A Sign of the Times: Britain’s Strategic Defence Review in an era of Austerity

On October 19, the United Kingdom unveiled its Strategic Defence Review – the first such review since 1998 – outlining much anticipated cuts to the British military and defence budget.  As a means of reducing Britain’s mounting budget deficit, the Treasury Department recommended a 10% reduction in British military spending over the next four years.  In the weeks running up to this review, critics argued that it was undertaken in haste and driven by fiscal rather than strategic considerations.  As such, many analysts feared that military cuts would jeopardize British security by undercutting military operations in Afghanistan and projecting an image of weakness to the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Islamist regime in Iran.  Some went as far as to suggest – in a familiar British fashion – that the Strategic Defence Review would the blueprint of British decline.

Highlighting American skepticism, both Secretary of State Hilary Clinton as well as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates voiced concern about the impact that these budgetary cuts would have on international peace and security.  Speaking to the BBC, Clinton stated that severe cuts to British military spending could damage the North Atlantic Alliance and undermine NATO operations in Afghanistan.  At a NATO meeting in Brussels on October 15, Gates echoed this position: “…as nations deal with their economic problems, we must guard against the hollowing out of the Alliance’s military capability by spending reductions that cut too far into muscle.”  In the face of this diplomatic pressure, David Cameron’s government was tasked with striking a balance between fiscal austerity and continued military prowess.

While London publicly acknowledged the need to trim fat, at the end of the day Cameron was unable to stomach the consequences of the Treasury’s recommendations, opting instead for a 7.5% cut to military and defence spending.  As a result, Britain will scrape nearly half of its armored tanks and a third of its biggest artillery guns.  The British military will be able to maintain a 7,000 strong permanent brigade in the field (compared to the 9,500 currently in Afghanistan) and deliver an intervention force of 30,000 (down from the 45,000 British troops that took part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003). The British Air Force and Navy will each slash 5,000 personnel over the next four years, while the Ministry of Defence will cut 25,000 civilian staff from its payroll.  However, with international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and cyber warfare being sited as prevalent security concerns, the review also earmarked funding increases to the British Special Forces, beefed up cyber-attack defences, as well as the British intelligence and security services.  As stated in the Economist, “Britain may not be quite so gung-ho about throwing itself into every scrap…but this review should be seen more as a tactical retreat than surrender.”

In the House of Commons, Cameron was quick to minimize the impact of these reductions: “We will continue to be one of the very few countries able to deploy a self-sustaining, properly equipped, brigade-sized force anywhere around the world and sustain it indefinitely if need be.”  He also sought to reassure Britain’s Allies by insisting that British troops will remain in Afghanistan until 2015 and emphasizing that despite these cuts, Britain will still have the world’s 4th largest defence budget and be one of the few NATO countries to meet the Alliance’s military spending target of 2% of GDP.

Following the release of this review, Washington signaled that it was reassured that the cuts were not as significant as initially feared.  Furthermore, Adm. James Stavridis, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, told the Financial Times: “I applaud the intent to retain the standard of 2% of GDP devoted to defence, an important and clear goal for the entire NATO Alliance.”

While these reductions may not be as drastic as some anticipated, they do mean that Britain’s ability to intervene abroad will be substantially diminished.  Speaking to this point, the review affirms the British government’s pledge to: “…[be] more selective in our use of Armed Forces, deploying them decisively at the right time but only where UK national interests are at stake; where we have a clear strategic aim; where the likely political, economic, and human costs are in proportion to the likely benefits; where we have a viable exit strategy; and where justifiable under international law.”

When NATO leaders convene in Lisbon this month to adopt a New Strategic Concept, they are going to have to come to grips with the fact that the Alliance has now entered an era of austerity.  Budget cuts have already forced some allies to withdraw from multinational initiatives such as NATO’s UAV and the Joint Strike Fighters.  In fact Britain is merely the latest of many NATO states to announce cuts to military spending: Italy reduced its military budget by 10%; Germany may reduce the Bundeswehr from 250,000 soldiers to 163,000; Denmark is considering a 500 million USD cut for 2014; and Canada as well as several Central European states are considering similar reductions. While the long-term impact of these cuts on NATO remains to be seen, it is clear that resource constraints will have a significant effect on NATO’s strategic prioritization moving forward: Lisbon and beyond.

Jonathan Preece
SDF Intern, Research Analyst
NATO Council of Canada

Further Reading: NATO’s Future amid Defence cuts, The Incredible Shrinking Militaries of Europe, British Foreign Secretary William Hague Friday Dismissed US concerns that cuts to London’s defence spending could undermine the NATO military alliance., Defence Review Ends Iraq Sized Ventures, British Defence Cuts will Weaken the Special Relationship and Undermine NATO, Clinton Warns British Defence cuts could hit NATO, The Strategic Defence Review: A Retreat, but not a Rout.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NATO Council of Canada.

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