Britain must be prepared to take military action against countries that “flout international law” or risk being seen as a “paper tiger”, Gavin Williamson will say on Monday in a speech that marks a more aggressive tone from the UK as it seeks to forge a new international role after Brexit.
As part of the shift, the defence secretary will also confirm that the first deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth, one of the UK’s two new aircraft carriers, will be in the Pacific — a move likely to be seen as provocative by Beijing.
That maiden mission for the aircraft carrier will be part of making “Global Britain” a reality, he will claim: “Significantly, British and American F-35s will be embedded in the carrier’s air wing, enhancing the reach and lethality of our forces and reinforcing the fact that the US remains our very closest of partners.”
Last year China accused Britain of infringing Chinese sovereignty when one of the Royal Navy’s amphibious assault ships, HMS Albion, sailed close to the disputed Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
Mr Williamson will use the set piece address at the Royal United Services Institute in central London to insist the UK will stand up to adversaries with both traditional military power and a significant investment in Britain’s cyber warfare capabilities.
Western allies must be prepared to “use hard power to support our interests”, he will say, promising to increase the “mass and lethality” of the country’s forces.
But the rhetoric is likely to be seen by some military commentators as overblown because of the hollowing-out of Britain’s military capabilities in recent years.
The British army is the smallest it has been in decades with its full-time fighting force unlikely to meet its target of 82,000 by 2020. Despite winning an extra £1bn for defence in last year’s budget, the Ministry of Defence faces a £15bn shortfall in its equipment plan over the next decade, a funding gap which could lead to further capability cuts unless Mr Williamson wins more money in the upcoming Whitehall spending review.
Mr Williamson’s speech comes ahead of a meeting this week of Nato defence ministers in Brussels and the annual Munich Security Conference at the weekend which will focus on how escalating tensions between the US, China and Russia are placing international arms control treaties and global institutions under strain.
Nato must be prepared to face up to the new threat posed by a “resurgent” Moscow following the collapse of the US-Russia Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Mr Williamson will argue, urging fellow member countries to increase their defence spending to the target limit of 2 per cent of national GDP.
The speech will fuel speculation that Mr Williamson, who became defence secretary a year ago, fancies his chances in a future Tory leadership contest. He will declare that Brexit has “brought us to a great moment in our history”.
Nia Griffith, shadow defence secretary, pointed to spending cuts at the MoD: “Instead of simply engaging in yet more sabre-rattling, Gavin Williamson should get to grips with the crisis in defence funding that is happening on his watch.”