These are heady times for British foreign and defense policies. In late November 2015, amid difficult membership renegotiations with the EU and a debate about bombing the self-styled Islamic State in Syria, the UK published a new security and defense review. The document, which combines a national security strategy with a strategic defense and security review, is significant for a number of reasons.
The previous review, carried out in 2010, was inspired more by fiscal austerity than by strategic concerns: the economic crisis had caused the government budget deficit to quadruple between 2007 and 2009. The defense budget was slashed by 8 percent in the five years after 2010, and the British Army was reduced to its lowest manpower level since the Napoleonic era. Because of the focus on cost cutting, the 2010 document had a cobbled-together feel and lacked strategic coherence. As one British official quipped to this author, “We identified terrorism and cybersecurity as our main priorities and decided to buy two aircraft carriers.”
The 2015 version is much more coherent and ambitious. For example, the 2010 review considered a large-scale military attack by other states to be a “low probability.” Because of intervening Russian aggression in Eastern Europe (alongside other crises and the rise of the Islamic State), Britain should now aim to simultaneously deter state-based threats and tackle nonstate challenges.
Moreover, despite the urgent security crises in Europe’s immediate neighborhood (Libya, Syria, Ukraine), Britain should keep a global outlook. A desire to work more closely with Asia-Pacific partners such as Australia and Japan is spelled out more forthrightly than before. In addition, the 2015 review prefers robust rapid responses to crises over longer-term Afghanistan-style deployments.
This fuller-spectrum strategic approach will need resources, and there had been fears before the review that the UK would continue to cut its defense budget. However, London intends to increase defense expenditure by around 5 percent by 2020 and promises to meet the NATO target of spending at least 2 percent of GDP on defense over the same period. (According to NATO estimates, only three other European members—Estonia, Greece, and Poland—met this target in 2015.) Furthermore, Britain will invest £178 billion ($262 billion) in military equipment over the coming decade, an increase of £12 billion ($18 billion).
That money will be spent both on preplanned projects, such as maintaining the Trident nuclear deterrent and developing two new aircraft carriers, and on ways to fill some capability gaps that resulted from the austerity-driven 2010 review. Among other things, the air force will acquire maritime patrol aircraft to monitor Russian submarine incursions, together with stealthy F-35 fighter jets; the army will be able to deploy at very short notice two 5,000-strong strike brigades equipped with new armored vehicles; and the navy will receive new combat ships. Plus almost 2,000 more spies will be recruited to track terrorists and cyberthreats.
This renewed level of British military ambition is important for NATO, as the UK is the largest European defense spender in the Atlantic alliance. Following recent grumbling by some NATO allies, especially Washington, about Britain’s declining military willingness and ability, the main political message that emerges from the new defense review is that Britain is back as a serious military power. Whether this proves to be the case in practice remains to be seen, as unforeseen events may expose glaring capability gaps or budgetary difficulties may hamper some equipment projects. But the intention is clear.
Within the European context, it will be interesting to compare the British document with two other ongoing review processes that will conclude later in 2016: the German defense white book and the EU global strategy, which will set out priorities for EU foreign, security, and defense policies. It is uncertain that those two documents will share similar levels of military ambition to the British review.
Even so, the UK review underlines the value of cooperating closely with European allies, including through the EU as well as NATO, highlighting France and Germany in particular. This is sensible, not only because European cooperation is vital for managing the myriad of cross-border security challenges the UK faces in and around Europe, but also to bolster British international influence. A pre-review UK defense ministry study, entitled “Future Operating Environment 2035,” noted that Britain’s global clout could decline within twenty years due to the growing number of influential powers such as Brazil, China, and India.
However, the shadow of a British exit from the EU hangs over British international ambitions. In the worst-case Brexit scenario, the UK would probably remain a significant military power (depending on the economic fallout), but it would certainly become a much-diminished diplomatic player. Concomitantly, Brexit would greatly damage the EU’s already-struggling defense policy and, by extension, its foreign policies.
Worse, Brexit could also further harm the credibility of the whole EU project, coming on top of coping with eurozone woes, the refugee crisis, terrorist attacks, the rise of nationalist politicians, a revisionist Russia, and Middle Eastern disorder. A more unstable EU is not in Britain’s strategic interest. As the defense review says, “a secure and prosperous Europe is essential for a secure and prosperous UK.”
The British are widely admired for their irony. But it would be painfully ironic for Britain to make itself less geopolitically relevant at the very moment it wants to become more strategically ambitious.
Daniel Keohane is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zürich.