Global Britain: Michael Fallon says 'door wide open' for UK to define ambitions

Former defence minister calls for an ambitious strategic defence review

Michael Fallon addresses personnel at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus in 2015 while serving as Secretary of State for Defence. Getty Images
Michael Fallon addresses personnel at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus in 2015 while serving as Secretary of State for Defence. Getty Images

The UK has an opportunity to “put its stamp” on 'Global Britain' with an ambitious strategic review that is to be unveiled on Tuesday, former defence secretary Michael Fallon said.

Mr Fallon also told The National that it was “hugely important America stays the course in the Gulf” to support fragile governments, particularly Iraq.

Furthermore, he called for a “persistent presence” of British forces in the Indo-Pacific region to combat growing Chinese dominance, adding that the Royal Navy should have a “warship in every ocean”.

The former politician was secretary of state for defence when British forces were sent to help combat ISIS after the extremists overran parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014.

He spoke before the government’s launch of the much-­anticipated Integrated Review, which will detail Britain’s military, intelligence, diplomatic and international development strategy for the next decade.

The review, to be announced by the prime minister, is expected to herald the biggest reform of the armed forces in several decades, with Boris Johnson sending a message of strength to Britain’s enemies after a period of uncertainty.

HMS Kent leaves Portsmouth Harbour on route to the Gulf. Getty Images
HMS Kent leaves Portsmouth Harbour on route to the Gulf. Getty Images

“This review is post-Brexit and post-pandemic and right at the start of a new American presidency so the door is wide open for the government to put its stamp on what it actually means by ‘Global Britain’,” Mr Fallon, 67, told The National.

“Britain has to have more confidence in its global role because we're still the fifth biggest military power and one of the largest economies of the world. We also have enormous international influence which we under play.”

He said the review was an opportunity to fuse defence, intelligence, foreign affairs and international aid into a single-minded direction and to “rebuild the international order” alongside President Joe Biden.

New Gulf strategy and more pressure on China needed

It was also necessary to build a new ‘Gulf Strategy’ to recommit Britain to “maximising our influence in the Gulf where we have a specific role to play,” as the region is still important not only for energy security but for wider global stability.

He encouraged a new nuclear deal with Iran, as well as support for America’s peace efforts in Yemen.

Mr Fallon, who retired as an MP at the 2019 election, urged the government to introduce an Indo-Pacific strategy that would outline Britain’s stance towards China.

“I’m not just talking about occasional visits of warships and aeroplanes through the South China Sea, we need a more persistent presence that allows us to train with our allies.”

He called for greater diplomatic pressure to persuade China that it was in its long-term interests to “respect international conventions” if it was to continue with its global ambitions.

He said Britain should join the informal ‘Quad’ alliance of America, Japan, India and Australia - “like-minded countries that believe in our values” - to bring greater confidence to weakened democracies in the area.

He also suggested that countries in the Indo-Pacific region wanted a greater UK presence as a form of reassurance and for training.

“When you go to the region and you talk to Britain’s allies, that's really what they want. They want to see a more persistent presence of UK ships and planes and more engagement with a professional force.”

Britain should also keep a watching brief on trouble spots in Africa where The National has previously reported that ISIS is gaining ground in countries such as Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He warned that violence there could “so easily spill over into a direct threat to us in Western Europe.” If countries collapsed economically or through insurgency they could become a “serious threat through the export of terrorism,” he said.

With Moscow continuing to cause problems through cyber attacks, conflicts or assassination, Britain could not afford to “drop our guard against Russia” as it “remains an adversary”.

British Army to contract while Royal Navy expands

The review is likely to reduce numbers in the British Army from 82,000 to 70,000 over the next decade with a greater focus on unmanned devices to carry out fighting.

But Mr Fallon, who as defence secretary introduced a well-received defence review in 2015, urged the military “not to give up the muscle of tanks and hard power for fighting on the ground”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to British troops stationed in Estonia. Getty Images
Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to British troops stationed in Estonia. Getty Images

However, he acknowledged that the Army had to move on “from marching and bands" to "screens and systems”. “I expect that the Army will change more radically in the next few years than it has in the last 10 or 15 years.”

But as the Army shrinks, the Royal Navy is set to benefit from the extra £16 billion ($22 billion) cash injection announced for the next four years.

It will soon have two operational aircraft carriers with advanced F35 jets, and a capable if limited force of destroyers and submarines making it a considerable global force.

“As the Navy grows I would like to see it recommit to that principle to be available on every sea of the world,” said Mr Fallon. “I would like to see its ships stationed more permanently in the Gulf or further east with sailors rotating in and out.”

With continued reports of “vaccine diplomacy,” in which countries use supplies for influence, and the continuing fracas between Britain and the European Union over production, he said there was an “urgent role” for Britain to turn the vaccination drive into an international campaign.

“We have to make sure that vaccines aren't just something for the wealthy West and that they get to poorer areas of the world as rapidly as possible.”

Soldiers from the Yorkshire Regiment at the Liverpool Exhibition Centre, where the UK military are assisting with mass Covid-19 testing. Getty Images
Soldiers from the Yorkshire Regiment at the Liverpool Exhibition Centre, where the UK military are assisting with mass Covid-19 testing. Getty Images

One of the longest-serving defence secretaries from 2014 to 2017, among Mr Fallon’s achievements was helping form the coalition against ISIS after the so-called ‘caliphate’ was declared in 2014.

“We had to build the coalition, set the rules of engagement and get parliamentary support for airstrikes, then drive [ISIS] back out of Iraq, and away from their remaining strongholds in Syria. That was one of my principal occupations as Secretary of State [for Defence].”

Mr Fallon works for several companies with operations in the Middle East, including as deputy chairman of Genel Energy in Iraqi Kurdistan and an adviser for Investcorp in Bahrain.

Updated: March 14, 2021 10:51 PM

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