The British military is preparing to fight a new enemy: Brexit.
“What we are doing is putting contingency plans in place, and what we will do is have 3,500 service personnel held at readiness, including regulars and reserves, in order to support any government department on any contingencies they may need,” Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson told Parliament last week.
These will be in addition to 5,000 troops already on standby to respond to terror attacks inside Britain.
The preparations come as the March 2019 deadline nears for Britain leaving the European Union. After almost two years of negotiation with the EU and bitter political infighting between Leavers and Remainers, the UK and EU still have not agreed on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union.
The situation resembles the Y2K panic in 2000, when fears that Windows operating systems would crash and create massive disruptions led to predictions of mass chaos. Some British experts have warned that if Britain leaves the EU without a trade agreement, there could be shortages of food and essential goods, and disruption of vital services such as passenger airlines.
Exactly what the troops will do isn’t clear. While democracies frown on involving the military in domestic affairs, they are called upon to provide support during natural disasters or man-made ones, such as a labor strike that halts key services.
From a security perspective, tying down British troops on post-Brexit duty couldn’t come at a worse time. Russia is rearming and invading its neighbors. China is becoming more assertive in the Pacific as its armed forces become more high-tech and dangerous. Meanwhile, the British military lacks enough money to buy all the new equipment on its shopping list, which includes everything from aircraft carriers and nuclear-missile submarines to jet fighters and armored vehicles.
Britain has been a pillar of European security since 1945, with a relatively large military—and a willingness to use military force—more akin to the United States than its more cautious continental neighbors. During the last two decades of the Cold War, British military strength was siphoned off by the civil war in Northern Ireland, which meant fewer resources were available to confront the Soviet threat. It is possible that Brexit could create a similar drain.
Is it any wonder that Russia mounted a propaganda campaign to encourage Brexit?
For now, Britain has indicated that despite leaving the EU, it wants to remain part of European security. Significantly, it plans to retain a few hundred troops in Germany. "We are increasing our British points of presence across the world,” Williamson announced. “We will not be closing our facilities in Germany, and instead will use them to forward base the Army.”
There is some precedent for this. France left NATO in 1966, but this didn’t keep the French from tacitly being part of Western defense against the Soviet Union. Still, Brexit will only complicate European defense.