British defense cuts pose challenges for U.S. – and also for the rest of the EU     Print Email

Could cuts in defense spending across the EU establish a collective capability to act autonomously or join the U.S. future military operations? Or will reduced troop and equipment levels across Europe leave the U.S. in a situation where it will have to act alone in expeditionary missions – a situation that many analysts say would jeopardize NATO’s collective future?

A question along those lines was recently put to General Sir David Richards, Britain’s Chief of the Defense Staff, who spoke in Washington about Britain’s recent announcement of sweeping budgetary cuts which amount to the largest reduction in British forces since World War II. General Richards responded candidly:

“It concerns me a lot…you could argue, for the NATO perspective, we now have reached that point where we have to go to role specialization [among the 27 members of NATO Europe]. I don’t see a great appetite yet for that amongst most of our nations’ political leaders. But it could be that we, the military, have to be very wise on this one and generous-hearted and force the pace, because otherwise we will fall into the trap that you have rightly identified.”

The UK is one of many European countries which have reduced defense spending across the board in an effort to tackle the economic crisis which has weighed down on most Western nations.

Speaking on January 6 at the Atlantic Council, General Richards made the point that the changes in Britain’s defense spending were made with an eye on the coming decade. In other words, while maintaining currently planned support for the U.S.-led NATO war in Afghanistan, the new Conservative-led coalition government in London intends to reshape its military for a smaller role focusing on the defense of Britain and Europe as a whole.

Britain’s strategic view was summarized by Malcolm Chalmers of the London-based Royal United Services Institute, who said: “I think for a number of years now, Britain's policy has been based centrally on NATO - on operating militarily along with allies, particularly the United States. The United States, perhaps, will find that perhaps we can make a smaller contribution. But I think it will still be the most important military power in NATO Europe,"

The British cuts are therefore a challenge -- and an opportunity -- for the overall defense capabilities and ambitions of the EU. Britain’s military clout in the future may now depend more centrally on the readiness of other member states to pool some of their limited military capabilities. In the recent past, a trend has shown smaller European countries simply hollowing out their air forces and other service arms while actually depending on a few larger EU member states such as Britain, France and Poland to provide a “European” contribution to collective Western security.

General Richards’ remarks came soon after the UK and its closest neighbor, France, signed two treaties on the subject of integrating strike forces and equipment and jointly developing nuclear technologies. “What we are trying to do”, explains General Richards, “will make arguably NATO’s two most capable European nations much more interoperable and, our national defense programs should become better aligned to deliver more capabilities to NATO in the round.”

The decisions to drastically cut defense spending and reduce troop levels indicate Britain’s willingness to relinquish its former military autonomy in favor of joint efforts with its EU allies in the future, thus, illustrating a new awareness in Britain that its future global weight may well begin with closer cooperation within the EU – in which Britain will remain the strongest and most capable single power.

Given its history of global military actions, Britain can expect to play a leadership role in any future EU military endeavor. Despite London’s decision to lower troop levels, General Richards made known that the, “the government [is] determined that the UK should continue to play a leading role in the world” and that “Future Force 2020”, as it has been named, will be adaptable to almost any situation. He cited a number of examples that demonstrate the suggested flexibility of this new force ranging from nuclear proliferation to climate control and cyber war (for which the government made an exception in its belt-tightening).

In Washington, experts say that the U.S. needs to join – and perhaps lead – this movement toward better-integrated planning and force structure. The Pentagon still has room to maintain its military profile, but it is starting to make defense-spending cuts of its own in line with the UK and most of the other 26 members of NATO. While the Pentagon’s initial cuts are only pre-emptive, they aim to head off pressure for potentially deeper cuts in the future.

The need for trans-Atlantic cooperation in this phase was underlined in an October interview with European Affairs, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Robert Hunter. He argues that reduced military spending and troop cuts in the U.S. and Europe should spur both parties to dovetail their efforts. Hunter added that spending needed to be revised to offer more support to joint civil-military operations in the sectors of aid, reconstruction, and nation-building – the main challenges for stability in many areas of contemporary conflict.


Kurt Moss is an Editorial Assistant at European Affairs.