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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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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.

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