The British government announced on Sunday that it will be building the first Royal Navy base “East of Suez” since the famous 1968 decision to withdraw from a presence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The BBC reports:
The base, at the Mina Salman Port in Bahrain, will host ships including destroyers and aircraft carriers.The UK said it was an “expansion of the Royal Navy’s footprint” and would “reinforce stability” in the Gulf.Bahrain will pay most of the £15m ($23m) needed to build the base, with the British paying ongoing costs.
£15m might not be a ton of money, particularly when compared to the budget of the U.S. Navy, which spent $580m to upgrade its base in Bahrain in 2010. But it’s not just about the money. This decision does say—or at least start to say—something significant about Britain’s stance in the world.As I wrote in November, the Royal Navy (and the British military as a whole) has fallen to levels that put the UK’s position in the world order in serious jeopardy. This is problematic not just for the Scepter’d Isle but also for America, which relies on an alliance system that, while unequal, really has shared burdens since the Second World War.One of the more optimistic takes on the Royal Navy’s predicament, though, was that it was bearing the burden, however unfairly, of vital spending cuts that would restore Britain’s finances and thus her long-term global military strength. Even if Britain preferred the NHS to the Royal Navy in the short-term, the argument went, her engagement in the world was too fundamental not to reassert itself.This decision strengthens that position. It makes it much more likely that the two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers will be brought into full working order at the end of this decade. (It had been seriously mooted that one might be immediately mothballed or floated both with a minimal complement of planes.) There will still be a long way to go—there are issues from a lack of antisubmarine planes to an Army that can only field one expeditionary combat brigade—but the aircraft carriers and a presence in the East are vital, if not sufficient, in restoring Britain’s place as a global actor.Furthermore, as Con Coughlin points out in The Telegraph, the Bahrain base decision was as much an acknowledgement of existing reality as a strategic shift. Despite completing its withdrawal in 1971, Britain has been emeshed militarily in the Persian Gulf since the 1979 Iranian revolution. It had just been operating on an ad-hoc basis; now, there will be more permanent provisions. It is interesting, too, that there has been almost no objection to the decision in Britain on the grounds of what it says about national strategy. (What little push-back has come has largely been on human rights grounds.)The base in Bahrain that houses the U.S. Fifth Fleet was constructed on a former Royal Navy station that America inherited after Britain’s retreat from the East. Now, with the U.S. pivoting to Asia and the burdens of the post-post-Cold War global situation becoming apparent, the UK might be returning to pick up some of the slack—good news for the U.S. and the West as a whole.