The budget of Britain's armed forces is under intense pressure.
All new major procurement programs have been frozen, and
speculation is growing that some existing programs will be delayed
or cancelled. To save money, the Royal Air Force has even offered
to scrap its entire force of 75 Harrier jets--the only remaining
air cover for the Royal Navy.
While Britain's procurement system has been disastrously
mismanaged by the Blair and Brown governments, delaying programs
will only raise their costs. Worse, if cuts are not made carefully,
they will do enduring damage to Britain's armed forces and to the
NATO alliance. Britain must reform its procurement system, but it
must also resist the temptation to indulge in false economies at
the expense of security.
The Budget Crisis and Procurement
In 2008-09, the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) faces a
budgetary shortfall of approximately two billion pounds. Much of
this shortfall is driven by the cost of defense procurement and by
the number of large programs that are now, or will shortly be,
moving out of research and development and into the expensive
The programs being re-examined include the U.S.-U.K. jointly
developed F-35 Lighting II (the Joint Strike Fighter), the Super
Lynx helicopter, and the Future Rapid Effects System armored
vehicles. Britain's two new aircraft carriers, promised by Labour
in its 1998 Strategic Defense Review and originally scheduled for
delivery in 2014 and 2016, have also been postponed for up to two
years. Together, these programs are central to the
plans of the British services on land and sea and in the air.
The threat to scrap the Harrier force is particularly serious.
After the 2006 withdrawal from service of the Sea Harrier FA2, only
the Harriers remain to provide air cover for the Royal Navy. Even
today, the navy too often sails without adequate cover. On its most
recent trip to the Middle East, the navy's flagship, the aircraft
carrier Illustrious, carried only four Harriers.
Sacrificing the Harriers to the budgetary needs of the day would
eliminate the Fleet Air Arm's fixed-wing element and expose the
navy to serious and unnecessary danger. The F-35 cannot fill in for
the Harriers as, even on present plans, the F-35 will not reach
operating capacity in Britain until 2017. The Harriers were
retained and are being upgraded to the GR.9 standard precisely to
fill in until the F-35 arrives in service. The Harriers, the Navy, the
F-35, and the new carriers are interdependent: Cancel one and the
remainder are not a coherent force.
Labour's Cardinal Error on Defense
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, and the associated
shocks to national budgets, procurement programs in both the U.S.
and the U.K. are being re-examined. All too often, such
re-examinations simply raise costs. They save money today, but by
slowing down the acquisition process, they increase costs over the
lifetime of the program. In the worst case, they create a death
spiral of ever slower procurement and ever rising costs.
Procurement programs are not, and should not be, sacrosanct. If
a weapons system does not contribute effectively to the defense of
the nation, it should not be postponed--it should be cancelled.
Britain's fighting forces face a budget crisis in part because the
Labour governments, while pouring billions into social spending and
fighting alongside the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, have only
marginally increased defense spending. But Labour's cardinal error
has come in the realm of procurement. This crisis is one of the
government's making, and the armed forces are paying the price for
Under Labour, Britain's armed forces have been ordered to do the
impossible: They have been required to field weaponry comparable
to, and compatible with, that of the U.S. and to do so on a defense
budget approximately one-tenth as large. Furthermore, under
Labour's doctrine of "appropriate sovereignty," many of these
weapons had to be developed and built domestically. In theory, this
requirement was to ensure that Britain retained operational
sovereignty. In practice, it was to protect British jobs. In other
cases, such as the Eurofighter, efficiency was subordinated to the
diplomatic imperatives of European cooperation.
Rising costs are a recurring danger in the procurement realm.
But Labour's incoherent defense doctrine left the armed forces in
the worst possible situation: As the military led the fight in
Afghanistan and Iraq, Labour held the defense budget constant from
1997 to 2004 while demanding the forces field advanced weapons and
imposing political conditions on the development and manufacturing
process that guaranteed these weapons would cost more and do less
than their U.S. counterparts. The hole in the MoD's budget is the
result of these incompatible policies.
An Opportunity for Clear Thinking
The way forward is clear:
- First, Britain needs to increase defense spending. Like much of
the rest of the NATO alliance, it has taken far too large a peace
dividend. The core deterrent purpose of its armed forces, and of
the NATO alliance, is in serious danger.
- Second, Britain needs to cancel weapons systems that cost too
much and do too little, abandon the concept of "appropriate
sovereignty," end failed or overpriced collaborations with Europe,
and buy replacement systems--usually from U.S. suppliers--if they
are available at a reasonable price.
These cancellations should not be made out of panic or simply be
aimed at large systems such as Britain's carriers. Contrary to the
claims of critics, it is not safe to assume that the era of major
wars has passed and that all future campaigns will be
counter-insurgencies. Appropriate targets for cancellation include
the Future Lynx helicopter and the Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol
aircraft, which, at over three billion pounds for nine aircraft,
are among the most expensive planes ever built. These cancellations
should come as part of a broad review of British defense policy
that would reassert Britain's need for forces equipped to deter and
win across the spectrum of combat.
- Third, Britain and the U.S. need to work together to control
the defense cost spiral. One element in this collaboration should
be the U.S.-U.K. Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty, which would
permit the U.S. to trade most defense articles with Britain without
an export license. The treaty will raise the level of competition
and will reduce the ability of any one company to dominate the
procurement process. The result will be lower costs, faster
development cycles, better weapons systems, and a renewal of the
close and vital defense ties between the U.S. and the U.K.
The British budget crisis threatens severe harm to Britain's
armed forces and the strength of the NATO alliance. But it also
offers an opportunity for clear thinking about the purpose of these
forces, the errors of policy that have caused the crisis, and the
continuing importance of a strong and renewed Anglo-American
strategic partnership. Britain and the United States must not allow
the present crisis to induce them to make decisions that will hurt
either nation and thereby weaken the democratic world for decades
Ted R. Bromund,
Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher
Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom
Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage
Smith, "Head of Royal Navy," andBromund, "British Defense Cuts," p.
Bromund, "British Defense Cuts," pp. 6, 8.
Ibid., pp. 10-11, 19.