Commissioned in 2007, the HMS Queen Elizabeth will be ready for deployment in 2019, followed shortly by the HMS Prince of Wales in 2023. Their ability to transport and sustain combat aircraft around the World significantly enhances the UK’s defence and security toolkit. This capability enhancement comes at an interesting and defining juncture. With the UK scheduled to leave the European Union on March 29, 2019, the UK will forge an independent path in its defence and foreign policy, striving to redefine its identity and role. The current debate around the UK’s departure tends to focus mostly on technicalities, but it is clear we also need to be thinking about the British foreign policy that will secure Britain’s longer-term interests, security and prosperity. Two of the questions we need to focus on are what does the arrival of the aircraft carriers mean for the direction of British defence and security policy and what can they tell us of the wider post-Brexit vision?
The narrative of the current government is a 'Global Britain'; one in which the possession of two aircraft carriers fits very well. Brexit has often been associated with Britain's disengagement with the rest of the world, but the HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales’s ability to project power and capability globally has been used rather to show the opposite. Theresa May certainly affirmed this position, declaring aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth that "It sends a clear signal that as Britain forges a new, positive, confident role on the world stage in the years ahead, we are determined to remain a fully engaged global power, working closely with our friends and allies…whether the task be high intensity war-fighting, targeted action to fight terrorism, or humanitarian relief to save lives overseas, these ships will transform the UK's ability to project power around the world.” Aircraft carriers are a strategic instrument, an indicative of an ocean-going navy and a global maritime power. However, Britain is a key stakeholder within the international system and an enhancement of its naval credibility represents a great commitment. Conventionally, the carriers might be crucial in tackling growing inter-state tensions. The South China Sea, Eastern Europe and the Gulf are key conflict hotspots, where the pair will assist reactionary counter-balancing. The United States’ aircraft carriers for example, are critical to the strategic jostling in the South China Sea and have recently been effective in dissuading North Korean escalations. Of note also, is the number of low-level conflicts that the UK has been involved in recently which highlights the trend of violence that consumes the international system. The new carriers will provide the Royal Navy with a platform which will allow them to operate air missions across any region, reducing reliance on ‘boots on the ground’. The UK has not possessed an aircraft carrier since 2010 and having access to two carriers by 2023 will certainly influence its strategic rationale. Coinciding with Brexit, they not only enhance the UK's ability to unilaterally protect and advance its interests, but also reinforce the pushed narrative of Britain continuing to engage with the world and solve collective international issues.
Though the 'Global Britain' strategy seems sensible and inevitable, as a Government strategy it lacks substance and is nothing more than a slogan. Through a focused lens of analysis, the pair of aircraft carriers indicate what is wrong with the UK’s current security and defence policy while also highlighting the need for a public, concerted debate on post-Brexit foreign policy and strategy. Conceived at a time of national revival in 1998 and commissioned in 2007, at a time of growing engagement in Afghanistan, their construction has fuelled an uncontested idea that Britain could and should play a key global role. Given their enormous cost, they negatively impact on wider defence spending. Many gaps exist in the UK’s defence and security capabilities and their possession greatly affects this balance. The construction of the carriers fills the ‘carrier gap’, but opens others. The Royal Navy states that in a “high-threat environment” they will be protected by two destroyers, two anti-submarine frigates, a submarine, a tanker and a supply ship. The 'Global Britain' strategy generates an image of the carriers being used internationally, but there is serious concern whether they could even be deployed unilaterally. Despite the aircraft carriers supporting a form of post-Brexit military engagement, it is also part of a flawed strategy which exposes the UK's capability to larger gaps and risks.
The pair of aircraft carriers have become literal flagships for a 'Global Britain' post-Brexit, but they also represent a manifestation of failure at the strategic level; strategy dictated by spending. Brexit provides us with the opportunity to ask what we want our nation to be. Instead of meaningless slogans such as 'Global Britain', we need a public-centred discussion about our international position and choices. We need to look beyond the internecine Brexit debate, and think wider and deeper about the priorities Britain should have. Fundamentally, a new strategy is required and it can only be achieved by recognising and integrating the UK’s international security, trade, and wider diplomatic interests which should be built around a set of publicly shared objectives.