Great Britain to Launch Covert Operations Against Russia and China

By Stephen Xia
Stephen Xia
Stephen Xia
Stephen Xia, a former PLA engineer, specialized in aviation equipment and engineering technology management. After retiring from military service, he has been following the world's development of military equipment.
July 26, 2021 Updated: July 28, 2021

Great Britain is expanding its global military presence and will be launching covert missions tackling the threat from Russia and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Royal Marines Brigadier Mark Totten revealed to The Times recently.

Totten said the Royal Marines will assume command of both the Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS). He will also form a new Ranger Regiment equipped with more ships, submarines, sailors, and future commandos capable of discreet rapid deployment within diverse high-risk environments, including the South China Sea. His current 4,000-member Future Commando Force will be trained in the use of artificial intelligence and the latest drone technology to successfully conduct their varied missions. Totten explained, “…this will allow [the special forces] to focus on more difficult, more complex, counter-Russia, counter-China [tasks]. It takes real specialist expertise, so we will allow them to have more time and people to address those and we can conduct some of the tasks.”

This announcement came after Britain’s director of special forces, General Mark Carleton-Smith, had previously drafted a new “special operations concept” on the grounds that modern warfare was changing, and unconventional military operations were becoming more common. To succeed in the evolving global arena, said Carleton-Smith earlier this year, Great Britain would need to make changes to how their military and humanitarian missions were being conducted.

To fund this strategic endeavor, the British government approved a $117 billion budget in March for new equipment over the next four years and an additional $275 million to recruit and train a robust and techno savvy force of Future Commandos. This will provide the UK a more agile and lethal capability, ready to conduct missions anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice, whether for war-fighting, specific combat missions such as hit-and-run raids, or to provide humanitarian assistance.

Totten’s bold announcement was the first public admission by the British military that it would be conducting covert missions against Russia and the CCP. However, Totten was not entirely clear about the specific actions his troops would be taking. He did say that melting ice caps in the Arctic could open sea routes for Russia and China, adding: “There’s a big geopolitical shift there so why wouldn’t we embed the commando force up there to be ready to react?” The Times speculated that British special forces may also be coordinating with MI6 to conduct top-secret surveillance against Chinese and Russian threats.

The CCP has been relatively quiet in response to Great Britain’s recent announcement. The few Chinese media outlets that reported on this announcement treated it as unimportant. Some quoted the Labour Outlook website that said, “China has never been Britain’s enemy.” As if there was no apparent reason for China to be alarmed.

However, the CCP should be alarmed since China’s recent aggression in the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait, and along the India-China border has elevated distrust and anger in the UK. The British view these actions as a threat to navigation that could disrupt maritime trade in the region and around the world. Although the British have said they prefer to avoid ono-on-one conflict with the CCP, they are committed to standing firm with NATO allies in countering “Chinese hostility,” and this includes providing military training to China’s potential enemies around the South China Sea.

Russia’s response to Great Britain came as a warning and threat. On July 14, Mikhail Popov, deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council, warned Great Britain not to sail near the Crimea or their sailors would be harmed. The Russians recently issued this warning after the British warship HMS Defender conducted an innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters near Crimea last month. A move that was within the Britain’s rights under international freedom of navigation law.

Regarding this matter, on June 23, the Russian Defense Ministry issued a press release saying its Black Sea Fleet, in conjunction with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), prevented the British destroyer from crossing the country’s border near Cape Ferrante in Crimea. The U.K. vessel had ventured three kilometers into Russia’s claimed territorial waters. A Russian Coast Guard patrol fired warning shots and a Russian Air Force Su-24M bomber dropped four high explosive bombs near the British vessel before it departed from the vicinity.

Popov said Britain’s behavior during the maritime incident was puzzling and so was their response to Russia’s complaints. He criticized British Prime Minister Boris Johnston and Foreign Minister Dominic Raab for defending the right to sail where they did and “the incident could happen again.” In response to which Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister said, British warships “be better off leaving their provocations aside and not coming here because they will get a punch in the nose.”

During the annual press conference on June 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the incident near the Crimea was a complex provocation by the U.K. and the United States. He claimed the British vessel entered Russian Black Sea waters for the purpose of reconnaissance.

There is no evidence linking the British warship’s operation near Crimea with the secret mission of the British special forces. But Putin’s suggestion that the purpose of the British warship operation was reconnaissance seems to bear a close resemblance to Brigadier Totten’s covert mission that specifically targeted the Russians.

The maritime conflict between Russia and Britain reflects the escalation of gray zone operations in Europe. If both sides maintain a relatively high-profile operational posture, the “gray area” will be compressed to very narrow. Despite Russia’s stated “lack of great power ambitions,” its actions in Ukraine have made the NATO allies feel threatened and have shaped the course of Europe.

Stephen Xia
Stephen Xia
Stephen Xia, a former PLA engineer, specialized in aviation equipment and engineering technology management. After retiring from military service, he has been following the world's development of military equipment.