Austerity bites Britain’s military budget

HMS Ark Royal, leading an international task group during exercise Auriga 2010 a joint US-British amphibious exercise in Onslow Bay, off the cost of North Carolina.

LONDON, England — Not all leaders mean what they say, but when it comes to austerity, British Prime Minister David Cameron is a man of his word. Even Britain's Ministry of Defense, he promised, would not be immune to cuts.

Exactly a year ago, Cameron unveiled his Strategic Defense and Security Review. It called for budget reductions of 8 percent over four years to Britain's armed forces. That's £4.7 billion in cuts (about $7.2 billion).

The personnel numbers that follow on from the cuts are serious: 17,000 soldiers will be let go. The Royal Air Force will see its head count reduced by 5,000 from 44,000. The Royal Navy will also lose 5,000 sailors and marines. All told, 42,000 Ministry of Defense staff are expected to lose their jobs by 2015.

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That doesn't take into account the effect on civilian jobs. In the last two weeks defense contractor BAE announced that 3,000 workers would be laid off. A further 375 were being let go at helicopter manufacturer Agusta Westland.

Britain's predominantly right wing press has put the cuts into historical context. The army will now be smaller than at any time since the Boer War. The Royal Navy will have fewer sailors than at any time since Admiral Nelson was walloping Napoleon's fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Despite the hyperbole these cuts are dramatic, and in some ways dramatically ill-timed.

Late last year, as a first step in reducing costs, it was announced the Navy's flagship aircraft carrier, Ark Royal, along with its fleet of more than 20 Harrier jump-jets were to be decommissioned. Ceremonies marking the end of Ark Royal's working life took place in March of this year, just as Prime Minister Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were trying to get the United Nations Security Council to authorize a no-fly zone over Libya. The pair succeeded.

Britain suddenly found itself involved in enforcing a no-fly zone but its best assets for the mission had been taken out of service. By mid-June, with Libyan rebels bogged down and the Gaddafi regime holding on in Tripoli, Royal Navy Chief of Staff, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, let rip about the absurdity of trying to do the Libya mission without his best assets.

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Stanhope told reporters at an on the record briefing "If we had Ark Royal and the Harriers, I feel relatively reassured that we would have deployed that capability off Libya."

Stanhope noted that NATO's missions over Libya were being launched from Gioia Del Colle airbase in Italy, more than an hour's flying time from Libyan air space.

Britain and NATO "would have been a much more reactive force," said Stanhope. "Rather than deploying from Gioia del Colle, we would deploy within 20 minutes as opposed to an hour and a half." In addition, Stanhope pointed out, "It’s cheaper to fly an aircraft from an aircraft carrier than from the shore."

Stanhope's view is contradicted by the think-tank establishment in London. Brigadier Ben Barry, of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, says the effect of the Ark Royal's absence on the Libya mission, was "Nil, as there were sufficient land bases available in Italy and Cyprus and Libya was in range of long range strikes from UK."

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Barry's view is echoed by Professor Malcolm Chalmers, of the Royal United Services Institute. "Harriers were not mission critical in Libya."

In the end, the mission was a success. Gaddafi is gone.

Chalmers, a consultant on the Strategic Defense and Security Review, is, not surprisingly, a bit more sanguine about the cuts than some of the more red-blooded critics who have been given platforms in the press here. He points out that the reductions in forces take into account the reality of the conflicts Britain is currently engaged in: "British forces are geared to alliance warfare." The country no longer needs forces to fight wars on its own. He adds, "The UK would not have gone to Libya by itself."

The problem for planners is to decide what kind of armed forces Britain will need for the rest of the decade. "Beyond Afghanistan what?" asks Chalmers. "There is little appetite for state building in the way of Afghanistan and Iraq. Libya is the future."

Speaking of small "a" alliances, where does this leave the capitol "A" alliance: NATO? For professional British Atlanticists, the Cold War alliance, and Britain's role within it, is a great concern. Standing shoulder to shoulder with America come what may has been the post-Cold War rule of thumb for Britain's political leadership. But America’s shoulders are outsized compared to Britain's.

The U.S. has almost 1.5 million people on active duty. The current military budget is around $549 billion. British forces number around 192,000 and the budget is around £46 billion ($71 billion).

Brigadier General Barry points out that the cuts will lead to a "20 percent reduction in ambition and deployable expeditionary capability." The cuts already in place meant that, in Libya, NATO planes were flying 50 percent fewer missions than they did in the air war against Serbia in 1999.

What the steady shrinking of Britain, and other NATO countries’ militaries demonstrates is a reality that has never really been hidden by diplomatic niceties: the "great disproportion" in size and intentions between America and the rest of the alliance.

Says Professor Chalmers, "When the Americans are really gung-ho on a military adventure (as in Iraq) they don't worry too much about others doing their share."

But what if America gets gung-ho about a deployment in the Middle East or Central Asia? Are Britain's armed forces at a point where they will no longer be able to join America in deployments outside Europe? "No," says General Barry. The UK is still ready, he contends.

What is most interesting about Britain's military cuts is how they mirror the private sector by focusing on staff reductions to cut costs. There is actually an increase in the military budget to build or buy weapons systems. Britain is buying F-35 stealth fighters from Lockheed Martin. The new planes are expected to be ready for delivery towards the end of the decade.

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Then there is Britain's nuclear deterrent. Maintaining nuclear capability "is a long-term hedge against things happening in 20 or 30 years time, when certain other countries have gained nuclear weapons," says Chalmers. The worry is these countries may have a greater willingness to use them then current club of nuclear nations.

The cost of nuclear defense is clearly a separate conversation from the austerity driven conversation about the traditional armed forces.