A Leaner, Meaner British Military
Why David Cameron's spending caps haven't eviscerated the fighting forces of America's greatest ally.
Josh Rogin’s piece on The Cable on Oct. 20, "For British Air Power, Satire Become Reality," flags the insouciance of the fictional British Admiral Sir George Parr as he wrestles with the travails of military procurement. But like all great satire, Bird and Fortune’s skit is not entirely fair. And we shouldn’t confuse Britain’s self-deprecating humor for well-founded analysis of the country’s military future.
It’s certainly been an interesting week for those with a professional interest in the transatlantic security relationship. Over the course of three days, Britain has had three key — and inter-related — announcements: the National Security Strategy (NSS), the Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR), and the Spending Review 2010. Taken together, they give a good insight into Britain’s own sense of its place in the world and of its capabilities as an international ally.
As yesterday’s announcement by Chancellor George Osborne made clear, Britain is facing an exceptional fiscal challenge. We have the largest peacetime budget deficit in our history — just paying the interest on the nation’s debt each year costs £43 billion. We won’t get sustainable growth in the British economy unless we tackle this deficit now.
Our plans for defense spending cannot escape this reality. Britain’s defense budget was over-committed by £38 billion over the next decade. Bringing it back into balance has to be a key part of tackling the broader deficit. Not least because Britain’s international power depends in the first instance on a strong British economy.
But let us be clear: Britain is not getting out of the global game. Prime Minister David Cameron has talked about Britain’s ambition to continue to project power and influence in a rapidly changing world. The NSS, published on Monday, sets out our vision for Britain as an "open, outward-facing nation," with a determination to remain actively engaged across the world, promoting our security, our prosperity, and our values. This isn’t a time, British ministers have said, for strategic shrinkage.
While it’s easy to talk up retrenchment, Britain retains formidable assets: the sixth-largest economy in the world; the fourth-largest military budget (even after the Defense Review); one of the biggest international aid programs; a unique set of alliances and relationships; and one of the largest global diplomatic networks. And we retain an ambition to match.
Of course, the SDSR has had to identify cuts and savings, particularly where the military rationale has become less strong or the capability duplicates that of another ally such as the United States. We will be cutting down on our older, heavier equipment: we’ll have 40 percent fewer tanks and 35 percent less heavy artillery. We will decommission the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and drop four destroyers and frigates from current forces; we will reduce the number of fighter jet types we maintain; and we will plan to withdraw our forces from Germany by 2020. And it is true that there will be a temporary gap in our capability to operate aircraft from the sea before the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters come online.
But let us not lose sight of the capabilities that Britain will retain. We went into this review as the United States’ most effective and dependable military ally, and we have come out of it in the same place. The overall scale of the reductions is significantly less than many were predicting — about 8 percent of spending in real terms over the next four years. In the context of our alliances, this means that Britain will continue to spend at or above the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP. Our future force will be the most modern, capable, and deployable of any U.S. ally. And this government is clear that, like its predecessors, it has the political will to use our military capability when necessary.
In practical terms, one could say that Britain’s military may even be stronger: The government has reaffirmed the commitment to build two new aircraft carriers; the future fighter jet fleet will have more capable planes; and we will develop multi-role brigades to be able to conduct the full range of tasks that our ground forces currently do. Our new planning assumptions see us capable of deploying a modernized all-arms force into the field up to 30,000 strong for a single major operation. And we will retain an ability to sustain in long-term stabilization operations a brigade-sized force in theater at levels not too far below those currently deployed in southern Afghanistan.
The prime minister has been very clear that our commitment to the operation in Afghanistan is unchanged. There is no cut in the support for our forces there. Changes to the armed forces have been designed specifically to avoid compromising our ability to support the ISAF mission. We will remain the second largest troop contributor, with around 10,000 troops in theater. We will continue to send our best people to leadership positions in ISAF and our national expertise to the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team.
In short, despite the reductions, Britain will remain capable of the most demanding tasks across the full spectrum of military operations.
This has been a groundbreaking defense review for Britain. Conducted by our new National Security Council, it has made decisions about how, in an era of fewer resources, we can strike the right balance in our security posture. This has meant focusing not just on our conventional armed forces, but also on our nuclear posture, our intelligence capacity, our counterterrorist capabilities, our international development programs, our diplomatic network, and our cyber defenses.
These assets are critical to exercising influence in the modern world. And the SDSR protects, and in some cases, augments them. On cyber security — which covers crime, espionage, terrorism, and even conventional warfare — we will be spending an extra £650 million to give Britain a real advantage in cyber resilience. On counterterrorism, we will be protecting our key operational capabilities, while investing in a range of assets to enable us to identify, investigate, and disrupt terrorist activity at the earliest possible stage. We will expand our special forces. And on nuclear issues, Britain will continue to maintain a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent, and has decided to proceed with plans to replace the current Vanguard class of submarines on which is it based.
I recognize that there has been significant interest here in the United States about how the SDSR might come out. And no one should be surprised by that. It reflects the very real value that the U.S. places on British security assets, the capabilities we bring to the table, and Britain’s leadership within NATO as an exemplary ally.
But I am confident that the United States has not only understood the scale of the budgetary challenges Britain is facing, but is comfortable with where this review has come out. As Secretary Hillary Clinton herself said, the result of the SDSR is "a U.K. military capable of meeting its NATO commitments and of remaining the most capable partner for our forces as we seek to mitigate the shared threats of the 21st century."
Unlike Admiral Parr and his satirical shenanigans, this is a defense review that deserves praise, not pillory.