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Over the past two weeks, there has been a spate of reports, articles and opinion pieces detailing the sad state of Britain’s defences. As Max Hastings argued on this page last Wednesday, the UK government is facing a fundamental choice. Should it build a military that can handle today’s unconventional wars or attempt to sustain an increasingly thin semblance of a “do-everything” force? But, if those are the alternatives and a choice must be made, we should be clear: the “special relationship” that binds Washington and London will not remain the same.
Although there are many reasons for the existence of the “special relationship”–shared history, language, principles–the cornerstone of that relationship from its first days has been shared “hard power” in the areas of intelligence and defence. As such, will the US be as interested in hearing from Whitehall if British forces are only capable of working side-by-side with Americans in a narrower defence arena? And, in turn, will Whitehall continue to share a common strategic vision with Washington if its own interests are constrained by increasingly limited military capabilities?
As reports from think-tanks such as Chatham House, the Royal United Services Institute and the Institute for Public Policy Research make clear, Britain’s armed services–especially its ground forces–are overstretched and have been for several years. There are manpower and equipment shortages, and a lack of proper housing and adequate healthcare. With a core defence budget that has been essentially flat for a decade, there are serious doubts whether the British military has the resources to sustain, in the words of the UK’s national security strategy, “forces that are deployable and flexible, able to move rapidly between different environments and different types of operations” and “capable of operating closely with the US forces”.
Nor is the situation likely to improve. If anything, the UK’s defences are heading for the shoals. Having delayed, but not cancelled, several big acquisition programmes for aircraft carriers, jet fighters, surface ships and submarines, the government now faces a procurement “bow wave” that would be barely affordable in good times but which, in the current fiscal crisis, seems virtually impossible. As, for 2010 alone, the UK government is borrowing more than five times the amount currently spent on the military, it seems likely that the defence account will be cut considerably–and not just for one year but several.
In theory, the government could make an exception for defence and cut spending elsewhere. To do so, however, would require a sea change in British politics and priorities. The UK, like many other European countries, has greatly increased spending on health, education and other domestic social programmes during the past 10 years. To be fair, this spending was also rising under the previous Conservative government. But under prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown it has more than doubled in many areas and tripled in others. If statements by the Tory opposition are taken seriously, there is little interest in reversing course on health or education spending should the party come to power.
The UK has reached a fork in the road. As one recent report put it, “a moment of choice as significant as the decision to withdraw from East of Suez”. In the absence of changed budget priorities, the government must opt for a military that can fight unconventional, long wars, such as in Afghanistan, or attempt to maintain a military with a wide array of strategic and conventional capabilities, but which will be only a faint shadow of its former self. In either case, the UK’s military will no longer be standing shoulder to shoulder with the US across the full spectrum of military capabilities.
This does not mean that the “special relationship” will suddenly disappear. The long history of co-operation and America’s gratitude for the help British forces are providing in Afghanistan run too deep for that to happen. Yet the fundamental change to Britain’s armed forces that is widely predicted will affect how the strategic relationship unfolds in the years ahead. Ties will remain close, but whether they remain “special” is a different matter.
Gary J. Schmitt is a resident scholar and the director of advanced strategic studies at AEI.
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