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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.

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
, 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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