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China launching equivalent of Royal Navy every four years

·5 min read
Chinese navy's missile destroyer DDG-112 Harbin fires a shell during the China-Russia joint naval exercise in the Yellow Sea in 2012 - Wu Dengfeng/Xinhua
Chinese navy's missile destroyer DDG-112 Harbin fires a shell during the China-Russia joint naval exercise in the Yellow Sea in 2012 - Wu Dengfeng/Xinhua

Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the next Chief of the Defence Staff, is about to embark Britain’s Armed Forces on a fundamental reorientation.

Anything less than a successful transformation to meet the threats of the future – a timeframe that would be better thought of in terms of months rather than years – will shatter the hard foundations underpinning any notion of a Global Britain.

The tragedy of the recent death of Major General Matt Holmes, whose funeral on Wednesday in Winchester Cathedral was attended by 700 mourners, is that Britain has lost a deeply empathetic and thoughtful man with sound ideas about how best to operate a military force thousands of miles from the homeland. Adml Radakin will need such people.

They disagreed about the role of Commandant General Royal Marines, but when it came to the need to project power to underwrite the international rules-based order, Gen Holmes and Adml Radakin were in the same boat.

They agreed on the need to change and the need to get out in the world building partnerships. It’s not about having the marines turn up on D-Day, in the words of one senior officer. Better to be there early to prevent conflict in the first place.

It speaks of a forward-deployed and persistently engaged force, underpinned by technology and integrated across all arms of the Government.

Admiral Sir Tony Radakin arrives at Winchester Cathedral - Andrew Matthews /PA
Admiral Sir Tony Radakin arrives at Winchester Cathedral - Andrew Matthews /PA

And which region of the world seems most likely to provide a flashpoint for the next global military emergency?

Answer: the Indo-Pacific. Of interest to Britain because of the potential to destroy global trade, harm allies and threaten British citizens.

The Government’s recent Integrated Review of defence, foreign, security and development policy said Britain must “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific region.

The review, seen as the cross-Whitehall blueprint for the next generation of British statecraft, was clear: international politics is returning to an era of state-on-state competition.

Ken McCallum, the head of MI5, said Russia provides “bursts of bad weather” but it is China that is “changing the climate”.

Unlike the challenge of the Soviet Union, the West’s relationship with China is one of cooperation, competition and occasional confrontation, all at the same time.

That nasty mix makes for difficult politics and an even harder problem-set for the development of military power.

Since 2014, China has launched more submarines, warships, principal amphibious vessels and auxiliaries than the total number of ships currently serving in the navies of the UK, Germany, India, Spain, Taiwan, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

In terms of tonnage, China is launching the equivalent of the entire Royal Navy every four years.

That level of military ambition is already having political ramifications, as the Asian giant seeks to literally redraw lines on the map (of the South China Sea, at least).

Challenges over sovereign rights in the region are seen by many as a warm-up act for the main event – an attempt to reunify, by military action if necessary, Taiwan with China by 2049. Whitehall officials view that date as unrealistically hopeful – although no less depressing – and warn a significant event in the next five to eight years is more likely.

In a speech in July this year to celebrate the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party, President Xi Jinping said: “Resolving the Taiwan question and realising China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment of the Communist Party of China.

“We must take resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt toward ‘Taiwan independence,’ and work together to create a bright future for national rejuvenation. No one should underestimate the resolve, the will, and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Adml Radakin will reprioritise short-term military touchpoints in favour of a more persistent, and in places permanent, presence.

The “transformation agenda” he initiated in the Navy as First Sea Lord will be expanded across the Armed Forces as CDS.

The Ministry of Defence’s attache network is expanding by a third, looking for business, including of the military sort, explaining and espousing Britain’s values and interests.

The Royal Navy now has a Type-23 frigate permanently assigned to the Gulf. Similarly, HMS Medway now focuses on the Caribbean with HMS Trent in the Mediterranean and around Africa.

The Indo-Pacific region has not had a permanent Royal Navy presence since the Hong Kong squadron disbanded. The deployment of HMS Spey and HMS Tamar, two Batch 2 River-Class Offshore Patrol Vessels, seeks to change that and signal to allies and potential future partners Britain’s commitment to the region.

Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and Japan will likely be visited regularly, for supplies, joint exercises and in support of wider government initiatives.

Two new Royal Marine Littoral Response Groups will have particular focus on Europe’s northern flank and the Middle East, the latter based in Duqm in Oman.

The Army and RAF similarly will look to increase the duration of deployments and build deeper relationships.

It all speaks of prioritising availability over quantity. The latter matters, of course, but doesn’t always need to fly a union flag.

If China is setting the weather now, rather than try to build our way to relevance – a futile hope – Adml Radakin will set the Armed Forces the task of building relationships across the world for when the storm comes.