Why the UK must have defence engagement with that region: What sort of defence engagement?

What sort of involvement?

We do get suggestions what exactly the UK should deploy to the Asia-Pacific, but more often than not, they are just voices for grandstanding. Some are just list of ideals like this from the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) a whole list of what should be UK activities in the Asia-Pacific, now and post-Brexit. What really should be the UK’s plausible response to ensure stable security in the Asia-Pacific?

The UK military and political system actually is responding without such idealistic delusions of grandeur. First, the UK should continue or even try to slowly enlarge its permanent and temporary military presence in the region. British military deployments in Southeast Asia are already significant, despite what the analyst at HJS or other think tanks claim. The British Defence Singapore Support Unit (BDSSU), aka Naval Party 1022, is extremely well-valued by not just FPDA nations but other allied and nation-states in the region. It may not be as well-broadcast in social media or the mainstream media, but it continues to provide around 1200m3 of fuel of fuel fuel to nearly warships and ships almost every two years (Source: FOIA). There’s also staff officers assigned to Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre (IFC) and more staff assigned to the Integrated Air Defence System at RMAF Butterworth as part of the FPDA. Further afield, there’s the Gurkha regiment in Brunei and as you’ve seen some ship and aircraft deployments. All these are not symbolic gestures or ‘spreading the defence jam thin’ but maintaining a strategic role and some degree of deterrence.

Can they be improved or increased? Not exactly to extremely level which the HJS analyst describes in a short period. The UK cannot also base large-scale military forces there without increasing military tensions. It, however, should maintain its personnel in FPDA and Asia-Pacific countries and send military deployments more regularly. I don’t mean a five year-gap between HMS Daring’s deployment and HMS Sutherland’s deployment, but more regular Royal Navy ship and submarine visits, British Army unit (not just personnel deployments) and RAF squadron-level deployments to FPDA exercises and with other Asia-Pacific partners. The UK simply sends personnel for FPDA exercises. It should instead send physical ships (not ship), at least platoon-sized forces and more RAF flights
to FPDA exercises to strongly affirm its role in this pact. It was already announced that the UK would deploy HMS Queen Elizabeth and its escorts. That deployment requires much financial cost and willpower and this ultimate aim should be slowly built up with more regular deployments to maintain the momentum.

Second, the UK has long-standing defence engagements with the region which can be and should be easily altered to a larger degree. Defence engagement here means not just military deployments but through personal engagement. Sir H has given an overview, albeit outdated of the roles of British Defence Attaches play in the region and globally. To update his overview, the UK has OF-6-level defence attaches in Australia, China, South Korea and non-resident accreditation (NRA) with North Korea (based in China) while the UK attache in Japan is of OF-5. Closer to Southeast Asia, British defence attaches are of OF-5 ranks in Brunei, Burma/Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines (NRA in Brunei), Thailand and Vietnam. Finally the defence attaches in Singapore and New Zealand are at OF-4 rank.

Singapore’s defence attache used to be at OF-5 rank until 2014 (see p.21) and this ‘reduction’ in my view is regrettable. This was made up as the 2015 SDSR promised the creation of a British Defence Staff (Asia Pacific) which materialised in 2016. The head of this British Defence Staff it of OF-5 rank assistant by a OF-4. On top of the these senior ranks, there is at least one British officer at the Information Fusion Centre in Changi, Singapore and more MOD civilians to sustain the BDSSU and defence attaches in the region. Defence attaches don’t just attend military events and talk to their host nation counterparts; they engage with them to deep bilateral relations and facilitate ship docking and joint military actions; they act as ambassadors for British defence exports (I mentioned the example of the Typhoon as a possible consideration for the RMAF) and they do report on military activities, aiding UK’s Defence Intelligence branch.

Give this impressive range of Defence attaches, you might think there’s no need for any change. Well, there could areas that could be strengthen. The UK has formed a strong alliance with Japan as pledged in pre-Brexit 2015 SDSR. The UK could or should elevate its defence attache is Tokyo to a OF-6 rank so as not just affirm this new relationship but also to place the defence attache on par with his/her counterparts in Beijing/Pyongyang and Seoul. One immediate challenge for this elevation is that the cost of living in Tokyo or Japan is extremely high. This is also probably why the defence attache in Singapore was reduced in rank. Second, higher-rank defence attaches need to be matched with responsibilities equal to their rank. One area the British Defence Attache in Japan or his/her assistant could work on is to created a Naval Support facility at a Japanese port, something akin to the support facility at Mina Salman port in Bahrain. This would improve support Royal Navy or other British Armed Forces transiting up to East Asia.

Beyond defence attaches, the UK should improve partnerships with more exchange personnel or personnel embedded in Asia-Pacific military forces. The UK already has a Royal Marine Brigadier as Deputy Director, International Logistics and Security Co-operation at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Recently, a Royal Navy Commander was was appointed as a liaison officer to the JSDF. These are great establishments and the UK could expand this, placing officers in other armed forces such as South Korea’s and Japan’s. Thhe UK should continue to train Asia-Pacific personnel in the whole range of British Armed Forces and likewise send British personnel on exchange in Asia-Pacific militaries to learn about their training and standard operating procedures. In fact, in 2014, two junior British Army officers went on an exchange with the PLA ground force academy. Yes you may detest how they force march and eat, but such inter-military exchanges bring about greater understanding of each other’s practices and culture, thus aiding British Defence Intelligence.

Third, the UK has engaged with the Asia-Pacific region through visits with defence-related visits by UK officials and politicians. Yes this link mentioned a whole host of them visiting Singapore. Yet, this was a one-off and most of them were just short conferences or meetings. US, Australian and other Asian leaders and senior officers have often conducted visits to maintain or strengthen relationships and the UK should like wise perform such exchanges. In Part I, detailed Williamson’s trip before and during the Shangri-la Dialogue. UK Ministers and the CDS or VCDS should affirm that they will attend this annual conference which only requires a hop on to either the RAF VIP Voyager or a normal flight. In the event of any UK General Election like in 2017, the UK MOD’s Permanent Secretary can take the place of the Secretary of State. All this would again deepen defence and security relations with individual countries or wider Asia-Pacific pacts like the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM-Plus). Closer exchanges could even result in awards to UK military leaders.For example, Former CDS Nick Houghton received an an honorary Panglima Gagah Angkatan Tentera (PGAT) or Knight Grand Commander of the Order of Military Service from Malaysia back in 2015. So you do get some personal awards through engagement with your counterparts.

This talk about engagement with Asia-Pacific officials also extends to British academics and journalist. Yours truly has seen so many of these two groups believe 1) Britain no longer needs to look East or care about the Asia-Pacific; 2) call it the archaic ‘Far East’; 3) spew anti-Asian or specifically anti-Chinese rants (Prof you know who, I’m talking about you) 4) or say the UK should mainly or only focus on the NATO front. Some of these have designated titles like reporter for Asian issues or Lecturer/Senior Lecturer/Assistant or full Professor for East Asian studies. Yet they have never stepped a foot in this geographical region and only claim that China or North Korea or Vietnam is not democratic or capitalistic enough to receive UK/Western support. Hardly any of them have been to security dialogues like the Shangri-la Dialogue but are happy to spew unsubstantiated comments which do affect UK policy. If British youths can backpack through the region and post photos of themselves (sometimes topless, haha) on mountain tops, surely journalists and academics can visit the region (well clothed). Such visits of course may not change their pro-Europe or narrow-minded or anti-Asian views, but at least it is a start of stronger understanding. Plus, if they at least try for the Shangri-la Dialogue, who wouldn’t want to be in such a nice hotel?

A bridge not too far

Yes, it is not a such a great if there are more engagement by British government, military and media officials with the Asia-Pacific region. It may be a bridge quite far to increase UK military deployments to the Asia-Pacific (again please do not say Far East) given how UK financial and willpower appears at present. There is a slight glimmer of hope in the Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) that will be, hopefully, released in a few week’s time. The recent NSCR did mention the importance of the wider Asia-Pacific to UK National Security, but it is quite doubtful whether the MOD-led MDP will back this up. Beyond all this, I again emphasise UK willpower needs to increase in order to meet and sustain any increase in UK defence and security policy toward East Asia. Gavin Williamson has supposedly started a battle with Philip Hammond over the size of the defence budget. I have mentioned the Treasury is a constantly target whenever defence commentators see the size of HM Armed Forces as shrinking. The feud actually should be beyond financial terms: They should fight over whether the UK should stay in its backyard or see that wider areas like the Asia-Pacific region. Only if there’s a strong willpower will any of the above suggestions actually happen and we will actually see the Union Jack flying high to maintain security in the Asia-Pacific.

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Why the UK must have defence engagement with that region Part 1: Gavin Williamson in the Asia-Pacific

While many British people were either complaining about the weather or worrying about Brexit, Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson and his delegation were abroad seven hours ahead of GMT plus 1 time. Namely, Williamson was in Malaysia, then Brunei and finally in Singapore for the annual Shangri-la Dialogue, or as known in social media circles as #SLD18.

First stop, Malaysia and Brunei

These twitter posts thisone and this from the UK High Commissioner to Malaysia showed that he first met with the new Malaysian Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu. Naturally, no one knows what Williamson and Sabu exactly discussed, but Malaysia is a Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA) member, and a key importer of British defence equipment for decades. For example, Malaysia has bought Starstreak missiles and may be aiming for the Eurofighter Typhoon, once it gets its finances in order.

Williamson then headed further eat to Brunei, where most Brits love for its exotic nature and mountains, but in the case of British defence policy, there has been a British Army base there, more specifically a Gurkha regiment. Jokes or no jokes, Williamson watched how jungle training is conducted and received a garland from them.

To Singapore for the Shangri-la Dialogue or SLD18

Photo op with the Gurkhas over, William head back west to Singapore, where SLD18 was occurring. In true British defence media fashion, his appearance was only announced late only on the first of June. Information on Williamson’s activity came from other media, specifically Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), which noted he was hosted to a breakfast meeting with his FPDA counterparts by Singapore’s defence minister Ng. (Piece of trivia: Williamson is the youngest and second most recent FPDA minister.) Next, Williamson met up with the Prime Minister of Singapore, most probably discussing about general UK-Singapore topics. What was more surprising was later that day, Williamson and Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng signed a Defence Cooperation Memorandum of Understanding (DCMOU), promising greater cooperation in defence areas such as cyber-security and information warfare, as well exchanging knowledge over counter-terrorism and counter-improvised explosive device (IEDs). For a country far away from Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific, one which has reduced its presence since the handover of Hong Kong, this MOU might be a definitive re-construction of a UK-Singapore and UK-Southeast Asian relationship.

Williamson’s major day was on Sunday 3rd of June, the last day of SL18 where he on a panel with French Minister for the Armed Force Parly and Singapore’s Ng.. His speech was pretty traditional by British political sound-bites. What I mean is that he talked about the so-called ruled-based order which nation-states are suppose to follow but increasingly have not. Williamson, as have other British politicians, drew up the example of the Salisbury/Skirpal attack as an example. But that is hardly one, since many nation-states, not just Russia and China, have not played the ruled-based order but for their own interests. Anyway, Williamson continued stating much of UK contributions of Asia Pacific story, such as the deployment of HMS Sutherland, HMS Albion and later this year HMS Argyll. Those have been mentioned many times in social and mainstream media. Similarly, Williamson (possibly proudly) announced that British Army personnel would deploy to Japan later this year for bilateral exercises. This again isn’t new; it has been announced before. Williamson then joked that the UK need to send more ships to the Asia-Pacific, since France sent five warships to the region in 2017 and in 2018 This joke is probably Williamson’s highlight at SLD18, you may search the rest of twitter for the summary or comments about his speech in this thread.

Update: IISS has uploaded his speech here (You have to download it to read or watch the full video of all three speakers.)

What’s all this fuss about Williamson’s Southeast Asian trip?

I know Williamson has been mocked by journalist for comments about Russia but seriously, twitter users should stop tweeting about that and tweet more about his time in Southeast Asia. This especially is because this is 1) his first major trip to this region and 2) his  inaugural trip to the region’s most prominent conference (in 2017, no UK politician attended the SLD; only CDS Air Chief Marshal Peach did since it was after the 2017 General Election.) In fact, besides Williamson, HMS Sutherland was docked there, visited by the Commander Devonport Flotilla Flotilla. VCDS General Sir Gordon Messenger was also at the conference, speaking on new technologies and the future of conflict, therefore presenting a truly prominent British presence at the SLD. But, wait, some defence commentators (I shall not name who), will say all this is just ‘spreading the defence jam thin’. They say, oh, sending these warships and these troops are tokens and won’t have much of an impact. The UK should concentrate on the Euro-Atlantic area, where NATO is a core military alliance, or the Middle East, or Africa and leave the distant Far East/Asia-Pacific to the US of A, Trump or whoever is in the White House. They drum the beat, the UK has no interest in the Asia-Pacific, the world will be divided, let’s focus on home…

I sincerely disagree. This has been tried before in history, during World War Two. Then the UK prioritised its forces on its home front. That may be a sound decision, yet it resulted in Imperial Japan defeating British and Commonwealth forces in the Far East. Even closer to British shores, it initially suffered defeated in North Africa before defeated the Nazis. Ok, one might still argue that at present with the worry over Brexit, rising threats from closer state actors like Russia and extreme-Islamist terrorism may suggest the focus should be at home. For example, Sir Humphrey in fact wrote that the region pose little military threat to the UK.

Yet, that assessment was back in 2012 and six years later, China has reclaimed land in that disputed area, massing long-range anti-ship cruise missiles and air-defense missiles. The PRC has also harassing fishing ships around those waters. Closer to home, China has also possibly meddled with UK security through ownership of the Hinkley Point nuclear power station. Then There is also the North Korean crisis. Yes, North Korea is a huge distance away from the UK, it is Trump’s fault for adding fuel to the fire, yet the DPRK has launched a cyber attack an a chemical attack that actually killed someone. In the wider scope, even before the Brexit referendum, East Asia was a highly important economic powerhouse and a more crucial trading bloc for the UK due to its stellar economic growth and technological advancement. Now, whatever type of Brexit approach the UK takes, the East Asian/Asia-Pacific region will definitely continue to be a critical area for UK economic security and survival (just check the World Bank trade statistics for example). If the defence of the realm is the first priority of government, then protecting trade routes in the Asia-Pacific and preserving economic security there is not a cheap token, but a core duty. It is certain not ‘spreading the jam thin’ but preventing any pest or new pest from eating your beloved crops.

This is the end of Part I. Part II will discuss the range of plausible, not possible UK responses to ensure security in the Asia-Pacific.

So in a pre-“Trident Debate” mode let me say…

1) The whole debate is about replacing the ballistic missile submarines (officially the SSBNs). Not the Trident D5 missiles (whose name is incorrectly used to describe the whole system), not the nuclear warheads, which are the ones which cause the devastation. Read this House of Commons research report. Another simple to read document is this one, yet another MOD publication

2) No one and no organisation (including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the Scottish National Party (SNP), the anti-“Trident” Labour Party members including Jeremy Corbyn) have come up with a sensible idea what to do if the vote falls against the motion. No one has said how to properly scrap the not-even-completed-Successor-class submarines, how to quickly retrain specialised skilled workers, what to do with the Royal Navy submariners destined for these submarines, the support personnel, the civilians who support these personnel, their families. Then what to do with HMND Clyde which is prepared or is preparing to house these submarines.

3) People forget (and in relation to point 1)) that even if the vote doesn’t go in favour, it does not mean the UK’s nuclear weapons are gone. With the vote just about replacing the SSBNs, the missiles (yeah of course they are American-made but British-leased) will still be there. The nuclear warheads will still be there. Again, in relation to point 2, no one has created an idea how to dismantle all of them safely and quickly without thinking about the astronomical cost. At the most, the Yanks (heh) will take back the missiles, AWE will have to prove they can dismantle the warheads (such cost still paid by the British (not just Scottish) taxpayer) and their whole company.

4) A removal of the submarines and then maybe the whole infrastructure (which the vote again is not about) WILL NOT reduce global nuclear weapons or create a spark for nuclear weapons reduction. The response will likely be: US (and France) will increase their warheads or delivery systems to match the loss of the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Or Russia and China may also join the “replace the short fall” race. Or regional, non-Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nuclear powers would increase their stockpile.

5) With the lack of any current feasible anti-ballistic missile defence (BMD) system, a total removal of the UK’s nuclear deterrent would be the UK has no option should there be a nuclear threat (however so unlikely) or WMD or non-WMD missiles launched at British territories or interests. Of course, using a nuclear response to a non-nuclear attack has always been ruled out by British governments. However, the total removal of its deterrent means the door will be really open for threats. Can diplomacy and conventional forces subdue the threats?

6) The UK is a puny nuclear deterrent nation. The US has its triad (Bombers, ICBMs and SSBNs with SLBMs and tactical nuclear weapons–eek!), the French has two modes of delivery (SSBNs and via fighters (Rafales) launched by land or via their single aircraft carrier). The Russians have a less updated (maybe) triad which is being modernised. China (PRC) has some sort of triad. And then there are regional nuclear powers as mentioned in point 4. So a removal will mean a removal of the puniest nuclear weapons state.

7) The issue therefore is not about the Successor-class submarines or system of delivery but about reducing what is the real WMD–the warheads. At around 120 operationally available warheads and a stockpile of around 225 warheads, it is argued by pro-“Trident” pundits that is enough or not enough. I say there can be a slow phased reduction but simultaneously, there must be harder or more efforts placed on multilateral non-nuclear proliferation. The UK is right to maintain a minimum deterrent but not correct is being arrogant about it.

8) As the information charts say, this nuclear deterrent has never been set out to deter conventional, state or non-state based threats including terrorism. Yes, each terrorist or non-nuclear attack every day makes it hard to believe that the UK needs a deterrent. I bet the submariners, no some of them, are thinking, what the hell am I doing when London was attacked on 7 July 2005, or the latest Nice attacks. Or what’s happening in Syria. But again, don’t shut down all your electrical goods because you want to save energy. That’s too extreme….

9) Continuous-at-sea-deterrent (CASD) does play another crucial role besides (attempting) to deter nuclear threats from state powers. It helps train submariners, from the chef to the captain, on submarine-based procedures. It’s not your holiday cruise but a military activity where crew members do get their “Dolphins”. Removing their vessels or boats means less ability to train them.

10) Back to point 2. What’s going to replace the SSBNs? There’s no such thing as money immediately going back to the government’s “bank” because you still need to spend it on dismantling the submarines and their infrastructure (as I pointed out), and probably more billions in safely removed the whole system. By then, would you expect government to say, hey, here are savings for the NHS and non-military means? Or military stuff?

Beware the “UK’s China Problem”, uh really?

Sometimes on twitter you meet scholars with shining credentials but the weirdest and most incredulous propositions. One such person is a certain P Porter, who holds a Dphil from Oxford.. His latest (or longstanding) argument is that the UK can’t “have it both ways”–courting China through economic links, and being part of the Special Relationship with the US.

There are some holes in that assertion but I’ll put it this way. The UK is NOT a servant or a labdog of the US despite having a “Special Relationship” with the US. It does not, though on many occasions it does, “follow” the US in foreign policy actions and/or interventions. The UK has its own foreign policy sovereignty. Yes the US has not seen eye-to-eye in certain areas (Porter drums up Suez) but disagreements do not break down partnerships (UK did not support the US in Vietnam or its “anti-communist” activities in South America in the 1970s and 1980s).

Ok, ok, sometimes you say the Special Relationship has unwritten rules–you must suck up to the bigger power, the US. At what cost? You drum up Suez, Porter, I throw in the 2003 Iraq card (and other small cases where the UK acted independently of the US. I wonder why then General Sir Michael Jackson bothered to say no to then-General Wesley Clark and still wasn’t punished by Tony Blair?)

Bottom line: The Special Relationship IS NOT and WILL NOT be wrecked up over the UK’s choice of pursuing a non-confrontational approach to China. Think again.

Update: Falklands dilemma for UK as US favours Argentine candidate as next UN Secretary-General So if the UK has to support the US over China’s actions in the South China Sea, why isn’t the US supporting the UK over the Falklands?

Julian Lewis and “Trident” and the nuclear arms race.

Saw this the other day. Julian Lewis, Conservative MP and Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee is, no, has been a life long advocate of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, erroneously but colloquially known as ‘Trident’. In the interview, Lewis stated that three of the five powers–UK, France and China–were not part of the nuclear arms race and have not been so. I’m not an expert of France or China, but it is quite clear that the latter has been improving its nuclear launch capabilities and arsenal. Sites likeNTI and this news release have pointed out the growth of China’s nuclear arsenal. Unlike France, China has the typical ‘triad’ of nuclear weapons–land-based, sea-based and aerial-based. So the good Doctor is incorrect in this point.

Written Evidence to the UK HoC Defence Committee

Nice piece of evidence.

Read it here

LJS Blog

Read and review.

Thanks to the UK House of Commons Defence Select Committee for publishing it.

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Queen’s Speech 2015: The foreign affairs, security and defence parts

Well, not too shabby Brits may put it. The Queen’s Speech 2015, written by a Conservative majority government, did not just focus on Osborne’s cuts, debt and deficit reduction and the European Union (EU) plans or exit. There was a substantial but still not that detailed section on foreign affairs, security and defence. I paste the relevant part of the speech below, with my brief comments in bold:

My Lords and members of the House of Commons

My government will continue to play a leading role in global affairs, using its presence all over the world to re-engage with and tackle the major international security, economic and humanitarian challenges. (This is more a reference to the work and challenge of the Department for International Development (DFID), along with say the Stabilisation unit, the 77th Brigade, the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund and Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) staff.)

My ministers will remain at the forefront of the NATO alliance and of international efforts to degrade and ultimately defeat terrorism in the Middle East. (Note: Ministers, not military leaders.)

The United Kingdom will continue to seek a political settlement in Syria, and will offer further support to the Iraqi government’s programme for political reform and national reconciliation. (FCO work, along say with DFID but FCO first.)

My government will maintain pressure on Russia to respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, and will insist on the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. (FCO, plus maybe, just maybe, military might. No mention whatsover about a committment or some adherence to the NATO 2% target.)

My government looks forward to an enhanced partnership with India and China. (Military? Remember this post I made? There’s conflicting information which brigade is aligned to India. The British Army Journal said 11th Infantry Brigade but now 8th Engineer Brigade says 22 Engineer Regiment, a smaller unit. In any case, the “enhanced partnership” with India will primarily be foreign affairs, economic/commerical and non-aid development. China? No British Army units appear to be aligned with China. Links will China will be diplomatic and economic/commerical. Once in a while, maybe a Royal Navy ship visit or maybe, maybe RAF Typhoons.)

Prince Philip and I look forward to our state visit to Germany next month and to our state visit to Malta in November, alongside the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. We also look forward to welcoming His Excellency the President of The People’s Republic of China and Madame Peng on a state visit in October. (See the linkage with China will be diplomatic.)

My government will seek effective global collaboration to sustain economic recovery and to combat climate change, including at the climate change conference in Paris later this year. (Amber Rudd’s purview.)

My government will undertake a full strategic defence and security review, and do whatever is necessary to ensure that our courageous armed forces can keep Britain safe. (The famous and dreaded Strategic and Security Defence Review 2015. Cuts? Increases (haha), you name the gloom and doom.)

My government will work to reduce the threat from nuclear weapons, cyber attacks and terrorism. (Vague, but remember the Joint Cyber Reserve?)

Other measures will be laid before you.

My Lords and members of the House of Commons

I pray that the blessing of almighty God may rest upon your counsels.