Not with a bang, but a white paper: How British power could fall apart this autumn

UK Prime Minister David Cameron and and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg speaking at a joint press conference (photo: Cabinet Office).
UK Prime Minister David Cameron and and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg speaking at a joint press conference (photo: Cabinet Office).

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This article was written by a serving military officer from a NATO member state. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect the position of any organisation or government.

Britain is not under attack, but its place in the world is under fire. The semi-official Chinese Global Times has denigrated the United Kingdom as ‘an old declining empire’ which engages in ‘eccentric acts it takes to hide [its] embarrassment’. The Russians are brazenly flying bombers close enough to its airspace that the Royal Air Force has to scramble fighter aircraft to deal with them once a month, prompting the Scottish National Party to claim that the North Sea is now defended by ‘fishing vessels and social media’. British commentators are accusing their own government of behaving ‘like Belgium’. Even its cherished Special Relationship with the United States appears fragile, as it turns out that America’s heir apparent, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was chuckling at ‘decline and fall of the British Empire’ jokes as recently as 2009. Fareed Zakaria has summed up the current consensus in Washington: ‘After an extraordinary 300-year run, Britain has essentially resigned as a global power’.

All is not lost, however. In the Queen’s Speech in which the new Conservative government outlined their agenda in May, they promised that this year’s quinquennial Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and the complementary National Security Strategy (NSS) would ensure that Britain ‘remains a leader on the world stage’. The NSS will outline Britain’s role in the world, while the SDSR will provide a definitive statement about the planned strength of the British forces for the next five years. The review is now being conducted by a small team in the Cabinet Office, and will be published in the fall.

On its face, ensuring that Britain remains a global power should not be a challenging task. Despite narrowly avoiding dismemberment in September, when 45% of Scots voted to leave the United Kingdom, and an impending referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union, the quantitative foundations of British power are solid. The UK has the fifth-largest economy in the world and remains one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Militarily, it appoints NATO’s second-in-command and has the world’s fifth-largest defence budget, nearly £40 billion in 2014. The British people, in the words of pollster YouGov, remain ‘instinctively internationalist’ and although most of them want severe reductions in Britain’s bloated foreign aid budget, they also support high military spending and continuing global engagement.

So, why is there so much cynicism about the future of British power? Part of the problem is hopefully fleeting: the British government today has proved politically impotent, and has sat out negotiations over Ukraine and played a diminished role in the EU as the referendum looms. The far larger issue, however, is the one which this SDSR is seeking to address: Britain’s status as a global military power, which is part of the bedrock of its place in the world, is rapidly diminishing. This is not because Britain has chosen to decline—Albion is simply stumbling into irrelevance. Here are three reasons why:

The British government doesn’t do strategy.

Strategy is, roughly, the process of using ways (processes) and means (material) in order to achieve political ends. Although British politicians have never struggled to communicate ambitious ends, the British government is awful at cohering ways and means to achieve them. Almost no one expects the ‘strategic’ reviews released in the coming months to be very strategic at all. British commentators have been acerbic about this. In the words of retired Major-General Jonathan Shaw: ‘I judge that Britain is incapable of doing a Strategic Defence and Security Review; it lacks the culture and institutions required for the task’. Most agree that this is because ‘strategy’ itself is a lost art in Britain, and has no accepted definition within the British government.

Most informed commentators instead forecast that this review will be driven by the dictates of Her Majesty’s Treasury, whose Chancellor, George Osborne, has little sympathy for the armed forces, and which can be expected to seek significant cuts. Since Osborne took office in 2010, promising significant reductions to overall UK government spending, British defence spending has been cut in real terms by about 20%. In July, after significant American prodding, the government committed to spending the equivalent of 2% of Great Britain’s Gross Domestic Product on defence through 2020, an amount required of all NATO members (although most do not meet it). This does not represent a significant shift, however, as it was only accomplished with what Professor Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute has called an ‘accounting trick’ in which the definition of defence spending was significantly expanded. Existing defence programs will still face significant cuts. Osborne has also expanded his control over security and defence by establishing a £1.5 billion Joint Security Fund from which departments compete for funds, with the Treasury adjudicating. Simply put, financial considerations will drive this SDSR more than any other factor, and these will likely overwhelm strategic concerns.

To make matters worse, much of the money that is still spent on defence will in fact further domestic political aims, rather than foreign policy ends. As Britain becomes increasingly insular, the old adage that ‘all politics is local’ is asserting itself. British Defence Minister Michael Fallon has already promised to ‘spare’ Scotland any significant defence cuts, and that is an astrategic promise that the ascendant Scottish National Party will force him to keep. Some politicians are also now asking the army and navy to prioritise addressing a burgeoning domestic refugee crisis (the police commissioner of Surrey specifically demanded Nepalese Ghurkas). Even when Britain tries to think globally, it seems only capable of acting locally. Although Prime Minister Cameron has labelled the Islamic State an ‘existential threat’ to Britain, the UK’s contribution to fighting them in the Middle East has been tiny, and Cameron has instead focused on countering extremism within the British isles. This is not how a world power acts—but without the ability to do strategy, we should expect no better.

Britain’s huge defence budget has a huge ‘value-for-money’ problem which puts Britain’s military capabilities at risk.

Britain gets less value than it should out of its defence spending, and as long as this remains the case, the SDSR can do very little to help staunch the decline of Britain’s military might.The British armed forces today are peerless in only one area: inefficiency. In 2012, for example, Britain had basically the same military mass as French, but spent about 25% more to sustain them, only in part because the French are more willing than the British to plan to rely on allies for logistical assistance for sustained operations.

Comparing the UK and the US is even more illuminating, as the UK military desires ‘global reach’ and thus seeks similar capabilities to the US. Britain spent about $54 billion on defence in 2014, whereas America spent about $578 billion. America, however, got much more ‘bang for its buck’. On land, the US maintains about 2,400 M1-series Main Battle Tanks in its Army, most of which are new models purchased since 2010, and another 400 or so in its Marine Corps (the International Institute for Strategic Studies says the US has 2,785 MBTs in total). The UK, meanwhile, has only 227 aging Challenger 2 MBTs in service, which have the most outdated main gun in NATO and vintage optics. At sea, the US Navy has 273 warships afloat, while the Royal Navy is barely treading water with 19. In the air, the US Air Force and Navy have about 14,000 combat-ready aircraft, while the Royal Air Force has a mere 700. To sum up: the US spends about 11 times as much as the UK on defence, but for this amount it gets 12 times as many tanks, 14 times as many ships (it will probably be 16 times as many by the end of the decade) and 20 times as many planes.

This comparison inevitably admittedly papers over some important differences. The British defence budget, for example, has had to deal with higher inflation since 2008, can take advantage of fewer economies of scale, and, despite its tendency to emulate American capabilities, has somewhat different strategic imperatives, such as the need to maintain a stable of 485 horses for ceremonial duties. But it also hides the fact that British military equipment is generally older and less versatile than American gear. Fundamentally, it highlights Britain’s numerical and managerial problems: even if Britain had a strategic narrative for what its armed forces should do, it no longer has the tanks, planes and ships to act like a global power.

The most apparent cause of the value-for-money problem is the gross mismanagement of the British defence budget. According to the Gray report, by 2009 the defence equipment budget had become severely ‘overheated’, ‘with too many types of equipment being ordered for too large a range of tasks at too high a specification’ based on too little strategic thought, if any. The cuts imposed after the 2010 SDSR nearly broke the overheated system. Between 2010 and 2015, according to Ben Barry of the IISS, the 8% budget cut resulted in the evisceration of 20 to 30% of the UK’s conventional military capabilities. Mismanagement, then, had a much larger impact than the cuts themselves. The most embarrassing foible was the appearance of a still-mysterious £38 billion ‘black hole’ of unfunded requirements in the defence equipment budget in 2011. It had to be filled with massive cuts from the rest of the defence budget.

There are also much deeper problems in the British defence acquisitions establishment. A 2013 MoD white paper argued that its key failings were mismanagement by an institutionally weak Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) activity and poor oversight of single-source contracts. In June, a report published by the think tank Civitas argued that the more fundamental problems are the British tendency to seek the illusion of military power rather than real strength (more on that below), over-engineering of defence equipment leading to runaway defence inflation, and outright abuse of single-source contracts by mighty prime contractors (the most powerful of which, BAE Systems, accounts for .5% of UK GDP and 1% of all UK exports). The MoD, while aggressively denying some aspects of the problem, has engaged in a handful of reforms. It has sought to fix its financial management practices with the Levene reforms since 2011 and was empowered to improve or replace DE&S and revamp its single source contracting practices by the Defence Reform Act of 2014, prompting Armed Forces Minister Penny Mordaunt to claim British defence spending in no longer a ‘basket case’. However, this has clearly not been enough–according to the Financial Times, another black hole is already gaping.

The SDSR provides the British government with an opportunity to start down the path to more efficient defence spending. Unfortunately, there are no signs the government will take it, as the Treasury remains remarkably unconcerned with the value-for-money problem, instead prioritizing keeping spending down at irrational cost. To really promote efficiency, the SDSR team would have to ‘address the key question as to what volume of investment in security will generate the highest overall value to the UK,’ in the words of the Civitas report, and have the freedom to cut inefficient and expand useful programs within the defence budget. As it stands, it has neither power. As the chair of the House of Commons Defence Committee, Julian Lewis, has noted, the government has already released its budget statement, so the SDSR will play no role in determining the size of the defence budget—arguably the most profound strategic question the UK must address. Even as it tries to prioritize cuts to promote efficiency, moreover, the SDSR team will be hamstrung, as the Prime Minister, the Conservative Party and other officials made numerous promises to preserve specific capabilities while running for reelection earlier this year. In the analysis of Professor Michael Clark of RUSI, Cameron declared 80% of the defence budget off-limits on the campaign trail. Under such conditions, the SDSR may as well be an exercise in throwing money away.

Britain’s leaders remain reluctant to provide significant forces to support globally important missions, putting Britain’s leadership role in NATO at risk.

Britain is a minor player in global military operations today. To wage what Prime Minister Cameron hyperbolically labelled ‘the struggle of our generation’ against IS, the UK has deployed a grand total of eight 1980s-vintage Tornado jets, which are only allowed to strike targets in Iraq. As a February report by the Defence Committee noted, this is a smaller force than those deployed by Australia, Germany, Spain and Italy. To ward off Russia, the UK has sent four Typhoons to help defend the Baltic, roughly in line with what other NATO states have sent, and artificially inflated its role in NATO by providing 1,000 staff officers and enablers to ‘lead’ NATO’s new high-readiness task force. However, its land forces sat out two major NATO exercises in June, leaving allies wondering: where has the British Army gone?

The Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, is probably wondering the same thing. The Army he leads is a shrinking force, and it is currently has 4,000 fewer soldiers than it should. As part of the Future Force 2020 plan which the SDSR is likely to re-affirm, it will form up as a force of 82,000 regulars and 30,000 trained reservists in the next five years. This will supposedly provide a ‘deterrent’ with a division-sized ‘reaction force’, as well as an ‘adaptable force’ which will lead defence engagement efforts overseas. Unfortunately, the link to the British Army’s strategic narrative, which is supposed to justify this structure, is broken, both digitally and figuratively. Efforts to ‘fully integrate’ reservists into the regular force have gone poorly. The idea that Britain’s lumbering armoured force will be a deterrent is laughable, and the United States is already preparing for the British reaction force to be significantly smaller than the promised armoured division. The British seem to be as well: the Guards Brigade is about to head to Texas to practice operating under American divisional command.

The British Army has also utterly failed to sell its unique value to the nation, and has in fact undercut its own role at a time when the British public is unsure about the value of its armed forces. Instead of emphasizing the need to hold and control territory by killing people and breaking things—its unique capability, called landpower in the rest of NATO—it has instead established and lauded 77 Brigade, which is responsible ‘for the delivery of all non-lethal and non-military effects’. General Carter constantly bangs on that ‘ends, ways and means are not enough’. That may be true, but without them, the British military may prove to be what’s no longer ‘enough’.

The Royal Navy, meanwhile, is on the verge of sinking. It continues to desperately cling to the fantasy that it has strategically significant global reach, and plans to deploy two new aircraft carries by the end of this decade and three new Trident nuclear missile-launching submarines in the 2030s in pursuit of this end. However, as a US Army War College-sponsored analysis recently noted, the massive costs of these projects have prevented maintenance of even enough escorts for both carriers, and in the future, ‘a declining number of surface combat­ants will bedevil its ability to remain globally pos­tured and will contribute to naval missions of a more constabulary nature’. Like the Army, the Royal Navy is bad at selling itself. In the words of the campaign to Save the Royal Navy, the public ‘is largely unaware of what the Navy does for them’.

The Royal Air Force may be faring the worst of the three services. The Tornado squadron that is bombing IS was scheduled to disband in March, but got a new lease on life because, according to General Sir Nicholas Houghton, the Chief of Britain’s Defence Staff, the UK has reached ‘the very limit of fast jet availability and capacity’—by deploying only a dozen planes on actual operations. This is because only eighteen RAF Tornados are fully combat-ready. Although the British air base at Arkotiri has been a great asset to the broader Western campaign, the simple fact is that the RAF lacks the capability to play a serious role.

British politicians have proven artful at hiding these problems while exaggerating Britain’s contributions. Cameron has dismissed accusations of British strategic shrinkage as ‘nonsense’, while Fallon has insisted that Britain’s ‘global reach is as extensive as ever’ and that ‘no other country is Europe is playing such a strong global role’. Meanwhile, he emphasized niche capabilities which make Britain look unique and important, if not exactly powerful. The US has also helped Britain look good, with President Obama calling the UK America’s ‘best partner’ and US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter saying that the UK ‘has the ability to act independently, to be a force of its own in the world’.

Although some of these claims are factually true, the rhetoric is still dangerous, as the real, long run decline in British military capabilities is continuing unabated. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, ‘you can’t fool all of the people all of the time’. Even if Britain has achieved a politically acceptable force level that appeases its American allies despite its strategic and managerial deficits, the current British approach to international affairs is a plan for costly decline. The greatest significant near-term risk is that Britain’s relationship with NATO will far apart. Ever since the UK abandoned NATO’s Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan and left Italy, Turkey, Germany and the US to pick up the slack, NATO staffers have been extremely suspicious of the UK’s dedication to the organization. They are not fooled by Britain’s contributions of staff officers and support troops, which only serve to mask its minimal contributions of combat power. A growing number of them would like to see the second-in-command slot at NATO become a rotating position that rewards significant troop contributors, rather than an eternal reward to Great Britain for fighting WWII.

They are unlikely to make that happen this fall, but in the long run, unless Britain makes serious changes to the way it does business, it is almost inevitable. This fact should provide an important inflection point for British defence thinkers as they ponder the ongoing SDSR. Although a new strategic narrative alone will do nothing to address the severe strategic and managerial deficits which have left Britain so feeble, it might help guide Britain in the right direction. Above all, a renewed dedication to NATO is essential, as is a renewed dedication to real strategic thought and efficiency within the British government which can underpin it in the long run. Unfortunately, almost no one expects this out the ongoing NSS and SDSR effort.

PS21 is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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