Main Image Credit American and British soldiers take a tactical pause during a combat patrol in the Sangin District area of Helmand Province. But what can the UK contribute in future? Courtesy of the US Army/Wikimedia.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to Washington today is billed as a potential revival of the old US–UK ‘Special Relationship’. But is Britain still special in military terms to the US? And can the British deliver military capabilities the Americans really need?
It is alleged that US President Donald Trump wants to treat his relationship with British Prime Minister Theresa May as a twenty-first century version of the warm alliance between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
And, conversely, Britain remains dependent on the US as the guardian of free trade, and thus for national security and prosperity.
The supposed shared set of values and closeness of relations might be signalled by the start of negotiations for a new US–UK trade deal as early as today, when May meets Trump in Washington. These negotiations will be based on the much-vaunted ‘Special Relationship’ between Whitehall and Washington.
Historically, this relationship is indeed based on personal bonds of key politicians on both sides of the Atlantic.
However, it has also traditionally been identified with certain defence and security activities: intelligence sharing; submarine operations; nuclear missile technology; and a shared set of values and doctrine that views the two partners as dependable allies who will not waiver when the shooting starts.
Yet events since 2001 have removed much of uniqueness of these activities as the US War on Terror (in all its guises) has seen a transformation of American security capabilities and power, resulting in less emphasis being placed on allies.
The UK no longer provides the niche capabilities it once did at a scale that makes them really useful, and – as highlighted by the Chilcot Inquiry into the events leading to the 2003 Iraq War – there is uncertainty over the British political will for military entanglement.
This reduces Britain’s image as a dependable ally, capable of getting in or staying in the fight when the going gets tough.
As the importance of these advantages that Britain brought to the equation declines, other, less attractive, elements of the relationship come to the fore. The continual prevarication and reversals in defence decisions (such as whether to buy the conventional carrier launched F35 or its Short Take-Off version) have soured relationships between armed services at the higher levels, and certainly on the US side.
The UK no longer has sufficient submarines to share the burden of deterring Russian activity under the Arctic, or to effectively contribute to policing the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap at the scale it once did so successfully.
New British aircraft carriers will embark fewer planes than their French equivalent with less striking power, and will be reliant on US Marine Corps jets to fill the gap between the ships coming into service and their limited air wing being ready to fly from them.
Many states can provide carrier power so how will Britain be special? Indeed, it could be argued that the future Royal Navy will have fewer useful capabilities to the US over the next twenty years because it has become another generic maritime force. And it will probably need US surface ships to protect its capital ships if it goes into harm’s way.
Likewise, the much-reduced British Army now makes contribution of a division (the smallest fighting force capable of delivering combined arms warfare) to major US-led war-fighting almost impossible. This represents a major change from previous interventions where the UK could have been relied upon to provide 10–15% of the coalition effort.
The US shift of resources into intelligence on a huge scale, along with the global access facilitated by both the digital domain and space-based surveillance, has made the inputs of the respective and hitherto respected British entities less valuable, and certainly not unique.
Agencies across the Atlantic now compete for the same sources, and it is only their differing assessments that add real value to decision-making.
The traditional pillars of the special relationship are losing relevance, and in an era when the values of the two states seem to be diverging rather than converging, it might be time for a re-examination of what the UK can offer the US in exchange for enduring security guarantees.
Indeed, as departments for defence on both sides of the Atlantic focus on transforming their ways of waging war, there are opportunities that would benefit both states. The UK space industry is one of those areas where the UK has the potential to add significant value, capability and capacity to US security missions.
Likewise, British prowess in mine-hunting at sea is already recognised in the Gulf where specialist Royal Navy ships remain permanently stationed under joint UK–US command.
The UK Special Forces, and Special Operations Forces (very different things in US eyes), remain well respected and are perhaps the only element of the British military truly resourced for complete interoperability with US counterparts.
Cyber attack weapons (or offensive cyber payloads) are also an area of serious potential co-operation, although the UK would need to shift its stance to a more cooperative one, perhaps embracing the Israeli approach to become an indispensable ally.
However, it is not just the technology in these domains that makes the UK contribution special; it is the people, their skills and experience, and the way in which they are able to work around boundaries (of command and of those imposed by constitutional legislation) that their US counterparts often cannot.
That is not to say that other British military and security capabilities are not worthy, just that they have less relevance to the US than previously. Whatever Trump’s doctrine for foreign and domestic policy eventually becomes, building a new special relationship on new areas and skills might be timely – especially given the president’s reportedly frosty relationship with his own intelligence community.
The challenges for Prime Minister May will be in delivering the intent and political will, and in selling a new relationship to the British people. These are not impossible tasks – but they will not be particularly easy.
Professor Peter Roberts
Director, Military Sciences