17 décembre 2019 | International, Aérospatial, Naval, Terrestre, C4ISR, Sécurité

Getting Brexit Done Brings Defense Challenges

Tony Osborne

Boris Johnson’s election landslide on Dec. 12 makes Brexit on Jan. 31 a certainty.

But as the chants of “Get Brexit Done”—a slogan used by the Conservative party in their election messaging—fade away, Britain’s place in the world appears infinitely more vulnerable.

Johnson’s parliamentary majority means he can now sweep aside any opposition to pursue his vision of Brexit.

But he was not the only victor.

The Scottish National Party secured 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats, which the party says is a mandate for a second independence vote. If it were to succeed, there would be far-reaching consequences to Britain’s national defense capability. Scotland is home to strategically important air bases and, most significantly, the UK’s Trident-based nuclear deterrent. Johnson is unlikely to approve such a referendum at least in the short-term, but the Scottish nationalists could make life difficult for his government, and preventing a referendum could be seen as undemocratic.

The complexities of having Northern Ireland as the only part of the UK to share a land border with an EU country, the Republic of Ireland, mean that after a Brexit there will be a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This, too, could have security implications and lead to renewed violence from unionist groups, as they see their political influence being eroded. Nationalists see an opportunity for a united Ireland once again. There is also uncertainty about the futures of Gibraltar and Diego Garcia. 

Exiting the EU means British security forces no longer will be linked to EU databases on criminals, organized crime and terror. Questions also have arisen about Russia’s influence in the British democratic process, with Johnson suppressing publication of an intelligence report on Russian infiltration in British politics during the election run-up.

And there is a fiscal aspect as well. Since the Brexit vote in 2016, Britain’s GDP has begun to stagnate as economic output and investments fall away. National debt also is rising. The British Parliament’s own analysis suggests GDP could be 7% lower over the next 15 years than without Brexit, and even with a free-trade agreement established with Europe. Questions then would arise about whether Britain could afford to maintain military spending. Currency fluctuations will affect big-budget programs such as the ongoing purchase of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

Britain is one of a handful of NATO countries with defense spending at or above NATO’s target of 2% of GDP.  The Conservative manifesto published in the run-up to the election calls for this to increase by at least 0.5% above inflation every year. Britain’s defense budget for 2019-20 was £39.5 billion ($52.7 billion), and this will rise to £41.3 billion for 2020-21. The government will maintain and renew the Trident nuclear deterrent but also support the defense industry with “ambitious global programs,” including local construction of Type 31 frigates and local production of the Boxer armored vehicle.

In December, the Royal Navy commissioned the second new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, in a further step toward restoring the country’s carrier capability. Following operational trials in the fall off the Eastern U.S., more are planned around the UK during 2020, paving the way for the first operational deployment in May 2021.

The UK plans to have 35 F-35s in service by the end of 2022, and the government has committed to buying all of the 138 F-35s it planned to purchase when it joined the JSF program in the early 2000s. Whether that commitment is met and if the UK will purchase additional variants could be determined in a strategic defense and security review planned for 2020. 

With the retirement of the Panavia Tornado last March, the Eurofighter Typhoon fleet has become the heavy-lifter of the UK’s air defense mission and is continuing air strikes against Islamic State group sites in Iraq and Syria along with the UK’s MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft systems. 

The UK now is stepping up development of a Typhoon replacement  for the mid-2030s with the Tempest future combat air system, supported by Italy and Sweden. More nations could join in 2020, with Japan a key target. And with delivery of the first of nine Boeing P-8 maritime patrollers, the UK is back in the long-range antisubmarine-warfare business, with an initial operating capability expected in April. 


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