Sunday, 17 January 2021

How should British policy change in the Gulf?

This week, as the Royal Navy vessel HMS Duncan completes its first week in the Gulf ensuring safe passage for British-flagged ships transiting the Strait of Hormuz, the Foregin Secretary Dominic Raab has announced that the United Kingdom (UK) will join the United States (US) with joint naval missions, protecting the vulnerable maritime choke-point at the centre of the recent geopolitical confrontation between Britain and Iran. 

Centred around the highly provocative, not to mention illegal, behaviour of the Iranian regime, the recent transgressions serve to highlight notable failings in British defence policy. Despite numerous prominent politicians having recently advocated increases in defence spending, including most notably Jeremey Hunt, the former Foreign Secretary, and Tobias Ellwood, the former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, it is still too early in Boris Johnson’s premiership to tell whether insufficient naval spending will be suitably re-addressed.

However, simply raising military expenditure will not automatically fix the situation in the Gulf. Such issues fall into a broader strategic misalignment, whereby UK strategic intent is being failed at a much higher level than a simple increase in the navy’s budget could fix. Defence spending does need to rise, but firstly the new government should re-appraise national needs, not least in the Gulf and the broader Indo-Pacific. It must reaffirm a British strategy fit for the future.

The UK has consistently been one of only a handful of allies that  has reached the 2014 commitment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to spend 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence, albeit a value the country is beginning to place too keen an emphasis on. This figure, in a sentiment echoed by Penny Mordaunt, the former Secretary of State for Defence, should be seen as a floor, not a ceiling. Historically, the UK spent a far higher percentage of GDP on defence; today, in a deteriorating international environment, the current defence budget is simply inadequate for the tasks the military – not least the Royal Navy – is starting to face.

If the UK wishes to maintain its global position and future ambitions, then further priorities within defence ought to be addressed – and urgently – by the new government. The tensions in the Gulf have highlighted just how thinly the Royal Navy is currently spread. In order to mitigate its lack of critical mass – a consequence of thirty years-worth of cuts and reductions to the fleet – the government should provide resources for investment. The threat from Russia to European security notwithstanding, the UK’s long-term economic and strategic interests are based increasingly farther from Europe. Revisionist states including the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and, increasingly, Iran, are seeking ways to circumvent the rules-based international system on which British interests depend.

Whether achieved through military intimidation or aggression, ignoring tribunals governing the laws of the sea, meddling in Western democratic processes via cyber-attacks, or defying international law, revisionist states have shown a much greater propensity over recent years to engage in acts deemed just below the threshold for war. Consequently, they have highlighted Western vulnerabilities and weaknesses, demonstrated in this instance by the Iranian seizure of the British-flagged Stena Impero in July.

As HMS Duncan begins to patrol the Strait of Hormuz, safeguarding British tankers against further aggression, HMS Montrose – a British frigate, already in the region – will dock in Bahrain for pre-planned maintenance work. Leaving HMS Duncan to patrol such vast waters alone is not conducive to British strategic interests in the region. Increased patrols necessitate an increase in the fleet, not further reductions, which is the historical pattern to which Britain currently finds itself victim.

The Iranian maritime challenge in the Gulf comes at a particularly difficult time for the UK.

The Iranian maritime challenge in the Gulf comes at a particularly difficult time for the UK. On the one hand, Britain remains supportive of the European Union (EU) (along with Russia and China) in relation to the ailing Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, but on the other hand the UK finds itself – due to a lack of naval investment – in need of America’s naval support to uphold freedom of navigation in the Gulf. While it is possible for Britain to try to keep the two issues de-linked, both are related and will only become more entwined in the weeks and months ahead. 

To re-address the current situation, two policies changes are needed, and simultaneously:

  1. Militarily, the UK should procure more frigates for the Royal Navy, which requires greater naval spending; 
  2. Diplomatically, Britain should begin moving closer to the US position in relation to Iran and the ailing JCPOA.

Boosting the Royal Navy

Production of the next-generation Type 26 frigates is currently underway, but only eight are earmarked for the UK – to replace the 13 Type 23 frigates currently in operation. Whilst the Type 26 is far superior in terms of surveillance, countermeasures and intelligence gathering, mass shifts mass, and the current plans for the fleet’s renewal fall short of current commitments. Despite costing approximately £1 billion each, the Royal Navy needs additional advanced frigates to counter increasing state-based naval threats, in addition to their already wide-remit of responsibilities. 

This will bring the number of frigates closer towards the 1998 Strategic Defence Review which called for a bare minimum of 32 frigates. In addition, this will provide the UK with more strategic depth allowing for its increased commitment to the Gulf not to detract resources away from other key geopolitical priorities, including the Indo-Pacific – particularly as the Royal Navy moves towards becoming fleet-based again as HMS Queen Elizabeth becomes fully operational. This will further strengthen Britain’s reputation as a credible and reliable military partner, both in the eyes of the US, as well as Gulf partners.

With the Type 26 not due for operations until the mid-2020s, by starting this increased procurement now under this new government the costs can be modestly spread over the next five years, thus allowing the UK to meet its strategic commitments over the next 5-20 years. 

This goes hand in glove with the wish of Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, to increase the size and capacity of the British defence industrial base – particularly pertinent to making a success of leaving the EU. With Australia agreeing to purchase the licensed design of eight of the Type 26 frigates last year, Canada followed suit with a deal for 15 units, with New Zealand  stating interest in a further three units – deals worth billions to BAE Systems.

Moving towards the US position on Iran

In addition, the UK should edge closer towards the American position on Iran. Rightly, establishing closer cooperation with the US Navy has been an immediate priority for both Dominic Raab and Ben Wallace, the new foreign and defence secretaries. As opposed to the vague notion of a European maritime force, which both France and Germany refused to back with any meaningful military commitment, the US has advocated a new international task force to patrol the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. This new force, spearheaded by the US Navy, will allow for greater numbers of British tankers to be protected than currently afforded, avoiding the ambiguity of a separate European force – with potential national caveats or limited rules of engagement.

Whilst a unified Western approach to countering Iranian aggression should not be ruled out, it may prove difficult to achieve – besides declining to participate in a European patrol force, Germany has also ruled out participation in a US-led maritime force. If the Europeans fail to support the UK in maintaining freedom of navigation, the British government should also move closer to the US in a diplomatic context. The illegal seizure of an UK-flagged tanker (alongside a previous attempt) demonstrates an increasingly consistent pattern of behaviour on Tehran’s part in attempting to usurp the freedom of navigation upon which the British economy depends. 

To begin with, Britain should join the US in imposing further economic sanctions on Iran, which have been proven to severely affect its economy. A weaker Rial would stymie the capability of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard, and thus prove less of a threat to British interests in the region.

In addition, the UK should reconsider its position on the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran. The US has withdrawn, whilst the UK, France and Germany still support its ineffective mandate. In light of Iranian provocations towards British shipping and Tehran’s recent defiance of the treaty – such as exceeding Uranium enrichment beyond the terms of the agreement – Britain should be willing to apply additional pressure on the Iranian regime.

As the UK looks to a new era with an increasingly open and far-reaching foreign policy – ‘Global Britain’ – withdrawing from the JCPOA would send a powerful signal to the world. It would also send an especially strong signal to the EU, which clings tenaciously to an approach that cannot work without US participation. Alongside a Royal Navy reconstruction programme, edging towards the US in the Gulf would show that Britain is willing to take robust measures to punish those who threaten the rules-based system, especially at sea – potentially helping to deter threats to British interests in the future.

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