The comments by Robert Gates about the damage to the ‘Special Relationship’ due to the cuts in UK defence spending struck a nerve amongst security elites on this side of the Atlantic. As a recently retired US Secretary of Defense under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Gates warned that the cuts exacted by the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) were undermining the UK’s ability to undertake the ‘full spectrum’ of defence roles and would therefore impact on its ability to partner the US. This will have caused officials in Whitehall and senior military officers to wince in pain but, despite David Cameron’s rebuttal, this was only voicing something that they already knew.
Those that have sneered that Gates’ remarks were motivated by his desire to sell his autobiography do him an injustice. Gates had been criticising Europe’s failure to spend adequately on defence for some considerable time. His valedictory speech in Brussels in June 2011 warned against Europe’s ‘lack of resources (for defence) in an age of austerity’. In that same speech he drew attention to ‘military stalwarts’ like the UK that were reducing spending. There is no escaping the fact that the SDSR made major reductions in the size and reach of UK armed forces. The size of the Army is being reduced from 102,000 to 80,000; the Harrier force was scrapped and the Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft cancelled. The Royal Navy will not have an operational aircraft carrier before 2020 and Gates himself expressed alarm at the scale of the cuts to UK maritime power.
Pundits should, however, be cautious about writing off the ‘Special Relationship’. It is undeniable that cuts in military capability will make it harder for the UK to act alongside the US in all circumstances. Yet most western countries, including the United States itself, are making major cuts in defence spending. The UK remains an ally that has been second to none in its willingness to shed blood and treasure in US-led operations. The superpower will need such allies in the future when crises arise. Furthermore, the security relationship between the two countries is characterised by a unique range of institutional relationships: military officers are embedded in each other’s armies, navies and air forces; the intelligence relationship is unparalleled and nuclear cooperation especially close. Whilst the operational relationship might be impacted by the UK’s cuts, these other facets underpin and provide ballast to UK-US relations.
UK pride may have been dented by Gates’ remarks but US-UK security relations are deeper than many would credit.