The Role of the UK Armed Forces in Achieving a Global Britain | Robert Clark


This week the House of Lords debated the role of the UK Armed Forces in the government’s Global Britain strategy. In the wake of Brexit, there remains much discussion and ambiguity from much of Westminster as to what precisely the government’s Global Britain strategy is. This article will briefly clarify what Global Britain precisely entails, both the narrative and discourse behind it, and indeed policy implementations already in action. The role of the UK’s Armed Forces is intrinsic at several layers of the strategy, and as an implement of foreign policy, the UK government is wise to continue utilising a more forward deployed military in pursuit of the UK’s national interests.

Originating back in 2016 by Theresa May, Global Britain was intended to signal that the UK would become more outward-looking and ambitious after Brexit, pursuing a narrative of a greater global outlook that went far beyond Europe, and at the Indo-Pacific in particular.

The Global Britain agenda focusses on three separate, but interlinked strategies, for a post-Brexit foreign policy. First, for the UK to seek exciting new trade and investment deals with countries around the globe. This has recently been evidenced vividly across south east Asia with trade deals recently being signed with Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, and with the European Union itself.

Second is the requirement that in order for Britain to be truly global, a secure and prosperous continental Europe must be the bedrock of the UK’s foreign policy. Here, synergy between the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) is crucial in ensuring a combined approach to achieving a secure and prosperous Europe. Whilst the upcoming Integrated Review (IR) will shed more light on the government’s strategy for achieving this, the UK Armed Forces are already active on this front in many theatres.

The British Army continues to provide the largest troop-contributing force to the NATO enhanced-Forward Presence (eFP) deployment to the Baltics since 2016. The British mission encompasses an armoured battlegroup to Estonia, and a company plus support elements to Poland. The deployment sees over 1,000 British troops training alongside their Estonian and Polish counterparts, further developing crucial partnered interoperability on NATO’s vulnerable eastern flank, deterring hostile action by Russia into European security.

In the Mediterranean, the British Army provide the lead element for the UN peacekeeping mission in Cyprus, providing a quarter of the 1,000 UN soldiers annually deployed. As well as maintaining sovereign basing rights on Cyprus, this is a visible demonstration of the UK’s effort to maintaining a secure southern Europe.

Global Britain will seek to utilise a more forward deployed military engaged in humanitarian work and peacekeeping efforts, particularly when they serve the national interest by helping to ensure a secure Europe.

The recently formed UK Task Group to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, the Long Range Reconnaissance Group, further demonstrates the forward deployed military supporting Global Britain. An untold number of civilians have fled the conflict in Mali, seeking refuge in Europe. The conflict has unquestionably added to the strain placed on southern European security with regards to the migrant crisis first witnessed in 2015 and ruthless people smuggling networks operating throughout North Africa. A stable Mali and wider Sahel region leads to a more secure Europe.

Finally, the UK Armed Forces continues to provide a crucial training team of military advisers to Ukraine. The two nations have built a strong defence relationship in recent years, with British troops having trained over 18,000 members of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the last five years. This is a demonstration of the UK’s unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty, and reinforces that a secure Europe is the bedrock of Global Britain. 

The third and final strategy to developing a coherent Global Britain approach is the ability of the UK to act as a force of good on the global stage. Alongside the US, the UK is one of the chief architects of the global rules-based liberal order, and remains an ardent defender of this post-Brexit. The role of the Armed Forces is crucial here, and is demonstrated by the Royal Navy leading the newly formed Carrier Strike Group (CSG) on its first mission this spring to the Indo-Pacific. In this role the Royal Navy is leading 13 European and global allies, including US, French, Turkish and Japanese maritime assets.

The ability of the Royal Navy and the CSG to project Global Britain’s influence abroad is central to a forward-looking foreign policy agenda, particularly in these unprecedented times forging new and ambitious trade deals. Whilst in the Indo-Pacific, the CSG will demonstrate Global Britain’s intent to stand shoulder to shoulder with its allies and partners, in the face of shared challenges.

Some of these challenges emanate from authoritarian regimes including the PRC, who are seeking to re-write the global rules-based order of which the UK remains a staunch custodian. Such activities include disregarding the international laws of the sea, and seeking an aggressive expansion of their own naval forces whilst militarising the region, in particular the South China Sea – in which the CSG will pass through with the conviction a sovereign state is entitled to.

With the UK military playing an increasing role demonstrating to international allies the role of burden sharing and collective defence in light of shared challenges, such increased roles for the UK Armed Forces require increased capabilities and resourcing in key areas. Whilst the upcoming IR will deliver additional naval funding, there needs to be an acknowledgement for further basing rights and logistical support in the Indo-Pacific to facilitate the CSG and subsequent naval deployments.

The region will see an increasing UK military presence, used as a force for good working alongside allies and partners – but with that commitment must come increased basing opportunities and logistical support offered by these countries. In particular, closer maritime and defence collaboration with Japan, South Korea, and Australia, will be crucial for this to succeed.

In addition, current deployments absolutely must be proper resourced. Baroness Wheatcroft raised the issue of under-resourcing the UK deployment to Mali this week in the Lords; the UK mission currently have no organic helicopter capability for extracting battlefield casualties. From 2019-20 this capability was provided by the Romanian mission. In 12 months they performed 18 such battlefield casualty extractions. No nation has filled this void, and the UK absolutely should plug this gap. This requires urgent redress and scrutiny, having previously been raised by The Telegraph. Current and future deployments must require adequate resourcing.

Global Britain has been much talked about for the last five years, borne of a desire to release the UK’s full potential on the global stage once separated from the EU. The security of our nation is where defence meets prosperity meets global influence, as the three interlinked strategies for Global Britain demonstrates.

As the British Army continue to lead the NATO deterrent on Europe’s eastern borders, provide crucial capabilities to numerous UN peacekeeping missions, and with the Royal Navy leading an international coalition destined for the waters of the Indo-Pacific, it is clear to see where the Global Britain agenda will take the UK Armed Forces. In line with the Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nicholas Carter’s vision for a more forward deployed military, there are exciting and ambitious opportunities ahead for the UK Armed Forces in support of making Britain truly global. 

Robert Clark is a Defence Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. Prior to this Robert served in the British Army for 13 years, including tours of Iraq and Afghanistan.


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