Yesterday, the British government announced a series of major defense cuts. They were every bit as severe as early reports had suggested. Among the major decisions are reductions in the number of Army brigades, withdrawal of all British forces (20,000 people) from Germany, mothballing much of the Army’s heavy artillery and armor, steep reduction in Navy surface combatants, cutting the number of new aircraft carriers from two to one and decommissioning existing VSTOL carriers, cancellation or retirement of all manned airborne intelligence platforms, delaying replacement of the United Kingdom’s strategic deterrent and changing its plan to buy the VSTOL variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. In addition, tens of thousands of defense civilians will lose their jobs.
Although the British government sought to maintain the relevance of its military across the spectrum of conflict, it is clear that Britain will only be able to do less with less. Never again will the it be able to conduct a Falklands war. Never again will a British mechanized division make the march upcountry to Baghdad alongside the U.S. military. The new cuts mean that the British Navy will not be able to conduct air strikes from the sea for at least a decade.
The United Kingdom’s decisions are a harbinger of the kind of challenges facing the U.S. military. Should the Pentagon reduce the number of older platforms thereby saving on overhead and focus on deploying fleets of advanced systems? Should cuts be taken equally across the services or focused in specific warfare areas? What should be done about very expensive weapons programs that are just entering the production cycle?
The Pentagon has already signaled that cuts to weapons programs and even outright cancellations are in the offing. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, recently said that programs that are over budget or failing to meet performance targets will face the ax. Unfortunately, some of these programs provide critical capabilities.
The danger is that in its drive to reduce the cost of defense, the U.S. will inadvertently lose its longstanding edge in advanced technologies. For example, after the Joint Strike Fighter, there are no more advanced combat aircraft programs. The Navy has nothing on the books except for the Littoral Combat Ship and a limited number of DDG 1000s. The Army has the Ground Combat Vehicle — maybe — and that is it. There are a handful of programs for new tactical missiles and munitions.
In order to remain effective and relevant, the U.S. military will have to invest in new capabilities in such areas as deep strike, electronic warfare, advanced aerial ISR platforms, offensive mine warfare, missile defense and cyber defense. Finding the money for new programs means cutting current ones and/or reducing force structure.
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