UK rethinks defence


The British government says its armed forces face tough choices to adapt to an age of austerity but says greater defence cooperation, including with other European nations, could help make stretched budgets go further.

A government discussion paper on the future of the military acknowledges Britain could not afford to pursue all of its current defence activities while supporting operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere and investing in new systems. “We will need to do things differently in the future and prioritise some activities over others. Hard choices and important decisions lie ahead,” Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth wrote in the Green Paper. 

Britain, a staunch ally of the United States, has one of Europe’s strongest armed forces but it has been stretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it still has 9500 troops, Reuters reports.

The government’s need to rein in a deficit forecast to reach 178 billion pounds ($285 billion) this year has raised questions over whether it can afford all the multi-billion-dollar equipment programmes it has signed up to, ranging from a replacement for its nuclear-armed submarine fleet to two new aircraft carriers to the Joint Strike Fighter.

The Afghan and Iraq conflicts have highlighted failings in equipment such as a lack of helicopters and armoured vehicles. The paper, intended to form the basis for a review of defence strategy, made no recommendations on equipment.

But Ainsworth said the Labour government stood by its decision to replace the nuclear submarines, expected to cost 20 billion pounds, and was committed to the new aircraft carriers.

Critical decisions on the future of the British armed forces may fall to the opposition Conservatives, favourites to win an election expected in May. They too have promised to conduct a strategic defence review, if elected. Ainsworth told parliament “not a penny will be cut” from next year’s defence budget but that, in future, it faced “real financial pressure”. One way to make best use of the available resources was greater international cooperation, he said.

NATO remained the cornerstone of Britain’s security, the paper said, stressing the importance of its US ties. “However, as Europeans, we must take greater responsibility for our security together. Stronger European defence cooperation offers many opportunities, not least in the wider role defence should play in resolving conflict and building peace,” it said.

France’s return to NATO’s integrated command structure last year offered an opportunity for greater cooperation, it said.

Conservative defence spokesman Liam Fox agreed France and the United States were likely to be Britain’s main strategic partners, but he voiced doubts about other European allies. “For us there are two tests: Do they invest in defence? And do they fight? Too few European allies pass both these tests,” he said.

Bastian Giegerich, research fellow for European security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies thinktank, said defence cooperation had been forced on to the agenda by “the continuing high demand on forces, the consistent capability gap and the budget crunch.” Current EU defence cooperation includes a naval force set up to combat piracy off Somalia. Britain has in the past been suspicious about duplicating NATO functions within the EU for fear it would undermine the transatlantic alliance.

Separately the government published “The Defence Strategy for Acquisition Reform“, a response to a government-commissioned report last October which found that Britain wastes up to 2.2 billion pounds ($3.52 billion) a year because of over-ambitious defence projects getting out of control.

One reform mooted in the latter document is legislation to ensure Strategic Defence Reviews “are conducted early in every Parliament”. The last British SDR was conducted in 1998, and the document notes the “world has changed markedly since [then].” Similar legislation exists in the US where a SDR must be completed every four years. The next US SDR is due this year.

The British acquisition reform document says regularly conducting an SDR “will ensure that our equipment plans remain relevant and able to match changes in strategic circumstances. We will
undertake realistic costing of these reviews to ensure decisions do not create problems for us later. We will also keep our plans under close review between SDRs to ensure they fully reflect emerging operational needs.”