LONDON - Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that Britain's defense spending cuts could limit its ability to be a full partner with the United States in military operations.
Britain's army will lose 20,000 soldiers by 2020 - shrinking to 82,000 as part of efforts to meet steep cuts to public spending ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron.
Telling BBC radio that he also laments U.S. defense spending cuts, Gates zeroed in on the fact that for the first time since World War I, Britain does not have an operational aircraft carrier.
Britain is building a new generation of aircraft carriers, but they will not enter service until 2020.
"With the fairly substantial reductions in defense spending in Great Britain, what we're finding is that it won't have full-spectrum capabilities and the ability to be a full partner as they have been in the past," Gates said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron rejected Gates' suggestion that spending cuts have diminished the U.K.'s presence on the world stage, calling Britain a "first-class player" when it comes to defense.
"I think he has got it wrong," Cameron said, noting that Britain still has the fourth-largest defense budget in the world.
Gates served as Pentagon chief under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and retired in 2011.
He is currently promoting a book, "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War," which questions Obama's war leadership.
His remarks Thursday echoed those of Gen. Nicholas Houghton, Britain's Chief of the Defense Staff.
Houghton warned last month that Britain was in danger of being left with hollowed-out armed forces, with "exquisite" equipment but without the soldiers, sailors and airmen needed to operate it.