Analyis: Smaller UK military, air force cuts eyed in defence review


Britain’s army is likely to be first in line for cuts under a wide-ranging defence review that could also see major procurement programmes scaled back and a re-think of the country’s global military role.

Due in the autumn, the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) promises a shake up of the military as the government slashes spending to tackle a big budget deficit, and after questionable success in campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, Reuters reports. Defence officials are giving no clues other than cuts will be less severe than the 25 percent of savings being asked of other government departments, and that Britain could save on hardware through joint procurement with allies such as France.

Amid much speculation, several analysts predict a cut of at least 10 to 15 percent in the defence budget — 36.9 billion pounds ($55.97 billion) for the current financial year — in real terms, spread in part over the coming few years. They predict the streamlining of ministry bureaucracy, a cut in personnel numbers and scaling down of hardware programmes, but views diverge on exactly where the axe will fall. Britain’s alliances are also being questioned, based on the need to balance more emphasis on self interest given Britain’s constrained resources and experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the need to share the defence burden with allies.
“My hunch is that the single biggest reduction that will be made in the SDSR will be of personnel numbers in the army,” said Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute, an influential defence thinktank in London. Analysts agree that Britain would be far more wary now of embarking on another mission such as Afghanistan, involving large deployments of ground troops and armoured vehicles, and expected instead relatively quick interventions which may lend themselves to a greater emphasis on combined air and sea power.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who took office in May, has said he wants British combat troops home from Afghanistan within five years after concern over a rising death toll. Britain has around 9500 troops there now.

Defence analyst Charles Heyman, editor of the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom, expects army personnel to fall to about 85 000 from 102 000 currently, while RUSI has earlier said it expects a fall of 30 000 across the military. Britain’s army is already smaller than that of France and Germany.

Heyman also expects army procurement to be scaled back. “One of the reasons it is less difficult to cut in the army, is there are not as many army procurement programmes and they are not as costly, except for armoured vehicles, as the naval and airforce programmes, which are already in place and would incur a default cost should they be stopped,” he said.

The Ministry of Defence this month said it had signed a 500 million pound contract with General Dynamics for an initial tranche of armoured vehicles, but whether it would order more would be subject to the SDSR. Other analysts also expected a significant cut in army spending, but three also pointed to likely savings from Britain’s Air Force. They said plans to buy Eurofighter Typhoon combat jets would probably be downsized or scrapped.

Made by Britain’s BAE Systems with Italian group Finmeccanica and European aerospace group EADS, Britain has ordered 160 of the 70 million pound planes. Support costs can dwarf the cost of the aircraft. Analysts believe it could cost Britain some 2 billion pounds in contractual penalties if it pulled out, but the MoD insists that all hardware programmes are under review. “(Defence minister) Liam Fox said that we don’t want systems related to the Cold War … It (Typhoon) was designed to take on advanced Soviet fighters,” said Eric Grove of the University of Salford centre for International Security and War Studies.

Analysts also say Britain’s involvement in the development of the delayed and over-budget EADS-built A400M transport plane is vulnerable, as well as orders for Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. British firms involved in its development include BAE and Rolls Royce. Despite expected spending cuts, defence firms say they may mitigate against its effects if the MoD decides to save money through outsourcing defence projects. Personnel cuts may also present an opportunity to build more automated systems.

Also, Britain has pledged to boost defence exports, and ministers have increasingly indicated their preference for adaptable systems that are more exportable. Even if Britain buys less, the less specialised systems ordered could do well abroad. Some of the cuts will be achieved by the SDSR clearly outlining UK defence needs. Indecision has cost millions through delays and alterations to procurement programmes.

But ultimately spending will be influenced by the future global role Britain envisages for itself in the SDSR. Whether this will lead to a more isolationist Britain, only collaborating militarily when it is clearly in its own interest, or whether Britain will seek to strengthen ties with allies to share defence costs, has sparked debate. “Britain does not have permanent friends, we have permanent interests,” said Gwyn Prins of the London School of Economics, quoting 19th century politician Lord Palmerston. “The multilateral institutions that had been the basis of the Labour government’s defence policy … have fractured.”

Some analysts point to splits in NATO, of which some members have been reluctant to commit troops, the difficulty of reaching accord on military missions through the United Nations, and discord in Europe highlighted by the financial crisis.

However, others argue that Britain’s constrained finances mean it must work more closely with allies. “If you’re going to have any success in a military operation, you generally need a lot of people, and we will never have a lot of people,” Heyman said. “You’ve got to do it with allies … It’s going to have to be in Europe.”