British government just now announced a significant increase in its military budget, the increase is likely to take Britain to number three in the world in terms of defense spending. Britain will leave India and only lag behind the United States and China. This may signal a shift in the global layout of geopolitical forces.
“This move comes after a decade of general budget austerity in Britain, a time during which successive governments have reduced Britain’s defense capabilities to the point where France has been left as the leader in terms of military capability among European powers. Now, anything is possible. France remains firm, and its forces continue to be deployed widely and effectively, especially in Africa in the Sahel. But now the British government now seems eager to reassert itself too, especially after Brexit.
“But the main reason why this news is really significant has nothing to do with the money allocated for defense in the next budget, and more has to do with the way the UK government plans to invest that money. While some of this will be used to cover gaps in classic capabilities that have emerged over the past decade – the clearest example of this is the new focus on the Royal Navy and the country’s shipbuilding capacity – much of the new money will go towards emerging stages of conflict: cyber, space and artificial intelligence.
It is true that Britain and other Western countries have and will continue to have significant capacity in these areas based solely on the research and development legacy of this current technology space. Unfortunately, however, countries that have positioned themselves against Western hegemony, such as Russia and China, have spearheaded many offensive aspects of conflict in these spaces. Russia has demonstrated much of the geopolitical weight of offensive cyber power over the past decade, while China has pioneered the offensive technology needed to disrupt space infrastructure in the West, and is currently the global leader in offensive deployment of AI technology.
The United States defense community has followed these developments closely, and has developed a response to these challenges, on an ad hoc basis, even when the political support to do so is not there. But before that, no other Western country apart from Britain has had a government-led reassessment of the current dynamics of global conflict and for the short and medium future. In addition, London has refocused their national defense strategy orientation to meet the challenges arising from Russia, from Iran, and especially, China.
Whether this new defense posture by Britain will be adequately funded for its ambitions, and whether this effort alone will mark a significant shift in power on the geopolitical chessboard remains to be seen. But even if that wasn’t the case, this moment would still carry a lot of meaning.
After years of unnoticed Trump, the United States under future President Joe Biden has no choice but to reaffirm the United States’ position on the global stage. And when it comes to doing so, there is no other choice but to move in the same direction as the British government has just done, by increasing defense capacity in exactly the same region. Once again, Britain finds itself in a position that happens to be leading by example among Western countries, and this alone will mean that it will find itself in an advantageous position in a future re-established Western security pact.
By leading the way in this way, even if the efforts of the British government would not be sufficient to ensure resistance to Russian and Chinese attacks alone, Britain is once again placing itself in the relationship of Western defense arrangements. Therefore, it appears that US-UK relations will once again be at the heart of the broader Trans-Atlantic Alliance. Fortunately, it looks like the UK is determined to remain globally relevant, even after Brexit.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is Director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington DC and Research Professor at the US Army War College’s Institute of Strategic Studies.