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Budget cuts are cracking the West's defenses

Facing budget shortfalls, Britain and France must make difficult choices that could reshape how Western allies meet common security challenges.

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To accomplish that, Britain could invest in a smaller nuclear force of approximately 100 weapons that relies on a new generation of long-range hypersonic cruise missiles. These can be carried on a mix of Royal Air Force fighter-bombers and modified Royal Navy Astute-class nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) whose alert level would be contingent on the geo-strategic environment.

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While developing and procuring the new cruise missiles might not generate significant short-term savings, it would provide for the longer term a strategically and financially sustainable deterrent force. Moreover, as a recent study by the Royal United Services Institute suggests, Britain could stretch out the cost of this transition by operating its current SSBN fleet at reduced operational stress, thereby extending the life of these submarines.

Reorientation for France

France might consider a similar reorientation over the next two decades. Unlike Britain, France operates two nuclear strike systems, one air-based and one sea-based. By procuring a smaller but diverse nuclear deterrent, France could save significant resources and use that to help modernize its conventional forces.

To share costs, Britain and France might also consider the merits of collaborating on joint development of next-generation hypersonic cruise missiles to counter a future adversarial air defense.

Some reports suggest that Britain may reduce its 100,000-troop army by 20,000-25,000 soldiers. British Defense Secretary Liam Fox has also acknowledged that plans to build two new aircraft carriers, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and the HMS Prince of Wales, may have to be reconsidered in order to make ends meet.

Military credibility in question

Such deep cuts are likely to dampen Britain’s enthusiasm for overseas deployments. The cuts raise important questions about whether in the future the United States will be able to count on the type of strong British political and military support in crises that has characterized US-British defense cooperation in the past. Indeed, Britain’s “special relationship” with the US, already fading, could be further dimmed and deprived of military substance. Similarly, France’s capacity to be a credible military ally to the US could be compromised by significant cuts in its conventional forces.

If the allies’ modernization choices are not carefully coordinated with America, different geo-strategic approaches to security may emerge on each side of the Atlantic. Washington would be wise to work closely with Britain and France to ensure that their budget cuts do not threaten how the allies will, together, address common threats and security challenges.

F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Distinguished Chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis. Peter A. Wilson is a senior defense analyst at RAND.