Now is not the time to be aspiring to global pretensions which were largely given up half a century ago

Kate Hudson

In the depths of the second lockdown last November, Boris Johnson chose to make a major public spending announcement; not on the NHS, support for key workers or struggling businesses, but a massive extra injection of extra cash for the so-called ‘defence’ budget. Johnson announced an additional £16.5 billion for the MoD, that’s on top of over £40 billion a year already committed.

Defence sources said the £16.5bn would allow for “modernisation without making painful cuts” rather than any real expansion. Much of it seems destined for some of the newer military technological areas that often seem like something out of sci-fi. Johnson’s talk of ‘inexhaustible lasers’ led to a huge twitter debate about whether such a thing was actually possible!

Some will be spent on the creation of a National Cyber Force – apparently that’s a group of computer hackers who will conduct offensive operations; also a Space Command which aims to be able to launch its own rockets from 2022 – do we really need to do that? and a new agency dedicated to artificial intelligence.

The funding agreement was supposed to be linked to an integrated review of defence and foreign policy after Brexit, but in the event the announcement came some months before the Integrated Review – which has not yet happened.

What came through clearly was how this spending was very much part of Johnson’s projection of the UK as a re-emerging global power. Indeed, part of the announcement was that Britain would be sending its new aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth, east of Suez to the South China Sea. As Johnson said at the time, “Next year, HMS Queen Elizabeth will lead a British and allied task group on our most ambitious deployment for two decades, encompassing the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and East Asia.” Of course, this begs the question, why would you do that, when the pandemic rages and the planet burns? Talk about taking your eyes off our main security priorities and wasting vast amounts of money on grandiose projects which will help make the world a more dangerous place. Now is not the time to be aspiring to global pretensions which were largely given up half a century ago.

As some in the Asian press commented at the time, the move is likely intended as a message to China and certainly fits into the new framework being created by the US – and NATO too: increasing hostility to China, not confined to trade and other relations but increasingly having a military manifestation. It strikes me that if Johnson wants to send a message to China he could do that more easily by paying a visit to the Chinese Embassy, just a couple of miles up the road from Downing Street.

Unfolding announcements about the aircraft carrier deployment – now expected to start in May – indicate just how tied in this is with US military activities in the region. In January Britain and the US made a joint declaration about the ‘Carrier Strike Group 2021’ deployment to be led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth. The group includes nine ships, 15 British and U.S. fighter planes, and 11 helicopters. The US presence includes a detachment of Marine Corps F-35 Lightning II aircraft and the Navy’s USS The Sullivans.

If you needed any more evidence of US and UK military policy being joined at the hip, you only need to read the US Defense Department statement: “This deployment underscores the strength of our bilateral ties and demonstration U.S.-U.K. interoperability, both of which are key tenets of the U.S. National Defense Strategy.” UK Defence Secretary’s fawning response confirms the nature of the relationship: “This deployment embodies the strength of our bilateral ties and reflects the depth and breadth of this vital defence and security partnership.”

The cost of this escapade must surely be in the billions and it’s hard to think of a greater misallocation of resources as we face not only the pandemic but a worsening economic crisis. The chronic underfunding of the NHS is really a crime at the hands of successive governments – it has been known for years that pandemics and major health emergencies constitute national security threats, but the necessary funding had not been made available.

Even now, when the reality of the pandemic threat is known, the actions of our government are to waste vast amounts of money manufacturing a new and completely unnecessary security crisis – not only a new cold war with China, but when you bring major quantities of armaments into a sensitive area like the South China Sea there is surely the risk of a hot war.

Given the major problems that the world faces today – not only the pandemic, but the rapidly unfolding climate catastrophe – that is where our resources need to be employed. These require global solutions, with a united international community pulling together to resolve these crises. We need to explore new ways of cooperating not trying to revisit the supposed glory days of Britain’s imperial past.

This is a crucially important issue, and I’m delighted that CND and Stop the War are cooperating to say that military spending and provocative international actions are not the answer to the problems we face today. We oppose the deployment of the aircraft carrier and we call on the government to refocus instead on international cooperation for a green global recovery which will tackle the climate crisis as well as the pandemic.

24 Feb 2021

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