Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Difficult Choices in an Era of Deficits: The British Military Budget

My beloved Financial Times carries four pieces on its daily Comment page. Always. In all the years I have subscribed I do not recall ever seeing it otherwise.

So when I saw this morning that there were only three, with Max Hastings' column"What Britain Must Give Up for the Soldiers It Needs," taking up almost double the usual space, I sat up and took notice. The piece is indeed sobering.

I have argued before in favor of retaining conventional military power, including air power. However, Hastings makes a compelling case that Britain's current attempts to maintain military power in all sectors - including a nuclear deterrent and first-rate air intercepting capabilities - come at the cost of failure and death in places like Helmand. In an era of staggering government deficits, expensive projects mean fewer boots on the ground. Rather than simply recapping Hastings' entire article, let me simply suggest that you read it.

While Britain's needs are somewhat different than America's, and her budgets considerably smaller, the basic issues at stake are the same for all the Atlanticist powers. (I have not heard much about the French military budget lately, but I suspect similar debates are at hand, or soon will be.) Thus, Americans would do well to take note of the cousins' concerns.

There are two footnotes I would add to Hastings' comments : While the details of current projects mean that reconfiguring carriers from a fighter complement designed for interception to a helicopter complement designed for ground support may be expensive, it seems to me there are possibilities here for dual-use platforms which may help bridge some of the gap between traditional peer competition and small wars capabilities.

My second comment is related. Hastings makes a strong case that the Trident capability, however desirable in its own right, is expensive and less necessary than other programs. Likewise the F-35. But carriers are another matter. They are useful for power projection around the globe, a veritable sine qua non of international engagement of the kind Britain would like to maintain. And whereas Trident missiles are only good for intimidating second-tier state powers, carriers are versatile - or at least can be - and thus capable of supporting both traditional and asymmetric uses of military power.
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