international analysis and commentary

Fighting to the last American, Mr. Cameron?

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British Prime Minister David Cameron has a problem. His coalition government is committed to reduce the €150 billion hole in the public finances bequeathed him by the profligate Labour Party and Britain’s casino bankers. This might suggest that this is a moment for international modesty. Indeed, with British forces already tied down in Afghanistan, such modesty might not just be becoming but an imperative. Far from it. Of late, Prime Minister Cameron has been strutting across the world stage alongside France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy insisting that the UN take swift action to prevent the Gheddafi regime from committing genocide under the responsibility to protect norm. All is well and good apart from the fact that the Cameron-led government is currently engaged in a deep and rapid program of cuts to Britain’s world renowned armed forces.

Cameron is in effect trying to lead the international community as his government effectively retreats from it. It is a contradiction between strategy and policy that over the medium-to-long term is simply unsustainable.

For the moment, the British armed forces can just about get away with this contradiction. Much of the force that is being used for operations to enforce the no-fly zone under UN Security Council resolution 1973 is a legacy capability that has yet to go. In particular, the RAF Tornados are ageing and not long for this world and HMS Cumberland, which carried out the evacuation of Western civilians, was on her way home to be scrapped. Moreover, France and the US are doing much of the heavy-lifting in Operation Odyssey Dawn. However, if the Libya campaign is extended there is no question that an impact will sooner, rather than later, be felt on British operations in Afghanistan at a critical moment in the campaign there.

War does not come cheap. The Libya campaign is costing the British €2.3 million per day with each Tomahawk cruise missile launched from a British nuclear attack submarine in the Mediterranean costing €1.15 million and each Storm Shadow missile €920,000.

Nor is the Cameron paradox merely a question of doing more with less. Taken together, the 2010 National Security Strategy (NSS) and Strategic Security and Defense Review (SDSR) represent the most profound shift in Britain’s security and defense posture since the retreat from East of Suez in 1967. Cost driven to the point of being “a-strategic”, the result was to effectively sacrifice defense for the sake of homeland security. In spite of being forced by contract to build two new 65,000 ton super-carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, the emphasis was on vague and unquantifiable counter-terrorism, cyber defense and missile defense. This came at the expense of Britain’s armed forces and was as clear an indication as possible of a retreat from the internationalism that has so distinguished British foreign and security policy irrespective of the government in power.

Totemic of disconnect between security and defense policy is the fate of the two super-carriers which are rapidly becoming barometers of Britain’s strategic seriousness. The first is unlikely to see service before 2016 and it is doubtful if the second will ever fly the Royal Navy’s famous White Ensign. As for the aircraft, the numbers of F-35 Lightning IIs are not only being progressively cut but their delivery dates progressively slipping. With the premature loss of the entire Harrier fleet under SDSR and the fleet flagship HMS Ark Royal the British will be without any maritime fast jet capability for at least a decade – be it an air defense or ground attack capability – even if it is widely accepted by strategists that the future post Afghanistan will require strong navies.

Nor do the contradictions stop there. Having paid some €5 billion for a new state of the art multi-purpose maritime patrol aircraft, the Nimrod MRA4, which had either been already built or was in the process of being completed, the government decided scrap the entire project. In February 2011 brand new, paid for aircraft were simply cut up for scrap.

Logically at such moments of strategic stress the only way to re-establish a link between security and defense policy is to both forge much more effective unity of effort across government and commit much more deeply to international institutions such as NATO and the EU. That has not happened. Even as the Ark Royal was being stripped out and the new Nimrods being scrapped the government announced its intention to increase the aid and development budget and to give some €1.4 billion in aid to India over the next three years to alleviate poverty.

Not only was the aid and development budget the only part of the foreign and security policy establishment to escape the axe, the Indian government did not want the money and were told they were being arrogant when seeking to decline the money. Perhaps most galling for the British taxpayer is that “rich” India is launching on average a new guided missile warship per month and has a space program that the British could only dream of. Ironically, that €1.4 billion would have gone a long way in keeping the Harrier, the Ark Royal and the Nimrod in service.

If the implications were not so serious British security and defense policy would be verging on the farcical. And, the implications are indeed serious. If the British continue to claim political leadership for dangerous security missions and yet at the same time savagely cut forces and resources, such strategic pretence will in time lead to disaster. Either under-funded or ill-equipped British armed forces will find themselves paying the consequences of such folly through an excessive loss of life, or key allies, particularly the Americans, will have to pay the price for British “leadership”.

Fighting to the last American, Mr. Cameron?