“Swarm squadrons” of drones capable of “confusing the enemy and overwhelming their air defences” are set to be deployed by the UK’s armed forces.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson revealed the plan during a speech at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
He told military leaders that Britain must be ready “to use hard power” and not “walk on by when others are in need”.
Mr Williamson said actions by China and Russia had “blurred” the boundaries between peace and war and that the UK “may need to intervene” to honour the “global Britain” mantra.
“The price of non-intervention in global crises has often been unacceptably high. To talk, but fail to act, risks our nation being seen as little more than a paper tiger,” he said.
The drone plan will be paid for through the “transformation fund” – a pot of cash to develop cutting-edge military technology.
Mr Willamson said the fund would “develop swarm squadrons of network-enabled drones capable of confusing the enemy and overwhelming their air defences”.
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“We expect to see these ready to be deployed by the end of the year,” he said.
Oct 2018: F-35 jets land on HMS Queen Elizabeth
The defence secretary also reiterated a plan to open military bases in Asia and the Caribbean, and announced that the UK’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, would head to the Pacific region for her first operational tour.
The deployment, likely to be in 2021, will include two squadrons of F35 stealth jets to “stand up to those who flout international law”.
“Significantly, British and American F35s will be embedded in the carrier’s air wing, enhancing the reach and lethality of our forces and reinforcing the fact that the US remains our very closest of partners.” Mr Williamson said.
Britain will also bring two new vessels into service by buying or leasing cargo ships or ferries – which would then be adapted for military use.
Mr Williamson said the “Littoral Strike Ship concept” would provide “globally deployable, multi-role vessels… able to conduct a wide range of operations from crisis support to war fighting”.
'We must be ready to act and bring others with us,' Mr Williamson is expected to say
“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 – bringing the fight from the sea to land,” the defence secretary said.
He said the ships would combine with other assets to give the UK a “sovereign, lethal, amphibious force” that will be “one of the largest and best in the world”.
The Conservative politician also used the speech as a rallying cry in an attempt to unite both Remainers and Leavers.
“It is my belief that Britain has its greatest opportunity in 50 years to redefine its role,” he said.
“As we leave the European Union, and with the world changing so rapidly, it is up to us to seize the opportunity that Brexit brings.
“We can build new alliances, rekindle old ones and most importantly make it clear that we are the country that will act when required and a nation that people can turn to when the world needs leadership.”
NATO countries must step up and pay their 2% share of spending, he added, and European countries must “not be distracted by the notion of an EU army”.
“The Alliance (NATO) also must develop its ability to handle the kind of provocations that Russia is throwing at us. Such action from Russia must come at a cost.
“History has taught us that crisis comes when it is least expected. As uncertainty grows we must be ready to act and bring others with us.”
And in a fast-changing world, Mr Williamson committed more money to the UK’s cyber defences: “As the cyber threat grows, we are making a very significant additional investment on the £1.9bn we spend on cyber capabilities.
“That’s funding to improve offensive cyber, putting the command and control structures in place across government. And it will give us extra money to protect our networks’ resilience from online attacks.”
He added: “Our adversaries are increasingly using cyber attacks, subversion and information operations to challenge us and the rules-based international order.
“I want to see our armed forces embracing transformation at an ever-faster rate, keeping pace with technological change, enhancing our mass and increasing our lethality. We shouldn’t be shy about our ambition for our forces.
“Against adversaries upping their spending and advancing technology, we have to respond. If we do not, we will find ourselves with fewer options when we face threats in the future.”