Gavin Williamson’s speech to a defence think-tank marked a more aggressive tone as he seeks to carve out a post-Brexit vision for Britain’s armed forces
Gavin Williamson and military leaders are grappling with ways to build the UK’s military capabilities at the same time as cutting costs © Toby Melville/ Reuters

The UK defence secretary has announced plans to make more from his stretched budget by converting ferries into two Royal Marine strike ships and by buying and reconfiguring commercial drones for the Royal Air Force to swarm enemy defences.

In a speech on Monday, Gavin Williamson also signalled a more aggressive stance for the UK’s military as it seeks to establish a post-Brexit role, 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.

His comments were partly overshadowed when No 10 had to clarify that Theresa May, prime minister, would make the final decision on where the new £3bn carrier would be sent when it came into service in 2021, rather than the defence secretary.

“Full details of the deployment will be agreed by the prime minister in due course,” Mrs May’s spokesman said. While the carrier would be dispatched to the Mediterranean, Middle East and Pacific, precise details had yet to be confirmed, he added.

A Ministry of Defence official played down talk of a row between Mr Williamson and Mrs May, insisting the speech had been signed off by No 10, the national security adviser and the Treasury.

With the MoD facing a £15bn funding gap in its equipment budget over the next decade, Mr Williamson and military leaders are grappling with ways to build the UK’s military capabilities at the same time as cutting costs.

At the end of last year, Mr Williamson announced a new transformation fund worth £160m a year, which would help the armed forces buy new equipment more quickly to meet rapidly evolving threats.

The two warships, which along with the drones are the first investments from that fund, will be adapted from old ferries or container vessels, fitted with new technology, and equipped with helicopters and fast boats. They will be able to carry up to 400 commandos.

The vessels would be on permanent deployment and form part of a bigger strike force with other amphibious assault ships, HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion.

At this stage the MoD has only announced a “concept and design” phase and has not identified vessels or contractors to convert them. But officials said they hoped to bring them into service within two years.

The move is a sharp turnround for the Royal Navy’s amphibious fleet. In autumn 2017, HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion faced being scrapped as part of cutbacks.

Julian Lewis, chair of the parliamentary defence committee, said: “It is a profoundly welcome development, and shows what can be done when Treasury-led attempts to hollow out the armed forces are successfully resisted.”

The new drones will cost £7m, Mr Williamson said, and could be deployed alongside the UK’s new stealth fighter jet, the F-35, to develop what he described as “swarm squadrons of network-enabled drones capable of confusing the enemy and overwhelming their air defences”.

“We expect to see these ready to be deployed by the end of the year,” he added.

In response to questions about how the MoD will pay for the new commitments, Mr Williamson said: “All that we have announced has been fully costed and covered.”

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