By David Bond and George Parker
Financial Times – 12 February 2019
The Defence Secretary has announced plans to make more of his stretched budget by converting ferries into Royal Marine strike ships and buying and reconfiguring commercial drones for the Royal Air Force. In a speech yesterday, Gavin Williamson signalled a more aggressive stance for the military as it seeks to establish a post-Brexit role, asserting that aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth would be sent on its maiden operational mission to the Pacific. Britain was prepared to act against those who "flout international law", said Mr Williamson, in what was seen as a reference to China's expansion in the South China Sea.
His comments, however, prompted a swift response from Number 10, which clarified that Theresa May, Prime Minister, would make the final decision on where the new £3bn carrier would be sent when it comes into service in 2021, rather than the Defence Secretary.
"Full details of the deployment will be agreed by the Prime Minister in due course,"
Mrs May's spokesman said. While the carrier would be dispatched to the Mediterranean, Middle East and Pacific, details had yet to be confirmed. A Defence Ministry official played down suggestions of a row between Mr Williamson and Mrs May, insisting the speech had been signed off by Downing Street, the national security adviser and the Treasury.
With the MoD facing a £15bn funding gap in its equipment budget over the next decade, Mr Williamson and military leaders are grappling with ways to build military capabilities at the same time as cutting costs. At the end of last year, Mr Williamson announced a transformation fund amounting to £160m a year, which would help the armed forces buy equipment more quickly to meet evolving threats.
The two warships, which along with the drones are the first investments from that fund, will be adapted from ferries or container vessels, fitted with new technology and equipped with helicopters and fast boats, as well as taking up to 400 commandos. The vessels would be on permanent deployment and form part of a bigger strike force with other amphibious assault ships, HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion.
The move is a sharp change of direction for the navy's amphibious fleet. In autumn 2017, HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion faced being scrapped as part of cutbacks.
Julian Lewis, chair of the parliamentary Defence Committee, said:
"It is a profoundly welcome development, and shows what can be done when Treasury-led attempts to hollow out the Armed Forces are successfully resisted."
The new drones will cost £7m, Mr Williamson said, and could be deployed alongside the stealth fighter jet, the F-35, to develop what he described as:
"swarm squadrons of network-enabled drones capable of confusing the enemy and overwhelming their air defences".