December 1, 2010  

Tough times

The days of British military power appear to be ending” Max Boot lamented in the Wall Street Journal. Another columnist at The Economist weighed in that Great Britain is at best managing its “relative decline

That was likely not the reception that U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government was hoping their new National Security Strategy would receive from such traditionally conservative outlets when it was released Oct. 18. Coupled with the Security and Comprehensive Spending Review released days later, the critics worried that these documents were merely written justifications of the end of Britain’s military footprint in the world.

Yet it is odd that a conservative government was lashed by fellow travelers for the very reason of making strategic decisions based on realism. That is, the security strategy, titled “A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty,” can be read as a realistic blueprint for tough times, reflecting the priorities of a new government — chastened by what it says is the overreaching of its predecessors, but which nonetheless continues to endorse a global role for the U.K.

Even more, the documents may have some lessons for leaders on the other side of the Trans-Atlantic “special relationship.” As Cameron noted, “We have inherited a defense and security structure that is woefully unsuitable for the world we live in today. We are determined to learn from those mistakes, and make the changes needed.” Cameron’s statement was more than just putting a brave face on grim news. It was an illustration of what a government sometimes has to do when facing tough circumstances. And, given current circumstances and trends for the U.S., the British document may well provide some inkling for how an American president and defense secretary, Democratic or Republican, will likely respond in 2013 and beyond as the U.S. wrestles with its own “age of austerity.”


Facing a 150 billion pound ($239 billion) budget gap and a 59 percent debt-to-GDP ratio, the British government worried that it was stumbling into a scenario that risked a national currency crisis in the short term and overall economic security in the long term — and thus, national security as well. The result was a series of painful budget cuts, amounting to more than 80 billion pounds, with an average reduction of 19 percent across almost all departments. In the defense realm, this included the elimination of 17,000 military employees and 25,000 civilians in the Army, Air Force and Navy. Also on the cutting-room floor were the British military’s Harrier jump jets, Nimrod patrol aircraft, a handful of destroyers and frigates and 40 percent of the Army’s tanks. Making perhaps the most news was the announcement that canceling the current aircraft carriers under construction would be more expensive than completing the build. In essence, a poor acquisitions strategy had painted an entire military service into a corner (ring familiar, American leaders?), reversing the relationship between client and vendor. It was therefore decided that the Royal Navy would put one of the two new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers in mothballs while the government figures out whether to sell it off to another nation (one hopes not China or Brazil, China’s new instructor in how to use aircraft carriers).

Some of the less-charitable political commentators suggested that these documents mark the U.K.’s departure from hard power, with one writer at Foreign Policy magazine, for example, saying that the nation of Pitt, Wellington and Churchill was now “more like Belgium.” Despite the admirable forthrightness with which the British government acknowledges its challenges and the strained resources at its disposal, there is real concern that a diminished grand strategy is the real outcome of October’s announcements. The Britain that could deploy 45,000 troops to help defeat Saddam Hussein in 1991 is no more. And the Fleet Air Arm that crippled Italy’s fleet at Taranto (in a lesson the U.S. ignored at Pearl Harbor) now will lack sea-strike power for as much as a decade, and maybe even more.

But these characterizations of a British surrender to defeatism are somewhat unfair. At a time when the U.S. defense secretary has lamented “the demilitarization of Europe,” the British government still adheres to NATO’s 2 percent military spending target (although the U.K. may be helped over that threshold by a shrinking GDP). Considering how profound and widespread the current British austerity measures go, it is striking how much worse it could have been for the British military. While certainly painful, the military’s budget emerged relatively unscathed: It underwent a total reduction of only 7.5 percent, and not the 25 percent cuts seen by the Home Office or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, or the half-million government workers who are now finding their “talent released into the private sector,” as one government minister described the experience of being fired. In the context of across-the-board retrenchment, the defense cuts come across as a heroic rearguard action by Trans-Atlantic-minded leaders in the British government.

Moreover, there is a reason why the Pentagon and the State Department received the British announcements with understanding (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was reassured that the U.K. “will remain a first-rate military power.”) The coalition government has preserved almost all the critical nodes of the U.S.-U.K. special relationship in terms of deployable assets that matter most to the U.S. military’s need for partners in the field. And, most importantly, the British are slashing other areas of government in order to fulfill these shared priorities.

British forces will still be able to do most of the things they’ve been doing in recent decades, albeit a bit less of them. The U.K. will remain one of the few nations with the ability to deploy a full-fledged brigade of combat troops out of area and sustain them for long periods. Special forces and cybersecurity were not just spared cuts, but will receive increases. Intelligence budgets are relatively untouched. Counterterrorism receives a boost. Britain’s at-sea nuclear deterrent remains in place. The aircraft carrier that will be bought will be fitted with catapults to make it more interoperable with U.S. Navy forces. Moreover, the common vocabulary of worldview and threat perception that provides the underlying basis of the special relationship continues to endure. The key focal points in both the American and British national security strategies of 2010 appear with similar degrees of frequency: First comes terrorism and counterterrorism, followed by Afghanistan, then al-Qaida and cyber crime.

This is not to say that there are not very real concerns in the strategy, but many of these are less obvious than the issues that the first wave of knee-jerk criticism focused on. First, given the quantitative decline in British forces, it is worth asking whether the spending cuts will also lead to a long-term qualitative decrease in British capabilities. An eye should be kept not just on raw troop numbers, but also on retention rates (especially among elite forces and in the officer and NCO corps, where there are internal concerns that promotion rates might be frozen for years), training standards, and the frequency of war games and field exercises. These will be a better indicator, more than the number of Harrier jump jets, as to whether Britain’s military decline is afoot or not.

Economies of scale

Secondly, much of the success of the U.K. strategy depends on economies of scale that must be reached through more cooperation, both within the European Union, but more so it seems with France. This autumn has brought about discussions of the pooling of military transport and refueling tankers, and the new aircraft carriers that the government has committed to build could hold French-made aircraft in a pinch. The questions remain open as to how deep this cooperation will extend, especially with a conservative party and British public that retains a fair amount of Euro-skepticism, and what this bodes for the Trans-Atlantic partnership (should the U.S. and U.K. navies start discussing such pooling?).

A third question is whether the strategy entails far more risk than many defense commentators seem willing to discuss. While the British are wisely shifting their planned purchase of the F-35 from the delayed short-takeoff and vertical landing, or STOVL, variant to the less-problematic carrier version, they are still making a massive, national strategic gamble on the Joint Strike Fighter program meeting its performance and cost claims, which seem to shift more often than Victoria Beckham changes outfits. (The U.S. is making a similar gamble, just on a far greater scale.) The reality is that, given the combination of the F-35’s woes and construction issues on the new class of carriers, the prospects of the Royal Navy getting a fully capable working aircraft carrier with flying fighter jets are dim well past 2020. Given the absence of an active fleet air arm, there are deep questions of how a “Fleet Air Arm” can maintain its skill sets through such a gap.

This question of risk also extends to the strategic level. The British are gambling that they can utilize the next decade for a bit of strategic breathing space, using what the document called the “era of uncertainty” to push off some major decisions and purchases in everything from the carriers to their submarine fleet. This is only worthwhile if they can change direction rapidly if the defense environment changes, something that militaries might be able to, but which the supplying defense industry has not shown the capacity to do at a major systems level for the last generation. Moreover, given this uncertainty, it is a bit perplexing that the British are not investing more in intelligence, and research and development spending — the types of early warning and preparatory strategies that allow one to hedge bets and maintain cutting-edge capability.


These issues notwithstanding, the reality is that the British have made some extremely tough decisions in directly facing the link between economic security and national security, and, moreover, forthrightly facing a fiscal environment that is arguably not as severe as the U.S. faces. At the time when the British conservative coalition felt forced into action, the U.S. debt stood at over $13.7 trillion (almost 90 percent of GDP, compared with the British fears of heading toward the 60 percent level) and the Office of Management and Budget showed the U.S. budget deficit at $1.3 trillion in fiscal year 2011. In essence, Britain’s nightmare scenario remains America’s normality.

At some point these numbers’ growth will become unsustainable, both for U.S. economic and national security, and thus the British experience may well be looked to by American policymakers — conservative or liberal — for guidance. The lessons that might be drawn include the cold reality that most of the savings will have to come out of reduced government spending and dealing with unfunded social welfare commitments (which in the U.S. are mainly driven by making Social Security promises that no longer reflect demographic reality), but that they will likely not spare the defense world. As in Britain, there will likely be an expectation that the pain of any cuts will have to be spread. Notably, this likelihood seems to be borne out by the various bipartisan debt and deficit reduction task force conclusions that have started to emerge this fall in the U.S., all of which have brought up the option of tightening a Pentagon funding spigot that’s only known growth for the last decade. Again, it is notable that it was not the typical anti-war doves, but a pro-military conservative government that made 7.5 percent cuts in the U.K.

Defense hawks should take solace that, as is likely to happen in the U.S., the British found a way to avoid harming current operations and the cuts in defense were far less severe (only a third of the scale) than for other agencies of foreign policy and soft power that were targeted, such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Indeed, if the British experience (and the upcoming configuration of Congress) bodes potential spending trims for the Pentagon, it indicates cuts to the bone for agencies like the State Department that lack the same domestic support and congressional lobby.

While Defense Secretary Robert Gates has tried to pre-empt such cuts with efficiency measures designed to wring $100 billion in defense savings across several years, two realities stand in the way. The first is that the current process is not about actual cuts, but is an attempt to shift funds internally. The second is that they are unlikely to yield anywhere near $100 billion. For example, the big talk about closing Joint Forces Command will save at most $250 million, and that is if the entire shop was closed versus the likelihood that many of the offices will emerge intact or semi-intact within other commands. Shifting numbers across accounts didn’t work for Enron over the long term and it won’t work for the Pentagon, either.


The exact nature of the potential cuts will certainly be a matter of much projection and debate in the coming years (our colleague Michael O’Hanlon predicts DoD will be asked to find roughly $60 billion in savings), but what matters more than the numbers is that we’re entering an era where leaders will have to make some decisions in defense policy, not just on spending but on fiscal and strategic priority-setting.

And here, too, the British experience is instructive. While the main U.S. and British strategy documents carry a shared vocabulary of worldview, they differ in one important aspect. There is a distinct divergence between the specificity of theirs and the vagueness of ours. U.S. documents are filled with all sorts of bureaucratically nice-sounding, but nondefined action verbs like “coordinate” or “secure.” By contrast, the U.K. papers set clear policy flags for its bureaucracies to aim toward, defining clear goals with actual numbers and clearer priorities, whether it’s identifying cuts of 35 percent in heavy artillery or investing specifically in their homeland security response capabilities to flooding and dirty bombs.

Too often, U.S. planning documents have steered away from such specificity, following instead the classic D.C. politico advice that if you aren’t exact in your goals, you can’t later be accused of failing to meet them. The result is that policy leaders often worry more about avoiding political failure than trying for political success. By contrast, as Pauline Neville-Jones, the British security minister who was one of the key crafters of the strategy, put it, the conservatives deliberately and publicly went about defining their actions and setting public benchmarks. Their sense was that it was the only way to “have credibility about what it is you’re saying you’re going to do and being clear, therefore, that you are also providing a test against which you then are going to be judged.”

They felt this need not just because of “constrained resources,” but also because of the tight window of opportunity they felt they were in, because of the financial situation as well as their political one. “Another of the drivers was that we observed our predecessors, who we reckon wasted their first five years. … That’s your moment when you’ve got the mandate behind you. You hope you’ll have public opinion. You hope you retain it. But that’s your moment, you know, to upfront level with people. Tell them what you’re going to try and do it over the period of the mandate that they’ve given you.”

That is strong advice that hopefully will be heard on both sides of the Atlantic. AFJ

Jonathan Laurence is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and associate professor of comparative politics at Boston College. P.W. Singer is director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at Brookings.