Thursday, October 28, 2010

Britain's defence review: Good news for European defence?

by Clara Marina O'Donnell

On October 19th, the UK's coalition government published its 'strategic defence and security review' (SDSR), laying out the future shape of Britain's armed forces. As was to be expected at a time of budget austerity, the SDSR foresees significant cuts in military capabilities. But the review also has some good news. The need to save money has made the UK government more willing to move towards long-overdue European co-operation. In addition, the coalition is keen to see the EU play a role in defence, a pragmatism which stands in stark contrast to the eurosceptic views held by the Conservative party before the general election last May.

As part of its plan to reduce the UK's budget deficit, the government has been forced to cut an already overstretched defence budget by 8 per cent in real terms over the next four years. Prime Minister David Cameron has claimed that Britain will continue "punching above its weight" in the decades to come. But, inevitably, the UK's level of ambition has been scaled back.

Britain will no longer be able to maintain a long-term operation of the size that is currently deployed in Afghanistan: while there are nearly 10,000 British troops in Afghanistan today, the maximum size of such operations in future will be around 6,500. The size of large-scale fighting operations will also be cut back – to around two-thirds of the forces that went into Iraq in 2003. The government has also been forced to give up big items of military equipment. Britain will mothball or sell one of the two new aircraft carriers it has committed to build; the UK is also retiring its Harrier fleet of military jets early, leaving the other carrier without any British aircraft for several years.

Extensive cuts in UK defence capabilities risk further weakening the ability of Europeans to contribute to global crises, already poor as a result of years of insufficient and inefficient defence spending across the continent. But at least the British government is showing an unprecedented interest in closer defence co-operation – not only with the US, but also with its European allies. Acknowledging that it can no longer afford to maintain capabilities alone, the government has committed to exploring the possibilities of joint formations for future operations, joint training and maintenance, and even sharing assets or relying on others to provide some military equipment.

Frustrated by the inefficiencies and cost overruns of large multinational programmes, the coalition wants to focus on bilateral co-operation. In particular, the government wants to work more closely with France, which has a similar defence budget and shared military ambitions. Prime Minister Cameron and President Nicolas Sarkozy are expected to announce a series of common defence projects at a bilateral summit in Paris in early November. Now that both France and the UK will rely on only one aircraft carrier each, this should also lead to new avenues for co-operation. Britain has already decided to redesign its remaining carrier so it can be used by French (and US) aircraft.

The coalition government's plan to work more closely with its allies is both positive and long overdue. For decades, Britain and other European countries have wasted a lot of money by duplicating the development of military equipment. Depending on the outcome of the Franco-British summit, the new UK government might go further in promoting the cause of European defence co-operation than any of its predecessors.

But London must invest the same political energy it has devoted to France towards exploring additional savings with other European countries. In the SDSR, the government opens the possibility of closer defence co-operation with Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. But other countries could also offer niche savings, including Poland and Sweden which have shown a keen interest in improving their military capabilities in recent years. The UK should also actively encourage its European allies to strengthen co-operation amongst themselves. As Britain's own military preparedness diminishes, it has a greater interest in other European countries taking up the slack.

The second piece of good news in the SDSR is the rather constructive attitude of the UK towards EU defence co-operation. Before the general election last spring, key members of the Conservative party – in particular William Hague, now the Foreign Secretary, and Liam Fox, now in charge of defence – voiced serious reservations about EU efforts in defence. Liam Fox worried that federalists within the EU were trying to develop a European army. He openly opposed some of the steps towards a stronger EU foreign policy foreseen in the Lisbon treaty. And he was keen to withdraw the UK from the European Defence Agency, a body which encourages common efforts amongst EU countries in developing defence capabilities.

But since their arrival in government with the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have agreed to support the new institutions created by the Lisbon treaty. The coalition has chosen to remain in the European Defence Agency for a trial period of two years. And the SDSR has recognised that while NATO remains the "bedrock of Britain’s defence", an "outward-facing" EU also has a role to play in “promoting security and prosperity”. In the defence review, the government even stresses its support for EU military and civilian missions – as long as they offer good value for money and NATO does not want to intervene.

The new government's stronger focus on value for money in EU missions has already ruffled feathers in Brussels, as the UK has become more critical of EU deployments that it considers are failing to deliver – such as the EU mission in support of security sector reform in Guinea-Bissau (which was ended in September 2010) or the military training mission for Somali security forces. But the coalition's desire to see EU missions deliver a real impact on the ground should be seen as a good thing. Too often EU deployments have been too small to make a lasting contribution to stability, like the police training mission in Afghanistan, or their effectiveness has been damaged by an ambiguous mandate, as was the case at the beginning of the police mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

If the UK government is going to oppose missions which it considers are not adding value, it must also be willing to strengthen those missions which are effective. Britain is actually one of the EU countries keen to maintain the EU's military deployment in Bosnia-Herzegovina (which some other member-states want to dismantle). But the UK should go further and, when appropriate, increase the budget of effective EU operations and send more British personnel – notwithstanding the UK's budgetary troubles.

If the coalition strengthens EU missions, it would help reassure EU partners that the UK is not opposed to EU operations out of principle. More importantly, effective EU military and civilian deployments would contribute to one of Britain's key objectives within its SDSR – to strengthen stabilisation and conflict prevention efforts around the world.

At a time when additional defence cuts cannot be precluded down the road, the UK must work closely with its European partners over the next few years – in developing military capabilities and deploying stabilisation and crisis management missions, including through the EU. Only through co-operation now will Britain feel more comfortable to explore even deeper common efforts when the next SDSR takes place in 2015.

Clara Marina O'Donnell is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.


Anonymous said...

A very good article which stands in contrast to those knee-jerk reactions to the UK’s Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR) from some other commentators. I cannot fault the author’s representation of the SDSR; it is worth however emphasising the following.

- The SDSR situates the UK’s international defence and security relationships within a coherent jigsaw setting out the roles it sees each (NATO, EU, UN etc.) as playing.

- The UK’s defence and security relationship with the US is re-affirmed in the strongest terms.

- The document also emphasises the importance of other non-European actors; Australia, Brazil, Japan etc.

- The role seen for the EU is made clear by SDSR and includes a number of delimitations (e.g. value for money, “improved national military and civilian capabilities, rather than institution building and bureaucracy”). Of interest the European Defence Agency is not mentioned in the SDSR document; albeit the top-level European External Action Service is.

- The intensified bilateral cooperation with France is seen as going beyond one-off procurement projects to become more strategic (“working together to develop a stronger, globally competitive defence industrial and technology base”) and perhaps more importantly moving from just equipment projects to the operational domain (joint military formations, doctrine and training, counter-improvised explosive devices, cyber etc.).

It does appear that SDSR has set out a clear view of what the UK wants to achieve. Furthermore in a time of limited resources it seems unlikely that the UK will be able to indulge in those international activities that are not its priorities as set out in SDSR. Those who are prepared to accept this may be pleasantly surprised by what the UK achieves in Europe. Those however who see European defence cooperation as an exercise in centralising both decision making and financial resources away from EU member states, and to the detriment of NATO, may well find themselves even more marginalised than at present. There is thus a real opportunity to be had, but a pre-requisite for which appears to be the EU shedding both its fortress Europe and Eurocratic mindsets towards defence. If there are institutional casualties in the process then this might be a price well worth paying for a greater benefit; collateral damage so to speak.

sewa mobil jakarta said...

Nice article, thanks for the information.

sewa mobil jogja said...

A pretty good article, could provide a new information to me. Glad to find a blog like this. Thank You