UK defence cuts cast doubt over 'special relationship' with US

As leaders prepare to mark D-Day's 75th anniversary, questions surround UK's traditional role as most important US ally.

    Defense cuts have battered Britain's military, raising speculation that France could supplant the UK as the US's most important ally [File: Ints Kalnins/Reuters]
    Defense cuts have battered Britain's military, raising speculation that France could supplant the UK as the US's most important ally [File: Ints Kalnins/Reuters]

    This week's European tour by United States President Donald Trump will see him mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day at ceremonies in Britain and France while holding face-to-face meetings with outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.

    Historically, the gathering at the United Kingdom would be the most important meeting on that list. The country has claimed a "special relationship" with the US since British Prime Minister Winston Churchill coined that phrase in 1946. But the impact of austerity measures on Britain's military preparedness has raised questions over whether the UK remains the US's most important ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

    Last July, a letter leaked from then-US defence secretary Jim Mattis to his then-UK counterpart, Gavin Williamson, warned that France could supplant Britain as Washington's closest military ally unless more money is pumped into Britain's defence.

    Figures from the British House of Commons Library show Britain's defence budget fell by 8 billion British pounds ($10.13bn) between 2010 and 2015 - a cut of 18 percent compared with 2009.

    Although the budget has stopped falling, it hasn't started rising yet either.

    Shoulder to Shoulder

    The UK has stood shoulder to shoulder with the US in recent conflicts. Britain played a leading role in the 2011 air war in Libya, supported military action against the Syrian regime over chemical weapons, and joined the air campaign against ISIL in Iraq.

    But France's swift intervention in Mali in 2013, which halted an alarming advance by armed groups, made an impression at the US Pentagon. Since then, experts including the RAND corporation's Linda Robinson and former US assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs Derek Chollet have warned, as Chollet puts it, that "there is a steady decline of Britain as the partner of first choice for the US military".

    But some analysts see diverging views between the White House and French leaders on core threats as nudging the needle back in Britain's favour.

    "Over the last 12 months, things have changed a little," Professor Peter Roberts, director of military sciences for the think-tank the Royal United Services Institute, told Al Jazeera.

    "Relations between Macron and Trump are strained and they don't have a common view of core threats. Macron's obsession with European strategic autonomy as industrial strategy has upset the Trump administration. The big question is probably 'Where does the UK see the most valuable relationship?' Many in UK defence establishment see good relations with France as more important than the US."

    Roberts said the UK is more closely aligned with the current US multi-domain operations warfighting doctrine, which is designed to counter and defeat a near-peer adversary capable of contesting the US in the air, land, maritime, space, and cyberspace fields. Moreover, he said, the French train their front-line troops hard and equip them with reliable kits developed from their own sovereign base.

    British Army Jackal Vehicles
    UK troop satisfaction has declined in the wake of defence cuts [File: Spc, Hubert D. Delany III/U.S. Army/22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment via Reuters]

    Declining morale

    There is also evidence that defence cuts are compromising British troops' morale, which could negatively impact preparedness.

    "I think the most tender issue is UK military morale," Roberts told Al Jazeera. "That reads into retention levels, and recruitment levels. The Royal Navy and the RAF are stretched almost to [the] breaking point with current commitments, and these are not warfighting commitments. The UK is retooling to high-end warfighting, and it's very expensive indeed."

    The most recent figures from the UK's Ministry of Defence Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey - which processes just over 11,000 questionnaires from serving personnel - reveal a downward spiral in satisfaction.

    The survey's highest level - 61 percent - was recorded in 2009. By 2017-2018, it had fallen to a dismal 41 percent.

    Across all the services, only 36 percent described personal morale as high,17 percent described unit morale as high and 7 percent described service morale as high. Two-thirds described service morale as low.

    Some veterans confirm these findings.

    "We've basically been fighting counterinsurgency operations for 20 years and that's had an effect on what the army is," 45-year old ex-infantry NCO Stewart Tice told Al Jazeera. "It's not the same army I joined. It's been stressful whatever the Rambo warrior types like to say. But, at the same time, it's been clear what our purpose was out there."

    "The cuts, I'm not going to lie, were like being told 'thanks for risking your life... see ya!'. I was going to leave when I left anyway, but I wouldn't like to be in there now. The people I speak to, it's like everything is being turned upside down. The feeling I got was that they wanted to replace us all with AIs and robots anyway," Tice added.

    As for the "special relationship" between Britain and the US, Tice expressed scorn for what he believed were risk-averse tactics employed by both the US and France. "They deserve each other," he said.

    For Hugh Milroy, a former RAF wing commander who served in Desert Storm and currently works as chief executive of the charity Veterans Aid, the controversy is overblown but telling.

    "Every time I've worked with the Americans - in uniform and out - we have a really unique bond," he told Al Jazeera. "The main issue we are both facing is our politicisation. The media and politicians talk about us without any sense of context. I fear for the future if we keep discussing defence in these terms, but I take comfort that budgets and politicians come and go but those joining today think the same way they've always done."