The UK needs a bolder and stronger armed forces prepared to use “hard power” or risk being seen as a “paper tiger”, the defence secretary has said.
Gavin Williamson warned in a speech that Britain must stand up to those who “flout international law”.
He also said Brexit had brought the UK its “greatest opportunity” to strengthen its global presence.
Labour said the military’s role on the international stage had been “completely undermined” by Tory cuts.
South China Sea
Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute on Monday, Mr Williamson unveiled plans to modernise the armed forces, and said it must increase its “mass and lethality”.
He revealed that the first investments from the multi-million pound Transformation Fund will include a new “Littoral Strike Ship concept”.
He said the globally deployable, multi-role vessels would be able to conduct a wide range of operations from crisis support to fighting war.
“They would support our future Commando force, our world renowned Royal Marines – they will be forward deployed at exceptionally high readiness and able to respond at a moment’s notice,” he said.
He confirmed the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth is being deployed to the Pacific region, where China has been involved in a dispute over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The carrier will take part in the mission along with F-35 jets from the UK and US.
Mr Williamson used his speech to outline how cyber forces will be reinforced to defend and launch attacks thanks to “significant investment”.
There was an extra £1.8bn for defence in the last budget.
With the boundaries between peace and war becoming “blurred” – particularly by Russia and China, he claimed – Mr Williamson said Britain and its allies had to be ready “to use hard power to support our interests”.
He told those gathered for his speech that “state-on-state competition was reviving”.
“Russia is resurgent – rebuilding its military arsenal to bring the independent countries of the former Soviet Union like Georgia and Ukraine back into its orbit,” he said.
“All the while China is developing its modern capability and commercial power.”
He said: “We have to be ready to show the high price of aggressive behaviour. Ready to strengthen our resilience.”
Defending interventionist policy, he said the cost of failing to act in global crises had often been “unacceptably high”, and that Western powers cannot “walk on by when others are in need”.
“To talk but fail to act risks our nation being seen as little more than a paper tiger,” he added.
Mr Williamson said Brexit brought an “unparalleled opportunity” to consider how the UK could maximise its influence around the world.
He said the UK would build new alliances and rekindle old ones, and shared his belief that Britain “should be the nation that people turn to when the world needs leadership”.
But shadow defence secretary Nia Griffith said the UK’s ability to play such a role had been “completely undermined by eight years of Tory defence cuts”.
“The Conservatives have slashed the defence budget by over £9bn in real terms since 2010 and they are cutting armed forces numbers year after year.
“Instead of simply engaging in yet more sabre-rattling, Gavin Williamson should get to grips with the crisis in defence funding that is happening on his watch,” she said.