NATO Should be Worried About the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom has long been at the forefront of the NATO alliance as one of the strongest military powers with a highly capable military, second only to that of the United States. This will slowly come to an end over the next decade with the erosion in the military capability of UK armed forces, the lack of a grand strategy emanating from London and the diminishing importance in the special relationship between London and Washington. NATO should be prepared for a less capable full spectrum UK military.
Since NATO's founding in 1949 it has mostly been the case that the United Kingdom was the strongest European military power within the alliance, both because of its conventional military capabilities as well as its status as one of the recognised nuclear weapons states and its permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. This reinforced the UK as an integral part of the alliance which in part continues to this day. These long held historical assumptions however may be open to question. The UK's ability to continue its commitments to NATO are in no serious doubt at the present time, however NATO should be under no allusions that the UK may no longer play such an effective role within the alliance over the next decade. This is because of its declining military capability, its lack of a grand strategy in deciding what role it should play within the alliance and also its dwindling ability to act as a bridge between the United States and continental European members. These factors explained below show that NATO should be concerned about the trajectory of the United Kingdom.
To start, it is important to understand that the UK is still a considerable military power with one of the largest defence budgets in the world, a highly capable technological military-industrial complex and a mesh of regional and bilateral relationships that make the UK a highly recognised military power.
This coincides with the announcement by the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson that Britain will establish a naval base in Bahrain in 2017, the first British base east of Suez in decades. This also coincides with the UK engaging tentatively with the Asia-Pacific and which saw Eurofighter Typhoons in joint exercises with Japan for the first time. Britain is also one of the main contributors to the NATO mission in the Baltic states to deter Russian aggression having contributed fighter jets to the air policing mission in Estonia as well as sending just under one thousand troops to partake in rotational exercises. With all this going on it seems questionable whether NATO really should worry about the UK.
Beneath all this activity however is a deep rot within the military capability which whilst declining over decades since the loss of empire has become all the more pronounced since 2010. In the Spending Review of 2010 the defence budget was cut by around 8%. Whilst the 2015 SDSR was meant to have restored this legacy of cuts it has in fact become more apparent to many strategic forums that the 2015 SDSR was by no means the saving grace the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon continues to bleat about.
Indeed, since 2015 one of the main concerns has been the state of the Royal Navy. The UK was meant to have procured 13 Type 26 Global Combat ships to replace one for one the aged Type 23 but in the end this was reduced to eight with an option to buy five General Purpose Frigates. The fact that the General Purpose Frigate hasn't even been designed (the MoD may buy an off-the-shelf design) yet lends an essence of farce to the whole affair.
The Army has also suffered cuts and has a manpower capability of around 82,000 with the reserve system of 30,000 having been a lamentable flop. This would not be so bad if new funding was a distinct prospect but the continued line by the Defence Secretary that Britain continues to spend 2% of GDP on defence is a useless banality. The main way that the two percent spend was achieved was by adding MoD and civilian pensions which pushed the defence budget to that magic 2% target. The tragedy is that more cuts will continue to flow past Defence while the International Aid budget stands at an incomprehensible £12 billion (0.7%) of GDP. NATO members should be concerned about this deterioration and downsizing of the UK's military capability.
NATO should also be concerned about the UK's lack of grand strategy in respect of what it actually wants to achieve in the world. The UK has many operational commitments including to NATO as well as United Nations and humanitarian activities but has a disjointed approach in undertaking these. For example, Britain has been an operational leader in countering Russian aggression but was conspicuously absent from the Minsk peace talks with Russia over Ukraine. For one of the biggest military powers and contributors within NATO to be absent at the decision making table was for many within Britain a bewildering scene.
This lack of a grand strategic vision will leave the UK in a no man's land of strategic thought about where best to target its dwindling military resources. This poverty of thought stands in stark contrast to the United States which is currently engaged in the Third Offset as well as on how to penetrate increasingly advanced anti-access areal denial environments. Under the now former Defence Secretary Ash Carter there was also the innovative creation of a Strategic Capabilities Office under the direction of William Roper which is producing thought provoking concepts with existing technologies such as the B-52 arsenal plane. This energy and dynamism of strategic thought stands in stark contrast to Britain which seems to be stuck at the level of operational practicalities.
The final reason why NATO should be worried about the UK is due to the decreasing importance of the "special relationship" with the United States. The special relationship has generally always been overdone but it did mean that London's influence in Washington could act as a bridge between the U.S and continental European powers. The problem now is that the UK just doesn't figure as much in Washington as it used to. Indeed, the special relationship is now mainly confined to the areas of intelligence collection and the nuclear partnership.
Although Theresa May and Donald Trump will roll out the "Special Relationship" rhetoric at their soon to be held meeting this will not detract from the fact that geo-politically Japan is far more of an important ally in strategic terms than the UK (Japan now even has a bigger navy than the UK). The potential weakening of the US-UK relationship does not bode well for what will be a turbulent period for NATO with the unpredictable Donald Trump as US President.
For many this may not sound like a crisis and indeed that is the reason why it is most concerning. The UK has had no cataclysmic burnout or sudden inability to act as a member within NATO but the decline is slow burning with the results of a sudden crisis appearing over time but occurring none the less. For NATO members this should be a concern because a weaker UK will lead to a more fractured and weakened NATO.
Therefore, Britain should cut its international aid budget in order to supplement the shortfalls in military capability and to also increase investments in procuring more frigates and the world beating Astute class submarines.
The UK should also clarify its grand strategic ambitions and prioritise its commitments abroad. Clarifying whether the UK seeks to bolster European security or whether it seeks to expand its influence in the Middle East and even contemplate a return to Asia will require much more trade-offs amongst resources than ever before.
NATO should also change its 2% formula so pensions cannot be included in the accounting of defence expenditure just to achieve symbolism. While many of these problems are internal to the UK they will no doubt have an impact on NATO members in the future. NATO members should encourage the UK to clarify its strategic ambitions and to fund the military which it has short-changed for far too long.
While many of these critiques could apply equally to other European members, the fact that NATO's second largest military power is set for a long term capability decline is deeply worrying.
Lewis Smart graduated in International Relations from Plymouth University. He has worked on a general election campaign and currently works in London for a parliamentary communications company and writes on military and foreign affairs in his spare time.
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