The British Defense Staff, led by General Sir David Richards, is in Washington, DC for strategic discussions with their counterpart, the Joint Chiefs of Staff including its chairman, General Martin Dempsey. The U.S. and the UK consult on defense issues all the time. This is a reflection of the so-called “special relationship” that has endured for nearly 70 years. The need for close consultations is also a function of ongoing collaboration on a number of military programs vital to both countries’ modernization plans, chief among them the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. UK defense companies play a significant role in supporting the U.S. military; BAE Systems is the single largest provider of overhaul and maintenance support to the U.S. Navy.
But this is the first of its kind “all hands” meeting in decades, possibly going back as far as the famous Casablanca Conference in January, 1943. That meeting, attended by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill as well as all the great wartime military leaders from both countries, established the strategy that the two nations pursued for the remainder of World War Two. During what sometimes became heated even rancorous discussions the two nations decided on a policy of unconditional surrender, a strategy of Europe first and then the Far East, a sequential approach to attacking Axis-controlled Europe beginning in the Mediterranean, a coordinated effort in the Atlantic to defeat the U-boat threat and the outlines of the strategic bombing campaign against both Germany and Japan. The Casablanca Conference resulted too in the creation of the Combined Chiefs of Staff, the planning entity that directed the deployment and employment of U.S., UK and Western forces for the remainder of the war.
If there were ever a time for a new Casablanca Conference, this is it. The British military has been forced by ever-tightening budgets to shrink to a mere shadow of its former self. With careful planning and a willingness to make radical cuts where necessary, the British Minister of Defense and Defense Staffs have managed, but just barely, to retain critical capabilities for land, sea and air warfare. If there were ever a military that has demonstrated, not once but repeatedly, its ability to “punch above its weight,” it is the United Kingdom’s.
The Defense Staff is coming to the U.S. at a time when the Department of Defense is just beginning down the path the British MoD has been traveling for more than a decade. There are a number of lessons that U.S. defense planners, both civilians and those in uniform could learn from the British experience. One lesson is the difficulty of reacquiring critical skills once they are abandoned, even temporarily. This was what happened to the Royal Navy when it attempted to design a new nuclear attack submarine, the Astute class. Another lesson is the need to get out of businesses better performed at a reduced cost by the private sector. The MoD has pioneered the use of long-term performance-based logistics (PBL) contracts. Boeing won a 25-year system level PBL contract to maintain all the UK’s CH-47 Chinook helicopters. The MoD privatized most of its national Defense Evaluation and Research Agency, now the very successful international company, Qinetiq. A third lesson is the importance of cutting administrative overhead, particularly personnel. OSD and the defense agencies have ballooned to some 250,000 uniform and civilian personnel, a ridiculous number.
The most important lesson the U.S. can learn from the British experience in downsizing is that it is possible to get too small. The British Armed Forces today are no longer capable of conducting even a Falklands-like campaign on its own. General Richards has publicly acknowledged that the UK will have to rely on others in operations of any significance. The problem is that most of Britain’s European allies are cutting their defenses. London’s efforts to forge a defense pact with Paris may be rendered moot by France’s new plan to reduce its defense sending and military forces. That leaves Britain looking across the Atlantic for an ally.
Unfortunately, when the Defense Staff meets with the Joint Staff our British friends will discover their American counterparts are floundering in the face of deep budget cuts. Rather than accepting the necessity of having to do less with less, the U.S. military continues to look for new missions to justify holding the force structure. I would love to hear General Dempsey explain how the Pentagon intends to implement the pivot to Asia-Pacific and deal with an increasingly belligerent North Korea while the services are parking ships, planes and vehicles for lack of maintenance or training dollars.
The first Casablanca Conference marked the beginning of a 70-year-long partnership that was instrumental in winning both World War Two and the Cold War. This new Casablanca Conference could well mark the beginning of its end.
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