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An American context for UK defence cuts

4 August 2011

5:42 PM

4 August 2011

5:42 PM

Yesterday’s defence select committee report provoked stern critiques of the
government’s defence policy from Alex Massie and Matt Cavanagh. It is hard to dissent from Matt’s view
that Cameron, Fox and Osborne will be defined to some extent by how they handle the defence brief, which, as Alex points out, also proved to be Gordon Brown’s undoing. 

It is also clear, as both Matt and Alex say, that the SDSR suggests that Britain is entering a period of ‘strategic shrinkage’, in terms of the size of the defence establishment at any
rate. A political squall has erupted over this, but it’s worth pointing out that western countries are narrowing their military horizons. Liam Fox was in America yesterday meeting new US
defence secretary Leon Panetta, who is beginning to implement $350 billion of defence cuts over ten years. Admiral Mike Mullen has had to take to the airwaves to assure serving soldiers that their salaries and pensions would
be honoured. Experts agree that even the mighty US army must brutally cut its manpower at some stage. Panetta has conceded that the cuts will do “real damage” to America’s security and its reach overseas. The worst is yet to come, but the
US navy has apparently already cancelled an order of minesweepers, while the 13 new carrier groups that have been promised are surely ripe for the chopping block.

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The question is whether western ambitions can still be met with fewer people. There are reasons to believe that they might, albeit if plenty of chips fall into place. Britain’s campaign in
Libya is illustrative. First, the one-off mission is being paid for by the
Treasury
, rather than out of the MoD’s budget. Second, it is an indication that the strategic future may be one of co-operation and shared military capabilities. For example, the American
navy is doing the majority of the work in the Mediterranean, while the British navy has assumed responsibility for clearing mines and patrolling international shipping lanes in the Gulf. The
expertise of British minesweepers is such that the American navy intends to rely on them to cover its decommissioned vessels of that class. And, of course, Britain’s new aircraft carriers can
be used by American aircraft and vice-versa, which will allow NATO to maintain a fixed-wing presence anywhere in the world even if the replacement American carrier groups are cut. The Anglo-French
agreement is another example of this growing fashion for close co-operation.

The major weakness is the falling size of the regular army: cut to 84,00 by 2020, off-set by huge increases in the reserves. Substantial deployments will be more difficult to make in future, but what is the likelihood of our needing to do so? The
international political will for large interventions and troop surges has surely been exhausted in the deserts of Afghanistan. The Falkland Islands is a concern for Britain, but defence analysts
insist that the permanent combined forces in the area should defeat an Argentine landing: Argentina’s forces have apparently regressed after 10 years of economic turmoil.

Britain’s future strategy appears to rely on maintaining technical superiority to ensure constant tactical advantage. To that end, the MoD has obtained a funding settlement from the Treasury
post-2015, which is to be spent on equipment improvements and closing the black hole left by previous administrations, which apparently now exceeds £43 billion. This goal can only be realised
if the government shakes the ‘conspiracy of optimism’ from the procurement process, which it is yet to achieve. But, whatever happens, personnel numbers will be trimmed.
The renowned military historian John Keegan gave the Reith Lectures in 1998 and predicted that 21st Century armies would, in effect, come to resemble those of the late 18th. He may yet be
proved right.    

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Show comments
  • Terence Hale

    Hi,
    An American context for UK defense cuts. War’s have never been cheap but the war culture of the American ask questions. Firing a million dollars cruse or drone missile at a Hill Billy with a shot gun is expensive
    Regards Dr. Terence Hale

  • Poor PR

    TrevorsDen spouting propaganda again. I really hope they don’t pay you actual money for this. You clearly know nothing about defence and your obnoxiousness is counterproductive to your very obvious aims.

  • Robbo

    “The question is whether western ambitions can still be met with fewer people”

    Well, no. The question is actually when British government ambitions to continue being a major world power, a key actor on the world stage, etc ad nauseam, when will these ambitions be recognised as the ruinous folly they actually are – and have been since Suez or perhaps Singapore, or maybe Dunkirk.

  • TrevorsDen

    The greater use of reserves is underrated and in fact should be extended. The regular forces should be focussed on developing enhanced special forces and all that goes with them.

    Sadly our total defence stance is being skewered by the two large carriers which we do not need. The correct thing would have been to cancel them. The farce of their procurement, initially without catapults means that they were totally dependent on an experimental plane which now looks as it will be cancelled and its costs have risen and its performance will be probably compromised anyway.
    Hopefully we can cut our losses and sell at least one of them off.

    Everything that has been wrong about our defence is encapsulated in these carriers – and the ships built to protect them which I don’t think have even got their air to air missiles yet.

  • TrevorsDen

    Fdenn tslks ignorant bollox – 43 billion black hole inherited. labour have shafted defence.
    The defence chiefs and mod bowler hats deserve to be sacked for what they have wasted over the last 13+ years.

    Mr Bilge is quite correct about the money wasted.

  • Dimoto

    A Turkish style “Strategic shrinkage”, taking out most of the top brass who seem to think their job is to play politics and mouth off in the press, would be good.

  • FDenn

    It will take at least a generation of corrective action once this shower of lightweights have left office for servicemen and women to ever trust the Conservatives again.

    This governments actions in respect of defence are nothing less than shamefully irresponsible. Hope the white wine is Tuscany is chilled for the PM while soldiers fight on a pay freeze and their families subsist on arbitrarily slashed allowances. The reward is a 9 year rolling redundancy programme getting rid of 20% of them – with measly redundancy payouts compared to previous ones and in relation to many other public servants.

    The connivance of the remainder of the Conservative Party in this action – particularoly the egregious subterfuge of the reservists review being used as a smokescreen to take the already planned extra bite out of the regular army is a badge of shame for this discredited group.

    They will get the Armed Forces they deserve. Pity the Nation.

  • Cynic

    Meanwhile, Argentina is developing a nuclear powered submarine and oil has been discovered near the Falklands. Anybody care to put two and two together?

  • Perry, Heartless, Hard, but Romantic

    Britain’s future strategy appears to rely on maintaining technical superiority to ensure constant tactical advantage.

    Clearly you are joking! Ask the forces that actually do the job.

    Time after time, thanks to Politicos, Committees and desk-bound warriors, equipment has been too little, too late, ineffectual, too ambitious, too expensive, or just plain wrong.

    As for America? Well, as the Great Economic Pretender was fond of saying, – it all started there.

  • Barry Bilge

    “It is also clear, as both Matt and Alex say, that the SDSR suggests that Britain is entering a period of ‘strategic shrinkage’, in terms of the size of the defence establishment at any rate. A political squall has erupted over this, but it’s worth pointing out that western countries are narrowing their military horizons. “

    It is also worth pointing out again and again and again that the MoD and Parliament have connived to waste hatfuls of money on procurement of exquisite equipment when good enough would have done.

    With Bernard Gray now involved in implementing his report’s recommendations this should improve so a falling budget is less of an issue.

  • Phil Hardy

    If Keegan is right and the defence establishment is to resemble the late 18th century the Royal Navy is in for a period of massive expansion. In 1794 it had around 200 ships.

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