Earlier this week media outlets in the United Kingdom reported that the British armed services have been asked to draw up contingency plans for UK involvement in a future conflict between the United States and North Korea. Given closeness of the relationship between the US and Great Britain, the drafting of these plans comes as no surprise. It is generally assumed that there will be some level of British involvement in a US effort against North Korea. Judging from the tone of some reports coming out of Whitehall, however, British planners are preparing for the possibility of large scale military involvement in the Western Pacific should a situation call for it.
The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, disclosed that plans involve a possible deployment by HMS Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s newest carrier, even before she has undergone flight trials. At current, Britain does not even have enough F-35s or qualified pilots to fit out an air wing for the carrier, calling into question the feasibility of this particular plan. In an emergency situation, US Marine Corps F-35s could cross-deck to the Queen Elizabeth and operate from her, though it is questionable how plausible this scenario would be in a wartime situation.
For that matter, the soundness of Britain staging a major deployment of military forces to the Pacific is up for debate. British defense spending had been cut to the bone over the last fifteen years as most of the funding went to supporting Britain’s commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq. There were scarce pounds left to invest in new aircraft, ships, and other conventional weapons for a time. The Ministry of Defense adopted the watchword of ‘Cut! Cut! Cut!’ for an extended period of time. As a result, the Royal Navy and RAF are shells of their former selves. Of the 77 commissioned ships in the Royal Navy currently, only 19 of these are major surface combatants. The RAF is in no better condition with regular deployments to Afghanistan, and other commitments vital to national interests tying up the majority of combat airframes.
Britain’s Defense Secretary Sir Michael Fallon has spoken lately of the need to increase British spending. In light of the current world situation this is sensible talk, however, any attempt to increase spending will be undoubtedly spark a major row with Labor. Given the current state of British politics there is no telling what the end result might be. At any rate, Britain has to take a long, hard look at the condition of its military before considering its involvement in a potential future conflict.
For the moment it is safe to say that the question is not how many British troops, aircraft, or ships can be committed to a US effort against North Korea. The real question is whether there will be any available to commit at all.