Britain’s Paintball Strategist

Paintball is a sport in which players try to hit others by firing small round balls filled with dyed jelly. The balls are usually shot from a gun powered by compressed air or other expanding vapor, and some projectors cost many hundreds of dollars. The sport is popular and the manufacturers of equipment have become rich by inventing all sorts of weird and complicated guns and so forth. It’s harmless enough, and in fact is the sort of game dreamed about by many little boys.

Which brings us to the Secretary of State for Defence of the United Kingdom, Mr Gavin Williamson, who is an oddball who likes paintballs and thinks it would be a good idea to fire the things at Spaniards, at least to begin with.

Britain and Spain disagree about the status of Gibraltar, the tiny British Overseas Territory jutting into the Mediterranean close to the southern tip of Spain. Both countries act childishly, and Spanish vessels have on occasions zoomed in and out of what the UK considers to be its territorial waters. Defence secretary Williamson strongly objects to this, and at a London meeting of senior military officers in December he came up with a solution. The Spanish vessels, he proposed, should be paintballed. As reported by the Independent newspaper, Gibraltar residents “would be asked to ‘splat’ Spanish navy and police vessels should they enter the waters illegally, which has become an increasingly regular occurrence on the southern coast of Spain.”

Those present when Mr Williamson revealed his scatty idea said nothing, and the strategic concept was laid to rest. But it wasn’t the first time Williamson had expressed colorful views on important matters, and won’t be the last. This is the man, after all, who was reported as having “raised eyebrows at a Nato meeting in Brussels” last year when he declared “What’s the point of listening to French politicians?”

The eyebrow-raising was not surprising, because Williamson was referring specifically to President Macron, which is not exactly what diplomacy and international relations are all about. But Williamson is not content with insulting and threatening Britain’s allies in the European Union. He goes further afield, such as when he declared last year that “Frankly, Russia should go away and should shut up,” which was probably the most fatuously immature statement by a British defense minister since the post was created in 1936.

In a speech to the Royal United Services Institute on February 11 he rejoiced that Britain’s Brexit calamity provided an opportunity to demonstrate military prowess. He told his audience that “Brexit has brought us to a moment. A great moment in our history. A moment when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality, and increase our mass.”

Williamson has decided that Britain’s armed forces will be sent around the world because “the UK is a global power with truly global interests” and “wherever I go in the world I find that Britain stands tall.”

Please stop laughing.

The uncomfortable but undeniable truth is that Britain is not a global power, or anywhere near one, and that if Williamson imagines that Britain “stands tall” around the world he has a serious problem with comprehending height and foreign sentiment.

It’s what might be called the paintball mentality.

It is no pleasure for me to write that internationally Britain is regarded with amused derision tempered by compassion for its dithering and inchoate approach to the Brexit fiasco. Domestically it is incapacitated. As Deutsche Welle reported, “the UK government has spent the past two and a half years in a bubble that has left it paralytic and unable to tackle the domestic problems that haven’t magically disappeared into the Brexit vortex.” Its domestic troubles are countless and include a failing Health Service (due in large part to the departure of foreign medical staff, apprehensive about Brexit); a disastrous railway network, prisons that are an utter disgrace, and a parliament that is more like a comic opera than a dignified debating forum. As one ruling party politician said on February 15, it is questionable “whether in fact the government is able to operate in the national interest at all. We are facing a great crisis and we are not really looking at all the options for trying to resolve it.”

It has to be faced that the UK is in a parlous state, and the last thing it should be doing is confronting anyone militarily — and especially countries with which it has no territorial disagreements. Neither China nor Russia presents the slightest military threat to Britain. All they want to do is trade and prosper without other countries trying to menace them in their own backyard.

But in his speech on February 11 Gavin Williamson declared that “today, Russia is resurgent — rebuilding its military arsenal and seeking to bring the independent countries of the former Soviet Union, like Georgia and Ukraine, back into its orbit. All the while, China is developing its modern military capability and its commercial power.”

The man is a fool. There is no kinder word to describe him. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute recorded in its 2018 Report that “At $66.3 billion, Russia’s military spending in 2017 was 20 per cent lower than in 2016” while “total military spending by all 29 NATO members was $900 billion in 2017, accounting for 52 per cent of world spending.” The UK spent $47.2 billion — and Williamson wants more, which he won’t get.

But one major point that escapes such as Williamson is that the UK has an area of 242,500 square kilometers while Russia’s is 17 million, which might, even to the meanest intelligence, indicate good reason for its defense expenditure.

Then Williamson proudly declared that “We are a leader in NATO, this year hosting the Leaders Meeting here in London. Alongside this we have sent a Battle Group to Estonia to support NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence. We lead multi-national maritime task groups in the Mediterranean and defend the skies over the Black Sea and the Baltics.”

As noted by the UK’s satirical magazine, Private Eye, the thought of Britain enhancing NATO’s forward presence is unlikely to disturb or agitate Russia or anyone else, but of course it’s the thought that counts.

And it was Williamson’s thought that also counted when he included China in his diatribe and even threatened the Eastern Dragon. As the Financial Times (FT) noted, he had “signaled a more aggressive stance . . . confirming 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.”

On February 16 the FT reported that Philip Hammond, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer — the finance minister — “has cancelled a planned trip to China”, although he “had been expected to visit Beijing in order to meet senior figures including vice-premier Hu Chunhua.”

Unfortunately, “preparations were disrupted when the defense secretary Gavin Williamson suggested that Britain would send a new aircraft carrier to China’s backyard. Mr Hammond’s meeting with Mr Hu was cancelled, leading the UK to abandon the trip altogether.”

If Britain wants favorable trade terms with China after exiting the European Union, it would be advisable to seek them through dialogue rather than by announcing its intention to send an aircraft carrier to “stand tall” in the South China Sea.

Militarily, however, China need have no fears about Williamson’s saber-rattling. Because the most lethal things he’s got in his arsenal are paintballs.

Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.