Facing budget shortfalls, Britain and France must make difficult choices that could reshape how Western allies meet common security challenges.
The global economic crisis is forcing many of America's European allies to make deep cuts in defense spending and procurement. This could have a significant impact on US transatlantic defense cooperation, especially with Britain and France. These two allies have had the greatest capability for power projection. Both countries now face difficult trade-offs as they decide how to modernize their nuclear deterrents, as well as their conventional forces.
The choices are especially acute for Britain. Its defense officials suggest that their defense budget may be cut by 10-20 percent over the next five years as part of the country's drive to reduce debt. Like the Labour government before him, Prime Minister David Cameron is committed to maintaining Britain's nuclear Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD). That means maintaining at least one strategic ballistic missile submarine (known as SSBN) at sea at all times and replacing the four Vanguard SSBNs armed with the Trident II Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM).
A white paper on "The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent," published by the government in 2006, estimated the total cost of replacing four Vanguard submarines to be £15-20 billion pounds ($23-31 billion dollars). These costs will fall principally in the period 2012-2027 and are expected to be the equivalent of approximately 9 percent of the current defense capital budget for the period of expenditure.
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne recently stated that the costs for the Vanguard fleet replacement will be funded from the Ministry of Defense (MOD) budget. In the past, the capital costs of the procurement of the submarines have come from outside the MOD budget. Including these costs in the MOD budget would constrain Britain's ability to modernize its conventional forces and still maintain an effective power projection capability.
Britain bases its defense plans on the assumption that it needs to maintain a high-quality nuclear retaliation capability against a bolt-out-of-the-blue counterforce strike by the Russian Federation. However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent changes in the strategic environment after the cold war, a case can be made for Britain and France to maintain a "minimum deterrent"—one designed to deter potential nuclear weapon proliferators in the Middle East, specifically the Iranian Islamic Republic.
To accomplish that, Britain could invest in a smaller nuclear force of approximately 100 weapons that relies on a new generation of long-range hypersonic cruise missiles. These can be carried on a mix of Royal Air Force fighter-bombers and modified Royal Navy Astute-class nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) whose alert level would be contingent on the geo-strategic environment.
While developing and procuring the new cruise missiles might not generate significant short-term savings, it would provide for the longer term a strategically and financially sustainable deterrent force. Moreover, as a recent study by the Royal United Services Institute suggests, Britain could stretch out the cost of this transition by operating its current SSBN fleet at reduced operational stress, thereby extending the life of these submarines.
Reorientation for France
France might consider a similar reorientation over the next two decades. Unlike Britain, France operates two nuclear strike systems, one air-based and one sea-based. By procuring a smaller but diverse nuclear deterrent, France could save significant resources and use that to help modernize its conventional forces.
To share costs, Britain and France might also consider the merits of collaborating on joint development of next-generation hypersonic cruise missiles to counter a future adversarial air defense.
Some reports suggest that Britain may reduce its 100,000-troop army by 20,000-25,000 soldiers. British Defense Secretary Liam Fox has also acknowledged that plans to build two new aircraft carriers, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and the HMS Prince of Wales, may have to be reconsidered in order to make ends meet.
Military credibility in question
Such deep cuts are likely to dampen Britain's enthusiasm for overseas deployments. The cuts raise important questions about whether in the future the United States will be able to count on the type of strong British political and military support in crises that has characterized US-British defense cooperation in the past. Indeed, Britain's "special relationship" with the US, already fading, could be further dimmed and deprived of military substance. Similarly, France's capacity to be a credible military ally to the US could be compromised by significant cuts in its conventional forces.
If the allies' modernization choices are not carefully coordinated with America, different geo-strategic approaches to security may emerge on each side of the Atlantic. Washington would be wise to work closely with Britain and France to ensure that their budget cuts do not threaten how the allies will, together, address common threats and security challenges.
F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Distinguished Chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. Peter A. Wilson is a senior defense analyst at RAND.
This commentary originally appeared on Christian Science Monitor on August 17, 2010.