The British Government is about to complete its Defense Review 2010. Scheduled under the former Labor government, the review is taking place under the guiding hand of the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government and in the midst of the most severe economic crisis in Britain’s post-war history. The government has made it clear that it intends to close a yawning budget deficit primarily through deep budget cuts and that defense will not be immune from significant reductions.
Estimates of the severity of the hit to the U.K.’s defense budget vary from 15 to 30 percent. In addition, the Ministry of Defense has been told that it will now have to find the funds within its planned resources to maintain the U.K.’s nuclear deterrent. The estimated $32 billion price tag for a new fleet of nuclear missile submarines would act as an explicit tax on the already shrinking resource base for the British military.
Even a 15 percent reduction in defense spending would cause major perturbations to the current defense program. This level of budget cuts would require eliminating tens of thousands of uniformed and civilian personnel, particularly in the Army. Like U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, the British Defense Secretary Liam Fox has proposed significant cuts in overhead activities, including reducing the number of senior military positions.
A 30 percent reduction would gut the British military, rendering it largely irrelevant except for the most prosaic of military tasks. A draft report of possible cuts leaked to the British press includes a 40 percent reduction to the Army’s armored vehicle fleet, the loss of a 5,000-strong brigade of troops and the cancellation of programs for new platforms. The Navy could lose two submarines, three amphibious ships and 2,000 sailors and marines. The proposed cuts to the Royal Air Force would be particularly devastating. The RAF could see its entire force of 120 GR4 Tornado fighter-bombers retired, the number of new Eurofighter Typhoons reduced from 160 to 107 planes and the fleet of 36 Hercules transport aircraft replaced by 22 new A400M planes. The long-delayed program to acquire nine Nimrod MR4 reconnaissance aircraft would be vulnerable to cancellation. Ironically, these reductions could make the Joint Strike Fighter program bulletproof since it would be the only way for the U.K. to have a viable future fighter force.
The report concludes that, “if implemented, the cuts will mean that Britain will almost certainly depart the world stage as a major military power and become what military chiefs call a ‘medium-scale player.’” In essence, this means that the British military would have to abandon any pretense of being a full-spectrum force and settle for limited, even niche, capabilities.
For more than 60 years Great Britain has been this country’s closest ally. Were it not for the special relationship, it is not certain that the United States would have remained in Europe after World War Two or would have agreed to become a member of the NATO alliance. Great Britain has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States through crisis and war, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even today, the British Army is the third largest in NATO, behind only those of the United States and Turkey. But the days of Britain playing Sancho Panza to our Don Quixote may be over.
The cumulative effect of cuts in defense budgets and military forces among virtually all of the NATO membership, including in the United States, could prove devastating to the alliance. For example, Germany’s defense minister has proposed cutting that country’s military by a third and recommended major cuts in defense programs such as the NH90 transport helicopter, the Tiger combat helicopter, Typhoon Eurofighters or resell the planes and A400 transports. Where all the proposed cuts implemented across the alliance, the result would be that Europe, with a population greater than that of the United States and a GDP to match, would have a military smaller and less capable than that of developing nations such as India and China.
Looming defense cuts in Europe raise questions about that continent’s ability to defend itself from all but the smallest and least harmful threats. The United States has long complained about the appearance of shouldering an unequal burden in the defense of Europe. If U.S. allies in Europe lose the ability to provide for its own defense, never mind to project power, then the future of the alliance is very grim. The last anchor holding the United States to the defense of Europe is the special relationship with Great Britain. Deep cuts to that country’s military could be the final straw.
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