Robert Gates served both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama as America’s defense secretary. He is a man well versed in defense, considered perhaps even the best Pentagon chief since 1945. Clearly then, here is a man worth listening to when he says that defense spending cuts, taken by the British government, undermine the United Kingdom’s ability to be, in his words, a “full partner” of the United States’.
He did not say, however, that the relationship between the two countries was at an end, nor that it had even been fundamentally altered, as the BBC’s Jonathan Beale claims. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, has pointed out while witnessing some locomotives, his country retains the fourth-largest defense expenditure in the world. Nor does it have a constitutional limitation imposed on its use of armed force, such as Japan, or a history of shirking NATO commitments, like France — two other American allies.
Over the past twenty years or so, British armed forces have been seen alongside their American counterparts very often — most recently in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Gates said that the United States have been able to count on a British support and that its military capabilities cover the “full spectrum” of conflict.
However, the economic times being what they are have led to a reduction in British defense spending, even if it still surpasses the minimum required by NATO by 25 percent. Personnel across the three services is being reduced. This has led to a number of senior servicemen warning about “hollowed out” forces, meaning a lack of manpower compared to equipment.
This is a reasonable fear. The war in Afghanistan showed that if the United Kingdom were to undertake more operations of that kind in the future, it would be desirable to have more men under arms, allowing increased rotations of units and so reducing the strain on individual servicemen. Instead, the number of British Army servicemen is being cut by twenty thousand. The Air Force and Navy, less manpower intensive to begin with, are facing small yet no less significant reductions.
A number of large platform projects have been embarked upon despite these savings, including the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier and the necessary airframes needed to throw off it, all of which cost a lot of money. The Royal Navy will also be receiving more of the new T-45 destroyers. New frigates wll also be on the way, as will a replacement submarine to carry the nuclear deterrent.
Former defense chief General Sir David Richards was skeptical of these investments and said, to anyone who would listen, that what was needed was more helicopters and soldiers. However, he was saying that at a time when the world was just a little different. The campaign in Afghanistan seemed more pressing and years more of tedious counterinsurgency operations looked likely; not, as Libya turned out to be, a return to the 1990s style of coercive air campaigns.
Afghanistan and Iraq taught the United Kingdom as well as the United States the unpopularity of putting soldiers and the required kit into the field for a length of time. It now seems unlikely, evidenced by last year’s parliamentary vote against intervention in Syria, that Britain will soon consider a repeat of the last decade’s wars. David Cameron is not likely to go out of his way to need a force the size of the one that went to Afghanistan under the Union flag. He will most likely be avoiding anything resembling such an undertaking and so will his immediate successors.
So is Gates right? Of course he is. A reduction in military spending and manpower does lead to a reduction in capability. But what does that mean in turn? The British public, for the most part, welcomes a reduction in armed forces rather than hospitals. Many also still resent the form American-British relations took during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The notion that Britain will no longer be “America’s poodle” is a popular one, especially on the left.
Still, a fundamental break is unlikely. Britain continues to at least try to uphold its commitments and, barring Syria, get involved. It will no doubt continue to do so up to and after the regaining of hefty seapower in the form of the Queen Elizabeth class carrier. It still spends 2.5 percent of its annual economic output on defense. The British armed forces’ role has not changed fundamentally since 1945, even if they have less men and equipment. They retain, in theory, a global remit, particularly at sea; involvement with NATO in the defense of Europe; and general support for the main ally, the United States.
Ideally (although depending on one’s view of the armed forces), there wouldn’t be cuts at all but that is politically untenable. Few British voters would accept defense being exempt from cuts when other other departments are forced to make reductions. So while Gates’ concern of a reduced variety of ability in the British forces is accurate, the alternative is not realistic. The order and method of the cuts taken by the government, that is keeping costly and time consuming projects over personnel, will at least give much greater opportunity to regain what is lost than doing it the other way around and avoiding investment in long life but high cost assets.