Once an empire, Britain faces big military cuts

Afghanistan operations in the future could be affected.

By a quirk of geography, the English market town of Wootton Bassett has come to symbolize the pride that the British public continue to has in its armed forces.

Without fail, large crowds of ordinary townsfolk line its streets on at least a weekly basis every time a cortege carrying the remains of the latest soldier to fall in Afghanistan passes through from a nearby airbase.

But at a time of overwhelming public support for its service men and women, the global recession is causing Britain to face hard choices about its future military role in the world – putting at risk plans to build new aircraft carriers and heralding consequences for everything from operations alongside the US in Afghanistan to whether the UK remains nuclear-armed.

The start of the first full-scale official review of Britain's defense forces in more than 10 years was announced on Tuesday. It came within days of three of Britain's most influential independent research institutes forecasting that the £34 billion (about $54 billion) defense budget will be seriously cut.

The question of whether to support a £76 billion ($124 billion) program to replace Britain's aging Trident nuclear weapons system also looms large.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), warned that the UK cannot afford much of the defense equipment it plans to buy, questioned the value of renewing the submarine-launched Trident nuclear deterrent, and said it was "delusional" to think the UK could act alone without closer European defense cooperation.

The squeeze is likely also to have implications for Afghanistan. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has refused to send substantial reinforcements despite appeals from President Barack Obama for more assistance from NATO allies.

Britain, whose 8,300 troops in Afghanistan are largely battling Taliban insurgents in Helmand Province, saw its casualty toll rise to 176 on Tuesday after an IED exploded.

Warning this week that cutbacks of up to 15 percent might occur, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) identified operations abroad as a target for savings, stating that the UK can "plausibly argue it is contributing much more than any other US ally to the Afghanistan operation."

"Given this, the US 'surge' into Helmand and Kandahar provinces could be used to relieve the pressure for further increases in the UK's own forces," said its report, "Preparing for the Lean Years," which said that serious savings could be made by "a radical scaling down" of UK forces there.

Report author Malcolm Chalmers said that Britain was now moving beyond liberal interventionism toward a more discretionary use of force, "because the two big operations we have been involved in, Iraq and Afghanistan, have been much bigger than we expected."

As was the case in Iraq, a climbing fatality rate is blamed by many on poor resources. Two soldiers, including one who was the most senior officer to be killed in action since the Falklands War in 1982, died earlier this month when an explosive device shattered a Viking, a type of armored tracked vehicle which has proven to be vulnerable to landmines.

At a gathering of defense experts and military figures in London this week, organized by RUSI, one of the Army's most senior former officers was highly critical of the military's limited resources.

"You have to just look at the casualty list to work out that if the equipment was better then you would not be looking at that casualty list," argued Lt. Gen. Sir John Kiszely.

He added that more helicopters were available to support the British Army's past fight in just one small part of Northern Ireland than there are currently in Afghanistan.

Speaking at the same gathering, James Arbuthnot, the chair of the House of Commons Defense Committee, struck a note of caution.

"We have to be ready to fight things which we cannot predict," said the Conservative Party member of Parliament, who raised the possibility of terrorists or rogue states using electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons capable of disabling electronic circuits.

Follow us on Twitter.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.