Britain’s top military leadership will meet this week with their U.S. counterparts to talk about the strategic future they face together, the first meeting of the combined chiefs since the late 1940s, sources believe. The meeting in Washington will focus on the strategic future beyond the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, a still-dangerous world in which both allies will struggle with funding cuts that will force them to shrink and sacrifice capabilities in the process.
It’s astonishing that it hasn’t happened sooner given how inexorably linked the two nations are on defense matters — from strategy to policy to acquisition and industrial matters — and the sheer number of looming security challenges they face.
A key issue on the agenda will be U.S. budget cuts — at least $500 billion over the next decade — and how they will affect the world’s most powerful military and its closest ally.
This isn’t theoretical musing for Britain, which has over recent years increasingly brought its defense strategy in line with Washington’s, becoming in the process increasingly dependent on the U.S. for its major weapons programs. Britain is counting on the U.S.-led Joint Strike Fighter program to equip its future aircraft carriers and needs U.S. technology for its future weapons purchases, including ballistic-missile subs, helicopters, transport capabilities, reconnaissance and more. And yet, the British have much to teach their American cousins.
U.K. forces have deftly managed deep budget cuts. They have increased their tooth-to-tail ratio, thanks in part to open acquisition policies that buy what’s best for the military — often American gear — rather than what’s best for local politics, which has hurt domestic industry.
Few major militaries have devoted as much time and attention to re-engineering their entire defense enterprise as has Britain’s. Each of the British officers at the meetings has already made dramatic strategic decisions for his service, decisions unimaginable three decades ago. Those lessons now loom large for the Americans, who would be wise to look to their closest ally for ideas on how to wring more efficiency from a budget nearly nine times the size of Britain’s.
London has temporarily sacrificed significant capabilities — such as strike carriers and maritime patrol planes — but it has also rooted out duplication across its forces, restructured its organization and processes and altered its acquisition policies to deliver a highly capable force on a shoestring budget. These meetings present a timely opportunity for Pentagon officials to tap their British counterparts for lessons learned in navigating drastic budget cuts in order to set priorities and preserve robust defense capabilities.
It also represents an ideal opportunity to take stock of a vital alliance and lay the groundwork for even deeper cooperation that will pay dividends for decades to come.