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British defence policy and the transatlantic relationship

Published: Friday, 14th November 2014

On 22 October, The Ditchley Foundation and the British-American Parliamentary Group co-sponsored a panel discussion held in the Speaker's State Rooms, Westminster on the topic "British defence policy and the transatlantic relationship".

Seventy members of both Houses and a number of outside guests came to listen to the discussion, chaired by the Director of the Ditchley Foundation, Sir John Holmes.

James Townsend, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for NATO and European Affairs, was the first panellist. He suggested that the velocity, complexity, and concurrency of security crises were unprecedented and increasingly hard to manage, even for Washington, not least at a time when US defence spending was itself being cut. This was giving rise to questions about western capacity and credibility across the board. He was concerned that further cuts in British defence spending and capacity would reduce the UK’s margin for flexible responses to crises and affect the UK’s ability to work with the US. While the UK might retain a wide range of capabilities, the US also valued the UK having sufficient forces, in terms of ships, planes, and deployable forces, to sustain operations over time, to help address both the big crises, and multiple smaller ones. Still smaller armed forces would also send a signal about the UK’s image of its own role in the world; if the UK force structure reduced further, it could affect the UK’s credibility.  This mattered a lot to the US, since the UK had been such a close ally.  UK’s force-shaping decisions would also matter to Europe and to the rest of the world. The next SDSR would therefore be vital, and he hoped Washington’s concerns would be heard more loudly than last time.

Francois Heisbourg, Special Adviser to the Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique in Paris, agreed that the background was one of an increasingly tough strategic environment, likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. In terms of the UK position, he noted that the likely forthcoming choice to remain fully nuclear capable (with which he agreed) would have a severe knock-on effect in terms of capital spending over the next decade, since it would take up at least one third of the available capital resources, and inevitably leave less for conventional forces. France’s nuclear spending profile had been deliberately more even, to avoid this kind of crunch. As far as NATO was concerned, the good news was that the events in the Ukraine had reminded everyone what it was for. The bad news was that most NATO members were spending less and less on defence, and there was little prospect of this changing. Indeed taxpayers might be even more reluctant to cough up in the future if they thought their government was only going to have a very narrow range of capabilities at the end of the process. This was likely to lead over time to a more transactional relationship by the US towards NATO and European defence, at a time when the challenges of East Asia were also great, and of course the Middle East. If the Europeans were not serious about their own defence, the US would draw conclusions accordingly. Meanwhile he was unconvinced that the proposed new NATO Rapid Reaction Force (an old idea recycled for the nth time) would be any such thing. If Putin were to be genuinely deterred in the future, a tripwire presence in the key places would be more effective. It was not provocative to be serious about this, or to take the 2% of GDP defence spending goal seriously – but he feared we would not be serious in either case. One way forward to make resources go further was to do more pooling and sharing of capabilities, including the less front-line ones. The European Defence Agency could do a lot more to carry out the necessary audits and comparisons of national capacities, but only if it had more resources. He hoped the British decision to reduce its funding to an absolute minimum could be reversed. That could save a lot of money in the long run. He also hoped the UK would rediscover the importance of Poland in the defence field (one of the few countries now spending more and better), as France and Germany already had. Two pieces of good news in an otherwise gloomy picture were the current excellence of the Franco-US relationship in the defence field, and good Franco-British cooperation following the Lancaster House Agreement.

James Arbuthnot MP, former Chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence, thought that the picture was even gloomier than that painted by the first two speakers. He saw little prospect of more money for defence in the future in the UK or the rest of Europe, and he feared recent British decision-making in this field had not been good. The UK had not become a pacifist country, but the public were unaware of the seriousness of the threats. Unless they were made aware of this and of the importance of NATO for our future, the Alliance would over time dwindle into irrelevance. Pooling and sharing were all very well, but there had to be some real capacity to pool and share, and Europe was still sleep-walking towards impotence. Even the UK and France were no longer in a position to sneer at others in Europe, and try to browbeat them to do better. Events like those in Ukraine might be a wake-up call in the end, but we were certainly not there yet. So the gap between US and European spending and capacities was now very stark. And the uncomfortable reality was the US would continue to defend us only as long as they thought it was in their own interests to do so. The UK was not in a happy position in all this, with its confidence in its position in the world shaken by the Scottish referendum, the possibility of an EU referendum, and the uncertainties of current politics. This was not a good base from which to be embarking on the next SDSR. He had four more specific points:

  • The UK had cut too much from defence research spending;
  • Future conflicts would be around critical infrastructure like the National Grid. We were not paying enough attention to protecting these assets;
  • Russia would continue to fight its wars through proxies, and we had to find ways to respond to that;
  • Our greatest strategic problem might in fact be a severe shortage of engineers.

Lord Robertson, former NATO Secretary General and UK Secretary of State for Defence, said that we needed new language on this issue. Recycling the same old clichés was not working. He saw the basic problem as one of lack of leadership. If the public were not told about the threats by their leaders, there would be no action and no support for action. Complacency was the biggest enemy. The next SDSR would be like the last unless leaders made a forcible case for something different. No case, no cash. Meanwhile it was no good defence ministers talking to each other about this, or the already converted talking to each other, as today. The reality was that UK defence spending would dip below 2% of GDP in the next 18 months (and indeed was only at it now because the counting rules had been quietly changed). The UK’s image in the world had taken a real pounding from the Syria vote of 2013, the Scottish uncertainty, the EU uncertainty, and coalition government. Politicians should be levelling with the electorate about the huge security challenges, not just putting off key decisions until after the elections, as they had with the Trident main-gate decision. So the political priority had to be making the case for more and better spending. He hoped the new NATO Secretary General would use his bully pulpit to good effect in this context.

The lively Q and A session brought out the following points:

  • US support for European defence would always be there but US force structure was reducing.  American operational requirements outside Europe might not allow the Americans to deploy additional resources to Europe. If Europe did little or nothing to invest in military capabilities to fill the U.S. gap, the risks would be higher.  This would include the political risk of how the UK was perceived if its military capacity were reduced further.
  • Reliance on reservists had significant downsides, in public opinion terms, as well as actual capacity – the public might well be much more worried about casualties for reservists.
  • The US did not see a choice for the UK between maintaining its nuclear deterrent and keeping its conventional capabilities, and was not favouring one or the other. The UK had to do both. Strong leaders had to make the case for spending the money on both. 
  • The suggestion that reducing British nuclear capabilities would result in increasing ability to spend on conventional weapons was a false argument – any money saved on the nuclear deterrent would be clawed back by the Treasury. (There was not unanimity on this point – some argued that the size of the nuclear spend would make it very difficult to generate political will to keep up conventional defences too).
  • Making the case was all the more important because the new generation of politicians had not been brought up during the Cold War, and had different attitudes. Defence needed to be made comprehensible and fashionable again to younger politicians and journalists, if they were not always going to plump automatically for schools and hospitals over defence until brought to face reality by a catastrophe. Interestingly there was now a new debate in Germany over defence, which might be one hopeful sign.
  • It was not the new NATO members who were failing to do enough, but many of the old ones. It should be made clear that sufficient defence capacity to contribute significantly was a requirement, not an option, for members of the Alliance.
  • The value of deterrence needed to be re-emphasised. That was why retention of the British and French nuclear deterrents was so important.


Sir John Holmes GCVO, KBE, CMG
13 November 2014