Rule Britannia, another Brexit delusion

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In a speech to a UK think tank yesterday, British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson argued that leaving the European Union will open a door for Britain to pursue a renewed, muscular, interventionist, unilateral foreign and defense policy:

In an era of ‘Great Power’ competition we cannot be satisfied simply protecting our own backyard. The UK is a global power with truly global interests. … And since the new Global Great Game will be played on a global playing field, we must be prepared to compete for our interests and our values far, far from home.

That is why Global Britain needs to be much more than a pithy phrase. It has to be about action. And our armed forces represent the best of Global Britain in action. Taking action alongside our friends and allies. Action to strengthen the hand of fragile nations and to support those who face natural disasters. Action to oppose those who flout international law. Action to shore up the global system of rules and standards on which our security and our prosperity depends.

And action, on occasion, that may lead us to have to intervene alone.

Apparently, after Brexit, Britannia will once again rule the waves. Color me skeptical.

The last time the United Kingdom “had to intervene alone,” i.e. unilaterally projected military power abroad, was 1982, when Margaret Thatcher sent British troops and warships 8,000 miles to a remote colony in the South Atlantic to wrest back control of some windswept rocks that had been invaded and seized by Argentina.

By the time the Falklands War was over, 649 Argentines and 255 Brits were killed in action, including more than 300 Argentine sailors who drowned when their WWII-era cruiser, the Gen. Belgrano, was torpedoed by a British nuclear submarine.

The financial cost to liberate the 1,800 British subjects and about 400,000 sheep who at the time constituted the Falklands population? The contemporary estimate was $1.19 billion, or the equivalent of about $3 billion today.

Take away it’s nuclear arsenal and Britain would struggle to be described as a military great power. It’s land forces and navy have over the years shrunk to a shadow of their former selves, and are likely no match for the kinds of adversaries Williamson envisions by evoking a 21st century Great Game of the sort that pitted the old British Empire against its Russian imperial rival two centuries ago.

To give an idea of how wildly implausible all of this is, the plan Williamson announced includes the purchase of a pair of civilian passenger ferries or cargo ships for conversion into amphibious assault vessels. And don’t forget the “swarm fleets” of off-the-shelf drones that he envisions fielding alongside the Royal Air Force.

The idea implicit in Williamson’s speech, that membership in the European Union has prevented the UK from militarily asserting its national interests is equally farfetched. Beyond it’s own weakness, a greater constraint on British adventurism, if it really wanted to engage in such, is its membership in NATO. And that’s not going changing, at least not anytime soon.

Only 47 more days until Brexit!