Doing Less with Less? Assessing the Impact of the UK Strategic Defense and Security Review
October 19, 2010
Today, the UK government released its much anticipated Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR), which sets priorities for national security spending over the coming decade in light of constrained resources and continuing debate over Britain’s role in the world. All UK political parties were committed to undertake the review, the first since 1998, prior to the May general election. The SDSR has been conducted over the past five months in parallel with a comprehensive spending review designed to bring all government expenditures in line with projected resources and reduce debt from 11 to 1.1 percent of GDP by the end of the current Parliament. The SDSR calls for a downward recalibration of UK defense capabilities in light of fiscal restraint and a focus on emerging threats, but not a wholesale retrenchment from global engagement.
Q1: How will proposed British defense cuts impact the U.S.-UK military relationship and contributions to NATO?
A1: The SDSR will have a modest near-term impact on the “special” military relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom, but longer term it could diminish the UK armed forces ability to work with U.S. counterparts as well as maintain UK leadership in NATO. The SDSR does signal change—change in perceptions of the threat environment (including enhanced efforts to combat cyber attacks and international terrorism); change in Britain’s approach to that environment; and change in the resources available to support its new approach. Any reduction in British military capabilities looks dramatic, as Britain’s defense forces are already modest compared to those of the United States, but they are still among the most capable in NATO. The SDSR provides U.S. defense officials with a preview of the very costly challenges of meeting diverse threats and risky trade-offs they themselves will confront in the near future.
Last minute appeals by Defence Secretary Liam Fox and the UK military chiefs—as well as public expressions of concern by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—appear to have convinced Prime Minister David Cameron to stave off even deeper cuts in overall spending and the size of the army that Chancellor George Osborne had proposed. Overall defense spending is projected to decline by 8 percent over the next four years and then level off. This will result, approximately, in an 18 percent cut in program resources given a number of unfunded obligations. Despite these cuts, British defense spending will still remain above the NATO goal of 2 percent through 2015. Important decisions will still need to be made in implementing these cuts over the coming months to ensure that Britain maximizes the military output from these diminished resources.
The SDSR imposes significant cuts on elements of the UK armed forces, particularly the navy and air force, but it reaffirms support for operations in Afghanistan through 2014, as well as maintenance of intelligence, special forces, and a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent force. The army is expected to contract by about 7,000 to a force of 95,500, but draconian cuts were deferred until the end of the Afghan war. The army will, however, be lighter in the future: it will lose 40 percent of its heavy armor and artillery capabilities and one maneuver brigade. However, the land forces will still maintain one immediately deployable division headquarters, with the ability to generate a second as necessary; five multi-role, maneuver brigades; an air assault brigade; and a marine commando brigade. Combined, these provide British decisionmakers and military leaders with a suite of land-based capabilities that are broadly employable and tailored to a variety of contingency demands from humanitarian assistance to coalition warfighting. According to the prime minister, this means that the United Kingdom “will continue to be one of very few countries able to deploy a self-sustaining Brigade sized force anywhere around the world and sustain it indefinitely if needs be.”
The Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy (RN) are more profoundly affected by the reductions. The RAF will rapidly lose old air frames (e.g., Harriers) from their inventory and it will acquire fewer new air frames (e.g., Joint Strike Fighter) in return. The British Navy will continue with plans to acquire two new aircraft carriers (£5 billion), one of which will become operational about 2020 with a smaller number of a more capable variant of the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35) and made interoperable with U.S. and French naval aircraft. In exchange, the current flagship carrier, the Ark Royal, along with all short-take off Harrier aircraft will be immediately decommissioned leaving a 10 year gap in carrier strike aircraft. Other major surface combatants will also decline. On balance, all of these changes indicate that the UK will be less able to undertake unilateral joint military operations although it retains enough conventional military capability to be the lead coalition nation in a small scale foreign contingency or make significant contributions to a much larger U.S. and/or NATO-led mission.
Q2: What does this mean politically for the “special relationship”?
A2: The so-called U.S.-UK special relationship has been under stress for several years, as the political strain of the Iraq war, the growing unpopularity of the war in Afghanistan, the release of the Lockerbie bomber, and the Gulf oil spill have culminated in a perfect bilateral storm, resulting in a relationship that is increasingly fatigued, with the parties feeling ambivalent toward each other. Introspectively, there are those in the United Kingdom who have equated these reductions as the end of its once extensive global and military reach, while others view the SDSR exercise as an appropriate balancing of UK military commitments and financial means in an era of austerity. For senior U.S. officials, however, the bigger concern is that America’s most militarily capable and politically willing partner now joins the ranks of many of its NATO brethren in reducing its share of the burden of maintaining mutual security and that the gap between American and European defense spending and military capabilities will yawn ever wider. At the NATO Summit next month, allied leaders are expected to call for steps to ensure that constrained defense resources are spent more wisely through increased multinational collaboration, common funding, and role specialization. What is unclear at the moment is whether the Britain’s budget difficulties are driving its overall strategy or whether a more modest vision of its role in the world is informing its budget. Nevertheless, future UK military reductions are driving some creative thinking and outreach. On November 2, an Anglo-French summit will be held to discuss how best to harness joint defense efficiencies and opportunities, such as coordinated carrier operations, perhaps making way for a new kind of “special” relationship.
Q3: How will the proposed UK defense cuts impact the defense industrial base?
A3: While UK and other press reports have predominantly focused on the impact of SDSR-associated budget announcements on the British armed forces, these cuts could also have wide-reaching effects on British defense companies and—given the growing interdependence in this industry—on the global defense industrial base. It remains too early to forecast the long-term impact on the defense industry, but as the British government moves forward with defense cuts, it is critical to determine whether the targeted reductions are the result of a truly rigorous strategic analysis. As a result, two key indicators bear close observation.
First, it is important to acknowledge that industrial base impacts are often lagging indicators. In many cases, longer-term contract structures prevent immediate insights into the impacts of defense cuts on the industrial base. Therefore, industrial watchers must pay close attention to the programs and areas where budgets will be cut over time as a result of the SDSR. Is the UK government focusing on capabilities for current (expeditionary) operations to the detriment of future technologies or vice versa? How will this decision affect the decisions of other European nations, and will it lead to an increased tendency toward the development of niche capabilities, greater pooling of resources by government, and more joint ventures by defense companies?
Second, the defense industry must closely watch the UK government’s competition levels/levels of openness in upcoming procurement decisions based on SDSR-associated budget cuts. If the government is serious about fielding capable armed forces within set program caps, will the government also move away from policies and regulations that limit competition in order to secure the required capabilities for the lowest amount, regardless of the provider’s country of origin? This indicator would highlight a British willingness to encourage robust competition for its scarce resources.
On a related note, after several years of deliberation, the U.S. Senate ratified the U.S.-UK Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty on September 29, 2010. This treaty allows the export or transfer of certain International Traffic in Arms Regulations–controlled defense articles and defense services between certain persons in the United States and the United Kingdom—and thus allows the UK military increased access to the best technology and capabilities available in support of better interoperability between U.S. and UK forces. In theory, this increased openness helps U.S. elements of defense industry by enabling the UK armed forces to enter into contracts with certain U.S. firms without prior licenses or other authorizations. As the UK government focuses its increasingly scarce resources on required capabilities, this treaty allows the UK Ministry of Defence to consider options that—before treaty ratification—had entailed somewhat burdensome licensing and other processes. It remains to be seen what the longer-term impact of this treaty will be on the defense industrial base in both nations.
Stephen Flanagan is senior vice president and holds the Henry A. Kissinger Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Heather Conley is a senior fellow and director of the CSIS Europe Program. Stephanie Sanok and Nathan Freier are senior fellows with the CSIS International Security Program.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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