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UK Cuts Endanger Special Relationship With US

Oct 15, 2010 – 1:46 PM
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Theunis Bates

Theunis Bates Contributor

LONDON (Oct. 15) -- Since the end of World War II, Britain has been America's most dependable ally, fighting alongside it in battle zones from Korea to Afghanistan. But leading U.S. officials are now questioning whether that special relationship can survive plans by the country's recession-hit government to brutally slash its military spending.

The full extent of the cuts will be set out Tuesday, when British Defence Secretary Liam Fox unveils the conclusions of the four-month Strategic Defence and Security Review. When that review was launched in June, the newly elected Conservative government said it would focus on ensuring the military was "adaptable" and able to address 21st-century threats. However, many experts inside and outside the country today suspect that this exercise has been little more than a camouflaged cost-cutting mission by the Treasury -- one that is expected to see the armed forces' $60 billion budget cut by 10 to 25 percent.

Soldiers from Somme company keeping watch outside their compound on July 30, 2010 in Sayedebad, Afghanistan.
British Ministry of Defence / Getty Images
British soldiers, like these from Somme Company in Sayedebad, Afghanistan, have played a crucial role in recent American-led operations. But deep budget cuts by the British government could jeopardize the relationship between the U.S. and Britain.
Those extreme cutbacks -- likely to result in fleets of fighter-bombers and frigates being scrapped -- appear too deep for U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who on Thursday staged last-minute interventions intended to persuade Prime Minister David Cameron to water down the proposals.

Asked about Britain's plans during a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Clinton suggested that the 60-year-old trans-Atlantic alliance could be jeopardized by excessive cuts. "It does [worry me], and the reason it does is because I think we do have to have an alliance where there is a commitment to the common defense," the secretary of state told the BBC. "NATO has been the most successful alliance for defensive purposes in the history of the world ... but it has to be maintained."

Gates expressed similar concerns en route to the summit. "My worry is that the more our allies cut their capabilities, the more people will look to the United States to cover whatever gaps are created," he told Bloomberg. "At a time when we are facing stringencies of our own, that's a concern for me."

And in a private letter to Cameron -- leaked to The Daily Telegraph last month -- Fox also suggested that the cuts were going too far and warned: "[Conservative] party, media, military and the international reaction will be brutal if we do not recognize the dangers and continue to push for such draconian cuts at a time when we are at war."

Although Britain's entire active service armed forces are smaller in size than the U.S. Marine Corps, they have played a crucial role in recent American-led operations. More than any other ally, Britain has been prepared to join military operations at an early stage, and has deployed, commanded and supplied its own forces. Importantly, Britain has also been willing to put more boots on the ground than its war-shy European neighbors. There are currently 10,000 British troops deployed in Afghanistan -- the second largest contingent after the U.S. -- who have suffered at least 340 casualties over the past nine years.

While the cuts aren't expected to have an impact on the country's Afghan deployment, Warren Chin -- an expert in U.K. defense policy at King's College London -- said U.S. officials were worried that Britain's days as an effective ally might be over. "From an American perspective, they're focused on how willing and able the U.K. will be in terms of supporting operations like Afghanistan and Iraq in future, and whether they'll have the maritime and air components needed to support those sorts of operations," he said. "If the rumors and speculation ahead of the review are true, the reductions in the defense budget are, in the eyes of some, going to gut the services."

So far, leaks to the press suggest that cuts will fall hardest on the Royal Air Force. "There are discussions of Tornado (fighter bomber) squadrons being retired, and I've heard figures that anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000 personnel -- a third of the Royal Air Force -- might be made redundant," Chin said. The Royal Navy could also see its fleet cut in half to just 25 vessels, The Daily Telegraph noted last week. It's predicted that the building of two new aircraft carriers, at a cost of $8.3 billion, will go ahead. But whether there will be enough planes to put on the carriers is another question entirely.

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Britain's 100,000-strong army, meanwhile, is expected to avoid suffering any severe cutbacks until 2015, when most of the troops serving in Afghanistan will have been brought home. Once back in the country, it's suspected that 20,000 could be given the boot.

In his September letter to Cameron, Fox suggested that this unprecedented paring would lead to Britain's military playing a lower key role in the world. "Our decisions today will limit severely the options available to this and all future governments," he wrote. "The range of operations that we can do today we will simply not be able to do in the future."

As the U.K.'s operational power shrinks, it is inevitable that the country's already limited influence in the White House -- which has steadily declined since the end of the Tony Blair-George W. Bush era -- will wane even further. "The special relationship has really depended on Britain having the right military capabilities that allowed it to demonstrate to the Americans it was useful," Chin explains. "But with a contraction of military power of this kind, you can't help but feel that the U.K.'s clout with the U.S. will be diminished."
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