Power on a Budget

By John Still

A Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank report published on 27 September 2011 stated that cuts in the UK’s defence spending mean that Britain’s military will “never again be among the global superpowers”. However, the report, “Looking into the Black Hole: Is Britain’s Defence Crisis Really Over?”, went on to state that current levels of spending “should be enough for it to maintain its position as one of the world’s five second-rank military powers (with only the US in the first rank)”.

Statements like these come only a week after former head of the British Navy, Admiral Lord West, argued that Britain was “still a first rate power” and “not like bloody Denmark or Belgium”, who he presumably considers second rate powers. Admiral Lord West argued that there are signs that Britain remains a considerable force in international affairs. It retains a seat on the UN Security council and continues to be among the fifth or sixth richest nations in the world, spending amongst the highest amounts of any nation in the world on defence. Over the last decade British forces have been constantly deployed in multiple theatres across the globe in a wide range of roles. Although the results of these deployments continue to be debated at length, the fact remains that Britain remains willing and able to project power abroad.

However, not only are comments like Admiral Lord West’s likely to offend Britain’s NATO allies, perhaps especially Denmark, which has lost 42 of its soldiers fighting alongside British soldiers in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, but they also highlight a widening gap between British capabilities and implementation. Although Britain may be able to deploy its forces abroad, the last decade has shown that the rewards for doing so have been questionable.

The last decade of conflict has brought Britain few discernable advantages, despite considerable financial expenditure and loss of life. During this time, although perceptions of Britain have varied widely, many within the UK’s political and military elite have complained that Britain has simply been an American lapdog, deploying force when and where the US sees fit, first in Afghanistan in 2001 and then in Iraq in 2003.

If this is true, then what benefits has Britain been able to enjoy by playing this role? Even during the height of the Bush-Blair relationship in 2001-2003, a supporting role in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and were not enough to create any British leverage on American views. The US remained unflinching in its support for Israel, despite Britain urging restraint and accommodation with the Arab world. British pressure was not enough to prevent the US from pulling out of the Kyoto protocol in 2001 or from imposing steel tariffs that were deeply harmful to British business in 2002.

Britain has been unable to accrue any obvious benefits from playing this supporting role, though the country has certainly paid dearly for it. When MP Stephen Timms was stabbed by Roshonara Choudhary in London in May 2010, she said her motive was the presence of UK troops in Iraq, despite that at the time, British combat forces had withdrawn from the country, leaving only their US counterparts in place. The close US-UK alliance makes it difficult for the public to determine responsibility. Another setback has come from claims that British intelligence services colluded in torture and extreme rendition, at times involving its own citizens. This has been enough to tarnish domestic and world opinion of the UK.

Current British involvement in Afghanistan and support for a drone campaign in Pakistan run the risk of alienating large South Asian communities within Britain itself. While the 2001 UK census only showed that just fewer than 15,000 Afghans were living in the UK, the 2011 census is expected to show a marked increase. Some within these communities understandably look unfavourably on the UK’s current role in South Asia. British participation in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were among the reasons given the Shehzad Tanweer and Mohammed Sidique Khan when explaining their participation in the London tube bombings on 7 July 2005.

If the millions of pounds spent and the hundreds of lives lost have not been enough to accrue any political, financial and tactical advantages, how can the decisions of the last decade be explained?

Britain lacks a clear, coherent vision of itself and what role it should play in international affairs. The views of Admiral Lord West seem to argue for Britain to retain the role – real or imagined – of being amongst the military and financial superpowers of the globe, although he failed to explain what benefits this would bring the UK. Recent warnings from Admiral Sandy Woodward, the naval commander who helped Britain re-take the Falklands in the 1980’s after they were invaded by Argentine forces. He stated that cuts in defence spending could lead to Britain “losing the Falklands”, but he failed to explain what benefits the UK receives by “keeping” the Falklands. Fading memories of British Empire and fears of being a “second rate power” are not enough to justify massive defence spending.  

Yet the military spending wish-list continues to grow. The MoD seeks to develop a new generation of surveillance drones which can automatically identify high-value targets. It also wants to develop a successor to the Trident nuclear deterrent, the new Joint Strike fighter aircraft and the Type-26 frigate, all of which would cost around GBP£17 billion. At a time of austerity, senior British political and military leaders should work to create a shared vision of what role Britain wants to play in the world and direct financial and military resources towards attaining that specified goal. This vision should be informed not by memories of empire, but by the considerable financial constraints and the interests of a wide range of British communities.


John Still is an undergraduate in War Studies at King's College London, and an editorial intern at The Heptagon Post. His research interests include South Asian politics and security, with an emphasis on Afghanistan and Pakistan.


14 October 2011