If you listen to the British press — which is, at best, a risky practice — you would believe that Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (the Brit’s treasury secretary) was about to force the UK’s military into a pothole of budget cuts from which they may never dig out.
Osborne, struggling to find the pony in the steaming pile of budget wreckage left in Tony Blair’s wake, mandated across-the-board cuts. That seemed to doom the British military, which has on its books not only a significant but underpaid ground force but an aging fleet of Trident missile submarines and two long-deck aircraft carriers under construction. The carriers alone will cost at least £5 billion. Defense spending had about £38 billion in unfunded liabilities, and Osborne seemed ready to exact a high price from the defense budget to clean up the budget.
After a rather pointed letter from UK Defense Secretary Dr. Liam Fox to Prime Minister David Cameron, Cameron has made clear that although the UK military won’t escape the budget ax entirely, the current Strategic Defense and Security Review “…is being done thinking about what is right for the country in terms of our defense.”
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague hinted at the result in the Telegraph on Friday, writing, “…we also have to ensure our national security and replace the mismanagement and strategic drift of recent years with the establishment of a distinctive British role in the world.” Hague isn’t dreaming of empires lost. Instead, he, Fox, and Cameron are trying to build a flexible UK military that can answer a variety of threats.
In a weekend interview, during the Conservative Party annual meeting, Dr. Fox explained what they plan to do.
I asked him what a “distinctive British role in the world” should be. He began by saying, “We live in a world where our interests are more widely spread and therefore more widely threatened by more actors than they were before…that means we must maintain strategic reach.” Because Britain is an island nation that has 92% of its trade going by sea, Fox said, “…that means we have to have a balanced and adaptable posture that allows us flexibility to adapt to threats in the air, sea, and land environments.”
Which raises the issue of our Pentagon’s focus on unconventional war and Defense Secretary Gates’s derisive view of what Gates calls “next war-itis.” Gates apparently believes there is little or no chance that America will ever have to fight another conventional war. (And he made massive cuts to defense systems, such as the F-22 and DDG-1000 stealthy destroyer, before the QDR was done. The lack of analytical basis for those cuts makes them entirely suspect.)
Fox said, “We have to be aware of the range of threats. Secretary Gates and I have discussed this on a number of occasions. We are living in a very unpredictable world where the threats may come from conventional sources but they’re just as likely to be asymmetric from non-state actors. So we have to become ever more adaptable and be able to deal with whatever is thrown at us. That will mean, I think, increasingly on having to collaborate across a range of capabilities.”
Their Strategic Defense and Security Review is much like our Quadrennial Defense Review, intended to derive a military budget that is matched to the threats the defense establishment is expected to meet. But the British version seems to be better designed, and is taken more seriously than ours.
I asked Fox if, unlike our QDR process, it included the intelligence agencies. He told me it includes intel because it is literally a strategic defense and security review. It is being done not by the Ministry of Defense but by the UK national security council. The heads of intelligence services as well as agencies responsible for homeland security are all part of the review.
Fox, as I learned some years ago in my first interview with him, is an Atlanticist. He looks forward to greater cooperation with the United States, not less. He said, “Hopefully there is a strengthening of the Atlantic Alliance. We are committed, of course, to our nuclear deterrent which is important for the United States, to the intelligence relationship between us and to the specially close relationship of our special forces. We want Britain to have a naval reach and the ability to deploy a sufficient land force to be a useful ally to the United States.”
And the UK Defense Review, which should be completed next month, looks westward, not toward the European Union. Fox stressed that point: “I think it is worth pointing out that [the Strategic Defense and Security Review is] very explicitly orientated towards NATO and the transatlantic alliance and not the European Union. We’ve made very clear that NATO has primacy and that the strategic relationship with the United States is the most important one we have.”
Fox and the other members of the UK defense team have a great challenge ahead, much like the one our military and our NATO allies’ face. The pressure on military budgets is growing, and defense expenditures — more than at any time since the Cold War began — have to compete directly with social spending, including health care.
I asked him about the idea of cancelling the carriers, the cost of maintaining the nuclear force, and other tough choices. He said decisions have yet to be taken but “they need to be taken in view of the balance of forces that we have and what we think gives us greatest adaptability. We have been given a specific remit by the National Security Council to develop an adaptive posture that gives us generic capability able to shape itself for whatever threat we face, so we have to make any decisions about specific programs in light of that.”
Regarding the Trident missile submarine force he added, “There is absolutely no weakening of our resolve to renew the Trident successor program.
Scottish physician Liam Fox apparently spent his years as shadow defense secretary in the study of war, and apparently spent them wisely. Fox is an analytical man. He is thinking deeply and methodically — and demanding the same of others involved in the defense review — about how to use every asset to gain the adaptability and flexibility the UK must have to defend itself and be a valuable ally of America in the coming decade.
American conservatives have many doubts about David Cameron. But on defense and intelligence matters, it appears he has it right. Our defense establishment should examine the results of the Brit’s defense review. If, as I expect, it results in the kind of product Liam Fox described, the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies should eagerly partner with the Brits. On a global scale, they are already the only ally that can truly be our partner. We should be ready to help them stay in the game.