American defense-watchers have taken a special interest in the state of British military power over the past five years or so, in part because of a fear that what has happened to it could presage what might happen to the U.S. in an era of lean budgets. From an American perspective, a silver lining has been that the British forces continued to buy weapons from the United States, including the F-35, CH-47 Chinook helicopters, and some of the secret-squirrel components the Royal Navy and U.S. Navy could share in their next-generation ballistic missile submarines.
But that could change -- or even end -- with a change of government in London. The U.K.'s "shadow" defence secretary, Jim Murphy, who is the opposition Labour party's answer to the actual, governing defence secretary, Liam Fox, was expected to say Wednesday that if he gets in, he'd consider no longer buying American weapons and maintaining a 'pragmatic' relationship with Washington.
Murphy is conducting a review of Labour's defence policy, including the procurement of equipment and weapons. The government's default position was to "buy off the shelf", and that principally meant "buy American". The UK will regularly buy with or from the US because of its cutting edge technology and investment in very expensive systems. Murphy says his default position is "that for our core sovereign capabilities I want to make and buy British. Rather than buy from America, I want to learn from America."All right ... what does that mean? It could be that Murphy, like Fox, wants to be sure that DoD will play ball with the Ministry of Defence over the next several years in helping Royal Navy pilots keep current on flight ops at sea. The service eventually wants to field two aircraft carriers with their own air wings of F-35Cs, just like the U.S. Navy, but it doesn't have any ships or aircraft now to help its pilots and crews keep current. There's no reason to think DoD won't accommodate the Brits -- after all, it needs to keep every member of the F-35 club it can.
Here's something else, though, designed to please American audiences:
However, reinforcing comments by Liam Fox, the defence secretary, Murphy will tell his American audience that Europe must pull its weight in Nato. "We're either all in this together, committed to playing our full parts, or we're not an alliance that will last," he plans to say.Good luck with that. It's hard to see how the "alternative paths" will get anything but farther apart, given that the European avenue includes a veto from anyone who doesn't feel like playing that day. This is why, from London's perspective, the American relationship must remain "special" -- if the U.K. has an international crisis and France or Germany or Italy or the other Continental powers decide it's beneath them to help out, London will appeal to Washington. No wonder Murphy wants to be 'pragmatic' about it.
The EU spends about £200 billion on defence a year, more than any country except the US, and has 2 million European troops in uniform, but only 5% deployable at any one time.
It is important for Britain to make the case that Europe must do more on defence since the UK gained "power and influence in our relations across the world through our being a strong partner with European nations". Murphy will add: "Contrary to much conventional wisdom back home, the UK's transatlantic and European alliances are not alternative paths to influence - they should be mutually reinforcing."