TWO years ago, Barack Obama administration completed a comprehensive review of US defence strategies and priorities. Known as the Quadrennial Defence Review, it’s the equivalent of Britain’s defence reviews. As its name suggests, it’s supposed to provide the basis for US planning for the next four years.
But earlier this month, President Obama set out a new strategy. An administration that was serious about defence would not engage in this strategic churn: America’s defence needs do not change bi-annually.
Predictably, the new plan envisions further cuts in defence spending. But worst of all, from the British point of view, the new American plan wrong-foots Britain by undercutting its defence plans.
The history of Britain’s defence planning since 1945 is inglorious. Its reviews have all had two things in common. First, miraculously, they concluded that the best strategy for Britain going forward was the one that allowed it to spend less money. Second, they were rapidly contradicted by events. The 2010 SDSR that resulted in the sale of the Ark Royal, for example, was followed immediately by the air war over Libya.
Fortunately for Britain, it fought the Libyan war as part of a Nato coalition, one in which the US did much of the work behind the scenes. Unfortunately, the US has no-one else to fall back on. And yet it is going down Britain’s road.
In the UK, defence spending has fallen from 9.7 per cent of GDP after the Korean War to just over two per cent today. The decline has not been steady, but it has been remorseless.
The justifications have been similarly relentless. True, spending one pound in 10 on defence was unsustainable. But there is no reason why a wealthy nation like Britain cannot spend one pound in 25 to defend its worldwide interests.
Along with defence’s shrinking share of Britain’s budget has come a comparable decrease in capabilities. Yet, as late as 1998, Tony Blair’s government was committed to maintaining “a balanced and coherent spectrum of capabilities”. By 2003, though, it had decided that it did “not need to generate large-scale capabilities across the spectrum”.
It would rely on the US to do the heavy lifting, while it focused on preparing to fight future Afghanistans.
This wasn’t the result of a considered strategic analysis but because Gordon Brown wanted to spend the money on other things. In modern Britain, defence cuts were the handmaiden of decline. With the honourable exception of Margaret Thatcher, British leaders since the Suez Crisis have accepted that their job is to manage Britain’s retreat from the world stage in as convenient a way as possible. And in modern Britain, convenience has been a synonym for steadily-increasing state spending on everything except defence.
The problem with managed decline is that it knows no stopping point. Britain was not going to keep the position it had in 1945, but its weakness fed on itself, with each cut creating the justification for the next. And, just as regularly, the professionals got it wrong: the Libyan war was as much a surprise to Britain as the Argentine invasion of the Falklands. Experts who make precise predictions about the next war usually end up looking silly, dead, or both.
When President Obama unveiled his new defence strategy, he took his cue from Britain. His plan is for supposedly reversible cuts, a smaller Army and Marine Corps, and increased emphasis on the Air Force and the Navy. Coupled with a so-called strategic pivot to Asia, the intent is clear: no more Afghanistans. The US is planning to ensure that it has continued access to friends and allies in the Pacific in the face of increasing Chinese maritime power.
There’s nothing wrong with being concerned about China. But the idea that the US won’t need to fight more counter-insurgencies is a dangerous farce. For most of our adversaries, an insurgency is the only strategy that makes any sense, because it’s the only one that offers a chance of winning.
All Obama will achieve with his cuts is to deprive future presidents of the ability to respond to attacks on US interests. He runs the grave risk of being as wrong as David Cameron was about those Harriers.
And unlike Britain, the US can’t rely on anyone else to take up the burden we’re dropping. But instead of recognising America’s unique leadership role, the US is following Britain’s course: planning to fight just the wars that suit it, looking for any justification to cut the defence budget while letting the entitlement budget balloon, and, above all, adopting a strategy of managed decline, this time in the face of a rising China.
For Britain, the new US approach symbolises an American turn away from Nato. It means that Britain, having spent the past decade planning to fight counter-insurgencies at the side of the United States, has been abandoned at the altar: the forces it has bought are of little use to a China-centric strategy, while the ones it has dropped – like the Ark Royal – are suddenly in demand.
For the first time since the mid-1950s, Britain has a defence strategy that fails to mesh with America’s: it is best able to wage the kind of wars that the US says it no longer cares to fight.
The sad, sudden American retreat has badly dented the basis of Britain’s defence planning, and served a much wider notice that the US would prefer to spend more on welfare and less on warfare. Unfortunately, its enemies are unlikely to share those priorities.