Britain’s Military Cannot Sustain a Global Role

By Edward Lucas

Designing Australia’s nuclear submarines is a boost for UK but Pacific ties distract from Europe

The British prime minister Rishi Sunak on MONDAY meets/met his Australian counterpart, Anthony Albanese, and President Biden in San Diego to unveil Britain’s biggest defence deal in decades. The latest stage in the 18-month-old Aukus (Australia, UK, US) submarine agreement gives Britain  a far bigger role than originally envisaged. The aim is to help Australia counter China’s growing military power, with nuclear-powered submarines based on a British design, but with American technology and weapons. 
The eight or more vessels will be built mostly in Australia but with a hefty slice of the £65 billion pie going to British contractors. The chief beneficiaries will be in Barrow-in-Furness, where BAE Systems builds Britain’s nuclear-powered submarines. Rolls-Royce, which makes the nuclear reactors, will be cheering, along with Conservative MPs in “red wall” seats. 

The submarines will not be delivered until the 2040s. In the meantime much needs to be done  to bridge the gap in allied naval capability in the Pacific. Australia will buy some US nuclear-powered submarines and US vessels will be operating  from there, meaning a  big new base. The gulf in nuclear expertise is huge: Australians will need to serve alongside American and British crews for years. Some worry that our sailors may be tempted by the Australian navy’s better pay and conditions. 

Another element of the deal is high-tech co-operation on undersea surveillance, particularly using drones, with results interpreted by artificial intelligence. All this involves some  of America’s most closely guarded defence secrets. Their transfer to allies will involve navigating thorny bureaucratic obstacles. 
My country’s role in Aukus is not, as some reckoned at the beginning, merely cosmetic. Nor is it just an export deal. Britain is helping an overstretched US bolster a key defence alliance. Our shipyards  are also clogged with orders for submarines, but we have the expertise to help Australia build its own. Our military role in the region is matched by economic diplomacy: Britain is hoping to join the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. If the EU also signs up to this free-trade zone, it may help fix Brexit-inflicted damage on ties with our biggest and closest trading partner. 

Few will object to a decades-long deal that safeguards thousands of jobs and will create many more, and which involves closer military ties with a country that (unlike many customers for British weapons) has  a decent record on democracy and human rights. But Britain’s dwindling band of peaceniks fears that we are being dragged into a looming conflict on the other side of the world. For amid rising fears of Chinese military capabilities, something akin to Nato is taking shape in the Pacific, with a burgeoning network of defence ties that goes far beyond the Aukus deal. 

Japan and Australia are hosting each other’s warplanes. Ending a decades-old row about compensation for wartime atrocities, South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk-yeol, said that Japan had “transformed from a militaristic aggressor of the past  into a partner that shares the same universal values with us”. Japan is also boosting its defence relationship with Taiwan. The Philippines has ended its flirtation with China and is hosting a new US naval base. Once-squishy New Zealand is moving back to the security mainstream under its new prime minister, Chris Hipkins. 

Britain’s best chance of keeping the US committed to our security in coming decades is to help where we can in in the Pacific. This is true in spades for our continental allies, whose strategic nakedness was starkly exposed by Russia’s war in Ukraine, where American aid has been decisive. Initial French ire over Aukus — the deal involved the peremptory cancellation of their  own submarine sale to Australia — has subsided. If Europe is to think and act strategically, then that  must include close security ties with the US and a hard-headed approach to China. Transatlantic unity on issues such as Taiwan is likely  to deter Xi Jinping. Division will encourage him. 

The real worry is about priorities. If we send our handful of seaworthy submarines to the other side of the world to defend Taiwan, they will  not be available for duties here. As Robert Fox, a military expert with Exeter University, notes, the three things that matter in defence are reach, clout and technology. A country of Britain’s size can manage any two of these. We can provide a high-tech but token contribution to Pacific security, or make a much bigger difference in defending our nearby allies. If we try to maintain a substantial global presence, it will be with out-of-date weapons that stand no chance against a peer adversary. 

Given the pressure we are under  at home, with a clapped-out army, serious problems with readiness of our naval vessels and an air force short of planes and pilots, we should be concentrating our resources, not spreading them. Symbolic missions in the Pacific (for example, for long-distance submarine training) may make sense but the urgent need is to focus on the home front: defence of our seabed cables and pipelines, to start with. The Americans will not thank us if our Indo-Pacific ambitions mean more European defence tasks land on their overburdened shoulders.

Aukus is a feather in Britain’s cap. But today’s update to our integrated review, and a few billion more in the budget this week, will do nothing to fill the black hole at the heart of our defences. Our allies notice our weaknesses. So too do our foes.