WASHINGTON: The UK’s head defense procurement official came to Washington this week to deliver a simple message: London wants to keep its defense industry humming even after it leaves the European Union next year, and it is ready to spend more money in order to remain a big player in NATO.
“NATO is at the heart of our defense strategy,” Stuart Andrew said at the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday. “I can’t see any of that changing.”
But London’s impending exit from the EU continues to send ripples of concern across the continent, as allies in NATO and the EU remain uncertain what real impacts the move will eventually have on trade and security across the continent.
Andrew sought to put a good face on the controversial Brexit policy, saying that in the end, “we can get a good deal for Brexit because it’s not just in the UK’s interest to do that, it’s in the EU’s interest as well.”
But major issues remain, according to European Union officials.
During a visit to Washington last week, the director general of the European Union’s military staff told me that Brexit is causing him to lose 15 British staff officers. Brexit has “hindered the progress we could have made together with the UK on their contribution to external international security,” Lt. Gen. Esa Pulkkinen said. But with the Brexit date rapidly approaching, the Finnish general continued, “now we are in an ambiguous situation where we need to just follow the rules and procedures” and press on.
At a time where the EU is pushing ahead with plans to create its own military force that its leaders insit would compliment NATO, not compete with it, the exit of the Brits — who were once expected to play a large role in the EU force — has created “quite a lot of work,” Pulkkinen said.
Pre-Brexit, the EU was planning to deploy a Combined Joint Expeditionary Force which was to be made up of British and French troops. “We don’t yet know what the UK government will consider but it’s likely that we will lose the UK capabilities. It’s quite hard,” he added.
Andrew talked up the coming defense spending boost the UK government is planning, which includes a full 20 percent of its yearly budget earmarked for modernization of aging platforms.
London’s recent 10-year budget outlook said that the UK should spend $243 billion on a range of new weapons platforms over that time period. That comes on top of a recent unexpected infusion of about $1.3 billion for pressing needs like cybersecurity and initial investments in nuclear submarines.
After years to budget austerity and shrinking military capabilities, the UK is trying to rebuild some of what it had lost. A new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is currently off the East Coast of the United States conducting F-35B trials — at such an urgent pace that a recent US crash hardly slowed the Brits — while a second new carrier, HMS Prince of Wales is under construction.
This buildup relies heavily on US-made products. The Royal Air Force and Navy took ownership of their first F-35s earlier this year, with an agreement to buy 138 of the planes from Lockheed Martin in the coming years. There are also plans to buy P-8 Poseidon submarine hunting planes from Boeing. Four new Dreadnought-class nuclear ballistic submarines will have the same American-built Common Missile Compartment as the US Navy’s new Columbia SSBNs. (Faulty welding on missile tubes recently alarmed both nations).
Plenty can still happen to change these ambitious plans, however. On Monday, just a day before Andrew’s optimistic vision of the modernization of the UK’s military capabilities, the National Audit Office called the spending plan into question, calling the spending and equipping plan “unaffordable, with forecast costs exceeding budgets by £7.0 billion over the next 10 years.”
That number could go up or down depending on the circumstances, the report said, outlining a “worst-case scenario” of costs increasing by a staggering £14.8 billion “should all the identified risks materialise.”
In a commentary on the spending plan, deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute Malcolm Chalmers wrote this week that “the MoD would still need to make hard choices to fund an ambitious programme of transformation and modernisation. If obtained, it would be the most generous, and sustained, increase in the MoD budget since the early 1980s.”