Recently, there has been much talk about what the British military will do with its forthcoming aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth. The new ship, a modern marvel that will be the first of what Britain hopes to be many more aircraft carriers, is the first British-built aircraft carrier in years (its current carrier is an aging, small flattop that carries only helicopters). Some have suggested that with its new aircraft carrier, the British could deploy the Queen Elizabeth down to the waters off of the Falkland islands. These strategists hope that such a move would deter the Argentinians from retaking the islands. For still many more British strategists, such as the preeminent Malcolm Chalmers, they hope to deploy the Queen Elizabeth to the Pacific.
This would be a mistake.
As I have noted elsewhere, the United Kingdom is no longer a global power. It is a great, regional power. Its strength resides in its ability to project force in its surrounding region. Since Britain is located near Europe, therefore, it needs to channel its energies into assisting in the stabilization of Europe and the containment of the Russian threat there.
By attempting to take Britain’s limited military capabilities far beyond its base of power, the British are not playing to their strengths. In fact, it is wasting a strategic asset, like the Queen Elizabeth. In the Pacific, the Queen Elizabeth would be alone and far from home. If it were lost in combat with, say, China, the damage to the British military (and economy, given the cost involved in building such a magnificent ship) would be great.
What’s more, deploying the carrier to the Falklands, while it might feel good to show the flag there yet again, would be a waste of limited resources. In all probability, the Argentinians have likely missed their opportunity to retake the islands. Their air force is dilapidated. Their military is a spent force. Their economy is in shambles. By 2020, when the Queen Elizabeth enters into service, the Argentinians will be as threatening to Britain’s holdings in South America as a fly is threatening to an elephant.
However, in Europe, the British military can maximize its potency. With its recent Brexit vote, the British have separated themselves politically from Europe yet, economically and militarily they are still an integral player there. British military units form a key component to the NATO alliance. While I disagree with European Geostrategy’s classification of the UK as a “global” power, there is no doubt that the British military is the preeminent indigenous power in Europe.
Also, British trade with the continent is massive. Even with Brexit, it is likely that Britain and Europe will continue to have shared economic interests. These economic linkages (and geographical proximity) should determine the UK’s foreign policy. Thus, the foreign policy—specifically, the naval policy—of the United Kingdom should focus on Europe more, and less on global operations in the Pacific or near the Falklands.
More than economics, British security is most affected by Europe. The ceaseless immigration from the Middle East and North Africa that is destabilizing Europe threatens the United Kingdom as well. Indeed, this immigration (and both the physical and economic insecurity it imbued within a majority of the British people) played a large part in the recent Brexit vote. Additionally, the return of Russian revanchism in Europe further threatens the already tenuous stability in Europe. No matter how detached Britons may wish to be from the continent, the fact remains that centuries of British history show how vital it is for the British to prevent the rise of irredentist powers on the continent.
Right now, as Angelo Codevilla recently wrote,
“While [Putin] has pushed only against mostly open doors, entirely too many doors from the Baltic to the Mediterranean have been open.”
It is time to close those doors on Putin’s face. NATO, the EU, and even the U.S. (for both political and economic purposes) have been unable to effectively signal to the Russians that the West will no longer tolerate Russia’s expansion into Europe. Britain, with its revitalizing Royal Navy, could be that doorstop.
The HMS Queen Elizabeth should be the tip of the spear. In recent years, the Russians have been sending their navy out to test the defenses of the northern Europeans. Vladimir Putin is doing the old Stalinist strategy of probing Western defenses, looking for gaps for Russia to exploit. Much to the credit of the Swedes, their navy was instrumental in resisting Russian probing attempts of their waters in 2014. But, the Swedes need help. The Royal Navy, with the HMS Queen Elizabeth, is really the only force that can provide consistent support to European maritime defense.
The HMS Queen Elizabeth could be the doorstop that slams shut some of those open doors to Europe that Mr. Putin has skillfully sent his forces dashing through. Sending the Queen Elizabeth over to the Pacific or down to the Falklands really isn’t the best use of the ship, as there are no real threats to the Falklands and the British can rely on the U.S. (as well as the Japanese and Australians) in the Pacific.
America’s interests in Asia (as well as its commitments to the Middle East) means that it needs to focus its energies there as it rebuilds is overextended force. The U.S. does not necessarily need to take the lead in European defense because it has an able and willing partner in the United Kingdom. Make no mistake: a strong Britain is good for America. These two countries built the world order that we enjoy today (and that the Russians abhor). Together, these two powers can tag-team the stabilization of the unruly international system.
But, they can only do so by playing to each other’s strengths. America is a global Superpower and the UK is a great regional power. Britain could—and should—be at the forefront of resisting Russia in Europe, since it’s in Britain’s backyard. What’s more, its Royal Navy should be the tip of the spear. The British military should not waste its time needlessly deploying a single aircraft carrier to either the Falklands or the Pacific, where its qualitative disadvantages are exacerbated and its quantitative advantages are mollified.
Why waste such a powerful asset in places like the Pacific or South America? Europe is the prize. It must be the focus of Britain’s maritime strategy.