Less than three years ago, the UK’s defense strategy seemed well in hand. For the military, the 2015 Strategic Defense and Security Review promised – if not blue skies ahead, then at least relief from the cuts that resulted from the global financial crisis. But just a little over six months after the document was published, the wheels began to fall off.
The UK has a long history of underfunding defense plans, and the 2015 review turned out to be no different. Its own failings were compounded by the pound’s post-Brexit vote crash, which increased the price of foreign equipment, including the U.S.-made P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and F-35B Lightning II fighter. Ultimately, the military faced a budget shortfall of around $27 billion over the next decade – no small sum against Britain’s core annual defense spending of roughly $50 billion. That gap, plus the need to update the country’s posture to reflect changed strategic circumstances, led to a new review, which has evolved into the Modernizing Defense Program.
So why should this matter to the U.S.? Despite some post-World War II divergences – most notably over Suez and Vietnam – London and Washington have generally been on the same strategic page. Most recently, both have begun altering their primary defense focus from counterterrorism to state-based threats. Just weeks after the January 2018 release of the latest U.S. National Defense Strategy, which shifted U.S. priorities away from countering international terrorism and towards containing revanchist powers, British Defense Secretary, Gavin Williamson, told the House of Commons Defence Committee that the “rapid escalation” of state-based threats had resulted in a similar rebalancing of UK policy.
As with all military partnerships, the value of common ground is limited without practical commitment. But here again, the UK has retained a high degree of synchronicity with U.S. priorities. The British contribution to the mission in Afghanistan, actions against the Islamic State, and strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons capability are all high-profile efforts. Europe is also a prominent venue for UK military activity. The British lead the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence force in Estonia, periodically provide fighters for Alliance air defense missions in the Baltic and Black Sea regions, and supply training to the Ukrainian military.
It is, however, also possible future tasking that should concern Washington. Even with its recent budget increase, the U.S. military will not be able to be everywhere at once. From potentially leading an on-call NATO force to patrol the increasingly important Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap to providing a carrier group to backfill for the U.S. in the Middle East should a major crisis erupt with North Korea or China, an appropriately funded British military has much to offer Washington in the security environment of the near future.
There is also a wider angle: President Trump is correct to state that many allies of the U.S. do not pull their military weight. While Britain has less frequently been caught up in allegations of security freeloading than its European neighbours, it has occasionally risked alienating Washington with its penny-pinching. In 2015, shortly before the last defense review, President Obama privately warned then Prime Minister David Cameron that he risked weakening NATO if the UK failed to continue spending at least 2 percent of Britain’s GDP on defense. A similar message was relayed last November, when Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, then commander of U.S. Army Europe, stated that further UK cuts would reduce pressure on other NATO nations to increase spending. The consequences of botched policy decisions by London this year therefore risk affecting the wider Western security architecture.
There are some early signs that the initially drastic cuts planned may not materialize. Suggestions that much of the UK’s amphibious landing capability would be scrapped have now been seemingly toned down, as have plans to further strip back the British Army. While the UK has its own ferocious defense lobby, comments from senior U.S. officers have helped shape the debate. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has also warned that British military capabilities must remain credible. Such pressure has contributed to more than $1 billion of additional defense funding being released by the UK government in advance of a final settlement being reached later this year.
As the conclusions of the Modernizing Defense Program begin to be finalized over the coming months, Washington should seek to gently nudge London towards conclusions that will prove mutually beneficial. Ultimately, there is little value in an alliance if it doesn’t have room for speaking difficult truths.