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September 20, 2010

Brits Contemplating Deep Defense Cuts

Something that caught my eye this past week:

ONLY America among Western countries has been more willing than Britain to put its armed forces in harm’s way. After America, Britain is by some distance the second largest contributor in both troops and treasure to the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Yet the previous Labour government was reluctant to increase the defence budget in line with its grandiose ambitions—and now the coalition government is set to cut it. Defence spending can indeed be trimmed—but less quickly and deeply than that of many other departments.

One of the first actions of the current government was to set up a full-scale strategic defence and security review, the first since 1998 (see article). This will inform the overall review of public spending that George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, will present on October 20th. Given the need for huge savings to reduce the fiscal deficit, some wonder whether Britain can afford to carry on “punching above its weight” militarily; given the controversial nature of recent military adventures (especially in Iraq), some ask whether it should even try. Shouldn’t Britain reconcile itself to its post-imperial status as a middling nation, with suitably diminished military aspirations?

According to unnamed sources at Newsweek, 3 proposals have gone forward to the National Security Council:

...the choices (as labeled by the review team) can be summed up as follows:

In “Committed Britain,” the focus is Afghanistan and future wars like it, so forces would be capable of counterinsurgency operations, but little else.

In “Vigilant Britain,” the focus would be on homeland defense, with an emphasis on naval power, but land forces incapable of anything beyond “an occasional foray,” says one source.

“Adaptable Britain” is the most expansive of the three, but it, too, envisions deep cuts. The Army could end up with four deployable units of about 4,000 each, while the Air Force would lose 60 percent of its fast jets. Still, the country would retain at least a bare-bones, multiservice defense force—and, if carefully managed, a basis for rebuilding the military when the budget crunch has eased. Whitehall optimists think it’s likely that Cameron will go for this option.

Even the AP sounds vaguely alarmed by the haste with which the review is being conducted:

Arbuthnot said the last similar study took 13 months to reach conclusions, but the current review looked likely to be finished within four months.

And they put some dollars and cents behind the budget speculation:

Experts believe that about 30,000 of Britain's 175,000 armed forces personnel are likely to be cut under the review, and that one of two new aircraft carriers, being built at a cost of 5 billion pounds ($8 billion), could be mothballed.

Brit_defensevshealth.gif Given the unsustainable debt most Western nations have taken on, it's hard to argue against across the board budget cuts. But as this chart suggests, if the UK wants to significantly reduce runaway deficit spending, military spending may be the wrong culprit.

And then there's the question of who will fill the vacuum if the Western democracies unilaterally disarm themselves?

Posted by Cassandra at September 20, 2010 07:11 AM

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ONLY America among Western countries has been more willing than Britain to put its armed forces in harm’s way. After America, Britain is by some distance the second largest contributor in both troops and treasure....

A small quibble here. It's my impression that Poland, also, has been a staunch and active supporter of Western (US and British) attempts to promote and to defend security and Western values. Whether the Poles are devoting as much effort per capita, or as a per cent of GDP, or by some other measure, I have no hard data on way or the other, however. This Polish support has been solid, though, from Solidarnosc right up to the time Obama threw our ally under the bus when he surrendered to Russian demands that we do not have a right to defend ourselves, or our allies, from missile attack. The Russian threat was made manifest when the Russian government threatened Poland with nuclear war should they accept parts of such a missile defense system. And even given this treachery, Poland has remained steadfast, insofar as their means have permitted, in Afghanistan. (Note that at the link, there is a subsequent link that would have taken the reader to the full, original article. Unfortunately, Yahoo! has chosen to take down that original article.)

On the larger point, there are limited funds to go around, even when it's apparently possible to print currency notes ad lib. When a society decides that its personal comfort and "safety" are more important than the inconvenience of active deeds furthering actual security, then security will suffer. Perhaps permanently, as Carthage discovered. Our own Ben Franklin had something to say about this tradeoff, something about trading one for the other, and so getting neither.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at September 20, 2010 09:05 AM

Eric is correct about Poland.

And let's not forget Canada and Romania...

Posted by: BillT at September 20, 2010 10:08 AM

It's my impression that Poland, also, has been a staunch and active supporter of Western (US and British) attempts to promote and to defend security and Western values.

As have Australia and others (in addition to Bill's contributions).

The fact remains that numerically, the UK's contributions pretty much dwarf everyone else's. And numbers do matter.

Posted by: Cassandra at September 20, 2010 10:11 AM

Two disparate items:

1. Numbers absolutely do matter (somebody once said, "Quantity has a quality all its own"), and my remarks about Poland were not intended to denigrate the contributions of the Brits, or of the others also mentioned, but merely to mention one nation that also seems to be extending itself heavily in defense of the West.

2. I recommend following the link at the end of the original post ("who will fill the vacuum"). That author acknowledges the pure numbers game of his illustrations, but creating a comparison of the US with China and the US with Russia is very illuminating (with some highly interesting points, from reading between the lines, coming out of the Russian comparison). It'll be necessary to bring up a specific nation in order to get to a link that will allow the comparisons to be made.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at September 20, 2010 10:24 AM

The question of "who will fill the vacuum" has an obvious answer... the rest of Western Europe has implicitly relied on the USA to fill the vacuum for decades. Maybe the Brits are starting to feel like chumps for not getting on board the gravy train. Look at France -- they renounced their NATO obligations decades ago, yet they remain a NATO member, with all attendant benefits.

Posted by: Cousin Dave at September 20, 2010 10:30 AM

Western civilization is just about over in that side of the GMT.

Long live the New Era of... religious fanaticism?

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 21, 2010 10:45 AM

The fact remains that numerically, the UK's contributions pretty much dwarf everyone else's. And numbers do matter.

Those numbers did matter.

In giving Sadr a hold in Basra and preventing US forces from noticing that there was something wrong. Cause the British... were there in force, supposedly.

But the Brits were smart. They made a deal with Sadr. Kill Americans and Iraqi locals and terrorize them into place, just leave the Brits alone.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 21, 2010 10:47 AM

United States of Islamic Europe will fill the gap.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 22, 2010 12:41 PM

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