x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

UK and France join forces - and the US army pays the price

As Europe whittles away at its military capability, more and more responsibility devolves on the already dominant United States. It is a trend that should be worrying for the US, Europe and the rest of the world.

The UK-France defence pact announcement on Tuesday raised a few eyebrows, but it really should not have come as a shock to anyone paying attention to the trends.

It may not be surprising, but it is still a concern. As Europe whittles away at its military capability, more and more responsibility devolves on the already dominant United States. It is a trend that should be worrying for the US, Europe and the rest of the world.

The spending cuts have been on the horizon for some time. Last month, the UK released its Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). The document sets defence spending priorities - the first such review since 1998. It called for drastic cuts in spending and a reduction in troop levels, the worst of which are being put off until the UK withdraws from Afghanistan.

In short, Britain, faced with a burdensome level of public debt, cannot afford its army any longer. Neither, it seems, can the French. It is cutting defence spending by €3.5 billion (Dh18.5 billion) over the next three years.

Add to this both nations struggle to stay competitive in global foreign defence sales and the deal appears to make sense. As the British prime minister David Cameron put it in his address following the signing ceremony: "It is about sharing development and equipment costs, eliminating unnecessary duplication, coordinating logistics, and aligning our research programmes."

Despite all the bluster and jokes about Napoleon and Lord Nelson rolling in their graves, the two defence agreements signed by Mr Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy contain little that should immediately concern either the UK's chief ally, the United States, or the rest of the world. A pact between the third and fourth largest defence spenders will undoubtedly boost the capabilities of both, and neither country sacrifices any significant level of military sovereignty by agreeing to share aircraft carriers. In fact, modifications made to the new British carriers to support foreign planes will actually make them more useful.

Coordinated defence research makes sense for two countries swiftly falling behind the curve in terms of technology and capabilities. A joint nuclear testing facility will allow both cash-strapped nations to maintain their nuclear deterrent while saving them quite a few euros or pounds.

The pact, however, can not simply be viewed through the lens of cold, hard economic necessity. There are wider, more troubling implications for global security. What is most concerning about this agreement are the rather parochial and short-sighted motivations that drive it.

When asked whether fissions could arise in the event of another war in the Falklands, for example, Mr Cameron said that they undoubtedly would. "Obviously we would only jointly commit a task force if we jointly agreed on the mission," he said, which begs the question: what, then, is the point? If an alliance only works until problems arise, then the alliance is not worth much.

More seriously, there is a troubling trend in the composition of military forces worldwide that is mirrored in the defence agreement. It began in the US. Closures of military bases and what amounted to mass redundancies in the armed forces in the mid-1990s were driven by a new military ideology which focused on technology at the expense of troop levels. Troops are expensive, bullets are not, and increasing the effectiveness of individual soldiers through the use of better technology saved money and created a cheaper, more effective and highly mobile military force.

This has only become more attractive in light of the emerging threat from stateless militias and terrorism, which challenge the armies of the West that are better constituted for land battles on the plains of western Europe than firefights in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the SDSR, the UK cited the need to restructure the army for higher mobility and flexibility while decreasing the total number of forces. Likewise, a key component of the UK-France defence pact is the creation of joint expeditionary unit capable of rapid deployment.

Unfortunately, the UK and France are behind the times. If anything, the war in Afghanistan has taught the world the limits of multilateralism and the importance of the individual soldier, not his equipment. A diverse and confusing melange of troops, capabilities and rules governing the use of force have hamstrung the coalition's capabilities to secure the country. The greatest need in that fight is not better arms, but more boots on the ground. Meanwhile, the UK's decision to cut troop levels leaves it with fewer total troops than the US marine corps, that country's rapid deployment force.

In the long-term, this should be concerning the US. It has been the only serious guarantor of global security since the fall of the Soviet Union. This pact formalises that role. Its fleets patrol the deep water shipping lanes, and its army is entrusted with stability across the globe.

This is not a situation that can persist forever. In addition to other countries' reservations about this overwhelming force, the US has its own issues with maintaining a level of defence spending that is larger than all other countries combined.

The UK and France may indeed be taking steps to make their nations more capable of countering new threats, but each new threat seems to have a funny way of resembling old ones - even a ragtag army of radical militants in Iraq and Afghanistan are fought through mass deployments of troops. For, while Europe may never see another Hundred Years War, that does not mean that the conflicts of the future will be fought in a different way.

 

smclain@thenational.ae