Defence CommitteeWritten evidence from Professor M J Williams
Implications for British Defense Dependency on Foreign and Security Policy
M J Williams is Visiting Professor of Government at Wesleyan University in the United States and is Lecturer in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London. Previously he was a Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxford, a lecturer at the University of London and the Head of the Transatlantic Programme at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies. Dr. Williams is the author of “The Good War: NATO and the Liberal Conscience in Afghanistan” (2011) and “NATO, Security and Risk Management: From Kosovo to Kandahar” (2009). He has consulted extensively for several NATO allies.
1. The NATO-led intervention in Libya over the past six months highlights some areas of concern for the UK. The operations, whilst seemingly successful at this point in time, offers several lessons.
2. First, and most importantly the strikes against Libya highlight the increasing and critical dependency of the UK (and other European allies) on the resources of the United States. The UK risks becoming a vassal state of the US, unable to act independently unless it rethinks some aspects of defense reorganization and investment in the military. Second, the role of the US will remain omnipresent, but the approach of Washington to the wider world is changing. The Americans ostensibly “handed off” the Libya mission to Europe, but they remained deeply involved. Given the current internal debates in the US about American foreign policy, the public pushback on foreign intervention and budget constraints that the US must recognize and address in the near term, there is a strong possibility that the US may sit out on issues of importance to Britain but only of tertiary importance to Washington. Given the British and European dependency on US military assets this raises a major problem for British foreign policy. Third, NATO is at the very least a two-tiered alliance. Any pretense that the Alliance is based on mutual solidarity is rubbish. Libya reinforced a division evident since the late 1990s. The UK must consider the impact of a multi-tiered NATO on future policy. Fourth, the UK got lucky that this intervention ended when it did. The UK was stretched to conduct the mission of this length and intensity. Had the conflict not ended the UK would have found it increasingly difficult to keep up the pace of operations. Furthermore, the PR fall out from a protracted conflict would have been disastrous for HMG and for Britain’s global image. The Prime Minister gambled and his bet paid off, but it was a gamble given the current defense climate. The focus of this briefing will be on the defense dependency of the UK and Europe on the US.
The Strategic Defense and Security Review and Libya
Some of the assumptions made in HMG’s Strategic Defense and Security Review were inherently flawed as a result of groupthink focused on fighting the last war as opposed to a range of future conflicts. The document supposedly address the UK’s role in an uncertain world, but in some key areas it seems policy-makers failed to build in enough full-spectrum capacity to ensure a truly independent British foreign policy.
In 2010 the UK invested roughly 2.7% of GDP on defense. Over the next four years that percentage will decrease to 2%. The implications of this are cuts to the Army total around 7,000 soldiers. Roughly 40% of the Army’s artillery and tanks will be liquidated. The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force will also come under the hammer. Both will face cuts in personnel of 5,000 apiece. The RAF Harrier aircraft have already been cut and HMG’s only aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal was decommissioned in March of 2011. It will be a decade before a new carrier strike force is in place and although the Government commissioned two carriers it now looks as if only one will be put into service. Defense spending will supposedly stay at 2% over the next four years.
The result of these cuts is quite simply that Britain will have a less able military. Some of these cuts make sense others do not. The decision for example to pull forces out of Germany to save on basing costs and to also eliminate heavy armour and artillery intended for a major land war in Europe is a good one. Some residual capacity is of course warranted as heavy armor is not obsolete, merely limited, but the bulk of the cuts are in order. Other cuts are more problematic such as the decision to strike the HMS Ark Royal from service immediately. These decisions had a direct impact on the UK’s ability to easily and effectively wage an air assault against Libya. The decision to create a new carrier strike group is laudable, but the lack of a carrier in the medium-term is lamentable and was based more on budget slashing than sound strategic rationale. In the end, there is no problem with having diminished Armed Forces so long as the Government is willing to accept it must do less globally. The Libya intervention does not reflect an appreciation for the implications of the cuts on UK Armed Forces. Asking the military to do more with less is reckless and the public should be concerned about the Government’s seeming desire to not properly resource soldiers they ask to go in harms way.
There are a number of implications from these defense cuts aside from the military’s reduced ability to work as an effective policy tool. The cuts will reduce Britain’s ability to lead when it comes to European security and defense. Given the already morbid rates of defense investment in Europe, Britain’s abdication of a leadership role will do little to prod other European nations to invest adequately in defense. A lack of defense investment will also see a reduction in British led research and development. This means that British firms will be less innovative and will therefore contribute less to the British economy over time. The domestic societal benefits of defense investment and research will also be reduced. Historically the defense sector has lead to major scientific and technological benefits that have benefited wider society and the economy.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, reduced defense investment will only make Britain more, rather than less dependent on the United States. For a Government that advocated a foreign policy more independent (although still allied with) the United States, the defense cuts are an interesting way of achieving this goal. The UK will rely ever more heavily on the US particularly when it comes to C4ISTR technologies and logistics. As Nicholas Burns remarked to the FT in April 2011 “There’s a concern in the US that the European allies will not be able to match the intensity of air and sea operations that the Americans had in the first two weeks of operations ... The potential challenge is can they deliver an effective military response that will push Gaddafi back and can they avoid the political disunion in a fractious NATO alliance over air strikes going forward?” Indeed, as the war dragged on and the contributing nations began to flag this concern grew evermore omnipresent.
Defence Dependency Culture in the UK and Europe
The little war against Libya illustrated a new approach of the US to international affairs. The public story is that the US took an initial leadership role (at the prodding of France and Britain). After leading the first phase of the NATO attack against Libya flying approximately 1,600 sorties before the US withdrew to a support function. On the surface it looked as if the US was largely not engaged in the operation, the reality is quite different. The plan was to pursue a “covert intervention” strategy rather than an overt one. The US was involved in all planning and deliberations regarding the campaign for the duration of the operation. This reflects a new US approach to international affairs, one that will remain the de facto course under the Obama Administration and may reflect a wider change due to mounting domestic pressure from the US electorate to save money buy cutting back on foreign adventures. The public wants a focus on the domestic woes of the country and on job creation, rather than spending billions on wars overseas.
On the surface it would appear that the operation against Libya then was the hour of Europe, but in reality it revealed a fractured and divided continent. There were 15 European states working alongside the US and three Arab states to oust Gaddafi. The campaign utilized 29 airbases in six different countries, but only six European states actually participated in the air strikes alongside the US and Canada. Germany refused to support the operation. This further reinforces a serious problem within NATO regarding solidarity and capability. Meanwhile the US contributed the bulk of the support for the operation, as I noted it would in a piece for The Guardian on 17 March at the start of operations.
Over the course of the campaign the US contributions included the following:
The United States contributed a dozen warships to the Libya campaign that played a critical role in the opening attack. The USS Florida launched 100 cruise missiles against Libyan air-defenses.
US C4ISTR technology was used to track and target opposition forces. US JSTARS surveillance airplanes were used to provide offshore intelligence on enemy positions, while US Predator drones provided relays of specific target areas.
The targeting packages for the European strikes against targets in Libya were prepared by American specialists operating out of NATO’s operation HQ in Naples, Italy.
Refueling of the combat aircraft was undertaken by US tanker aircraft. The US Air Force flew 30 out of the 40 tankers used to support combat operations. Without US assistance Europe could not have maintained the 24 hours a day, campaign days a week campaign.
The US re-supplied European attack aircraft when European countries ran out of precision-attack munitions.
The US flew over 5,000 missions; over 1,200 were military strikes against Libyan targets.
While the US avoided putting a large number of US forces on the ground, but Washington did contribute CIA agents to the operation.
The US operated the satellite communications channel utilized by British and French Special Forces as well Arab Special Forces from Qatar and Jordan. The US also supplied high-tech gear, previously unavailable even to allied nations.
The US Navy conducted counter-scud missile operations.
This list, composed and cross-verified from multiple sources available to the public and private sources most likely does not reveal to the fullest extent the reality of European and British dependence on the United States. The reality is that this war, just like the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, was largely an American operation. Many in Britain and Europe will try to put a brave face on it, but the fact of the matter is that this operation would never have been possible without US support.
The lack of munitions highlights for example, perhaps most embarrassingly, Europe’s lack of capabilities. When European nations ran low on munitions it was surprisingly the Norwegians, Danish and Belgians who carried out the most sorties early on. This was not because any of these countries were particularly well equipped. It was because they fly F-16s meaning that American munitions could be utilized immediately, where as the French and British European strike aircraft had to be modified before they could use US munitions and thus had to take a backseat for a period of time. Europe is near entirely dependent on the US for any sort of serious military operation of a sustained duration and this will only increasingly become the case as British defense cuts take hold and a lack of defense investment across the continue continues.
There is certainly nothing wrong with decreasing the defence budget, but this will come the expense of Britain’s ability to conduct an independent foreign and defense policy. Perhaps cost and equipment sharing can mitigate some of the overwhelming dependence on the US, but over time the capabilities gap between US forces and European forces will only worsen. HMG must seriously assess what sort of country Britain wants to be in a more globalized world and depending on US interests to always match British ones is dangerous. The US public is approaching near all time high levels of reluctance regarding international intervention. The rise of more conservative parties may bode for an increasingly isolationist and withdrawn foreign policy. Alternatively should a more hawkish wing of the Republican Party take power the world may see a return to extremely assertive interventionism. Such future adventures may drag the UK into American escapades if deemed necessary to maintain access to American equipment and favour with the US Government. At this point in time British ambitions do not match British resources, it is a situation that must be reconciled to protect both British national interest, but perhaps more importantly to protect the lives of those who put themselves in harms way for Her Majesty’s Government.
A Multi-Tiered NATO
There is no question that NATO has been one of the most successful military alliances of all time. NATO helped to root democracy in Western and later Eastern Europe. It protected a fragile Western Europe from Soviet advances during the Cold War and it has served an effective risk management organization since the early 1990s. Unfortunately, since the end of the Cold War the alliance has suffered from the lack of a firm and mutually agreed upon raison d’être. Some of the allies believe that using the Alliance to manage global risks and humanitarian crises (a la the Balkans, Kosovo, Afghanistan) is a worthwhile pursuit, while others are far less convinced for a variety of reasons. The absence of a concrete overwhelming and clearly identifiable threat has allowed NATO to fracture. A lack of interest (and serious participation) in on-going operations and a failure to adequately invest in defense illustrates this gap. Libya only reinforces this worrying trend, with certain allies carrying the lion’s share of the burden (Britain, France, Denmark, Belgium, Norway) while some refused to participate at all (Germany for example). Unless NATO leaders can figure out a new grand bargain that makes NATO relevant to ALL of the members, the Alliance will continue to decay.