Spending Cuts Ahead for UK Armed Forces

Britain has to cut and it has to cut dearly. Along with tax hikes, the new Liberal-Conservative government is preparing to slash public spending across the board in order to restore balance to the budget. The armed forces, having suffered budget cut after budget cut in the preceding years, won’t manage to escape this renewed austerity sentiment.

Ahead of the Strategic Defense and Security Review which is due next October, the BBC learned from leaked government documents that the Ministry of Defense is considering grounding the Royal Air Force’s fleet of Tornado GR4s aircraft to save some £7.5 billion. That’s just for starters though.

The review, which is aimed at realizing somewhere between 10 and 20 percent in savings, was described as “the absolute mother of horrors of a spending review” by defense secretary Liam Fox recently. His department will have some tough choices to make soon, notes The Economist.

According to the whisperings from the Ministry of Defense the army may have to give up whole brigades, armoured formations and artillery units; the air force is considering abandoning maritime surveillance aircraft and retiring its fleet of Tornado strike aircraft and Harrier jump-jets; the navy may be made to give up the Royal Marines and amphibious landing ships; and the submarines carrying the nuclear deterrent may be cut from four to three.

In essence, Britain has to decide what sort of power it is going to be. Will it accept that Macmillan’s game is at an end; that is will be hard pressed to continue to amplify its power by alliances and shrewd diplomacy in this new century; that it is no longer able to punch above its weight and be a superpower anymore? Or will this government, like most of its predecessor, pretend otherwise and perpetuate the illusion of a might Britannia all the while subjecting the armed forces to such fiscal pressure that it is well night incapable of waging a single overseas counterinsurgency effort, let alone two simultaneously?

The Economist predicts a middle way between a “vigilant” defense force, dedicated to just protecting the home land, and a “committed” one with roughly the abilities it has now — presuming, evidently, that the shadow of a defense operated by Britain today represents anything resembling “commitment”. Rather policymakers will invent an “Adaptable Britain” that can boast world class power under considerable budget restraint, leaving it, quite probably, incapable of either vigilance or commitment.

Besides the inevitable bureaucratic shuffling and military procrastinating, the newspaper points to another complication: most of the defense department’s equipment budget is already taken up with existing programs, commissioned long ago with bills to be paid for years to come. “These include aircraft carriers, Typhoon and Joint Strike Fighters, nuclear submarines that may or may not be relevant to today’s recalibrated needs.”

Finding room for budget cuts will be difficult; all the more so as each service seeks to protect its own turf. The Army has only to point at Afghanistan to argue that well-equipped “boots on the ground” will be necessary for fighting Britain’s future wars; the Navy can boast a proud heritage and the necessity of protecting maritime trade; the Royal Air Force can claim that without it, soldiers and sailors alike will be left vulnerable and exposed. Meanwhile there’s still a war to be fought and no one wants to be blamed for cutting defense spending at the expense of the men and women on the ground.