Sparked by a debate the other day on Twitter and given added emphasis to write again by the pressure of Think Defence recommending me, I'd just like to muse today about the idea of Britain as a world power. It's a subject that comes up fairly frequently in UK defence circles and at times seems to take on a life and importance all of its own. Can't perform mission A? Never mind, at least we're a world power don't you know. Need new equipment or a force structure? Well, what would a world power look for, etc.
It - to me at least - comes across as a quaint hold over from the days of Empire. I think sometimes people forget that the British Empire was built on the foundation of the UK being the pre-eminent economy of its day. Why is the Royal Navy not as big as it was in the days of Nelson? Because we simply can't afford it is the obvious answer. The US military may spend twice what we do on defence as a percentage of its GDP, but that's not the key difference. What's far more critical is the size of US GDP in the first place compared to that of the UK. That is what permits the US to field such a large and powerful force.
Yet even though our forces are small in comparison to Uncle Sam's mighty band, we still retain a number of quite excellent capabilities. The new Astute class submarines are widely accepted as being powerful combatants, as you would expect from a nuclear powered attack sub. History has given us a glimpse of what such an asset can do against a conventional surface force. We know that the Challenger tank, despite getting a little long in the tooth, has a remarkable combat capability. And we know that Typhoon is - at least on paper - a match for a good chunk of the worlds combat aircraft in a 1 vs 1 fight.
The question isn't so much one of whether the UK can exert any military force against its potential foes, it quite clearly can. The question is whether the UK can do this on a scale that is truly meaningful. I think this also comes down somewhat to semantics. What does being a "world power" actually mean? At what point do we agree that a country has passed a pre-defined limit and become a world power?
Is India a world power for example? It can project some force at distance if required, but how much force does it need to qualify? It could certainly make a mess of many enemies on its home soil. And if India is not a world power, but the UK could not in a purely hypothetical scenario project enough force to defeat or coerce India in a military conflict, does the UK really qualify as a world power?
The whole debate has more shades of grey than a certain famous fictional franchise and it would appear it's just as easy to get tied up in knots while exploring both.
For me the critical point hinges not on the ability of the UK armed forces at their component level, but rather the scale of what can be brought together at the business end of a military engagement. The Type 45 destroyer taken in isolation is one of the most advanced and capable air defence assets possessed by any navy on Earth. What it might lack currently in the ability to engage ballistic missile and satellite targets, it makes up for in a design philosophy tempered by the Royal Navy's operational experience against opponents that fire back and as such the need to be able to engage low-flying targets like anti-ship missiles as early as possible.
The issue is there's only six of them. As such they can't be everywhere at once and even concentrated together their firepower has its limits. Here for me is where the argument of the UK as a world power falls down; a simple lack of mass. While the UK brought a range of interesting and capable tools to the intervention in Libya back in 2011, it is highly questionable whether the UK would have been able to achieve its political aims without the assistance of its allies. Indeed without the commitment of allies, it's highly questionable whether the UK would even have attempted any kind of military action in the first place, assuming of course that it was indifferent to any kind of political backlash from doing so unilaterally.
Is this what constitutes a world power? A naval task force cobbled together that included ships sailing home to be decommissioned, a composite air expeditionary group that barely put up two squadrons worth of combat aircraft, and a land force that if it had been required and permitted to be used would probably not have reached beyond a brigade in scale?
I'm not convinced. Nor do I think I really need to be. Britain has its place in the world. It is what it is. The ebb and flow of time and geo-politics means that nations will always rise, fall, rise again, and sometimes just float along in the middle somewhere. Without a sudden and dramatic economic surge the UK will not be competing toe to toe with America and China for their pre-eminent global position any time soon. But nor does it need to.
It's ok to successful and prosperous without beating yourself up about not being number one. Of course everyone wants to rise to the top, but right now the gulf between the top two and the next two in global GDP is quite big. There's nothing wrong in being pragmatic about your situation while trying your best to improve it. I would go so far as to argue that unless you can truly appreciate and understand your position, what hope do you have of making it better? How can someone living in the midst of a delusion about their position possibly find the right path to improve it?
And here is where I see the world power theorists. To assume that the UK is a world power and must have all the tools that a world power requires is to blind yourself to the real status of the UK and its requirements for defence at home and abroad. Not accepting that the days of Empire are over can do nothing but obscure the correct path forward. "Necessity is the mother of invention" as the saying goes, but if you can't see the necessity then how can you expect to begin the process of invention?
Thus instead of viewing the UK through the lens of a world power that tries to flex its muscles and compete everywhere, I tend to view the UK's military position through the lens of a small but highly capable force that needs to husband its resources carefully and focus its efforts where they can achieve the maximum utility. Rather than penny packet an already stretched force across the entire globe, trying to be everyones best friend and to get involved in every brush fire that starts, I'd prefer to see the UK narrow down its scope a little and give more weight (and assistance) where it really matters.
This does not preclude the idea of working with far flung partners. There is no reason why a British army that was more focused on "near abroad" activities couldn't annually send say a company sized unit to go and spend a few weeks in Australia on exercise with the Australian army. There's nothing to prevent the Royal Navy arranging occasional visits and exercises alongside its counterparts in India, Malaysia or South Korea. Narrowing the focus of the UK away from trying to be a world power does not mean giving up on the world any more than leaving the European Union means that the UK is giving up on Europe.
What I'm talking about is simply the idea of letting go of the notion that the UK is or even needs to be a "power". Being a capable and willing ally, having the ability to bring certain abilities to the table when they matter, and focusing on what we do well in the quantities that we can properly support should be more important.