In Brief

Will Brexit make the British Army stronger?

Defence secretary says UK must be prepared to use ‘hard power’ as he makes pitch for ‘bolder’ armed forces

The UK must be ready to use “hard power” to avoid being seen as a “paper tiger” by the likes of Russia and China, the defence secretary has claimed.

Gavin Williamson has made the case for Britain to take a more military-led interventionist foreign policy, and to use Brexit to “redefine” its position on the international stage.

He announced his intention to send the UK’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth carrying two squadrons of new F35 fighter jets into the Pacific “in a move likely to spark alarm in Beijing”, says the Daily Telegraph.

Tensions in the South China Sea flared again on Monday, after US warships sailed near islands claimed by China.

The operation was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing's efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, where Chinese, Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies operate.

Detailing plans to modernise the armed forces, Williamson attempted to present Brexit as an opportunity “when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality and increase our mass”.

He revealed plans for two ships that could be deployed for crisis support as well as military operations and a swarm of drones theoretically capable of jamming enemy air defences.

The Guardian described the speech as “bellicose” and “designed to bolster his position on the Tory party’s right” but its tone and detail have been widely ridiculed.

The former shadow chancellor, Chris Leslie, said:

“The idea that our membership of the European Union restricts us is the purest nonsense. You don’t have to know much history to know why Europe is and will remain central to our military posture or that co-operation and peace in Europe is what allows us to invest in global strength. In fact the economic damage that Brexit threatens is what will most quickly weaken our forces.”

Labour’s shadow defence secretary Nia Griffith, also criticised Williamson’s “sabre-rattling”, and argued the UK's ability to play a more global role had been “completely undermined by eight years of Tory defence cuts”.

Taking apart Williamson’s pledges, Simon Jenkins in The Guardian writes: “His budget was last week said to be £7bn adrift of reality. The Queen Elizabeth cannot sail until 2021. It has no business whatsoever in the South China Sea, where such a vast and unwieldy ship would be a sitting target. The Chinese could sink it in an hour. As for new military bases in the Caribbean and east of Suez, they would cost billions and be an invitation to terrorists.”

“Seven months on from his controversial appointment as defence secretary,” his latest comments have “reignited the questions over whether he is up to the job,” says Emily Ashton for Buzzfeed.

Speaking to MPs, ministerial aides, Conservative staffers, and former officials about Williamson’s dramatic shift into the limelight, she says “insiders at the Ministry of Defence raised serious doubts about his performance so far – some say he fails to take on board policy ideas from colleagues, and that he is more comfortable running to the newspapers with gossip than getting stuck into the detail of his brief”.

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