Earlier this year, the United Kingdom and Germany announced austerity packages that will radically alter how each country’s citizens live, work and retire. These measures will also affect each country’s ability to conduct war and their relationships with the rest of the world.
These painful but necessary steps may help Germany and the U.K. rebound from the financial crisis, but many defense analysts view the cuts as a dramatic shift in global defense posture since the end of the Cold War that will result in severe consequences for world security, most notably in terms of nuclear security, the NATO mission in Afghanistan and the U.S. role as a global military power.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron wants $6.3 billion cut from the country’s $56 billion defense budget, which would mean reductions of tens of thousands of troops, the scrapping of plans to buy new fighter jets, and scaling back of British naval patrols in the Middle East, Caribbean and Indian Ocean. There is also debate about whether to continue upgrades to the U.K.’s nuclear weapons program, including upgrades to ballistic submarines.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel called for $10.5 billion in cuts by 2014. German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said he plans to cut the size of the country’s standing army from 250,000 to 165,000 and end conscription, the law requiring all German men to serve in the military for a short period. Germany also plans to cancel aircraft orders and reevaluate long-term defense strategies with an emphasis on a smaller, more automated military.
Germany and the United Kingdom aren’t alone in seeking defense cuts. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently announced plans to cut $100 billion in spending over the next five years. The U.S. and its European allies also agreed to begin a drawdown of traditional forces from Afghanistan next year, and on the need for improved counter-terrorism and intelligence collection in the long-term. Although the Pentagon plans to shutter a major command that employs some 5,000 people around Norfolk, Va., and eliminate at least 50 high-level general and flag officer positions, it plans to control costs primarily by changing the procurement process and eliminating redundancies, not by lessening its ability to wage conventional war. The German and British cuts are different.
“Europeans don’t see significant investment in traditional defense capabilities as relevant,” Kurt Volker, U.S. ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush, told The Fiscal Times. “They look at the problems we’re having in Afghanistan and realize these capabilities don’t work.”
Meanwhile, opposition parties in Germany are rallying against the end of conscription. In late September, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox wrote in a private letter to Cameron (subsequently leaked to the British press) that the proposed cuts were “financially and intellectually virtually impossible ... Party, media, military and the international reaction will be brutal if we do not recognize the dangers and continue to push for such draconian cuts at a time when we are at war,” Fox wrote. Cameron responded to the letter publicly, guaranteeing adequate funds for British defense, but adding that cuts would go ahead.
The End of the Special Relationship?
Throughout the Cold War, the United Kingdom, as a matter of policy, always had a nuclear submarine patrolling European waters as a deterrent to the Soviet Union. Under Cameron’s proposed changes, this would no longer be the case — British nuclear submarines would not receive needed upgrades and would not patrol the open sea.
“No one is asking the fundamental question — in the world today, where nuclear weapons exist and the U.K. is a major power, does the U.K. see a need to have nuclear capability?” said Lee Willett, head of the maritime studies program at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “It’s not impossible to foresee a standoff with another nuclear power. I completely agree with the idea that a world without nuclear weapons is what we're searching for. But a unilateral approach by the U.K. is not the way to get there.”
The proposed changes would effectively end Britain’s policy of nuclear deterrence toward hostile countries and put the burden squarely on U.S. shoulders, said Mitchell Orenstein, a professor of European studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "Maybe it's the case the Europeans in general don't feel like there are serious threats. If they do feel that way, they're pretty mistaken,” he told The Fiscal Times. “There seems to me to be a real disconnect between Cameron taking a hard line on fiscal issues and the Atlantic community’s need for Britain to have a more serious position on defense.”
Implications for the defense spending cuts go beyond nuclear, especially within NATO. Britain is the only NATO member other than the U.S. that spent at least 2 percent of its Gross Domestic Product on defense. Under the proposed cuts, defense spending would fall to 1.7 percent of GDP. (The U.S. spends 4 percent of GDP on defense.) The British press has reported that Pentagon officials are concerned this would place an unfair burden on U.S. forces, and could end the special relationship between the United States and Britain.
Afghanistan and the future of NATO
The war in Afghanistan is technically a NATO operation. However, support for the operation in Europe, especially in Germany and Britain, has been waning in recent months. The defense spending cuts planned by Berlin and London, according to former NATO ambassador Volker, are the first step in what he anticipates will be a dramatic reduction in the number of German and British troops there.
When this occurs, Volker said, the United States will become even more skeptical of the role of NATO, an organization that many in Washington believe is a relic of the Cold War. “The Obama administration is coming to the same conclusion that George W. Bush did in the early part of his term,” Volker said. “NATO is just not that important anymore.”