Uncharted Waters: NATO and the future of UK defence policy

70 years ago, ten leading Western and European countries – led by the United States – signed the North Atlantic Treaty. In doing so, they forged a powerful alliance that successfully contained Soviet expansionism and moved the war-torn nations of Western Europe towards peace and security.

Since then, Britain has continued to be a strong force on the global stage. Not only does the UK hold a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, it provides NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, has the largest EU military budget, possesses full-spectrum capabilities (including an independent nuclear deterrent) and is one of the few powers that meets NATO targets of spending 2% of GDP on defence.

The British Armed Forces play a critical role in policing international waters, stabilising conflict zones, and meeting hybrid threats. The UK’s participation in these multilateral efforts is especially important given a turbulent background of rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, cyberwarfare and expansionism from Russia and China, and international terrorism from militant Islamist groups.

Our impending withdrawal from the EU – most of whose member states are NATO allies – is as much a geopolitical issue as an economic one. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has embraced Brexit as a “great moment in our history” which will lead the UK to “build new alliances, rekindle old ones and act when required”.

If the UK is to be truly successful and seize the Brexit moment, rhetoric must be backed with a coherent strategy and practical measures.

A ‘rule-taking’ Brexit could impact longstanding UK foreign policy, which has always prioritised security cooperation with the United States, NATO, and the ‘Five Eyes’ network (including Canada, Australia and New Zealand). This was why Sir Richard Dearlove, former Chief of MI6, and other influential figures lobbied Conservative Associations across Britain to pressure MPs to vote against the Prime Minister’s deal.

Whatever happens, the UK will remain a major player within NATO given the EU’s limited role in security and defence policy. Close bilateral agreements and defence partnerships between the UK and EU states like France will continue regardless of how the Brexit negotiations go.

The UK has an unenviable task in securing its new trade partnership with the United States. Britain will have to accommodate competing US and EU regulatory regimes while managing its close security relationship with the unpredictable Trump White House. Yet the UK is well-placed to champion Trump’s push for more European countries to meet their NATO defence targets. Trump and his National Security Advisor John Bolton have also embraced the trade opportunities posed by Brexit.

Another positive signal from the Government is the ongoing strategic pivot towards the Asia-Pacific region – an area with the world’s fastest growing economies, and an increasing flashpoint of international tensions with China and North Korea. On top of its security pact with Japan, the UK is set to deepen its Asian presence with a new military base in South-East Asia, and the first of a new generation of aircraft carriers, the Queen Elizabeth, which will be deployed in the Pacific in 2021.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has said that no projects have been placed on hold due to Brexit. UK defence firms are also less exposed to financial losses than other sectors in a no-deal scenario, with EU sales only accounting for 4% of turnover. Moreover, if Airbus pulls out of the UK it could risk losing major defence contracts, such as a £410 million maintenance contract for a transporter aircraft and a £500 million deal for Airbus helicopters.

Despite a real-terms cut to the defence budget of £9 billion since 2010, Williamson successfully procured an extra £1.8 billion from the Treasury last year, which will be mainly spent on boosting the UK’s cyber-capabilities. The MoD should continue to prioritise technological innovation as part of its ongoing Modernising Defence Programme. However, in line with calls from the Commons Defence Committee, the MoD must ringfence this spending and exceed NATO’s target by considering spending as much as 3% of GDP on defence.

This is strategically vital, given the need for strong international coalitions to defend against asymmetrical threats, such as Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the need to stabilise failing states on Europe’s peripheries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

The UK will need to increase its diplomatic engagement in Brussels and other major capitals in the coming years. We should be under no illusions about the challenges ahead, but the UK must resolutely uphold its commitment to NATO and deepen its bilateral relationships if it is to retain its position as a leader of the rules-based international order.

Richard Black, Public Affairs

This blog is part of our International Affairs series on The Future of UK Foreign Policy. If you’d like to discuss the topic of international trade further please get in contact with the team.