Britain must pool defence capabilities

Britain must pool defence capabilities

Bulletin article
Clara Marina O'Donnell
01 October 2009

Britain’s current approach to defence is unsustainable. Ambitious operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with expensive weapons programmes, have fed a defence budget deficit that is forecast to be £2 billion a year by 2011-2012. The recession has made matters worse, creating serious pressures to reduce public spending. The major political parties have started talking about the possibility of cutting large equipment programmes, such as aircraft carriers and even the country’s nuclear deterrent.

Whichever party wins the next general election will undertake a defence review in an attempt to match Britain’s foreign policy ambitions with the available resources. To help square the circle, Britain should develop more capabilities with some of its European partners, and embrace shared ownership of defence assets.

European governments have been nominally committed to tighter defence co-operation for years, in order to generate economies of scale. But while there were successful joint weapons programmes during the Cold war (such as Jaguar aircraft and Puma helicopters), more recent attempts at common procurement have given it a bad name. The Eurofighter, though recognised as a fine aircraft, has been much criticised for its cost overruns and delays, as has the A400M military transport aircraft. Furthermore, European governments have been reluctant to pool assets, partly because of the worry that a partner disapproving of a military action might block the use of a shared asset.

However, the unprecedented pressure on defence budgets should help focus minds. Governments now have a stronger incentive to overcome the traditional obstacles to industrial collaboration, namely diverging procurement cycles, differing technical requirements and juste retour (when a government in a joint programme insists that its national industry receive a work-share equivalent to its financial contribution).

Neither Britain nor France can afford to maintain the full spectrum of military capabilities alone. They should consider developing the same sort of aircraft carrier and even envisage sharing a fleet, which would drastically reduce operational and maintenance costs. Britain should also think about combining its anti-submarine ships – another capability at risk of being cut – with those of France or Germany. Perhaps surprisingly, the capabilities designed to counter conventional attacks, despite their sensitivity, are most suited to joint ownership, because there is less scope for disagreement about their future use. Indeed, France and the UK are more likely to disagree about the relative importance of Iraq and Chad than on a hypothetical Russian or Chinese attack on Europe in 50 years time. Britain’s defence industry would lose some work in such collaborative efforts, but would still be better off than if it lost all the work on a cancelled programme.

The UK should pool more of its military logistics and maintenance of equipment with its European allies. It makes no sense for governments to undertake such expensive activities separately, particularly when several European countries are involved in the same place, such as Afghanistan or Bosnia. But such pooling will not produce important savings unless the UK and its partners develop more common equipment: if allies continue to use different types of ammunition, land vehicles or aircraft, the potential savings will be limited.

Many British policy-makers are instinctively attracted to working more closely with Americans than Europeans, and industrial co-operation between British and American firms is desirable. But when it comes to sharing assets, European partners are a better match. With the largest defence budget in the world, the US is under little pressure to pool resources, and the UK could only be a junior partner in any joint ownership. Britain would be a more useful ally to Washington if it encouraged Europe to maintain serious military capabilities and provide for its long-term security.

Britain’s fiscal position is so bad that some experts predict that the next national defence review could be as important as the 1967 decision to withdraw from east of Suez. In such circumstances, greater pooling of assets and logistics would not be enough to allow the UK to avoid tough choices. But it would soften the blow. The forthcoming British defence review should focus on the potential for joint procurement and ownership, in particular for the most vulnerable programmes. And Britain should urge its European partners to hold national defence reviews simultaneously, so that they can explore areas of possible convergence. The European governments most committed to defence should make every effort to synchronise their procurement cycles, and put real effort into developing common requirements. In the era of ‘share it or lose it’, Europe can no longer afford a half-hearted commitment to defence co-operation.

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