x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

US worries as UK military faces cutbacks

Washington fears less reliable alliance members may follow suit as reports suggest move might hurt Britain's ability to plan long-term strategy.

British army troops patrol Lashkar Gar in Afghanistan yesterday. Britain's military budget cuts will not directly affect the Afghan operation.
British army troops patrol Lashkar Gar in Afghanistan yesterday. Britain's military budget cuts will not directly affect the Afghan operation.

LONDON // Britain's armed forces will be slashed to their lowest levels in living memory tomorrow when the coalition government announces its defence spending review.

The Royal Air Force and Royal Navy look set to bear the brunt of the cuts, but the army's fighting strength will also be trimmed back by a cash-strapped government bent on reducing defence spending by about eight per cent.

Alarm bells have been sounded in Washington over the effect the cuts will have on the military ability of the US's most dependable ally.

Today there are also reports from a powerful parliamentary committee and a respectable think tank, warning that the government's short-term financial worries might be hampering its ability to plan properly for the United Kingdom's long term strategic role in the world.

However, the cuts being announced in the House of Commons tomorrow by the defence secretary Liam Fox would have been considerably deeper had the chancellor George Osborne and his officials at the Treasury got their way.

They were looking for cuts of at least 10 per cent in the military budget, and negotiations between them and the ministry of defence had reached a stalemate until the prime minister David Cameron intervened last week and pared down the Treasury's demands.

That intervention followed one by Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, who publicly voiced her concerns about the impending cuts in UK defence spending - an unusual move in diplomatic circles where friendly nations rarely openly criticise each others' spending plans, particularly over military matters.

Ms Clinton admitted that Washington was "worried" over the scale of the UK cuts, saying that it was essential to maintain the strength of Nato, which she described as the most successful military alliance "in the history of the world".

America's fear is that if Britain - one of its few Nato partners to honour a commitment to spend two per cent or more of GDP on defence - starts reducing, less reliable alliance members will take it as a signal that they can do even less.

Although tomorrow's spending review will not directly affect operations in Afghanistan, whose extra costs are met from a special contingency fund, it will inevitably affect the UK's ability to act globally, even if only as America's sidekick.

Today, Sir Peter Ricketts, the government's national security adviser, will publish the national security review, which is expected to identify terrorism and cyber attacks as the two biggest threats facing the UK.

However, a report from the House of Commons all-party Public Administration Select Committee, also being published today, warns that the country's national interest is being threatened by a lack of strategic thinking at the heart of government.

The report by the parliamentary committee identifies a tendency for the government to "muddle through" and says both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars illustrated the lack of an over-arching strategy.

It says that the UK's capacity to think strategically has been undermined by long standing assumptions that national interests are best served by the special relationship with the US and economic links within the European Union.

"Uncritical acceptance of these assumptions has led to a waning of our interests in, and ability to make, national strategy," says the report.

"Recent events such as 9/11, climate change and the banking crisis are making us think differently about the world, but require us to find the means by which we can anticipate and understand these challenges and devise an appropriate response to them."

Bernard Jenkin, the member of parliament chairing the committee, said: "Ministers are in danger of announcing a Strategic and Security Defence Review that is anything but strategic. Whitehall has fallen out of the habit of strategic thinking. Different departments think about strategy in different ways, often at cross-purposes.

"While the foreign secretary has said he 'rejects strategic shrinkage', all the evidence suggests that Whitehall lacks the capacity to make strategic sense of defence policy, while reducing spending on diplomacy and defence.

"To secure the safety and prosperity of the UK, it is critical that the government re-learn the lost art of national strategy."

Similar concerns are voiced in a report today from Chatham House, home of the think tank, the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

The author of the report, Paul Cornish, says that the coalition has had only six months to produce the strategic review on which tomorrow's defence cuts will be based.

"With such a brisk timetable, there has been limited time for strategic reflection and ideas," he says. "The risk is the outcome could therefore be a review which is driven neither by strategic ideas nor by financial decisions.

"Reviews of UK security and defence strategy usually fail, either because the mismatch between strategy and budget becomes too great, or because of a failure to identify and anticipate security and defence challenges as they evolve.

"It is unlikely that the 2010 strategy review will be so successful as to entirely disprove this prediction."