Permeable – As the British public contemplates the prospect of an exit from the EU, quietly the British government plans for a military entrenched in the needs of Europe.
In December last year, British Prime Minster David Cameron promised the House of Commons that the Conservative party would never support a European Army. This is one promise that the public can count on – given the already high levels of Euroskepticism in this country, such an emotive term as a ‘European Army’ could only be uttered safely by British politicians in contempt. However, by all indications, this government’s vision for the future of British Armed Forces is one that is increasingly entrenched in the EU.
Much of this change is prompted by austerity. The British Armed Forces is under ever greater pressure to save money. According to the last Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) in 2010, by 2015, the Armed Forces will be smaller by 17,000 military personnel and 25,000 civilians. The personnel cuts has already been partially implemented. In July this year (2013), 5,300 soldiers and officers in the army will be made redundant. The announcement of further cuts in the RAF and the Royal Navy are expected later this year. On the 20th March this year, it was announced that the armed forces’ budget will face sustained cuts over the next three years – starting with ₤500 million this year, and about ₤250 million each year in the next two years.
The overall reduction in the size of the military is in line with the prediction of the types of threats the UK faces. In a 2011 report on the future of British reserve forces commissioned by David Cameron, the authors reveal a picture of future threats to the UK that is shaped by recent events: the terrorist attacks in New York, London, and Madrid, flooding in Cumbria, the Japanese tsunami, and the Arab Spring. They predict that the UK will face a number of small, unconventional threats, rather than large scale conventional threats that the reserve forces were structured for. The report foresees that the main tasks of the British military will be to develop allies’ military and governance capabilities, responding to natural disasters and terrorist attacks, and to counter cyber warfare.
For the forces to effectively meet future needs under severe budgetary constraints, the report suggests that Britain expands its reserve forces. The report suggests that the number of personnel trained for deployment in the army reserve (or the Territorial Army, in short, TA) be raised from the present level of 14,000 to at least 30,000. The main argument for the expansion of the reserve forces is that they are cheaper to run. When immobilised, a TA unit costs only 20% as much as a regular unit of comparable size does. Even when mobilised, a TA unit would cost 15% to 20% less than a regular unit. However, increasing the proportion of reserve personnel in the armed forces would also means a lessened ability to launch large scale, unilateral interventions. In Army 2020, a blue print for the future of the British Army published last year, the author suggests that only part of the army could be deployed at short notice. Units with higher proportions of reserves will be part of an ‘adaptive’ rather than ‘reactive’ forces. These units will focus on overseas capacity building (i.e. training local troops) and protecting the UK homeland against natural disasters and terrorism.
This set up also implies that the government does not foresee the UK acting by itself internationally under any circumstances. By 2020, the UK military will no longer has the ability to launch any large scale interventions by itself. While NATO will remain an integral part of UK military planning, the current government is also seeking greater military cooperation in Europe. In 2010, David Cameron and the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy signed a comprehensive defense cooperation treaty that forsees the development of a joint expeditionary force, collective procurement, collective training, common military doctrines, and the alignment of logistics arrangements. The scope of the 2010 agreement is extraordinary – the areas of cooperation outlined in the agreement touches the very heart of the military. The alignment of military doctrines indicates a long term partnership that will fundamentally change how soldiers and officers think and act. Given that Britain and France together make up 40% of Europe’s defence budget, and 50% of its military capacity, French-British defense cooperation will anchor the British armed forces firmly in European cooperation, whether it be through NATO or the EU.
While government policy papers repeatedly insist on NATO being the primary focus of UK military planning, they also acknowledge the unique role EU Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) plays. NATO is a powerful instrument against conventional threats, but it could be too blunt to counter small, unconventional threats. The NATO Response Force (NRF) are large conventional military unit that comprises of air, sea, and land forces, and are planned to contain up to 25,000 personnel. Rather than countering a threat after it has developed, EU’s comprehensive approach to security calls for preventing the escalation of threats to a level where NATO intervention is required. The EU’s approach to security has had success with containing and deescalating threats Indonesia, Georgia, and the Balkans.
For carrying out the CSDP, the EU has two battle groups that are ready for deployment. Compared to the NRF, these groups are small, highly mobile, and self-sustainable. They comprise between 300 to 1200 personnel, and are structured to counter specific threats rather than accomplishing full scale missions. The UK has provided troops for EU battle groups, first by itself in the second half of 2008, and will do so again in the second half of this year with Sweden, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Netherlands. Although these battle groups have yet to be deployed, they are combat-ready and form a powerful and precise instrument in the EU’s arsenal.
While Britain will never relinquish control of her armed forces, the British government is not averse to entrenching Britain’s military capacity in NATO and the EU. Sovereignty and independence sounds good on paper, but Britain is only as sovereign as it has the capacity to project its influence. In the face of budgetary constrains, Britain’s best hope of maintaining military relevance is through cooperation with her immediate neighbours. David Cameron understands this, and is prepared to maintain UK’s military capacity through cooperation, by stealth, if necessary.