international analysis and commentary

The British Strategic Review: Yes Sir, we still do defense


It’s a country with global ambitions and dramatic deficit, which has to reshape its armed forces and procurement in order to face emerging threats and which has to rely more on old and new partners. This was the message given by the Strategic Defence and Security Review recently released by the British government. It contains many interesting insights on the future position of the UK under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government led by David Cameron, some of which are particularly relevant from an Italian and European point of view.

“Our country has always had global responsibilities and global ambitions,” this is the proud incipit of the Review, a shared starting point in the British mainstream for any reflection on the future defense and security policy. Beyond rhetoric, the Cameron government, as its predecessors, is aware that nowadays, and in the future, security threats from abroad and global instability may heavily hit the British society, as terrorists did in London in 2005. Moreover, the Review explicitly points out that there is a link between security and prosperity, and that defense policy also sustains British influence in the world, thus pursuing a broad range of national interests. This basic assumption determines expensive choices made by the Review, such as the maintenance of a national nuclear deterrent based on the “Trident” submarines. The nuclear deterrent is considered the ultimate assurance of the UK’s security and independence, as well as a fundamental element for the British commitment to NATO and with respect to the US, and for the country’s international standing. Other strategic decisions related to the UK’s global ambitions include the purchase of two aircraft carriers to project naval and air power worldwide, and the maintenance of bases in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

These global ambitions should, of course, be matched by adequate resources but Great Britain is experiencing “the greatest financial crisis in a generation”, as stated in the Review. In particular, Cameron has presented a plan of tough budget cuts aimed to reduce the deficit, which strongly affects defense although to a lesser extent than other departments. In addition, Conservatives and Lib Dems claim they have inherited by the Labour government 38 billion pounds of defense deficit, including unfunded procurement programs needing 20 billion pounds. In this context, savings can not be realized with regard to the expensive military campaign in Afghanistan as the government has defined it the first security priority, and any saving would be considered by the public as a betrayal of the 9,000 troops deployed there. As a result, a series of steps have been taken to save as much money as possible in the defense domain: extend the use of current systems (aircraft, submarines, etc.) as long as possible and to delay and/or reduce the purchase of new ones; sell part of the defense estate in the UK; reduce the number of civilian servicemen at the Ministry of Defence by 25,000; withdraw the thousands of British soldiers still present in Germany as a Cold War legacy. The overall effort is aimed to reduce costs without completely renouncing any defense mission or capability, although some risks of temporary capability gaps are inevitable as in the case of carriers fleets, in order to balance savings and procurement schedules. In other words, the government wants to maintain the UK’s ability to fight another state-to-state war to defend the Falkland as well as to do quick counter-terrorism strikes in places like Yemen, while carrying on long-term stabilization operations such as in Afghanistan.

Those missions also include nuclear deterrence. Regarding its nuclear weapons policy, the British government has stated that, although it agrees with Obama’s long-term goal of a nuclear-free world, it will maintain a minimum effective nuclear deterrent throughout the foreseeable future. The reason is that there is a continuing risk of nuclear proliferation, particularly the possibility that some countries may sponsor nuclear terrorism and threaten or deter the UK from taking necessary actions. According to the Review, nuclear weapons will not be used against non-nuclear states nor against parties who adhere to the Treaty on the Non Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), but “this assurance would not apply to any state in material breach of those non-proliferation obligations”. Notably, Iran is accused to violate these norms.

The Review has also included cyber security as an emerging threat and as one of the highest security priorities (alongside terrorism, instability and conflicts overseas, and civil emergencies like pandemics). According to the Review, hostile attacks against the UK cyber infrastructures by other states, terrorists or criminals, are likely to increase in the next years together with the country’s dependence on cyberspace. Therefore the government has decided to establish within the Ministry of Defence a Defence Cyber Operations Group tasked to deliver a focused approach to cyber security and to fund a 650 million pound National Cyber Security Programme supporting the government’s activities related to cyber security. Moreover, the UK is negotiating a bilateral agreement with the US to share information and conduct joint operations in the cyber domain.

This agreement with the US is one of the many ways the UK intends to cooperate with allies and partners as envisioned in the Review. A chapter dedicated to this plan outlines the British approach to international cooperation. First, the Cameron government will pursue bilateral defense and security relationships on a range of issues, not only with traditional allies but also with emerging economic powers, energy-supplying countries and key regional states. The first relationship is obviously the one with the US, and the Review articulates a broad list of cooperation areas ranging from counterterrorism to cyber security, from intelligence to non-proliferation, from military capabilities to conflict prevention and nuclear relationship. Interestingly, the second strategic partner mentioned in the Review is France. London should seek cooperation at all levels and develop future military capabilities in complementary ways with Paris: equipments, doctrines, training, logistics, technology and industry are mentioned as defense cooperation aspects to strengthen in the future. Accordingly, the latest summit between Sarkozy and Cameron in early November produced an important agreement on bilateral cooperation on nuclear deterrence, carrier sharing, joint expeditionary forces and other important defense issues. The Review also argues for increased bilateral security partnership with a range of countries including European allies like Germany and Italy, regional powers such as India, Turkey and Japan, Commonwealth longstanding partners like Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

The emphasis on bilateralism does not mean the British government disregards acting multilaterally. The UN, NATO and the EU are the three international organization which receive specific attention by the Review. The Atlantic Alliance remains the “bedrock” of British defense, and the Cameron government renews its commitment not only to the operations in Afghanistan, but also to NATO reform, capabilities generation, a wider role in security domains such as cyber-space, and extra-European reach. Noticeably, the EU is considered a key means in promoting security in the European neighborhood, through its enlargement to Turkey, the European External Action Service (currently steered by Lady Ashton) and its potential role in conflict prevention, missions such as the counter-piracy one, and EU activities on a broad range of security issues including terrorism, drugs, energy, civil protection and border control. However, further European integration in defense fields seems not to be welcome. NATO-EU cooperation is an obvious goal for the British government, as well as the cooperation among the two organizations and the UN.

The rich EU agenda put forward by the Review is quite interesting from an Italian and European point of view, as it opens a window of opportunity to work with the UK on several transnational security issues at the EU level. The emphasis on bilateralism also deserves attention, as it paves the way for both opportunities for effective enhanced cooperation and risks to have exclusive and divisive axis among European counties. In that context, the recent Franco-British agreement on defense is an important case in point. At the same time, the decisions and investments outlined by the Review with regard to cyber security and nuclear deterrent demonstrate the importance of these dossiers in the global security agenda. Finally, the political quest for the right equilibrium between ambitions and resources in the defense domain offers several lessons for other large European countries which have similar – but not identical – budgetary problems to tackle.