(Almost) unique British defence requirements: Overseas territories

The British have serious economic and fiscal troubles that finally seem to have an effect on the military expenditures. A budget cut by 20% (and moving some very expensive projects into the MoD account that were previously off their books) seems likely over the next few years.

The Think Defence blog is quite interesting in this regard, and offers a peek into a completely different mindset (which has in my opinion its only parallel in France).
The Royal Navy tradition is extremely influential and - in my opinion - clouding the minds. The defence of overseas territories (remains of the empire) is an unusual defence requirement that's being exploited to the fullest to justify naval expenses. France is apparently the only country with a similar situation.
Most overseas territories are not covered by either Lisbon treaty or North Atlantic Treaty, so there's indeed a potential national defence requirement (homeland defence is really alliance defence in my opinion) for a navy because of overseas territories.

I decided to have a closer look at this issue, and since I spend my time on it I can as easily do it for my own blog instead of for an oversized comment somewhere else.

Let's be lazy and ask Wikipedia: British overseas territories.

NameLocationArea in km2Population (approx)
Anguilla Caribbean and North Atlantic Territories 14613,500
Bermuda North Atlantic Ocean 5464,000
British Antarctic Territory Antarctica 1,709,40050-400
(Diego Garcia) Indian Ocean 463,000 UK and US military and staff
British Virgin Islands Caribbean 15327,000
Cayman Islands Caribbean 25953,000
Falkland Islands South Atlantic Ocean 12,1733,000
Gibraltar Iberian Peninsula 6,529,000
Montserrat Caribbean 1015,000
Pitcairn Islands Pacific Ocean 45&50
Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha South Atlantic Ocean 1224,000
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands South Atlantic Ocean 4,066100
(bases on Cyprus) Mediterranean 25514,000 (half military and staff)
Turks and Caicos Islands Caribbean 43032,000

My question for this article: Do these overseas territories justify huge expenses on an expeditionary navy (aircraft carriers, high seas amphibious warfare ships...)?

Let's weed out the ones that should be irrelevant for the British force structure:
-Cyprus bases
Both are well within the protection of two alliances and rooted in allied countries. Their defence is possible without a high seas/expeditionary navy.

Let's weed out the extremely irrelevant because of ridiculously great distance and minimal population:

Let's group the Caribbean ones into a single one, as this makes sense for defence policy planning:
"Caribbean" = Anguilla, Montserrat, British Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands and Cayman Islands

Let's group Falklands and South Georgia as one for the same purpose ("Falklands").

Let's call "Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha" simply "South Atlantic".

We have to consider:
Diego Garcia
South Atlantic

I assert that the UK does not need to bother about the defence of the Bermuda islands. There's no foreign claim on this territory. A UK allied or friendly with the U.S. can bet that the U.S. would not tolerate a hostile control of the Bermudas. Hostilities between the UK and the U.S. would make the defence of the Bermuda islands impossible. Bermuda is therefore by default either indefensible or a concern for alliance defence, not solo national defence. It's covered by the Treaty of Lisbon (EU) alliance anyway. Scratch Bermudas from the list.

Diego Garcia
South Atlantic

Caribbean. There's nothing more obvious than that the French have very similar interests in regard to their Caribbean territories. It would be possible to raise a respectable militia on these islands (incredibly much cheaper than a single warship) and ally with France specifically for the defence of these Caribbean territories. There's no need to consider Chavez' toy soldiers as a national defence challenge.
A political defence through a bilateral alliance looks advisable. Besides; no other country claims these territories anyway, and they haven't been threatened militarily since I think the Napoleonic Age. The economic relevance of these territories is centred on tourism, money laundering and tax evasion. Overall, these territories don't seem to provide a justification for a large expeditionary navy.
Scratch Caribbean from the list.

Diego Garcia
South Atlantic

Antarctica. I don't think mankind is stupid enough yet to wage war on that continent, but maybe the British are more pessimistic here. So far I cannot tell of any nation seriously preparing for military action on the 7th continent, thus I dare to assert that here's no origin for a large expeditionary navy requirement for years to come.
Scratch Antarctica from the list.

Diego Garcia
South Atlantic

Diego Garcia a.k.a. "British Indian Ocean Territory" or Chagos Archipelago.
This is actually disputed territory, administered by the British. Considering the grave threat by the claims of such great powers as Maldives and Mauritius, I dare to assert that an army battalion with funds for chartering two civilian ships and buying a few boats could handle this even if no military personnel was already crowding the archipelago.
Scratch Diego Garcia from the list.

South Atlantic

South Atlantic possessions a.k.a. "Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha". There seems to be no dispute about these, despite the quite non-English sound of "Tristan da Cunha". These islands have interesting strategic locations - if you want to wage high seas war in the South Atlantic or deploy military aircraft to the Falklands or South Africa.
The best defence would probably be the readiness to deploy a tailored army battalion battlegroup each to Ascension and Saint Helena in times of crisis. I fail to see a justification for greater efforts in peacetime.
Scratch South Atlantic from the list.


Ahh, the classic one - one of the two disputes. The strategic location is also interesting.
The Argentinians could snatch these islands any time (despite the small garrison) if they really wanted to, but it looks as if they don't want to. Their military doesn't seem to prepare for this eventuality and even without, it wouldn't repeat the old mistakes.

I doubt that two medium carriers, a dozen surface combatants, a few amphibious ships and a few SSNs are justified primarily by concerns about the Falklands.
A naval blockade (and with CVs an aerial blockade) would be feasible for a while with much smaller forces anyway.

The problem here is that the ability to defend or recapture these islands would require a really large expeditionary navy that's otherwise likely (some people would only agree to "probably") unnecessary. This requirement likely even exceeds the upper end of serious Royal Navy strength proposals once the Argentinians modernise their forces a bit.

It's about time to relax and to recall that it wasn't exactly concensus even back in 1982 that these islands were worth an expedition, much less a whole expeditionary navy.

Is the possible defence of 3,000 people's property rights worth GBP 20 billion? That would be almost GBP 7 million per capita. (Keep in mind that the loss of this territory would not be guaranteed even in case of British inability to defend or recapture the Falklands.)
Scratch Falklands from the list.

- - - - -

Sorry, I see no requirement for a powerful expeditionary Royal Navy in any of these overseas territories. Even all of them combined are too small and most of them not threatened at all. Much less expensive security policy alternatives exist for the overseas territories.

Nevertheless there's apparently a reflex of "overseas territory defence = necessitates aircraft carriers" in force in most discussions on this topic.

There are further reflexes that serve the Royal Navy well; the "island" mentality and the importance of maritime trade. These are different topics and I can tell you that I'm not impressed by these 'arguments' either.

Aggressive expeditions would be violations of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, Charter of the United Nations and especially the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO). It should be difficult to justify great naval expenditures as preparations for a war of aggression - an activity that was rightfully considered to be a capital crime in the Nurembourg trials and is strictly outlawed by the criminal laws of several nations.
There's not a single aggressive expedition of the RN post-'45 that could be called a good idea. Military history seems to confirm that potential aggressions with an expeditionary RN do not justify the its costs.
The real reason for the desire to have a powerful high seas navy seems to be tradition a.k.a. habituation. It's not the cool, rational analysis of actual needs, that drives the desire for a powerful navy. It's all about habituation and feelings (a.k.a. irrationality).

The British economy is on a terribly wrong track (and has been for decades). It has lost too much industrial capacity, has a bloated service sector (especially the largely useless financial services) and  as consequences a budget deficit, a substantial public debt and a substantial trade balance deficit all at once. The military expenditures (%GDP) are meanwhile high in comparison to most allies. This isn't sustainable.

To sustain a strong defence requires a healthy economy. The superior long-term strategy for the United Kingdom's defence is likely the reinvigoration of its national industry, not the consumption of billions of GBP by their navy in excess of European naval purposes.



  1. Interesting analysis Sven

    You have missed Belize, Brunei, the Five Power Defence Arrangements and the Commonwealth where the UK has various obligations.

    You also miss the power of tradition as a driving factor

    Also, being in a coalition doesn't mean you leave everything to others, that's generally what most of mainland Europe does.

    France and the UK are great powers whether we/you/anyone else like it and whilst both France and the UK may be fraying around the edges and looking a bit tatty of late we still count when/where it matters.

    With the overseas territories you cannot simply boil the people down into a cost equation, there is a principle involved. They are part of Britain and therefore rightly expect defending.

    In general, the thrust of your analysis, that a strong RN is predicated on defence of overseas territories and the 'we are an island' position, is not quite in line, is fair enough.

    Also, our foreign policy dictates that we have an interventionist approach, again, however much you disagree, that is what it is.

    An interventionist foreign policy needs a range of discretionary capabilities, expeditionary maritime being one of them.

    I think I disagree that Argentina could easily retake the Falklands if they so wished but that's a post for another time I guess!

    Your point about the SDSR being RN news led is fair enough but that's just how it goes in the news cycle, to which we generally react.

    A Dutch/French/UK Caribbean load sharing agreement would make sense but the mid and south atlantic are important

  2. It would have been too much for a single blog post if I had covered the "we are an island", overseas assistance commitments (something that can be cancelled) in addition to the overseas territories topic.

    I don't think that I missed tradition. I kind of denounced it as intellectually laziness, as habituation. Tradition is no argument - it's an observation.

  3. Hello Sven Ortmann,

    I agree with you that Argentina could retake the Falklands but there is the question of why they do not wish to do so.
    Last time they tried they were defeated by an expeditionary naval force.
    They know the same thing would happen again.
    Unless the United Kingdom did not have an expeditionary naval force,in which case they could take and hold the islands.
    In those circumstances it is difficult to see any reason why they would not wish to retake the islands.
    Particularly as they would have the support of the whole of South America and neither the United States nor anyone else would likely be willing to retake the islands for the British.

    The garrison could be increased but the assets required to maintain the small force there at present are already costing an extraordinary amount of money and they are all tied up in one place doing one job unlike the expeditionary naval force.

    I was not sure what you meant by your closing comment:

    "navy in excess of European naval purposes."

    Are you saying that the United Kingdom should concentrate on defending it's self against European aggression?
    Europe is the only credible threat to Britain but European resources are so much greater than those of the United Kingdom that a successful defence would be unlikely.

    If you mean the United Kingdom should concentrate it's naval resources in support of common European policies,the British people have little interest in their money being spent in support of a foreign organisation to which most polls suggest they are largely hostile.
    See page 16 of this document for example:


    Perhaps I have misunderstood but in this post and others you appear to be suggesting that the United Kingdom should not be spending money on protecting the interests of it's own people,because it costs too much,but instead should be spending money on the collective defence of continental Europe?

    I would suggest that defending the interests of the British people is the only reason for the United Kingdom to spend any money at all on defence and that subsidising the defence of European countries which can more than afford to defend themselves is not in the interests of the United Kingdom.


  4. Well, whenever someone's hostile to an organization or its principles the membership should be cancelled.

    The European context meant the defence at the European alliance frontiers; Mediterranean, Arctic Sea, Baltic Sea and the Atlantic Ocean near Morocco.
    That is the true defence of the British citizens. The British should be glad that their line of defence isn't in the Channel. Expeditionary warfare is not "defence". That's "offence".

    I'm a great war guy. The only real wars of importance to me are wars of necessity, defensive wars. Wars that happen when someone attacks your alliance with a sizeable force.

    We should enjoy the fact that such a war is very unlikely and prepare for the next time when the outlook becomes more grim.
    We should not spend our resources on small wars of choice, for that's wasteful, rarely advantageous and at times even illegal. The British participation in OIF was an extreme violation of the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO treaty) and -of course- wasteful.

    The British people with interest in "defence" policy tend to like the idea of a globally deployable expeditionary military despite the fact that this hasn't provided their nation any substantial advantages for about a century.

    It's about time for a cost/benefit analysis, and that's about what I did (superficially because for free) on the topic of British overseas territory defence.

  5. Its probably not going to be a surprise that I disagree with you.

    An expeditionary Navy doesnt "just" give the UK the ability to protect its territory, but that alone is worth the price, any price.
    You wouldnt hand over Baden Wurtemburg if it was going to cost a few 10ths of a percent of GDP, we wont hand over the falklands, this is not a profit and loss account, This Is England.

    If we're going to have a force that can retake an island half way round the world, we might as well go to town on it and see what else we can get it to do.

    Without wanting to sound like a trigger happy child, the Argentineans would be in serious trouble if they tried to retake the Falklands.
    Fantasy Fleet did a pretty cool write up on it, but basicaly, they need to get lucky to catch the airgroup on the ground, because 4 airborne Typoons loaded for bear would eat the Argentine airforce twice over.
    You cant invade by air, so the invasion army has to sail, does the UK still keep a submarine on station? If yes, said fleet has 30 torpedos to contend with, fun against STUFT.

    So assuming they surprise the airgroup and the sub isnt present, they can take the islands.
    But next, the UK's silent service can sail south, and strike Argentina with Tomahawks, and sink anything stupid enough to try and stop them.
    The Carriers can follow after, and storm shadow outranges anything Argentina has. Apparently we have 900+ of the buggers.
    Just how much of Argentinas infrastructure and armed forces are they willing to lose?

    An Expeditionary Navy gives the UK the ability to intervene in the world.
    If we want, we can sail around the world and give someone (virtualy anyone) a slap.
    Which is an ability the UK favours.
    We can say, your not allowed to transport slaves by ship, and we can sink anyone who tries.

    Thats before we go down the route of the UK tends to get burnt when it relies on others to fiught for its interests, the continent bent over for Napoleon until British Gold paid them to liberate themselves.
    Not that we're perfect of course, we told Portugal to get bent when India invaded it.

  6. The Falklands defence issue looked quite different in 1982 when many British doubted that it was worth Thatcher's response nd I suspect there's still a large chunk of Britain thinking like that.

    Catching an air policing flight on the ground is easy and requires no extraordinary luck.

    The CV-related ability to "intervene in the world" is actually very limited and hasn't been used to good effect very often in the past. Actually, it was necessary only once in two generations.

    The continent didn't "bend over" to Napoleon. Napoleon was simply superior in many fierce wars. The British "Waterloo" episode is famous, but depended on the Prussians and many Germans for victory - and Prussia did not need English subsidies.
    The real defeats of Napoleon were in Russia, Spain and at Leipzig - England was only involved in Spain at all.
    The Leipzig battle was huge in comparison to the mediocre-sized Waterloo:

  7. Hello Sven,

    Concerning the dimensioning of the British forces I would stress, that the defence of the territorial integrity is a necessity on its own, as it influences the international perception of Britain's power. This is at most as important as the current status of power. A country to be viewed as declining or unable to defend its territory will rally up vultures automatically.

    Secondly handling the topic "European security" should cover also the EU's dependence on sea trade especially UK and Germany, so the Europeans should be able to engage threats along the lifelines Mediterranean Sea - East Pacific and Northern Atlantic - Western Africa.

    Concerning the British economy I agree, but you don't get the manufacturing jobs back by scrapping the Royal Navy.

    There is a Briton blogging about EU security covering these topics:

  8. "My question for this article: Do these overseas territories justify huge expenses on an expeditionary navy (aircraft carriers, high seas amphibious warfare ships...)?"

    You are asking the wrong question as the Defence of overseas territories is a goal that is [compatible] with offensive capability used in deterrence and coercion in support of British interests. It is a happy coincidence that both can be met by an amphibious and expeditionary navy.

    You may not like the latter goal but the British establishment considers it perfectly compatible with its international obligations, British defence doctrine is built around the concepts of deterrence and coercion, and the British people appear quite accepting of these ambitions.

  9. You know my stance on the legality of "coercion".

    I fail to see how deterrence might be necessary beyond the range of allied land-based combat aircraft if it's not about the aforementioned islands.

    Most "deterrence and coercion" 'needs' can NOT be met by an expeditionary Royal Navy anyway.

    The opinion of the British establishment is no valid argument to me, nor is British doctrine. The arguments behind both are of interest, but don't seem to impress me much.

    My question was correct. I was looking at one part of the supposed justification for an expeditionary navy (with CVs). So far I'd hardly agree that these overseas possessions justify the expenses for a single CV, even if the aircraft were for free and no escorts or amphibious warfare ships needed.
    I found little necessity and few benefits.

  10. Sven
    There probably are a few people, we call them Labour Members.

    Catching the Typhoons on the ground isnt difficult I admit, but failing to is disproportionatly risky, they could wipe out the Argentine Airfoirce, land, rearm, and strike Argentina three hours later.

    I can beat Mike Tyson in a fight if I can sucker punch him with my big spanner, but I'm in trouble if it misses.

    Necessary is a tricky issue, because we cant say how often having a sword negates the need for a sword.
    I could equaly say the German Armed Forces could have been disbanded in 1945 and never be needed since.

    Perhaps we'll just have to disagree about Napoleon.
    In my view, the Coalitions wouldnt have risen up every year against Frqance with British Gold, British Arms and British Support.
    The fact that for 10 years Wellington trounced every French Marshall sent against him in the Peninsula and Britain stood unbowed, even when it stood alone, gave the coaltion the will to get back up.
    The dirtect cause of Frances march on Moscow was that Russia broke ranks and began trading with Britain again. Its simply madness to believe that would have happened if the UK hadnt been providing a solid army on the continent and funding anyone who would fight.

    "British subsidies paid for a large proportion of the soldiers deployed by other coalition powers, peaking at about 450,000 in 1813."
    From the Wiki
    "In 1813 the British subsidies and % share in total Russian military expenditure increased
    from 1 % in 1805 to 19 % ! For Austria the subsidies in 1813 reached 3 % of total military
    expenditure. Large shipments were sent to Prussia."

    The Big Battles are of course where the history is, but the real breaking of French Power was in Portugal and Spain.
    The illusion of an invincible force was shattered everytime they took to the field against Wellington. Even when he "lost" the field, it was after inflicting massivly disproportionate losses on the French.
    And of course, just in pure numbers, Portugal and Spain forced an army half the size of Le Grande Armee, so over 300,000 Men to sit around (and be bleed to death) for over a decade.
    But, thats all a bit off topic, right of wrong, ask anyone, man in the street or "authority", if the UK can trust the continent to stand beside us, and the truthful answer will be no.

    "You know my stance on the legality of "coercion"."
    Indeed, but you are not us.
    Our Ways are not your ways, your blood is not of our blood.

  11. Wellington's expedition army was the smaller part of the anti-Napoleon coalition in Spain...

    Gold does not feed or equip soldiers. The trade between England and the continent was very limited at that time. The gold was relevant for governments, but armies don't work with gold. They worked with grain, hay, blackpowder, clothes, leather products and iron products. The British gold (and the British exports you could buy with it) was nice to have, but not decisive.

    I only started to discuss against your opinion on the Napoleonic Age because you show an England-centric view that's comparable to the modern anglophone underestimation of the Eastern Front in WW2. The main fighting was simply not involving many British, nor did they contribute decisively in any other way. They were the ones who had the fleet and the island and kept irritating Napoleon, that's about it.

    Waterloo overshadows Leipzig, but Leipzig was really the much bigger thing.

  12. Sven - perhaps its your airforce service, and your germanic continental outlook but you seem to be oblivious to the role of the RN, its amphibious group and its potential carrier strike group in the defence of continental Europe. Naval assets are by their definition flexible platforms that can be moved around.

    Also what about NATO commitments to collective security - how would we get people and equipment to Greenland or Arctic Canada if we had to ?

  13. oops - I did not pick a nickname - you can attribute the previous comment to Jed - you know me from ThinkDefence.

  14. Carriers have costs. This matters. You CAN DO STUFF with carriers, but you COULD DO MUCH MORE if you spent the bucks on something else.

    Greenland, Arctic Canada; so far they're in allied hands. Now since you seem to imply that it takes carriers to move troops to these places - which fleet exactly would invade there with a carrier fleet?

    The RN had a marginal role in European NATO defence scenarios of the past. Its most valuable contribution could have been related to reinforcements for Norway, but even that mission could have been done with land-based midair-refuelled air power better. The FFG/DDG of the RN were less important than the Dutch and German FFG in the North Sea because the RN was usually busy in the Atlantic and the RN totally lacks SSKs because it spends so much on super-expensive SSNs.

    The Cold War ASW capability of the RN was too small for WW2-like convoying. Its relevance for Reforger could be converted to division equivalents in Central Europe and I somehow doubt that the RN's contribution to European defence was overall better than several more mechanised divisions in North Germany at the same cost would have been.

    The RN was big and is big because of tradition, not as a consequence of a cost/benefit and actual defence requirement analysis.

  15. Sven
    Stopping a Russian Advance in Poland and Czech Republic is a German Goal to avoid urban warfare on the streets of German cities with civilian losses in the millions.

    The UK doesnt actualy care where Russia is stopped as long as at the end of the war it still lacks a warm water port that can bypass the G-I-UK Gap and Gibralter.
    Thats our motivation in being part of NATO, we can actualy accept a loss of Italy, Germany and anything east of that. It doesnt alter our strategic situation (messes up the airpower situation a bit I admit).
    Berlin is not British Territory, Port Stanley is.

    Our spending reflects that.

  16. Sven,

    Another key factor to remember is that UK defense spending is "corporate welfare", meant to create and maintain jobs in industrial areas, and to preserve British industry.

  17. Sven,
    I can't agree with your statement that Argentina can re take the Falklands any time they like. With Argentina's near continuous decline, poor economic policy and incompetent leader ship they have run their armed forces down to nothing. Most of the aircraft they can still deploy are A4 sky-hawks of 1950's vintage.

    Contrary to belief the RAF ain't stupid. A knock out attack by anything other than a submarine launched cruise missile would be very difficult and Argentina ain't close to having anything like that. In the last conflict just 70 royal marines almost manged to fend of the Argentines and if they had a few heavy weapons they would have succeeded. Now the Argentines would have to over come 300 British soldiers armed to the teeth as well as a Falkland Islanders Militia fighting for their homes. Argentina has zero chance.

  18. One or two freighters routinely passing by the islands, dropping boats out of containers and landing a thousand Argentinian troops could overrun the garrison in a matter of a day or two.
    The assertion of impossibility is far off in light of what can be achieved with improvised means and surprise.
    You need no air force or navy at all to invade an island.

    The 500 army personnel on the island equal about two infantry companies. The other few hundred personnel are engineers, signallers or RAF personnel.

  19. There have been discoveries of resource wealth around the Falkland islands, greatly improving the wealth and live of the islanders.
    In my opinion there'll be similar resource claims for other British oversea territories, like on deep-water methane depots (leading to lots of conflict in the South and East Chinese Sea for example, but not involving the British).
    So these territorial claims are an investment into future potential, similar to Russia keeping Siberia or the US buying Alaska.
    If the British consider these islands part of their territory they have to defend them PERIOD.

  20. Don't buy this obvious propaganda crap. "Oil around the Falklands" was already an excuse in 1982, although few if any people had taken notice previously.

    Three decades later, commercial exploitation is still only developing.

    There's also no reason that defence is the only option. You better don't fight if a robber with a gun wants your pocket money. It's insignificant and not worth your death. The defence of property at all costs is a stupid idea.