Ever since the Cold War ended more than two decades ago, America has never entertained any serious doubts about Britain’s ability to fulfil its commitment as a vital military ally when tackling threats to the Western alliance.
Until now. For the dramatic cuts to Britain’s defence budget implemented since the Coalition took power in 2010 have led to a number of senior US military officers and politicians openly questioning whether, when it comes to fighting the wars of the future, Britain has the capability to be an effective ally on the battlefield.
The Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy have all suffered cutbacks to the extent that they are no longer able to undertake the kind of missions that Britain has historically supported.
The way we were: Britain’s Maj Gen Andy Salmon and US Gen Michael Oates in Iraq, 2009
Now, General Raymond Odierno, the Chief of Staff of the US army, who has fought alongside British forces in several conflicts, including the recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, has become the latest senior officer to express his concerns in public, telling The Daily Telegraph when I met him in Washington last week that he is “very concerned” about the impact the cuts are having.
His comments, moreover, came after President Barack Obama had taken issue with David Cameron when he visited the White House in January. He warned the Prime Minister of the dangers of allowing British defence expenditure to fall below the 2 per cent of GDP threshold required by our Nato membership.
For there are growing fears that cuts will jeopardise a central tenet of the post-Second World War transatlantic alliance – namely, that Britain can be counted upon to provide military hardware to US-led campaigns in defence of Western interests.
Whether it is dealing with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, or preventing Afghanistan from becoming a haven for Islamist terror groups, it has been a long-standing assumption of US military planning that Britain would deploy a combat force in excess of 10,000 men, as well as the fighter aircraft and naval vessels.
During the 1991 Gulf War, for example, the famed 7th Armoured Brigade, or Desert Rats, took the lead role in the Army’s ground operations, which saw more than 50,000 British soldiers deployed to the region during the six-month campaign. The RAF, meanwhile, deployed several fighter squadrons, while Royal Navy warships were involved in a wide range of duties.
More than two decades after Saddam’s forces were defeated in that war, the world is a dangerous and unpredictable place. As Gen Odierno remarked: “This is the most uncertain global environment I have seen in 40 years of service.”
And yet, at a time when the security of Britain and the rest of the alliance faces a range of threats, none of the main political parties is showing any interest in reversing the cuts that have seriously diminished the UK’s ability to tackle them.
As a result of the budget cuts following the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the Army has been cut by a fifth, the RAF now has just seven combat squadrons, compared with the 30-odd it had in the first Gulf War, and the Navy barely has enough warships to fulfil its international duties.
“We have a bilateral agreement between our two countries to work together. It is about having a partner that has very close values and the same goals as we do,” explained Gen Ordorno at the New America Foundation’s “Future of War” conference.
“What has changed, though, is the level of capability. In the past we would have a British Army division working alongside an American army division.” The cuts mean that the US military is now working on the basis that in future Britain will contribute only half that amount, if not less.
Looking at current threats to global security, Gen Odierno warned that the alliance “had to be prepared for Ukraine”, while America and its allies needed to be primed to back Iraqi government forces later this year when they launch their much-anticipated offensive to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city which fell to Isil last year.
But Britain’s spending isn’t the only cause for concern. Gen Odierno is also worried about cuts by other European allies. “The US is willing to participate, and in some cases lead, but we need our multi-national partners to help,” he said. “As we look to the threats around the world, we need to have multinational solutions. They are of concern to everyone, and we need everybody to help, assist and invest.”
The big question is whether, with the general election approaching, the concerns raised by senior American figures will persuade any of the main political parties to make defence a priority in their election manifestos.
As far as Mr Cameron is concerned, a future Conservative government would seek to make further cuts to the defence budget, with concerns already expressed that the Army that it could be reduced by another 20,000 personnel, making it half the size of its French equivalent.
Indeed, Philip Hammond, the former Defence Secretary, told senior officers last summer, that the military would not be able to spend 2 per cent of GDP, even if the Government agreed to provide it. This asinine remark, which typifies the disdainful attitude of some senior Tories, overlooks the fact that the RAF is desperately short of combat squadrons, the Navy is still trying to work out how it will provide the expert manpower and equipment needed to operate its two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers and the Army is struggling to cope with the drastic reductions to its ranks.
And yet, while the Coalition shows little concern for the damage inflicted on Britain’s military capabilities, it remains committed to ring-fencing the foreign aid budget to 0.7 per cent of GDP, with the result that much-needed resources are being squandered overseas that could usefully be spent on strengthening the nation’s defences.
For example, following the Coalition’s decision to scrap the RAF’s Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, we no longer have the ability to track the activities of Russian nuclear attack submarines in the North Sea. A simple, cost-effective replacement would be to purchase the Boeing P8 Posiedon, with similar capabilities, which the RAF estimates would cost around £200 million a year – a reasonable investment, you might think, given the state of tensions between London and Moscow.
By coincidence, £200 million is exactly the same amount of money Britain donates to India in foreign aid each year. As a result of its generosity, Britain cannot afford the P8; India, on the other hand, has a fleet of the aircraft to protect its own territorial waters.
It’s no wonder there is genuine anxiety among several Tory backbench MPs, who cannot understand why the Prime Minister won’t accept that a robust defence policy might actually be a vote-winner. Let’s hope, for all our sakes, that their arguments prevail.
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