Britain says it's still US 'wingman' despite defense budget cuts

Britain's sharp defense budget cuts target 8 percent of the military's $59 billion budget. Prime Minister David Cameron called President Obama to reassure him that the UK would remain a 'first rate' military power.

Toby Melville/AP
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron addresses military staff at The Permanent Joint Headquarters in Northwood near London, on Oct. 19. Cameron called President Obama Monday night to reassure him that the UK will retain its capability to act as Washington’s most trusted 'wingman' on future military operations.

Bringing the ax down Tuesday on large swaths of its defense budget, Britain moved to reassure the US that it will retain its capability to act as Washington’s most trusted "wingman" on future military operations.

Critics say that the UK’s once mighty armed forces are being hobbled by a drive to slash public spending. But Prime Minister David Cameron called President Obama Monday night to brief him on the plans and reiterate that the UK would remain “a first rate military power and a robust ally of the United States."

Concerns about Britain’s ability to project its forces overseas were fueled by the stark announcement that the 80-strong fleet of Harriers – the iconic fighter jet of the Falklands war – will be immediately decommissioned ahead of plans to buy new Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) being developed in the US.The move will leave Britain without the ability to fly jets from its aircraft carriers for 10 years because the JSFs will not be in service until 2020.

The Royal Navy’s flagship carrier HMS Ark Royal, one of the two aging vessels from which the Harriers are the only jets that can operate, will also go out of service as the Navy bears the brunt of cuts of 8 percent to the military’s £37 billion ($59 billion) budget. The UK is the world's fourth-biggest spender on defense – after the USA, China, and France.

Cut budget, cooperate more

Defense Secretary Liam Fox sought to make up for the 10-year gap in Britain’s carrier strike capability by stressing that US and French planes would be able to use one of two new carriers being built.

"If you are going to have an effective NATO in the years ahead, then it seems that better working [relationships] between our allies seems to make sense,” he said Monday in an interview with the BBC. “In the particular case of the French, the recent decision under President Sarkozy to engage more with NATO and to become more interoperable with NATO allies seems to me to be a sensible decision.”

Analysts say that the budget crunch has made greater European cooperation on defense inevitable, but critics targeted a number of the changes nonetheless.

Andy Hull, a defense expert at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), questioned the wisdom of continuing to invest in “heavy metal, cold war, museum arms.”

“Two new aircraft carriers, when the US already has 13? Joint Strike Fighters to fly off them, when the days of mass air formations are long gone?” he asked.

In other developments, the RAF and Navy will each lose 5,000 personnel, the Army 7,000, and the Ministry of Defense 25,000 civilian staff. The renewal of the submarine-launched Trident nuclear deterrent will also be delayed by at least five years, with a final decision on replacing the system postponed until after 2015.

The cuts were unveiled on the eve of Wednesday’s overall spending review by Britain’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, which will see most government department budgets pared by an average of 25 percent over four years.

Reports have suggested that military chiefs and Mr. Fox succeeded in cushioning the defense budget from heavier cuts.

Nevertheless, in a rare experience for the leader of a party that traditionally flaunts its pro-military bias, Prime Minister David Cameron came under hostile questioning from those on the receiving end of the cuts today when he visited London’s Permanent Joint Headquarters, Britain’s equivalent of the United States Central Command.

Royal Navy Lt. Commander Kris Ward, a Harrier jet pilot who had flown as many as 140 missions in Afghanistan, said he was potentially facing unemployment, Britain’s Press Association news wire reported.

“How am I supposed to feel about that, please, sir?"” he asked.

Mr. Cameron thanked Ward for "everything" he had done for his country, but added that military advice made it clear that it was “right” to retain the land-based Typhoon jet as Britain’s principal ground attack aircraft, while retiring the Harrier.

What about Britain's contribution to NATO?

Ward isn’t the only one with concerns, however. Predictions about the sheer depth of the cuts led the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to make a rare intervention last week when she expressed concern that they would be deep and could imperil Britain’s contribution to NATO.

But Washington is likely to applaud increased recruitment by and investment in Britain’s special forces. On the other hand, there was an apparent lack of a major investment in unmanned drones, increasingly a vital weapon in allied operations against the Taliban and Al Qaida.

Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute, a leading defense think tank, predicted that the UK would continue to be the strongest US military ally in Europe, but added: “at the same time, the contribution the UK can make to American-led operations will be a bit less than what it was in the past.”

“If there was a future Afghanistan, we would not be able to deploy as large a force for as long, for example,” he said.

“So I think the British will be eager to get a sense of what is important to the US. Good special forces are one example, while a world-class intelligence service that is partly a sounding board for the Americans but also provides information and capabilities which the Americas don’t have is another.”

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