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Ewan Watt: How a broken British military could replace domestic objections as the main obstacle for Anglo-American co-operation

Ewan_watt Ewan Watt works for Weber Shandwick and he writes in a personal capacity.

Like the rest of Europe, the United Kingdom watched in awe as Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. As President, it is presumed that through his magnetism, Obama will repair the so-called ‘Special Relationship’ - a term that often met with grunts or a sarcastic roll of the eyes throughout the UK.

After eight years of George W. Bush, the percentage of people in Britain that believe that the United States is “a force for good” has plummeted from 83% to a feeble 33%. With the wars in Iraq and the bloody toll inflicted on British forces in Afghanistan, future co-operation with the United States looked to be a hazardous risk for any Prime Minister. Then came the man.

Politics aside, there are more tangible issues that the two countries must face in the upcoming years. Despite his opposition to the war in Iraq, Obama is all too aware that Western involvement in Afghanistan is long term and will require America’s European allies to do much more. As Obama noted in his speech in Berlin:

“Americans and Europeans alike will be required to do more - not less. Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice; it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity.”

With political capital back in the bank, Britain will still be a reliable political ally of the United States. However, with a military infrastructure which has been severely corroded by conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq; the United Kingdom may no longer be able to project their image as a reliable military ally.

Of course, the United Kingdom still spends more on their military in real terms than any other member of NATO (bar the United States), and is the only force alongside France in Europe deemed to have the capability to meet the alliance’s ‘Prague Goals’. Nevertheless, the next President should be deeply concerned.

Given the nearly fifteen year long economic boom that preceded the current malaise, British investment in defence has been lacklustre, and is currently at its lowest levels per capita since the 1930s, with a funding shortfall to the tune £15bn. The Government has often used Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) to purchase equipment, but the Treasury still doesn’t provide additional funding for through life cost. Furthermore, in the FY 2009/10 the Ministry of Defence will be solely responsible for paying for UOR requirements over £635m, rather than splitting the costs with the Treasury over £1bn. Inevitably this will prove burdensome and hit future budgets, as any spend over £635m will have to be repaid within by the MoD within two years leaving the armed forces short changed on the frontline.

Still, whilst the United States has a system of quadrennial defence reviews, the British forces are still following the Strategic Defence Review from 1998--what most observers will acknowledge is a rather different era of warfare from the current experiences in the Middle East. Serious questions have been raised about whether British forces still possess the wherewithal to embark on expeditionary missions akin to those of the last two decades.

Firstly, British lift capability is in serious danger of corrosion. A recent report by the National Audit Office noted that there are “significant risks” ahead due to the fact that the service life of the British Hercules C-130J is “being reduced by the intensity of current operational flying.” As a result, the Government will be restricted in its ability to “provide sufficient airlift to the Armed Forces.” Although the Government has procured a number of C-17s, the main controversy surrounds that of the Airbus A400M, a programme similar to that of the C-130J is three years overdue and is expected to be in service by 2012. Some may claim that the Government’s decision to procure 25 of the A400M was politically motivated, problems with the aircraft are likely to persist. Just earlier this month Airbus Chief Executive Tom Enders described the platform’s contractual arrangement as “a recipe for disaster."

Perhaps the most stinging indictment thrown at the Government is that it has broken the back of the British Armed Forces by overstretching them in Afghanistan and Iraq. Alongside the obvious claims that the British forces are under-equipped, a recent report by the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee revealed that the Government has “been relying for too long on the goodwill and courageous spirit of our servicemen and women to compensate for the increasing shortages of personnel in all three services.” It continued, pointing out that staffing shortages “has reached the point where there are simply not enough service people to meet levels of military activity planned some years ago - let alone the heightened demands now being placed on them by commitments such as the Iraq and Afghanistan operations." As a result, the British Armed Forces are now unable to deploy around half of all military units in the event of an emergency due to the recruitment crisis. “The military covenant”, according to Conservative Party leader David Cameron, is "well and truly broken". If cognisant of the state of Britain’s Armed Forces, it should be some time before President Obama makes demands akin to that of Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Bosnia.

In a post-Bush world, the President will hope that with political differences aside, Washington can come to expect greater help from her European allies, especially the United Kingdom. However, the United States is likely to remain disappointed. Although it seems inevitable that political relations will improve, Washington is likely to be shocked by the near neglect of Europe’s Armed Forces, even that of her closest and most reliable ally. Obama will have a difficult task on his hands to remind allies that America can no longer afford to provide them with a free ride, that taking the flight over to a troubled spot on a chartered Ukrainian airliner is not enough if you’ve not invested in the necessary infrastructure for fighting. As America’s closest ally, the United Kingdom may well bear the brunt of this tough love, especially when one considers expectations. This can already be seen, with the Sunday Times reporting that the President has requested an additional 4,000 British troops to be sent to Afghanistan. Politically this is possible, logistically, less so.

The new President will most certainly inject new life into the ‘Special Relationship’ and start rebuilding the trust with the British public that has made the bond such a success. However, with deteriorating military capability, London will soon realise that she may well be a strong ally of Washington, but not the wife of Caesar.


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