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Tilting at windmills? UK Defence and the Indo-Pacific

Far from presenting a binary choice between European and Indo-Pacific theatres, UK Defence’s Integrated Review refresh should seek to harmonise these seemingly divergent approaches.  Understanding the different utility of Naval, Air and Land forces in meeting regional challenges and political goals would go some way to squaring the circle.


Top level direction to refresh the Integrated Review (IR) in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is well meaning, but misguided.  Far from being contradicted by events (as the 1998 Strategic Defence, and 2010 and 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Reviews (SDSR) were), the IR is still credible – it correctly identified Russia ‘as the most acute threat to [UK] security’.  Events in Ukraine have crystallised that perspective and highlighted the weaknesses in Europe’s defence architecture, resilience and industry.  However, a review that focuses solely on a narrow view of what security means misses the wider scope of the IR and context that the UK, and Europe, finds itself in.  As communicated in his Mansion House speech, it is not a view shared by the Chief of the Defence Staff.

Another stark choice for UK Defence?

The argument that Britain is faced with an either-or choice to its security is not new; continentalist and blue water strategists have been making their respective cases for centuries.  The reality is that this is not a polarising choice, but one of prioritising the correct means to the desired ends.  In terms of the Indo-Pacific tilt, that means is a military posture that supports the goals of global Britain; a secure and prosperous trading nation.  In terms of military postures, then, one needs to expand horizons beyond the restrictive, ‘warfighting’ perspective that many purely military analysts understand, and embrace the diplomatic and economic functions. 

Those functions are predominantly maritime: the core difference between navies and their land and air counterparts is that they exist precisely to safeguard economic interests and influence external actors, both during war and peace.  Corbett laid down those functions in 1907, and they have been at the heart of Britain’s Maritime Doctrine since the mid-1990s, forming two sides of the Warfighting / Influence / Security triumvirate. 

Myopia and the focus on Europe

The fact that it is the Royal Navy that is engaging most prominently with states in the Indo-Pacific and contiguous regions, and that it is the Navy that is leading European efforts to counter maritime illegality and safeguard shipping, is proof of this enduring character.  Moreover, the idea that Britain should focus myopically and single-mindedly on its near abroad misses the broader point that European strategy is founded upon.  

Throughout the Cold War, and since borne out by events in Ukraine, the assumption was that European NATO would be reinforced from across the Atlantic Ocean and sustained by global trade.  The way that this was to be assured was through Western dominance of shipping lanes and their surroundings; the eight primary maritime chokepoints.  Four of these chokepoints are found in the MENA-Indo-Pacific neighbourhood: the Suez canal, Bab-el-Mendab, Hormuz, and Malacca straits.  With Europe turning away from Russian fossil fuels and relying on imports from the US and Middle East, maintaining supplies from and through these areas is paramount.  

It is not a coincidence that the British empire centred on control of these sea lanes, or that the UK has maintained, if not expanded, its presence in despite the reported withdrawal from East of Suez in 1971.  The Sultan of Brunei maintained a British garrison at his own expense; naval basing in the Gulf has expanded in recent years with the reopening of HMS Jufair in Bahrain and Duqm Joint Logistics Support Base in Oman, and the RAF operate out of three Middle Eastern airbases in Qatar, UAE and Oman.  The Royal Navy also maintains the British Defence Singapore Support Unit under the terms of the Five Power Defence Arrangements.

Whither Russia and China?

Unfortunately, it is not just the West that has its eyes on these chokepoints and associated regions.  Russian and Chinese ambitions include bases in the Red Sea, and China’s aggressive island-building in the disputed South China Sea is a direct threat to neighbouring nations’ legal rights.  This should not be surprising: two-thirds of China’s trade transits the Malacca straits; and the Red Sea is central to Xi’s Maritime Silk Road.  Contesting and constraining Russian and Chinese interests across the Indo-Pacific is fundamental to European energy security, and maintains deterrent punishment options.  

With Chinese growth declining, if not already entering recession, its vulnerability to trade wars has been exposed.  That vulnerability is the very reason China is seeking to export its naval presence around the globe: the last continental power to be so exposed to global protein markets and dependency on imported raw materials was Wilhelmine Germany Recognising and exploiting that vulnerability requires presence and partnership to build a resilient deterrence posture; resilience that regional states cannot achieve unaided.  It is a problem that is recognised not just within the region, and by Britain’s allies there, but also in the capitals of continental Europe.

A(nother) challenge to the rules-based order

Understanding the role of navies, and maritime air patrols, in combating illegal activity is critical to this wider perspective on the Indo-Pacific tilt.  Upholding UNCLOS is a prerequisite for maintaining the rules-based order.  It is no coincidence that two of the Royal Navy’s Batch 2 offshore patrol vessels have been dispatched to the Indo-Pacific.  The world’s largest ocean is also vulnerable to abuses.  The UK is the security guarantor of vast swathes of the ocean; four of the world’s ten largest Marine Protected Areas are UK administered, including the Pitcairn Islands and British Indian Ocean Territory.  

The principal threat to those marine protected areas is Chinese fishing; China is the world’s largest seafood market, accounting for 45% of global consumption.  Fishery protection may not be a glamorous role for navies, but it is one that the Royal Navy has great experience of, and goes hand-in-hand with other maritime security tasks such as counter-smuggling and anti-piracy.  Both activities are endemic in South East Asia; it has all the right natural geography and characteristic economic and political factors required.  Indeed, since 1996, the Indo-Pacific seaways have been the riskiest for peaceful transit, which in turn has implications for maritime insurance rates.  The root causes (poverty, weak governance, corruption and unemployment) of these maritime dangers are found ashore, which is why deterrence by punishment and denial are both required.  

HMS Tamar arrives in Puerto Princesa
HMS Tamar arrives in Puerto Princesa, Aug 22 (photo US Navy)

Observable patrols alongside establishment of good governance ashore deters transgressors and removes the motivations for illegality.  It is quite clearly a public good, one that builds progressive, transformative relations with prospective partners and maintains a favourable status quo.  Not taking a lead in these regions risks ceding the initiative to challengers, as seen in the Chinese String of Pearls or Russian influence in Burkino Faso and Mali.  Similarly, Sri Lanka’s indebtedness to China is a concern for India; the threat of a Chinese naval base in such close proximity has prompted Indian protests and accelerated US-India cooperation

The Royal Navy’s presence, engagement and capacity building

Countering China’s influence means not just presence, but commitment to building good governance and host nation capacity.  It is no coincidence that piracy in the Indian ocean reached a zenith in the early 2010s with the collapse of bordering coastal governance, and has declined steadily since AMISOM intervention in Somalia.  The Royal Navy knows this: Maritime Training and Advisory Teams rebuilt the Iraqi navy between 2004 and 2011, and were developing the Yemeni coastguard during the same period.  In August, at the Astute-class submarine’s commissioning, it was announced that Australian personnel would train alongside HMS Anson’s crew, bringing the Royal Australian Navy one step closer to operating their own nuclear powered fleet submarines. 

The Royal Navy’s potential approach to capacity building, which focuses on systemic outcomes rather than tactical outputs, is a key difference between its future offer through Royal Marine support, augment, liaise and training (SALT) teams (and/or maritime liaison assessment teams (MLAT)) and the Army’s short term training teams.  Indeed, failure to build the systems and infrastructure, which host nations rely upon to sustain and maintain their security, creates a hollow force prone to collapse – as seen with the success of Daesh and the Taliban in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively.  

Specialist engagement teams–personnel who know the region’s people, culture, concerns and context–are needed if we are to understand regional requirements in the round.  The only way to achieve that is through persistent presence, even if it is limited in mass.  The Royal Navy’s modest presence in Singapore is a case in point, emphasising the importance of the region and the UK’s commitment to it.  Its effect is wholly disproportionate to its size, with Singaporean officer cadets regular attendees at BRNC Dartmouth and a shared defence perspective, underpinning a thriving trading relationship.

Assuring access to the global market

It is that trade and prosperity which underpins these commitments, modest though they are.  The 2010 SDSR recognised these interconnected strands upon which British interests lie.  The principle behind the move to link security to prosperity was historically sound, and was continued in the 2021 IR.  Whatever the politics behind Brexit, the idea behind exporting British goods to wider markets is sound.  With the Russian reinvasion of Ukraine, it is clear what form those goods could, if not should, take: rebuilding and investing in UK arms and munitions production industry should be an essential condition of the Land Industrial Strategy and levelling-up agenda. 

Defence drove the first four industrial revolutions, and we can expect it to drive the fifth.  With a decline in orders for Russian arms across Africa and Asia, and the antagonism of much of the latter to China, there is clear opportunity for Britain to exploit.  Just as the success of AUKUS and the export of the Type 26 and Type 31 frigate designs are ripe for exploitation, so too air and land-based systems, armaments and munitions.  Investing in the defence industry as an export capability can turn around ailing fortunes, build resilience for UK forces, and have an influence far beyond its immediate transaction.

The European centre of gravity

For all of this, though, Europe remains the centre of gravity, even if that centre is ringing hollow.  The Army, prominent in NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence architecture, is clearly positioned to act as a deterrent auxiliary force within Europe.  The Royal Air Force touts its place as the lethal manoeuvre arm of the British state, citing ongoing successes on Op SHADER, delivery of lethal aid to Ukraine, and its long-standing contribution to Op BILOXI.  Both, however, are stretched thin and require significant recapitalisation to become credible; the Army struggles to achieve relevant mass and lethality, and the RAF is seemingly plagued by systemic training and leadership failures.  

The Royal Navy has staked its NATO credibility on the carriers and the joint-operated F35.  The CSG21 Op FORTIS deployment of HMS Elizabeth to the Indo-Pacific was a short-term error, dangerously stretching the fleet beyond elasticity at the very moment that its presence in home waters was most needed.  Of greater risk is the Navy’s insufficient escort and auxiliary support mass which risk diluting its NATO credentials (Joint Expeditionary Force and 3 Commando Brigade’s Arctic capability) and its insistence on expending valuable assets in discretionary deployments and ill-conceived transformation programmes.

Exploiting the CSG21 legacy

Fundamentally, however, this pessimistic outlook ignores the starker reality of the IR and unfolding events.  The long-term benefits of the CSG 21 deployment are still to be exploited: closer defence partnerships with Japan, Australia, and South Korea, are in train.  Indonesia is building two T31 frigates under licence, and Vietnam is seeking greater defence cooperation.  Maintaining this momentum may be achieved without bending much needed force elements out of shape, and the deployment of two offshore patrol vessels are hardly going to break the bank. 

In reality, alongside the CSG21 and proposed Littoral Response Group (South), it is a modest outlay in operational capital that has garnered results and ultimately strengthened the UK’s position.  That non-aligned states such as Vietnam are turning to the UK, rather than siding with the USA or China and away from Russia, is ultimately good for The West and the region.  Strengthening regional actors in the face of great power challengers is the ultimate deterrence by denial strategy.  It is a difference in approach that even the Guardian recognised; far from being an act of colonial jingoism, the tilt to the Indo-Pacific is one of economic and political necessity.


As a whole, the wider view alluded to by Admiral Sir Tony Radakin incorporates a modern version of Till’s ‘virtuous maritime cycle’, demonstrating the need for Britain to maintain focus on the Indo-Pacific even before considering the challenges an increasingly autocratic, revisionist China poses to regional stability.  Those challenges may appear distant, but in a world bound by economic and ecological ties to the Pacific, the butterfly effect has seldom been more pronounced. 

Unlike armies and air forces, the contribution of navies is predicated firmly on deterrence by denial and security through support to the ongoing (if imperfect) peace: the maintenance of prosperity and freedoms in the face of autocratic statism, revanchism, and revisionism.  Far from being a quixotic reflection of past glories, the tilt is a tangible expression of the linked security and prosperity agendas.  To paraphrase, elements of UK Defence may not be interested in the Indo-Pacific, but the Indo-Pacific is interested in them.

Andrew Young

Andy is Former naval officer and Corps Tutor, author of "Amphibious Genesis: Thomas More Molyneux and the birth of Amphibious Doctrine", and numerous articles for RUSI and the Naval Review. A former host of the RUSI A Call To Arms series, Andy now works for the Royal Navy Strategic Studies Centre.

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