“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.
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.
But strategic considerations did not disappear altogether in how the reductions in defense were made. For one thing, once it became clear that cutting even more muscle out of the British army would undermine Britain’s ability to stay the course in Afghanistan for the next few years, plans were dropped for making even deeper reductions. More broadly, the shape of Britain’s military will remain largely the same—if admittedly smaller—in the years ahead. The Tories are committed to retaining Britain’s nuclear deterrent and, if the review is to be believed, eventually rebuilding a naval power projection capability once the new aircraft carrier comes on line and is outfitted with the stealthy Joint Strike Fighter. The government also plans on maintaining a one-time deployable force of some 30,000 for a high-intensity conflict or 7,000 for longer-term combat operations. Not the same as the 45,000 that went into Iraq in 2003 or the nearly 10,000 now in Afghanistan, to be sure, but still a substantial force when compared with what other allies can put into the field.
But this is certainly not the British forces of old. In 1982, the flotilla that was sent to recapture the Falklands consisted of two aircraft carriers, 8 destroyers, 15 frigates and 6 attack submarines. Today, there would be no air cover, for lack of an aircraft carrier, and the whole fleet would have to be utilized to deploy a similar force. And with most of Britain’s combat effective ground forces engaged in or returning from Afghanistan, it would be a stretch, if not impossible, to muster the 7,000 elite troops needed to duplicate that earlier campaign. Of course, no one believes a second Falklands campaign will ever be necessary. But, then again, no one predicted the first one either.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter. If history was really and truly the guide for the defense review, instead of cuts, Cameron’s government would have been busy finding ways to increase spending or, at least, keep the reductions to a minimum given how active British forces have been since the end of the Cold War. But instead, Cameron and company can make cuts because from their perspective recent history is not something they will want to repeat. Yes, they are not going to do anything rash that would impair the allied effort in Afghanistan but, as the new national security strategy makes clear, wars like Afghanistan, in which “instability, insurgency or civil war…creates an environment that terrorists can exploit to threaten the UK,” are no longer a “Tier One” security concern.
While Britain’s fiscal problems have led to a shaving of the country’s overall strategic ambitions, it’s been reinforced by the new government’s own more modest vision of the role it wants the UK to play in the world. Although Cameron is styling a new kind of conservative when it comes to domestic affairs, in foreign and defense matters, he’s a throwback to the old Tory wisdom that “doing less is more.” Like President Obama’s efforts to distance himself from his “interventionist” predecessor, so too, Cameron believes Blair’s legacy is something to be avoided. Cuts in planes, ships and personnel are okay precisely because they won’t be needed. Not unlike George W. Bush in the early days of 2001, Cameron apparently believes that, post-Afghanistan, there will be (or there should be) an era of “strategic pause” for the UK. It’s no surprise then that, along with the cuts in defense, the Foreign Office has been ordered to reduce its budget by a whopping quarter. Nor is there any signal from the government that it wants to build the country’s military capabilities back up once it gets its fiscal house in order. To the contrary, a prospect of a flat budget line in the years ahead, combined with the need to find more money still not budgeted for replacing the aging nuclear-armed Vanguard SSBNs, suggest even more reductions ahead.
Again, this is not to say that the UK has decided to retreat simply to its isolated corner of Europe when it comes to the exercise of hard power. Britain still retains a military capability that matters—but it will matter less because it will be less.
In recent decades, Britain has been described as being the deputy sheriff to the United States in its attempt to police the global commons and establish order when necessary. It’s a role that many British, both on the left and the right, find demeaning and just plain bothersome. But it’s a role that has been absolutely key to Washington’s willingness to listen more carefully to London than any other allied capital. Washington will still be listening of course but its attention span will undoubtedly be less.
Gary Schmitt is director of the strategic studies program at the American Enterprise Institute.