Defense Procurement Issues
Defense procurement is, in fact, an ideal means of securing European integration, because changes of direction occur largely unnoticed; because once these changes have been made, they are difficult to unravel; and because lead times in weapons development are so long. But now is a particularly sensitive moment because of the technical revolution in warfare to which British and European forces are having to adapt. The cost and complexity are immense: the use of satellites, electronics, new land vehicles, unmanned aircraft, and weapons systems are involved. Coming up with the best solutions is hard enough, but ensuring that these result in systems compatible with one’s allies so that forces can fight alongside one another is no less important.
Moreover, beneath the pragmatic decision-making lies the reality that not just in industrial, but increasingly in political (and potentially in military) terms, Europe and America are in competition. In recent years, there have been clear signs that as a result of a combination of British government policy, the operation of European institutions, and, on occasion, a lack of imagination by America, Britain is moving away from partnership with the U.S. toward dependence on the EU. This has grave implications for the U.K.–U.S. Special Relationship, which—as Churchill recognized—must be a military partnership or it is nothing.
The British Ministry of Defence now prefers to purchase equipment supplied by companies based in France, Germany, Italy, and Sweden. British troops will be carried to their destinations by European, not American, aircraft. When there, they will use European-constructed battle reconnaissance vehicles and unmanned air vehicles to gather intelligence about enemy movements. They will use European-made howitzers. They will receive logistical supplies transported in European trucks. The European Defence Agency, which began work in January 2005, is setting its own standards, which may well soon come to conflict with those of NATO.
The key to the whole future divergence, however, is the EU’s Galileo satellite positioning and communication system, which has been devised as a rival to the U.S. Navstar. The proposed European Rapid Reaction Force, of which Britain is due to provide a central element, is to use Galileo. Questions of technical incompatibility can, it is true, almost always be overcome, and it is important not to suggest that divergences of standards and systems will of themselves preclude collaboration by American and British forces. But in this case, the technical differences themselves reflect political differences and are, indeed, the fruit of them. They are thus doubly significant.
The Pentagon, which has the strongest interest in keeping Britain alongside, has done little so far to counteract the procurement pressures from Europe. The way in which decisions have been made—or appear to have been made—about the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), where Britain is the only Tier One foreign partner, is a case in point. Britain was relying on a variant of this aircraft, the F-35B, to defend its two supercarriers, but the F-35B is apparently to be cancelled. Suddenly, it looks as if a European alternative may be required instead.
The affair is a classic example of the harm that can be done by failing to reflect upon the wider implications of U.S. procurement policy. There are also what currently seem to be insuperable problems in gaining access to the software codes for the JSF. These are vital to allow Britain to maintain and alter the aircraft’s capabilities to suit its future needs.
Such clashes on what may at first sight seem technical and commercial matters can have serious strategic consequences. One Skybolt should have been enough. A new approach to collaboration in defense procurement, authorized at the highest level in both the U.S. and the U.K., will be necessary if such problems are not to recur. But this is only one of a number of changes required to keep the Special Relationship strong and effective in the years to come.