Humphrey woke this morning to the news that the former US Secretary of Defence (Bob Gates) has criticised UK defence spending and cuts, implying that the UK is no longer a 'full spectrum military power' and that this in turn calls into question its long term credibility as a major ally for the USA. Leaving aside the purely coincidental fact that Mr Gates currently has a book out, and is media savvy enough to know that controversial comments playing to well known UK insecurities may be a smart way of boosting sales, these comments are rather interesting and worthy of further thought.
There have arguably long been two constant truths in UK foreign policy assumptions - firstly that the UK has a uniquely special relationship with the USA, and simultaneously that the special relationship may not be as special as we'd like it to be. The simple fact is that on the global scale the UK and USA enjoy a genuinely close and intertwined defence and security relationship where there is a wide level of overlap between national interests which merit close co-operation. In practical terms the value that the UK offers to the US comes from several areas:
- The UKs unique network of diplomatic relationships and influence, often providing access and insight in locations where the USA cannot operate, or where the UK can provide a second voice to influence a nation to support US views.
- The exceptionally close and highly effective relationship between the UK and US intelligence communities, which is of real and genuine value to both nations
- The ability of the UK to offer access to sovereign territory around the world, enabling the US to conduct operations in an extremely permissive environment (and in turn permits the UK a veto over any operations conducted from its territory).
- The provision of certain specialist military assets and capabilities including nuclear weapons, nuclear submarines, Special Forces and ISTAR assets which are on a par with US forces and able to operate in a truly integrated way with them as a 'day one' asset and not as a coalition bolt on at a later date.
All of this combines to ensure that the UK can offer the US a reliable ally who shares their position on many policy issues, and where they can act as a trusted sounding board to provide reassurance and also a second opinion on many matters.
There are some, particularly in the UK media, who seem to think that it should be a relationship of equals (or rather it would be if we had an empire, and Calais still belonged to the Queen), while an equally vocal group, again mainly in the media, hold that we are a poodle, somehow bound to carry out every whim of the US President, whether we want to or not.
In reality it is probably somewhere in the middle - it is a relationship built heavily on close interpersonal relationships, where many UK officers and officials spend much of their careers at all levels working with their US peers. Having worked closely with the US military in Baghdad and Kabul, Humphreys own personal view is that the UK seems to have a more flexible junior officer (perhaps in part due to the very different commissioning process used by both nations), but by SO2 the two groups are equal, and that in time the US system seems to produce a much more strategically aware and business minded individual as an officers professional and personal education is (in his own view) taken far more seriously than in the UK system. The level of integration and trust means that the UK can influence to a much higher level than we perhaps give ourselves credit for, but equally it is not something which can be taken for granted.
In terms of Mr Gates comments though, the accusation seems to be that the cuts put forward in recent years call into question this relationship. Frankly Humphrey would regard this accusation as plain wrong. It is easy to say that the UK cannot do X, Y or Z anymore - indeed, it currently has no carrier capability or MPA capability, but equally it continues to provide a lot of assets that do matter to work with the US. Indeed, while it is easy to say that the UK has no full spectrum capability, arguably it is many decades since the UK last had anything close to this, and there is no other nation in the world today which can meet US requirements in a similar way. Given the scale of cuts being considered by the US Military at present, it is probably not long till the US could easily be accused of the same claim.
In citing the lack of a carrier with fixed wing aircraft now, Mr Gates seems to imply that Washington only viewed the UK as a credible ally when it was able to put a nearly 30 year old vessel to sea with half a dozen older aircraft at the end of their lives and without it, the UK ceases to be relevant. Given the UK effectively dropped out of fixed wing carrier operations when the Harriers went to OP HERRICK, and yet since then has continued to be seen as an ally of preference for the US, one must question the validity of the statement. Similarly, this view also ignores the very substantial construction programme and investment in both CVF and the JSF which put the UK firmly back on the table as a big deck carrier operator.
Even after the cuts of SDSR, the UK has continued to field a military which remains capable of deploying forces on operations as near level partners with the US. It is perhaps ironic too that some view the UK as unable to do full spectrum operations, when in fact for years both the US and UK have been urging more and better burden sharing across NATO, trying to end the duplication of capabilities and instead focusing scarce resources on specific areas - arguably the MPA decision is a good example of this, rely on your allies to cover some areas, while you do others. In essence Mr Gates argument seems to be that by practising what the US has preached, the UK is actually damaging its capability and value as a partner to the US- an odd argument to make!
The biggest challenge is probably one not of military capability affecting the UK ability to operate, but the changing strategic laydown as the USA drifts ever further eastwards. One of the reasons why the UK has long held such a close relationship is the WW2 total war relationship turned into a Cold War potential war relationship, which turned into a post Cold War messy operations relationship. In the course of this, the UK and US military have worked together almost daily through a variety of alliances, operations and exercises. This has built a very strong relationship, built on shared experiences. But as the ground commitments of Afghanistan come to an end, and as US resources dwindle too, with a focus on the Pacific, while the UK focus is more centred on the Gulf and North Africa, the opportunity for day to day interaction is reduced. It is hard to see the UK refocusing purely on the Pacific where there is extensive economic but limited military interest just to stay close to the US military capability. At a time when the US interest in Europe is waning, the UK will need to work out how it remains close to the US - probably through the highly specialist capabilities discussed above, where it can be seen to add real value to the alliance, and not by the provision of a large but less deployable military force. Ultimately there is no point having a large Army if you cannot move it easily and quickly towards the noise of the guns.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of Mr Gates comments was the way in which he seemed to not realise that the UK remains an active player with the US right now. For instance his inference that the USN was operating in the Gulf without the RN was utter rubbish - one only has to look at the Gulf to see an excellent example of how well the USN and RN work together, with both navies working closely out of Bahrain and on wider operations in the region. Indeed one could make the same argument of the USN at present, where budget cuts have reduced the ability of USN vessels to deploy oversea, with most European deployments being cancelled this year, and many ships remaining in the US and not proceeding overseas. It is easy to snipe at the RN, but the USN is struggling just as much with some of the cuts it faces.
Perhaps a different way of looking at Mr Gates comments would be to see them as a reality check on the limitations of UK power in a broader sense. Arguably much of the Anglo-US relationship since WW2 has been built around preparing for an unthinkable war, and conducting small scale operations together - such as naval work or air operations in Kosovo. Outside of NATO exercises, it is hard to think of many occasions where there was major joint ground deployments. Indeed with the exception of the 1991 Gulf War, the US and UK did not deploy large scale forces together after the end of the Korean War. UK assurances about capability, and US memories of past UK glories coupled with their experiences of working with the UK on exercise perhaps built a subconscious view in Washington and elsewhere that the UK military was somehow still at a similar level of capability to its 'glory days' of being able to put large forces into the field. The experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq may have served as a wake up call that whilst UK forces remain extremely capable, there are limitations on what they can achieve - perhaps not helped by 'extremely optimistic' planning and views by some in the UK military who seem to cling to similar views and sought ground engagement at all costs. Arguably what the last decade of operations has exposed is that in US eyes the UK is an exceptionally valuable ally, capable of providing very high quality assets on operations, particularly in the maritime and air domain. Where it struggles (and this perhaps had not been fully realised by the US) is in its ability to support a large scale COIN campaign for a sustained period of time. Perhaps to some in the US, this wake up call comes as a shock as if they have suddenly discovered that the Emperor is only in possession of his underwear.
This is emphatically not to do down the UK position - the author has long maintained that the UK as a nation remains one of the most capable and agile militaries on the planet, but that there are very clear limitations on that power. If Mr Gates views are shared elsewhere in DC, they perhaps reflect the reality kicking in that the UK simply does not (and cannot afford) the manpower anymore to support large scale land campaigns in a way it previously could during WW2 or Korea.
What does this mean for the UK? Well if anything it perhaps continues to emphasise the importance of getting the Army to the right size and investing in the high end capability that continues to make a real contribution to the US. Ultimately there is no point having a very large army if we cannot deploy and support it for the long haul. HERRICK and TELIC have shown that the UK can comfortably keep 6-10,000 troops deployed for a long period of time, but beyond this and things get challenging. While some long for a larger Army (and preferably a regular one at that), this author fails to see the need to do so if we cannot afford to deploy it and support it. It would seem infinitely more sensible to focus tight resources on high capability items like SSNs, Typhoon, ISTAR and so on, where these can make an appreciable difference to the US when it comes to planning, and are also easily redeployable - in other words, if the US shifts east, it is much easier to deploy a destroyer to the Asia Pacific region for regular exercises than an Armoured Division.
Be in no doubt that the UK remains a significant power, and when one hears phrases like 'full spectrum military' bandied around, the next logical question to ask is 'who else has one'. There is a genuine and extremely close relationship between the two nations, which in turn translates into an excellent relationship between the two militaries. There is no doubt that maintaining this relationship requires an investment of time, money and procurement of high capability equipment, coupled with a continued willingness to countenance the use of force in situations of electorally challenging proportions. But, this is easily resolved, providing a willingess to work together remains in place. There is no other nation vying to become the replacement for the UK in the affections of the US - indeed Humphrey would argue that the US has a variety of 'special relationships' as does the UK. Ultimately, for as long as the two nations share similar foreign and security policy outlooks, it is hard to see them not working together in an extremely close fashion indeed