U.K. Defense Chief: The Brexit Doesn’t Lessen Our Military Might
Britain is expanding its military presence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Eastern Europe, and London says that’s proof Brexit has not undercut the U.K.’s role in the world.
The U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union jolted its allies on both sides of the Atlantic, but British defense secretary Michael Fallon came to Washington on Wednesday with a simple message: The Brexit won’t keep Britain from maintaining — and expanding — its military commitments around the world.
Since the vote on June 23, Britain has announced plans to deploy more forces to Iraq and Afghanistan, send hundreds of troops to Estonia and Poland, purchase sophisticated surveillance aircraft and attack helicopters, and has voted to fund a new fleet of nuclear-armed submarines, Fallon told reporters during a visit to Washington.
The moves “show very clearly that there’s no weakening of our commitment to Euro-Atlantic security,” he said.
Fallon said his own reappointment last week to head up the country’s defense ministry under a new Conservative government led by Prime Minister Theresa May also had sent a signal of “continuity on national security policy.”
Before the Brexit vote, Fallon had warned British voters that pulling out of the EU represented a “big gamble” with the country’s security.
In the aftermath of the referendum, Fallon has stressed Britain would compensate for the vote by stepping up its commitments to NATO and demonstrating a determination to back its partners in the face of terrorist threats and a resurgent Russia.
Britain has decided to nearly double its footprint in Iraq by sending 250 troops — including trainers, medics, and engineers — to bolster its training efforts with Iraqi and Kurdish security forces battling the Islamic State group, Fallon said.
At a NATO summit in Poland earlier this month, Britain announced it would increase its 450-strong training mission in Afghanistan with an additional 50 troops and that the planned departure of the forces would be postponed into 2017.
Britain also unveiled plans at the meeting to send troops to NATO’s eastern flank as part of a bid to deter any possible aggression by Russia and to reassure alliance members anxious over Moscow’s conquest and annexation of part of Ukraine. Fallon said the new forces will include a battalion of 500 troops in Estonia and a company of 150 soldiers in Poland.
Days after the NATO gathering, Fallon presided over a major weapons purchase with London signing a deal to buy nine P-8A maritime surveillance aircraft and 50 Apache helicopters. The deal is worth $6 billion and offers the latest evidence that Britain is intent on boosting military spending after years of declining budgets.
On Monday, British lawmakers voted resoundingly to fund a new fleet of submarines equipped with nuclear-armed missiles, ensuring the country will retain its atomic arsenal for another generation. The move means Britain will continue to maintain at least one submarine equipped with nuclear warheads on patrol at all times.
For years, the future of the nuclear deterrent had remained uncertain amid misgivings about the cost of building new subs to replace the aging fleet of Vanguard-class vessels. The construction of the four new submarines will cost 31 to 41 billion pounds, or up to $54 billion.
Fallon and other British leaders have said the nuclear force represents an “insurance policy” against nuclear blackmail by rogue states or terrorists. The issue took on added political weight after the Brexit result, as advocates argued that keeping the arsenal is a way to uphold the country’s status as a major power.
As London draws up a strategy on its departure from the EU, the British defense chief said the country would review its current role in European Union security missions, which includes counter-piracy efforts in the Indian Ocean, peacekeeping in the Balkans, and deterring people smugglers in the Mediterranean.
Photo credit: CHRIS JACKSON/Getty Images