As Britain's military shrinks, US concerns grow

The US has long relied on UK military support in foreign campaigns. But can that last much longer?

Tobias Schwarz/REUTERS/File
A convoy of Challenger Two tanks drive along a road during media day at the British army training ground near the northern German town of Belsen in this file photograph dated January 21, 2003.

Following the killing of a young soldier on May 22 in London, the outpouring of shock and grief was no less than expected – public pride in the armed forces has always been high, even if support for recent wars has not.

Yet at a time of austerity, the British public's enduring attachment to its men and women in uniform still isn't enough to save the country's £34 billion ($52 billion) defense budget from bearing its share of severe government spending cuts. The latest plan, issued in June, targeted the reduction of full-time personnel from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2018.

"The reality is that we're spending less on defense because the public or political appetite to do otherwise is absent," says Timothy Edmunds, a professor at the University of Bristol who studies defense and security institutions in processes of political and organizational change.

"Polling since the end of the cold war has consistently shown that if you ask the question 'do you mind spending more on defense?' most people say 'yes, we support the armed forces.' But if you ask 'would you spend more on defense at the expense of other areas such as health and education,' defense comes right at the bottom of the list."

In the future, the British military is intended to be leaner, more able to concentrate on specialization, and more reliant on reserves.

Crucially, planners have decided that the military will no longer be able to mount the sort of long-term operations conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan. Going it alone in the form of the task force that liberated the Falklands in 1982 will also no longer be an option.

But while the government stresses its continued commitment to joint operations with the United States, concern has been expressed on the American side that Britain's shrinking military will affect the ability of the US to count on what has long been its closest European military ally.

"As the British Army continues to reduce in size, we've had several conversations about keeping them integrated in what we're trying to do," Gen. Ray Odierno, chief of staff of the US Army, said in May. "In a lot of ways they're depending on us, especially in our ground capabilities into the future."

Speaking at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, he added: "The concerning thing for me is they are significantly reducing their capabilities while we are reducing ours."

Britain, meanwhile, is turning toward greater military cooperation with France.

A 2010 accord between the two paved the way for the sharing of aircraft-carrier capability, the creation of a joint expeditionary task force, and other measures, including in the nuclear arena.

The British and French roles in Western operations against Muammar Qaddafi's regime have been hailed as a potential measure of what can be achieved in the future, although experts such as Professor Edmunds caution that the US still had to do the heavy lifting in the skies over Libya.

Even so, Edmunds suggests that other recent conflicts mean that future interventions involving Britain are more likely to follow the Libyan model.

"I think the legacy of [the past] decade has been a retreat from the political willingness, and certainly public appetite, for getting involved in long, iterative interventions without clear beginning and end points."

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