Why the U.S. needs to be more like Britain

As part of the developed world's most dramatic effort to put its public finances on solid footing, the Conservative Liberal Democratic government in Britain announced significant reductions to its defense program yesterday. Their review is a fearless example to others, including the United States.

Prime Minister David Cameron's government put health care and (somewhat oddly) development assistance off limits, subjecting most departments to a reduction of 25 percent from their current budgets. Defense was reduced only around eight percent across four years. An equivalent reduction in U.S. defense spending would clip $56 billion dollars (the entirety of the British defense budget) in the same time frame. By contrast, Sec. Robert Gates is seeking to keep U.S. defense spending increasing by one percent per year.

And what did they cut? Most importantly, they did not reduce their commitment to the wars we are fighting, although they plan to significantly reduce their forces as their commitments wind down. They are reducing their civilian defense workforce by 25,000 and their uniformed military by 17,000. The army will take the smallest reduction, appropriately, given their tempo of operations through 2015 (the period of cuts).

The reductions will make Britain less able to fight continuously, as we and they have been doing since 2001. But they have preserved the ability to project 30,000 troops to a fight, a feat no other country except us could likely achieve. They even added funding for additional helicopters and mine-resistant vehicles important to operations in Afghanistan.

The British cut by 40 percent their tanks and artillery, betting they will be less valuable in future wars than capabilities currently employed in the war in Afghanistan. I'm not sure that's true, but it's not an unreasonable view -- in fact, it is also Secretary Gates's rubric for U.S. forces.

The cuts do mean Britain will be even less able to fight wars unless they are fighting alongside the United States, but they gave that option up in the 1998 Defense Review. The further diminution is of degree, not type. It will be most prevalent in Britain's air and maritime operations. Four frigates will be decommissioned. Both the navy and air force will be reduced by 5,000 people each.

Harrier jets, MRA4 reconnaissance aircraft, and R1 battlefield surveillance aircraft will be eliminated; C-130J airlifters will be retired a decade early. As currently envisioned, it will create a gap in carrier air through 2019. This could be attenuated by a faster shift to unmanned airframes (that is not in the spending plan) or greater cooperation with France and other power-projection countries (although it is heresy to say so on Trafalgar Day, the French could, for example, deploy fighters on British carriers and vice versa).

They have kept crucial niches of excellence valuable to remaining a first-tier military, including:

  • The nuclear deterrent (more slowly modernized but to retain continuous at-sea deployments; related Less to spending than to disarmament, operational warheads to be reduced by around one-fourth);
  • aircraft carriers (two, although they are reducing their aircraft buys and allowing a gap in fighter capability while transitioning to JSF);
  • cyber security (increasing spending to around $27 billion per year);
  • special forces (increasing their numbers);

But Britain's value as a strategic ally of the United States is not just the quantity or quality of their military forces. Their value is crucially dependant on their willingness to fight. And here, Britain really is different and better than most other potential allies of the United States. Britain losing the will to fight is a subject very much worrying U.S. defense experts; these defense reductions to not call into doubt that fundamental sensibility.

Britain's reductions are substantial, and one wishes they had not been necessary. But the Cameron government deserves an awful lot of credit for facing Britain's debt crisis and making hard choices that accept risk in the near term to put their country on stronger strategic footing. The British set sensible priorities and programmed to them, making cuts that do not damage their ability to protect and advance their interests. Lots of other countries are set to make reductions in defense spending, including the United States; probably none -- including us -- will do as proficient a job as Defense Minister Liam Fox and the British defense establishment have done.

The politics of debt reduction will drive the severity of budget cuts; we Republicans should be actively building intellectual capital to make smart choices at different budget top lines. We would be much better positioned had Secretary Gates's instruction for the Quadrennial Defense Review been to design sensible defense programs at several different baseline budget levels (say, varying by $50 billion dollars a year). That would have permitted a debate -- and given the elected leadership a real choice -- over where to accept risk, which is the essential question.




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