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Gates Lifts the Lid on UK Defence Issues

20/01/2014 10:33 GMT | Updated 19/03/2014 09:59 GMT

The warning issued by former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates over the UK's ongoing programme of cuts to its defence budget - and to its armed forces - was an unusual public intervention in UK policy by a high-profile member of the US political class.

However, he was pipped to the post by the UK's Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, who a month ago used his first public lecture in the position to issue his own negative forecast about the future of UK defence should its slice of the budgetary pie continue to shrink. The UK is running the risk, Houghton said, of its military capability being 'hollowed out' if it continues to emphasise spending on 'exquisite' platforms and equipment at the expense of personnel. Like Gates, he cited the Royal Navy as being of particular concern: it may be - or so the argument goes - that the UK is in the process of building state-of-the-art aircraft carriers, frigates, destroyers and submarines (as the Ministry of Defence noted in its riposte to Gates), but what will that matter if the navy cannot afford to man them?

Gates may have been less diplomatic than General Sir Houghton in his choice of language, but his comments reflected with all but brutal honesty a major concern that has been growing within at least some sections of the US government. Namely, that its principal military ally is now on the slippery slope towards becoming a second-rate military power, bereft of what it calls a 'full spectrum' capability - that is, the ability to undertake efficiently and effectively whatever task is required of it. True, the UK has the fourth-largest defence budget in the world and, certainly, the US relies on its ally to set an example to other NATO members in meeting the specified 2% threshold for defence spending; but increasingly the debate is focusing on actual capability rather than overall expenditure.

Events in Libya in 2011 served only to demonstrate that the UK (along with France) was unable to conduct a military operation with only limited objectives in its own backyard without substantial US assistance. Thus the US found itself 'leading from behind' - providing crucial capabilities such as command and control, intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance - in an intervention its European NATO allies had initiated. (And this on top of the severe dents caused to the UK's martial reputation first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan.)

Moreover, by 2011 there had not yet been time for the measures outlined in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) to take effect. The impact of these cuts - amounting to a reduction in the defence budget by 7.5% over four years - would be further magnified by the need to fill a 'black hole' of up to £38 billion in the MoD's forward planning budget.

However, perhaps of greatest concern to the US, and particularly to the US Army, was the July 2012 announcement of 'Army 2020' - the British Army's plans for restructuring that would see a significantly reduced Regular force of 82,000 'integrated' with an increased Reserve element of 30,000. The UK media in particular has torn into these plans, dismissing the official line that the restructuring was predicated on a strategic and targeted redesign rather than the government's cost-cutting targets. To the dismay of US policymakers, meanwhile, the British had taken the wrong lessons from American experiments with this 'integrated' approach, prompting many privately to deem the plans unviable.

Returning to 2014, it seems unlikely that General Sir Houghton's call for 'real growth' in the defence budget following the next election will be met: indeed, with the UK economy failing to recover as predicted, the Treasury has made ever-deeper incisions into defence funding since October 2010 and the Chancellor's last Autumn Statement in December 2013 suggests this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.

What's more, the next SDSR will need to address the strategic questions avoided four years ago. These include a final decision on the successor to the Trident nuclear deterrent, currently slated to cost around £20 billion; whether one or two aircraft carriers will be brought into full operation; and, indeed, how many Joint Strike Fighters will ultimately be flown from them. Clearly, such 'big-ticket' items could have a deleterious impact on a defence budget already under severe strain, suggesting troubled times ahead for the MoD and UK armed forces.

So where does this leave the UK's relationship with the world's superpower? There has been some sympathy for the UK, as well as interest in the SDSR process, within US defence policymaking and military circles, due in no little part to the 2012 announcement that the US defence budget will be slashed by almost $500 billion over the following decade and, of course, the blunt imposition of sequestration in 2013. But it is a question of scale, with the 2012 US defence budget totalling a staggering $680 billion - ten times that of the UK.

Nevertheless, the able (and reliable) support of its allies is perhaps more important to the current US administration than to any of its predecessors. The hallmark of Obama's presidency from the start has been a greater emphasis on collective responsibility in international affairs and increased burden-sharing in the provision of global security: a message that was underscored for Europe by the United States' declared intention to 'rebalance' towards the Asia-Pacific. With US attention and resources drawn to the Far East, the onus is on its European allies to pick up the slack and ensure that stability prevails in their neighbourhood.

Yet huge question marks hang over the ability of the UK, as one of the region's leading military powers, to meet these expectations, even in conjunction with other European countries. Of course, the so-called 'special relationship' rests on more than conventional military capability, and the other key pillars - the sharing of nuclear technology and intelligence, the joint undertaking of diplomatic endeavours, and the intertwining of the two countries' economies - still stand strong. Meanwhile, the UK continues to boast some military capabilities that draw US admiration (such as its special forces) and it is developing valuable expertise in niche areas such as cyber that reflect the expanding conceptualisation of 'defence and security'.

However, should the UK's capacity to shoulder its share of the security burden continue to diminish, what President Kennedy called the 'coral reef' of the US-UK relationship, the defence pillar, may suffer further erosion - along with the UK's status on the world stage, precisely as Robert Gates has predicted.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and do not represent those of any institutions with which the author is associated.