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Cutting Defence—Tory Style

Not the British forces of old.

12:00 PM, Oct 21, 2010 • By GARY SCHMITT
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“It could have been much worse.”  That’s the line many of my British friends are putting forward about the cuts to the British defense budget announced by the new Tory government this past week.  And they’re right. Early on, word both inside Whitehall and on the streets of London was that the new government—with the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne in the lead—had targeted defense for a 15-20 percent budget cut over the next four years.  But warnings from Liam Fox, the defense secretary, and the heads of the military service about the “grave consequences” such reductions would have on British military capabilities, morale in the armed forces, and London’s standing in Washington led the David Cameron-led government to pull back from the brink.  The final result: an 8 percent cut.

Cutting Defence—Tory Style

UK prime minister David Cameron

The Tories are also right that they were left with an impossible mess by Labor: massive debts, runaway spending, and a defense program with a huge gap between what needed to be bought, what was on the books to be bought, and the funds to do so.  There is no question that a new defense review (“Strategic Defense and Security Review”) was in order.  As the government’s accompanying new national security strategy (“A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty”) points out, 12 years had elapsed since the last major defense review with “the world changed almost beyond recognition.”  A fact “the last government took little account of” was sending “our forces…into action without the equipment they needed, on the basis of lamentable planning, and in more simultaneous conflicts than the Defence Review in 1998 had planned for.”

But it is a strange thing, indeed, first to make that charge, and then answer it by making the most significant cuts in military spending since the end of the Cold War.

The British Army is to be reduced by 7,000 soldiers, will lose 40 percent of its armored capabilities, and have no combat brigades left stationed in continental Europe. By 2015, the British army will number about 95,000—less than half the size of our own Marine Corps.  In turn, the Royal Air Force will lose some 5,000 personnel, have various transport and surveillance aircraft eliminated from its rolls, see all its remaining Harrier jets retired, and will cut the number of F-35s it planned to buy—all of this on top of London having already decided to cut the buy of its newest frontline fighter, the Eurofighter, from 232 to 160.  Altogether, the UK will have fewer combat-capable aircraft than France, Germany or Italy. 

As for the Royal Navy, it too will lose several thousand seamen and the number of surface warships in its fleet will decline from an already paltry 24 to 19.  In contrast, Japan, “the Great Britain of Asia,” has nearly 50 such ships.  In addition, the new plan calls for mothballing the Royal Navy’s remaining aircraft carrier, building two new ones (but only using the first one to carry helicopters and retiring it as soon as the second is built), and sometime  around 2020 to begin to put newly-acquired F-35s on its deck.  In short, the British navy will be opting out of the aircraft carrier business for the next decade or more.   

It would be easy to say that the defense review has been driven less by strategic considerations than fiscal.  Although the new national security strategy perfunctorily states that the first duty of government is seeing to the security of the country, the more revealing statement of the new Tory government’s intention came in the Queen’s speech to open Parliament back in late May.  There, on behalf of the government, she said that the government’s “first priority” was “to reduce the deficit and restore economic growth.”  And to be fair to the government, defense was not the only bill payer.  The cuts to government spending have been significant, with prospects of nearly 500,000 public sector jobs eliminated and an average of 19 percent department budget cuts over the next four years.

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