UK defence secretary to say global economic slump is ‘greatest strategic threat to future security’ of transatlantic allies
Britain and the US, close allies who are both victims of the debt crisis, will today agree to scale down their military capability and back away from the kind of armed intervention they have enthusiastically supported in recent decades.
That will be the clear message from the first meeting between Philip Hammond, the UK’s new defence secretary, and Leon Panetta, his opposite number in the Pentagon, officials say. The Washington meeting will also be the first opportunity for Hammond to confront the US over particular British concerns, notably the availability and soaring cost of the US-made joint strike fighters destined for Britain’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales.
As the US plans to withdraw more troops from Europe in what is building up to be a turning point in transatlantic relations, Hammond will also lambast European members of Nato for not pulling their weight.
With Panetta expected to announce sweeping cuts in his defence budget, Hammond will point to similarities in the US and UK economic situations, according to officials. “Without strong economies and stable public finances it is impossible to build and sustain, in the long-term, the military capability required to project power and maintain defence,” he is expected to tell the Atlantic Council thinktank.
He will add: “That is why today the debt crisis should be considered the greatest strategic threat to the future security of our nations. The fact is, in this era of austerity … not even the United States can afford the astronomical resource commitment required to deal with every threat from every source.”
On Thursday, Panetta is expected to announce the results of a Pentagon strategic review, recommending that the US abandon its traditional goal of being able to fight, and win, two wars at the same time. The Pentagon has been asked for cuts of $400bn.
British defence officials are worried that pressures on the US budget will further encourage Washington to turn its back on Europe as it concentrates on potential threats in the Pacific.
Libya showed that while the US took a back seat – its aircraft were not involved in the air strikes – the Europeans nevertheless relied on US planes for refuelling and intelligence-gathering operations.
“Libya and Afghanistan have highlighted the significant difficulties we face in ensuring Nato continues to serve the needs of collective security,” Hammond will say. “Too many countries are failing to meet their financial responsibilities to Nato, and so failing to maintain appropriate and proportionate capabilities. Too many are opting out of operations, or contributing but a fraction of what they should be capable of.
“This is a European problem, not an American one. And it is a political problem, not a military one.”
The defence secretary is not expected to name names, though officials make it clear that he has Germany and Poland (neither of which played a part in the Libyan conflict) in mind, as well as Spain.
The UK is still seeking significant cuts in its defence budget on top of those made in last year’s strategic review. Its two single most expensive commitments are replacing the Trident nuclear missile and building two carriers for the navy.
Vital to the carriers are their attack aircraft, supplied via the US joint strike fighter (or F-35) project, with the cost now estimated at £100m each. The project may be delayed or scaled back by the Pentagon, leaving the UK carriers – now being built at uncertain costs – with even more uncertainties.
Hammond will respond to Iran’s threat to shut the narrow sea passage leading to the Persian Gulf through which 40% of internationally traded oil flows. He will say: “Disruption to the flow of oil through Straits of Hormuz would threaten regional and global economic growth. Any attempt by Iran to do this would be illegal and unsuccessful.”
Last month Tehran threatened to shut the strait and has now said it will take unspecified action if a US aircraft carrier that had left the Gulf returns. Washington said its navy would continue to sail the strait.
Hammond will say that British warships, including minesweepers, will keep playing a “substantial role” in the Gulf.