Esper’s New Push For Allies; Gilday Unveils ‘Tech Bridge’ To Royal Navy

NATO soldiers during the closing ceremony of Tobruq Legacy 2020 at Siauliai Air Base, Lithuania.

WASHINGTON: The Pentagon is launching a new effort to deepen relationships with allies by sharing — and selling — more weaponry overseas and more closely tying together operations with allied militaries, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced Tuesday.

While extolling the value of international cooperation has hardly been a centerpiece of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy highlighted the importance of partnerships as a key pillar of American policy and that has helped guide US modernization and reform efforts. 

Esper’s announcement came just hours after the US and UK navies announced a new agreement to bolster joint operations at sea and more closely connect technology development on everything from drones to new laser weapons.

The sea services’ unveiling of their agreement fits nicely within Esper’s “Guidance for Development of Alliances and Partnerships” — or GDAP — which he outlined Tuesday at the Atlantic Council. 

The plan, meant to bolster alliances and forge new partnerships with longtime allies to share the costs of deterring China and Russia, is designed to draw the US closer to core allies while looking to build new relationships with other countries not traditionally in the US orbit. 

“Together these efforts will help us build the capacity and capabilities of like-minded nations and foster interoperability with friendly militaries while creating a stronger domestic industrial base that can compete in the global marketplace,” Esper said.

Just hours earlier, navy leaders from the United States and United Kingdom released details of a plan to more fully integrate the two sea services operationally, while creating a new joint technology innovation hub based in London that would tie into similar Navy innovation efforts in the US.

The agreement “will set a cooperative vision for interchangeability,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said at the Atlantic Future Forum held aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier docked in Portsmouth, England. “We will synchronize pioneering capabilities, strengthen operating concepts and focus our collective efforts to deliver combined sea power together.”

Holding the event aboard the brand-new aircraft carrier carries some symbolic weight. She’s the first of two new carriers specifically designed to fly F-35B fighter planes, and to get the UK back in the business of operating aircraft at sea, which it has been unable to do since the retirement of its last carrier in 2014. The carrier has also played host to US Marine Corps F-35Bs, something admirals from both countries have heralded as the start of a new era of collaboration between the two countries. One of the intriguing design features about the F-35 is that pilots from any nation that owns some can climb in, get access to whatever systems and data they are cleared for and fly the plane into battle.

On Tuesday, the ship’s hanger deck was converted into a glitzy conference stage, where the buzzword of the day was “interchangeability,” referring to an effort for US and British ships to deploy together in blended strike groups helmed by US and UK aircraft carriers bristling with fifth-generation aircraft.

“By organizing our cooperation on carrier strike, underwater superiority, navy-marine integration and doubling down on future warfighting [capabilities] like unmanned and artificial intelligence,” the allies can stay well ahead of the game, Gilday said.

Just recently, 10 Marine Corps F-35Bs embarked with UK F-35Bs aboard the Queen Elizabeth for NATO exercises off the coast of Scotland, an exercise which saw the American destroyer USS Sullivans operate as part of the British carrier Task Group.

Speaking after Gilday’s taped remarks, First Sea Lord Adm. Tony Radakin said the new plan will focus on four areas, “underwater, our carrier programs, our Marines — so working with the US Marine Corps and their drive for distributed warfare — and linking that with what we want to do with our Royal Marines, and the future commando force.” 

Neither the British or US navies would release more details of the classified plan for how the two would become more closely intertwined. But some clues emerged throughout the day. 

On the development side, the UK wants the Pentagon to participate in a major new underwater drone program as part of the “interchangeability” between the two militaries. Radakin said the drone development is progressing, and “we’re working together so that we both benefit from that kind of technology.”

Speaking of the recent joint deployment and the technology development push, Radakin added, “we’re trying to drive a new standard. Interchangeability is going to be a stronger feature in the future.”

A key piece of that will be the brand-new “Tech Bridge” center that opened in London today that will connect British innovators with those the Navy is currently funding in the US to work on artificial intelligence, unmanned and autonomous systems, biotechnology, and directed energy weapons.

The Tech Bridge “will create partnerships between US and UK industry to produce solutions,” a Navy official told me. It also further opens up the UK market to American companies, a key aspect of Esper’s plan. With this new direct connection to the UK’s MoD and Royal Navy, those organizations can also more easily tap into small Americans businesses, as well.

“I am a fan of multilateralism,” Radakin said, adding that sometimes it takes smaller, bilateral efforts like the new tech office to get things done. 

“I’m a fan of being able to fight with allies such as America, and the magnificence of the NATO construct. But we have to somehow fathom a way that we don’t end up in these sort of cumbersome monolithic structures, and we can still have access to some of the brightest ideas, and somehow push them through our organizations. That’s the piece where I think it’s a dilemma for all of us.”

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Paul McLeary