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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

Bio

October 24, 2010 - 12:00 am

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.”

Some want to carve out a new role for Britain as a post-modern pacifist “soft-power.” Former Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband, for example, has tried to recast Britain as a “global thought leader.” Others say Britain should become a “global hub” in the fight against climate change. A British think tank recently sponsored a conference titled “Rethinking the UK’s International Ambitions and Choices.” The conference was tasked with “assessing the UK’s international priorities and the policy choices it faces in matching its ambitions, interests and resources.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, in his first major speech since taking office, outlined his government’s long-term vision for Britain’s role in the world. He promised a sweeping overhaul of British foreign policy aimed at expanding the country’s “global reach and influence” to every inhabited continent. Hague said that if Britain wants to maintain its influence in a changing world, it will have to move beyond its special relationship with the United States and forge new strategic alliances around the globe.

The geopolitical reality, however, is that most governments around the world only pay attention to Britain when it is acting as a close partner of the United States. Britain derives its global influence not primarily from itself, but from its close ties to America, and the maintenance of that influence is directly related to the military manpower and materiel Britain can bring to the geopolitical table.

Cameron says that despite the spending cuts, Britain will still have the fourth-largest military budget in the world, and will meet the NATO target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. He also says that although Britain will be without an aircraft carrier capable of carrying jets for a decade, it will still punch “above its weight in the world.” In a telephone call, Cameron promised U.S. President Barack Obama that Britain will remain “a first-rate military power and a robust ally of the United States.”

The Cameron government says it wants to reposition Britain as a central hub in the geopolitical world at the same time that it is being forced to radically cut spending on diplomacy and defense. Cameron’s defense cuts, however, mark the end of Tony Blair’s concept of “liberal interventionism,” first set out in his landmark speech in Chicago in April 1999, during the Kosovo crisis. As such, it also marks another milestone on a long road to British decline.

As Britain abandons its long-standing tradition of deploying forces into the field, and as it follows in the footsteps of other European countries by refusing to have its soldiers killed in NATO out-of-area missions, many fear it may also mark the beginning of the end of the NATO alliance. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have both warned that deep reductions in Britain’s armed forces will have profound consequences for transatlantic and international security.

Speaking to the BBC, Clinton said British defense cuts are worrisome. “I think we do have to have an alliance where there is a commitment to the common defense. NATO has been the most successful alliance for defensive purposes in the history of the world, I guess, but it has to be maintained. Now each country has to be able to make its appropriate contributions.”

At a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, Gates said: “My worry is that the more our allies cut their capabilities, the more people will look to the U.S. to cover whatever gaps are created. At a time when we are facing stringencies of our own, that’s a concern for me.” He also said: “As nations deal with their economic problems, we must guard against the hollowing out of alliance military capability by spending reductions that cut too far into muscle.”

More than 60 years ago, Winston Churchill concluded that Britain could best expand its global reach and influence by strengthening, not weakening, its special relationship with the United States. But Cameron appears to have decided that Britain no longer possesses the economic means or the political will to do so.

Soeren Kern is Senior Analyst for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.
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