the MoD’s sums include a one per cent pay freeze for all of its 250,000 civilian and military employees for the rest of the decade. It is also relying on the pound to recover Brexit-related losses against the dollar within two years to avoid paying a third more for equipment purchased from US contractors. Chalmers warned of another black hole on the scale of the £38 billion gap that dominated the 2010 defence review – when the UK was forced to give up its aircraft carrier and fleet of Harrier jump jets in the first place.