The UK Cannot Afford Capability and Contribution Gaps to NATO Post-Brexit
Post-Brexit and at a time of precarious power dynamics the UK cannot afford to have significant capability gaps which would harm the credibility and image of the UK as a significant global contender. The UK government has an obligation to fulfill its part towards collective security and defence for the NATO alliance. What you do wrong is far more often remembered than what you do right. Britain must remain vigilant.
The recent news that the Royal Navy is to scrap its aging Harpoon anti-ship missile system and the recent MOD report raising concern about the UK surface fleet size is a worrying sign of ‘capability' gaps in the UK contribution to NATO force structures. Post-Brexit and at a time of precarious power dynamics the UK cannot afford to have significant capability gaps which would harm the credibility and image of the UK as a significant global contender. While the decision to leave the EU affects British soft power it comes amid a rising trend of anti-globalism and increasing nativism. This soft power retreat is acceptable if managed well but dents to hard power, especially to NATO contributions which serve as a significant bastion of UK influence are much harder to stomach.
The Harpoon anti-ship missile has been in service with the US and UK navies since the late 1970's and is now due to be scrapped in 2018. Thousands of units have been ordered over its lifetime and due to its inadequacies, especially when compared to china's ‘carrier killer' missile the replacement is well past due. But some sources say that It will take up to a decade to be fully replaced (some say by the Long Range Anti-Ship missile being tested in America).
This anti-ship capability gap is all the more worrying since the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kutnetzov sailed past the white cliffs of dover and through our geographical blessing of an English Channel. Though we still have an anti-ship capability through our ‘hunter killer' submarines and embarked helicopters the capability gap where our type 23 frigates will be sailing without any anti-ship missiles is worrying, especially with a revanchist Russia who is increasing both presence and A2/AD capabilities in the Baltic Sea.
Hard power is now more than ever essential to securing UK credibility on the world stage. Though our international development budget is one of the highest relative to GDP the UK soft power balance has been hit hard by the Brexit vote and is unstable. Our 2% of GDP defence spending is a crucial element in our status in NATO and makes the UK a substantial player behind the US in an important forum of international influence.
If capability gaps occur regularly like the Harpoon, replacing the Type 23's before the new Type 26's enter service, the Type 45's having further engine problems or as in 2011 in Libya when a Type 23 frigate only carried four sea wolf air defence missiles then UK credibility as a world power will be hit hard.
This is not to say that the UK is not a capable military power. The UK armed forces are in the middle of a quite substantial force development and defence acquisition cycle which include the HMS Queen Elizabeth Aircraft Carrier beginning sea trials in Spring 2017, four brand new Royal Fleet Auxilliary Tideclass tankers in service by 2018, the Dreadnought class successor SSBN's being confirmed and the cutting of steel for the Type 26 Global Combat Ship confirmed for summer 2017.
Post-Brexit and in a time of rapidly shifting political and international affairs, NATO and hard military power remains one of the stalwart forums for the UK to protect its credibility and image. Capability gaps can quickly pose problems and the UK Ministry of Defence should think very carefully about any future gaps that may occur and whether or not they are worth the risk at such a precarious time for Britain. Capability gaps should be monitored by both national governments and NATO force structures to ensure that either substitutes can be found or that NATO can require defence ministries to delay scrapping a system until a new replacement is in service. This dual approach can make capability gaps less likely in the future and enable fuller co-operation between NATO and national Force structures.
The UK government has an obligation to fulfill its part towards collective security and defence for the NATO bloc and what you do wrong is far more often remembered than what you do right and Albion must remain vigilant.
Connor Smart studied International Relations at the University of Plymouth. He has his own current affairs blog and is currently an intern at the Legatum Institute.
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