Stop Focusing on Unreal Issues in UK Defense

Ted Bromund /

DefenseNews, an influential U.S. publication, is running an editorial headlined “Britain’s Defense Choices: What To Cut.” The piece is an object lesson in how not to think about Britain’s defense problems going forward.

The piece doesn’t start out badly: it points out that Britain’s armed forces, all told, are smaller than the U.S. Marine Corps, that the forces have been cut for years to make ends meet in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the result is a huge, unfunded modernization bill. And now, with the OECD reporting that Britain, with the exception of Greece, has the worst budgetary position of the entire industrialized world, more cuts look to be coming.

Then it goes sour. DefenseNews’s big recommendations are to cut civilians, rely more on contractors, and cut heavy equipment like tanks and artillery, as well as ground forces. But under Labour, the size of the civilian side of the Ministry of Defense has shrunk dramatically. The problem is that the cost of that civilian side has grown nonetheless, as has the size of its senior levels. More and more expensive senior officials are supervising fewer and fewer of their cheaper juniors. Cutting civilian employment is a solution that is just about played out: the need now is to bring the top tier of the Ministry into balance with the rest of the structure.

Much the same is true of relying on contractors. There is much to be said, on a case by case basis, for contracting out in defense (and, for that matter, in other parts of government.) But in Britain, contracting out has been financed in a way that has served as a back door for the continuing growth of the state and has created a series of risks and perverse incentives. These problems can be fixed, but fixing them will involve bringing more costs onto the government’s books. This is the right thing to do, but it does nothing to solve the budgetary problem.

And then there is the recommendation to start – or rather, to continue – hacking away at Britain’s ground capabilities. Britain has been backing away from maintaining balanced armed forces since 2003, so this is not a new idea, thought it is a bad one. The idea that Britain should further shrink its already undersized Army is if possible even more dangerous. Right now, Britain is struggling to keep 10,000 men in the field in Afghanistan. A smaller Army will either never have any time to rest and to train, or else never be deployed at all.

All of this matters to Americans for two reasons. First, if we cannot rely on Britain to fight alongside us, we cannot expect anyone else to be there. And second, because many of the so-called remedies that Britain has been trying to implement for its armed forces for the past decade are identical to the ones that are being proposed by the Administration for the U.S. today. They didn’t work in Britain, and they won’t work here.