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Is Cash-Strapped Britain Losing the Will to Defend Itself?

Dramatic defense cuts signal a global military withdrawal by a Britain that lacks both the economic means and the political will to continue projecting power beyond its own shores.

by
Soeren Kern

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October 24, 2010 - 12:00 am
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British Prime Minister David Cameron has unveiled the long-awaited results of a Strategic Defense and Security Review which, if fully implemented, will significantly diminish Britain’s geopolitical position and status. Cameron has announced reductions in military manpower and materiel of such magnitude that Britain will no longer be able to mount military operations on the scale of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

As Britain, which currently possesses the most potent military in Europe, stops putting its forces in the field, it will become a far less dependable ally for the United States in the future. Cuts in British defense spending will also further magnify the military capabilities gap between the United States and its European allies, and thus call into question the continued viability of the NATO alliance.

Cameron says that in order to “get to grips with the biggest budget deficit in post war history,” Britain’s defense budget will be reduced by a staggering 8 percent over the next four years. (Cameron says his government inherited a £38 billion ($60 billion) black hole for future defense projects, bigger than the entire annual defense budget of £33 billion.)

In terms of manpower, Cameron says he will cut 42,000 jobs from the British Ministry of Defense by 2015. In addition to cuts in civilian jobs, the British army will be cut by 7,000 troops to 96,000; the navy will be cut by 5,000 marines to 30,000; and the Royal Air Force (RAF) will be cut by 5,000 airmen to 33,000.

Such cutting will impact what the already-stretched-thin British military is capable of doing in the future. For example, the largest overseas deployment over the next decade will be limited to no more than 30,000 troops, or two-thirds of the 45,000 British troops that took part in the invasion of Iraq. The cuts also imply that Britain will no longer be able to sustain the type of long-term military campaign that it is fighting in Afghanistan, where it currently has 9,000 troops, the second-largest force after the United States.

In terms of materiel, Cameron says he will reduce the number of tanks by 40 percent, and the total number of frigates and destroyers from 23 to 19. He will immediately scrap the navy’s flagship aircraft carrier, the HMS Ark Royal, and retire the iconic Harrier Jump Jet. Taken together, the consequence is that Britain will be without the capability to fly jets from aircraft carriers for the next ten years, until new ones are delivered in 2020. This will deprive Britain of the ability to project air power to many overseas locations for all of the next decade.

The RAF has been hardest hit by the budget cuts. As well as scrapping the Harrier, the RAF will receive far fewer new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters than previously planned. The RAF’s aging fleet of Tornados, essential to operations in Afghanistan, has been saved, but once the Afghanistan commitment ends in 2015, its future is also uncertain. Orders for the next generation of Nimrod surveillance planes, which had been due to come into service in 2012, have also been scrapped.

In terms of nuclear forces, Cameron says that the crucial decision about whether to replace Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent will not be taken until after the next general election, which will be another four or five years down the road. Instead, the life of the Vanguard class of submarines that carry the Trident system will be extended so that the final go-ahead for new submarines will not be given until at least 2016. This delay will save billions of pounds from the defense budget.

At the same time, the Cameron government has unveiled a new National Security Strategy (NSS), which asserts that cyber warfare is the most pressing threat to Britain’s security and safety; it has allocated £500 million to a national cyber security program to counter unconventional threats of the future. Echoing the post-modern rhetoric of other European leaders, Cameron also says that Britain should focus more attention on the causes of conflict to reduce the costs of “just dealing with the consequences” of failed states. (The NSS does admit: “It is a realistic possibility that, in the next 10 years, [Islamic] extremists … could cross the line between advocacy and terrorism” and threaten Britain’s national security.)

The cuts in British defense spending come at a time when Britain is engaged in an emotional debate over its diminishing role in the world. Many voices (especially on, but certainly not limited to, the anti-American British left) are now calling into question the very cornerstone of British foreign policy for more than 60 years, namely the Anglo-American “special relationship.”

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