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Britain’s global military engagements: at what cost?

Rishi Sunak, the UK Prime Minister, is – like so many Prime Ministers before him – on a power trip. Literally. He has travelled to Tokyo to announce a new defence partnership with Japan, hoping alongside the new military accord to secure £18 billion in private business deals.

Sunak’s audience with Japan’s Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, is designed to discuss increased defence cooperation. It stands in clear response to China’s growing aggression toward Taiwan. Underpinning this military d’entente is the ‘Hiroshima accord’ – a pact that involves consulting on military decisions and conducting further exercises in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Sunak took this chance to announce the doubling of joint military exercises, deploying the UK’s Carrier Strike Group in 2025, advancing the Global Combat Air Programme, and extending Britain’s military reach deeper into the Indo-Pacific. Such engagement might be viewed by China as poking the dragon. Beijing has already railed at Japan’s more militaristic national Security Strategy (NSS), one that marks a break from the recent past by altering the senshu boei (exclusively defence-oriented policy) that Japan has followed since 1946. Clearly, the UK sees the possibilities of profits in any defence deals gained from a country intent on rearming itself.

The arts of trade and of war, in which Britain has excelled at since the formation of the East India Company, seem to be the Conservative party’s twin hopes right now – especially as they desperately seek a Brexit dividend.

Such alignments are a major feature of Britain’s recent attempts to strike up trade deals: international defence partnerships and projections of force. Global Britain comes out with its guns blasting. Last month, the Chief of the Defence Staff of the UK, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, visited India to strengthen military ties and to discuss “industrial collaboration in the aerospace sector”. In March, the UK and Swedish defence ministers effectively agreed to deepen future collaborations between the two countries, throwing a defence procurement deal into the mix.

This all fits in with No 10’s and the Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) ambition to be world-reaching. Since last July, the MOD has issued press releases announcing deals, assistance and missions to Finland, Germany, France, Estonia, Oman, Ukraine, Turkey, Greece, Qatar, Poland, the USA, Ghana and the Republic of Korea.

AOAV has also seen, following a Freedom of Information request, a list of as many as 230 military personnel (the MOD rounded up) posted to the British embassy in some 85 countries. This list, with accompanying costs, represents Britain’s overseas Defence Liaison Personnel serving in 2022.  One of these personnel’s roles is to sell Britain’s defence exports to those that are buying. The total global cost for the 2022 was as much as £40 million (the MOD did not give a breakdown of each costs), and could be much higher, with some countries costing more than £1 million.

Of note, of the 31 countries the UK considered ‘Human Rights Priority Countries’ (in 2021), the UK has defence attaches in 14 – almost half of them: Yemen, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, China, Russia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. This means the UK government could have spent as much as £5.5m on sending defence attaches to countries of human rights concern. It is imagined, of course, that some of these costs would be for protective measures, but the MOD refused to provide details of these costs.

The countries with defence attaché costs in excess of £1 million in 2022 include Pakistan, Nigeria, Iraq, China, Germany, Australia, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Oman, India, France, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and the United States. These countries are some of the largest and most influential in the world, with significant military capabilities and geopolitical importance. However, many of these countries also have significant human rights concerns.

China stands criticised for its treatment of Uighur Muslims and other minority groups, and has been accused of using forced labour and mass detention in Xinjiang. Saudi Arabia has an appalling record on human rights, including the treatment of women and minorities, and has been condemned for its involvement in the Yemeni civil war. In other countries, such as Pakistan and Nigeria, the military has played a significant role in politics, with human rights abuses being reported in the context of counter-terrorism and internal security operations. In Iraq, there have been reports of extrajudicial killings and torture by government forces and militias, while in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s return to power has raised concerns about the treatment of women and minorities. 

To what degree Britain’s defence attaches are engaged with such issues, and to what degree their focus is more on selling British weapon systems is unclear.

One thing, though, is certain: such military engagement has become a cornerstone of the ‘Global Britain’ policy laid out by the Conservative government in 2018. The spreading of British influence abroad is aligned with an often-unaddressed mission creep by our military. But where does such creep end? And, perhaps more importantly, who is paying for all of this?

In March, Sunak promised to increase defence spending by nearly £5bn over the next two years, but many claim that even this boost barely covers the cost of a weak pound, rising inflation and the ongoing consequences of terrible MOD procurement blunders.

The alignment of ambition with cost has stalked the military for years. The December 2021 Commons Defence Committee report ‘We’re going to need a bigger navy,’ warned that the Royal Navy was unable to cope with its increasing responsibilities or fulfil the ambitions of the March 2021 ‘Integrated Review’ in light of its then declining budget in what they called an ever “hostile and unpredictable world.”

Amongst other things, the Royal Navy is increasingly being tasked with delivering global humanitarian aid. These missions include the likes of ‘Operation Patwin’ in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the delivery of aid and surveying expertise following the2020 Beirut port explosion, and most recently after the 2022 Tonga tsunami. The navy has also been given the role of a quasi-maritime drug enforcement agency, alongside multiple counter-piracy, arms and people trafficking operations. The Chair of the Commons Defence Committee Tobias Ellwood has already cautioned of “a real danger of mission creep”, especially when the Royal Navy is mooted to be tasked to police the channel to address the issue of small migrant boats.

This is just the Navy. The British Army has also been involved in delivering aid in the Caribbean after Hurricane Irma in 2017. They also oversaw the evacuation of 200,000 nationals in the Icelandic volcanic ash incident as well as more recently in Sudan. The Army also runs anti-poaching missions across Africa, mainly training local rangers in survival skills and combat strategy in countries like Uganda,Zambia and most recently Malawi.

Meanwhile, the RAF is doing anything from – in recent years – delivering equipment to help treat COVID patients in the Falklands, flying over 2,000 vaccine doses to Ascension Island, the British overseas territory in the South Atlantic, collecting overdue PPE delivery from Turkey, and assisting with repatriation flights for British Citizens stuck on a cruise ship off the coast of Cuba and fleeing the violence of Sudan. In Operation Pitting, the British part in the 2021 Kabul airlift, they flew over 100 flights evacuating 5,000 British nationals and 10,000 Afghan refugees.

All of this raises questions about the welfare of the troops tasked with this global role. Divorce stalks the ranks, especially in the most used groups such as in the UK’s Special Forces units. Burn-out is said to be a common problem. And, in the end, the cost to the public purse for these overseas missions is rarely scrutinised critically by some sections of the British press that seem to hold projections of military might above all else.

From sending defence attachés to human rights abusing countries, to signing defence deals, to mobilising aircraft carriers and deploying troops around the world, the notion of Britain as a major defence player clearly plays out well in the halls of Whitehall.  But as the hard consequences of years of Conservative fiscal policies bite deep, and with stories of British families being unable to afford Heinz Beans and cheese sandwiches, people ​​facing a ‘debt time-bomb’, and Britain’s national debt set to climb over the next five years all capturing the headlines, the question comes: at what point is this mission creep too much, too expensive and – in the end – not really for Britain’s benefit?

It’s a question that goes to the heart of the UK’s role in the 21st Century. One where our Ministers of State set out to play the role of great military might, finding their post-Imperial feet in the world, without looking too closely at the bill that comes with such power trips.