Last week, the UK parliament’s defense committee published its long-awaited report on Defense Acquisition, one of several studies published over the past eighteen months that have looked at the security challenges and threats facing the UK.

It is an important report, especially in the context of Britain’s economic crisis, the deteriorating competitiveness of its defense industry, and the decline in defense expenditure among most European countries.

The 161 page report gives a detailed account of the problems of equipping the armed forces, whose professionalism and status has been the envy of many countries. The biggest difficulty is that Britain does not have a defense industrial strategy. That is some admission for one of Europe’s most important military powers.

“We believe that the absence of a defense industrial strategy which supports appropriate national sovereignty puts the UK at a disadvantage against competitor countries,” stated the cross-party committee.

“Furthermore, we do not understand how we can have confidence in a national security strategy which does not show a clear grasp of what is needed for the defense of the United Kingdom,” it added.

France and Germany, in contrast, both have a defense industrial strategy. In either case, it can be best summed up as protecting their national industries. Paris and Berlin do everything possible to export their armaments (as does Britain). But unlike Britain, they also do everything possible to keep their markets closed.

Supporting the EU’s pooling and sharing of military equipment and resources is secondary to Paris and Berlin. For them, defense policy is about national sovereignty.

From the committee’s report, it is clear that Britain’s lack of a defense industrial strategy combined with budget cutbacks is already weakening the armed forces. The army’s strength will fall by a fifth to 82,000 by 2020. Analysts say this will reduce Britain’s ability to project force.

The credibility of the armed forces is further undermined by mistakes, such as the ones made over choosing a new fighter aircraft.

In 2010, David Cameron’s government decided to switch fighter aircraft for the Royal Navy’s new carriers. It chose the “carrier” variant of the joint strike fighter rather than the “jump” jet.

The previous Labour government had ordered two new aircraft carriers to be equipped with the F-35B variant of the American-built joint strike fighter. That particular fighter is capable of short take off and vertical landing.

But in the 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review, Cameron favored the F-35C version. It has a longer range and can carry more weapons.

According to the report, the Ministry of Defense did not understand the implications of the change. The new fighter jet model did not fit Britain’s aircraft carriers. The goal of improving interoperability with U.S. forces was completely undermined. “It is clear that the decision was rushed and based upon incomplete and inaccurate policy development,” stated the committee’s report.

Budget cutbacks and the need to buy military equipment off the shelf further weaken the defense sector, making it difficult for companies to attract skilled staff or retain experienced staff. This, the report warned, “threatens the UK’s ability to defend itself.”

This is very strong language.

The committee also states that in terms of winning defense contracts, Britain has gained little from its close ties with Washington or from the bilateral defense agreement it signed with France in 2010.

Dr. John Louth and Professor Trevor Taylor, defense experts at the Royal United Services Institute, London, who gave evidence to the committee, summed up this sorry state of affairs: “Government has looked historically both to the United States and to Europe when it has sought partners, but has often failed to take account of the clashing pressures that can arise by trying to be faithful to all,” they argued.

The committee members recommend that the government spend more on research and development, and strengthen ties between the government and the private defense sector. They also urge the government to clarify its strategic thinking on Britain’s role in the NATO alliance, and in Europe’s security and defense ambitions.

In the past, Europe could rely on Britain to provide military leadership, experience, strategy, and technological prowess.

Britain is Europe’s second largest military. Its soldiers, having seen service in Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya are enormously experienced. Together with France’s armed forces, they represent Europe’s only chance at projecting force outside the continent.

This is why this report on the sharp decline of these essential forces should not just jolt the British public. It should make the rest of Europe think, too. Europe cannot do without Britain’s defense capabilities if it ever is to make the leap to a Common Defense and Security Policy.