International Order & Conflict

Britain’s Age Of Austerity: An Opportunity For European Defense Cooperation

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Amidst the largest public expenditure cuts since World War II, the UK’s Conservative-led coalition government is pushing through far-reaching defense reforms and using them to create a more cost-effective and capable military equipped for the challenges of the future.


By Kristoffer Tangri – Facing historic debts and deficits, countries across Europe have retrenched military spending and deepened US concerns about Europe’s ability to deploy and sustain forces abroad. In October, the United Kingdom, America’s closest military ally, the second largest troop contributor in Afghanistan and the world’s fourth largest military spender, announced its intent to cut its defense budget by 8 percent over the next four years.

Upon assuming office in May 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron commissioned a comprehensive strategic and defense review for the UK, the country’s first such review since 1998. Published five months later, the review calls for substantial cuts in armed forces personnel, equipment and overall funding. Some 17,000 service personnel will be cut from the payroll, nearly half of the Army’s tanks and artillery will be scrapped or sold and the Navy will decommission numerous warships, including its flagship, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. The government has cancelled all orders for the Nimrod MRA 4 long-range reconnaissance aircraft, is reducing the number of Tornado jets in service, and is retiring the entire fleet of Harrier jump jets.

But the review’s recommendations are not simply a cost-cutting exercise. A reform of the British armed forces is long overdue, as the UK has yet to fully adapt to the new security realities of the post-Cold War era. Take, for example, the review’s recommendations regarding withdrawal of British troops from Germany. The UK maintains a global network of military bases, including strategic logistics hubs, from Gibraltar to the Falklands, from Ascension Island to Diego Garcia. Britain’s largest foreign deployment, however, is right at their doorstep in northern Germany, 21 years after the collapse of the Berlin wall. Although the British forces based in Germany have continuously been reduced from their peak level at close to 60,000 in the 1980s, there are still more than 20,000 troops stationed at 12 military bases – at considerable cost.

UK plans had called for withdrawal from Germany by 2035; that has now been accelerated such that half of the troops will come home by 2015 and the remainder by 2020. This expedited departure is not only fiscally prudent but strategically sound. UK forces were traditionally based in Germany to demonstrate alliance solidarity, to defend the Fulda gap and North German plain against a Soviet invasion and to prevent a renewed war among Western European powers, “to keep the Russians out and the Germans down” as Lord Ismay once put it. But European integration has made war among Western European nations unthinkable; and the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent eastward expansion of the EU and NATO have made the prospects of a Russian invasion in Germany minimal. But unlike remaining American military bases in Germany, used as vital logistics hubs to project power in the Middle East and Central Asia and as primary treatment facilities for wounded soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, the defense review found that “there is no longer any operational requirement for UK forces to be based there.”

Since the end of the Cold War, Europeans have gained an exportable surplus of security, and the focus of Europe’s security strategy must shift from territorial defense to security projection and crisis management in Europe and beyond, to include cyber security, counter-terrorism, conflict prevention and nuclear non-proliferation. UK’s current government has understood this new reality better than most of its European allies, leading Europe’s defense transformation by example. Instead of maintaining a large military presence in Germany with tanks and artillery and an expensive fleet of outdated fighter jets and warships, the UK government has begun to focus on developing a more cost effective, smaller but more capable and flexible military force, designed for the threats and challenges of the future. The UK will increase the size and funding of its Special Forces and purchase A400M transport aircraft and CH-47 Chinook helicopters to increase its airlift and mobility capabilities.

But perhaps the greatest departure is the government’s expressed intent to engage in deep military cooperation with other European powers, most notably France. Europe’s two biggest military spenders agreed in November to create joint expeditionary forces, to develop and operate common equipment and even to share aircraft carriers and nuclear warhead research and simulation technology. In times where “resources are tight” but “interests are increasingly common,” as the UK’s Defense Secretary has put it, building more integrated military alliances may prove a cost effective way for European nations to best meet conventional and unconventional threats of the future in an increasingly multipolar world.

This unprecedented Franco-British initiative promises significant spillover effects for Europe’s Common Security and Defense Policy. Euro-skeptic Britain, for years reluctant to take up a leading role in Europe’s security architecture, is now well on its way to become Europe’s biggest driver for defense integration. The result could be leaner but more capable, flexible and interoperable European forces, with the capacity for autonomous action to meet the transforming threats and challenges of the future.



Photo Credit: Sarkozy and Cameron sign Declaration on Defense and Security Co-operation in London, November 2010. (The Prime Minister’s Office)

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