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Editorial: Nations Must Preserve Skills

Mar. 31, 2013 - 01:49PM   |  
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When the two sides of the world’s most important bilateral security relationship meet, it’s a safe bet they will raise trenchant questions for nations worldwide.

Last week, all of the U.K. and U.S. military chiefs gathered for the first time since 1948. Their purpose: To shape the future of the Anglo-American alliance in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among the top issues was how to preserve skills honed through combat operations over the past dozen years.

These two nations have spent the past century cooperating on two world wars, through the Cold War, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Now they look forward to the next century with an eye toward sustaining their unique ability to combine forces.

The reality is, practice makes perfect, and the United States and Britain have worked intimately together long enough to have gotten very good at their game. But interoperability is a highly perishable skill that will atrophy quickly if not prioritized and exercised. Realistic training can help, but experts warn there’s no substitute for real operations, making for a complicated problem.

The two sides will compile recommendations over the coming months that will be codified by U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey into a broader report on the future of the U.S.-U.K. alliance.

They also discussed how budget cuts, particularly more than $1 trillion from Pentagon spending, will affect capabilities. Of equal concern is whether Britain will remain militarily relevant in the U.S., especially if additional budget cuts are made that further erode the nation’s capabilities.

When it comes to U.S. cuts, the British side, which depends on American hardware to deliver maximum punch on a lean budget, urged its counterparts to be very careful how they go about reducing spending.

Indeed, ill-considered cuts, the British warned, threaten programs that are vital to America’s allies, such as the Joint Strike Fighter. Such cuts could weaken capabilities Washington might need as it builds coalitions to confront future crises.

The range of possible conflicts they must guard against span from terrorism to piracy to nation states with the ability to destabilize the global order.

The challenge is to shift from involvement and incessant preparation for the current war to planning for a broad challenge of possible wars. It might also require a clearer definition of burden-sharing between the allies.

Declining resources compound the challenge.

Here, British officials had recent experience to share. Without sweeping reform in response to budget cuts, U.K. forces would be far less capable today. Britain slashed duplication, sacrificed sacred cows, and built a smaller, sustainable, highly capable force. Reforming organizations and processes, eliminating long-standing offices and systems, and outsourcing critical support services is scary, the British told the Americans. But payoff was worth the pain.

It’s good advice. The U.S. will not succeed by trimming forces and programs to meet smaller budget targets. That will yield only atrophied capabilities. The key is cutting overhead and maximizing combat capability.

This is not exclusively a U.S.-U.K. challenge. While it’s important that two close allies with a history of operating together retain their skills, they must expand their efforts to include those nations most likely to join them in future coalitions.

The world remains a dangerous place. And while America remains the world’s leading power, inevitable defense cuts mean it will need as many allies as possible. That means finding novel ways to not only retain capabilities, but enhance interoperability.

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