U.K.’s military spending on the chopping block

Stephen Beard Oct 13, 2010

U.K.’s military spending on the chopping block

Stephen Beard Oct 13, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: When the economy’s lousy and government deficits are high, a certain fairly predictable set of things starts to happen. Social services get cut. Education gets cut. And people start talking about cutting defense spending. That’s where we are here — talking about trimming the Pentagon’s budget to bring down the deficit. Over in the U.K., the cuts are a lot closer, which has led to another fairly predictable thing happening: The backlash.

Marketplace’s Stephen Beard explains.

Man 1: Honor guard, salute!

Stephen Beard: Another British soldier returns home from Afghanistan in a hearse. A few dozen veterans line the route as an honor guard to pay their respects. But after the cortege passes, the sadness turns to anger. The old men voice their bitter opposition to the cuts.

Man 2: It’s a disgrace, actually, that they have to stoop so low to cut the military. And I think it’s a disgrace you know.

Man 3: It’s a crying shame.

Man 4: Who’s going to defend the country if they take all the defense cuts? I think it’s disgusting.

At the Conservative Party annual conference last week, the man who will make the cuts — Defense Secretary Liam Fox — was defensive.

Liam Fox: I didn’t come into politics wishing to see a reduction in the defense budget. Indeed, there is a strong case to increase our spending on national security.

But he said the government must cut the budget deficit and spending will only be reduced after a thorough defense review assessing the country’s strategic needs.

Conservative activist Mark Allat says the party is not reassured.

Mark Allat: I think the party is particularly concerned that this is being budget rather than security-led. It’s not necessarily going to focus on what our security threats are to the United Kingdom. But it’s about delivering a certain number that the Treasury’s looking for.

That number is reported to be about $12 billion, a huge cut of almost 20 percent. Some really major items of defense spending are in the firing line.

And that includes the most powerful weapon in Britain’s armory: It’s so-called independent nuclear deterrent. The U.S. Trident submarine-launched nuclear missile system will soon need renewing, at a cost of $30 billion.

This could be an obvious candidate for a cut, says Dan Plesch of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy. It’s not independent; it can only be used with U.S. agreement.

Dan Plesch: And I think increasingly people feel this is not value for money. And I think people realize that really the spending is a significant subsidy to the American nuclear weapons industry.

Nevertheless, few analysts believe that Britain will junk the missile system, although its renewal might well be delayed. Other even more drastic cuts have been suggested. In order to save two new aircraft carriers from the ax, it’s been reported that Navy chiefs offered to give up more than 20 warships. That would reduce the British fleet to its smallest size since the reign of Henry VIII.

Washington is watching the cuts closely, says Alex Nichol of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Alex Nichol: The U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates has repeatedly bemoaned the fall in defense spending in Europe. And basically sees it as Europe copping out of its responsibilities around the world.

He says the Pentagon will be worried if, as expected, U.K. defense spending falls below 2 percent of GDP — the minimum officially required by NATO. Former Defense Secretary Michael Portillo says Britain’s special relationship with the U.S. and its global standing will suffer.

Michael Portillo: We’re going to emerge from this economic crisis taking a step down, I think, in our influence in the world.

Man 1: Honor guard, down! Parade dismissed!

Another honor guard for another casualty from Afghanistan. The one grim consolation for the old soldiers taking part here is that because the Army is at war — and losing personnel — the Army is politically unassailable. It seems likely to emerge unscathed from the spending cuts.

In Oxford, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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