Britain remains a major military power — but for how long?
In 1976, George S. Brown, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter, once dismissed Britain and its military as “pathetic.” For good measure, he added, “They’re no longer a world power. All they’ve got are generals, admirals and bands. They do things in great style … on the protocol side. But it makes you sick to see their forces.”
Britain surely no longer is the world power it once was. But six years after Brown’s remarks, its forces, admittedly with American help, soundly defeated Argentina in the Falklands War, which was fought on what was virtually Argentine home turf. In 1991, Britain fought alongside the United States in its first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein. It did so again in Afghanistan, and yet again in Iraq. Its forces performed well, by all accounts, in each of these wars, and its strategic nuclear capability — again with American cooperation — cannot be easily ignored.
Once again, however, an American general — thus far unnamed — has ventured a negative opinion about America’s longstanding, trusted ally. According to British Sky News, the general told British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace that the British are “no longer regarded as a top-level fighting force.” At least the general, unlike Gen. Brown, reportedly offered his assessment in private, though it clearly did not remain private for very long.
There is no doubt that Britain’s military has been shrinking at an alarming rate. Its army, never very large, currently stands at about 78,000 personnel and is about to be further reduced in size. It is about as small as it was during the Napoleonic Wars, though it did acquit itself rather well at Waterloo.
The Navy’s surface fleet has shrunk to fewer than 20 ships. Its newest aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth, has no capability to launch or retrieve conventional aircraft. Its air wing consists of F-35Bs, which can take off and land vertically.
The Navy’s 10 submarines comprise a force less than a fourth of its American counterpart, which itself is a shrunken version of early force levels. Britain has fewer than 300 fixed-wing aircraft. And, as a British minister confirmed to me, its stocks of ammunition have fallen so low, partly because of London’s aid to Ukraine, that they could only support British military operations for, at most, several days.
The anonymous general’s comments thus do bear more than just a grain of truth. Equally troubling, whereas British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s two immediate predecessors, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, both supported a mammoth increase in defense expenditure, Sunak has shown no inclination to do the same. Indeed, it appears that Wallace would score a victory if he managed to ensure any real increase in British defense spending.
Britain has consistently met NATO’s requirements to allocate 2 percent of its gross domestic product to its defense budget and to spend 20 percent of that budget on equipment. Given real cost growth in defense procurement, and the cost of providing sufficient benefits to maintain its volunteer military, adhering to NATO’s targets is simply not enough — especially since Britain’s economy is growing at a slower pace than any of the world’s major economies, other than Mexico. With ongoing labor shortages — in no small part due to its exit from the European Union, which had enabled it to benefit from the free movement of labor, as well as its sluggish productivity — there is little immediate prospect of an upswing in GDP. Britain’s forces, therefore, will continue to shrink unless it increases its defense budget well above the current level of 2.2 percent of GDP.
With the prospect of Russian aggression not receding anytime soon, even if its attack on Ukraine is at last rolled back, and with Chinese adventurism likewise showing no signs of abating, the United States needs a militarily powerful British ally. Wallace has been forcefully making the case for adhering to the promise that both Johnson and Truss made regarding significant increases in defense spending. He did not need that anonymous U.S. general to tell him about Britain’s military regression, nor to overstate the challenges it faces. But perhaps that is exactly what Prime Minister Sunak needs to hear, and hopefully, take to heart.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.
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