“We are experiencing the brain death of NATO” argued President Macron of France after a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Paris, November 28, 2019. Britain’s decision on a future defence strategy appears to contain the seeds of further confusion and torpor, particularly as the country becomes more isolated after leaving the EU.

Britain has pursued an inconstant defence policy, essentially treading water, in the hope that the institutional defence landscape in Europe remains as it has for decades. In trying to square the budgetary circle of persistent under funding, confusion is being further amplified by talk of a global Britain and in re-establishing a defence presence East of Suez. Can this really be serious one might ask ?

The main aim of UK defence policy is to support our democratic freedoms by supporting a rules based system of international relations. Until recently this was achieved by sharing sovereignty with allies, and working through two sets of alliances, the first being NATO and the second being the EU. By leaving the EU, Britain is effectively putting all of its eggs into one “brain dead” organization, and an organization to which the UK’s commitment is in reality weak and contradictory.

Zig Zags and Defence and Security Defence Reviews

The UK’s defence role has, in the past, benefited from its joint membership of both NATO and the EU. Britain was a useful go between, explaining and persuading different elements of the transatlantic alliance. In recent years this frequently involved explaining to the US why Europeans spent so little on defence and had such varied defence capabilities. And for the Europeans it meant explaining why the Americans were pivoting to the East and switching their defence priorities to Asia and towards containing China, something beyond the scope of NATO as it currently stands.

Britain’s own defence strategy and policy has shifted from stepping up commitments to expeditionary campaigns in the 1998 Labour defence review, to urgent cut backs in capacity and capability in the Conservative/Lib Dem 2010 defence review, that then had to be hastily undone and patched up in the 2015 Conservative government defence review that ultimately satisfied no one. Indeed, Britain was one of the laggards in hitting the generally agreed defence expenditure targets of 2% of GDP, as the medium term impact of earlier defence cuts took effect.  None of which helped when President Trump then proceeded to challenge the legitimacy and credibility of the sacrosanct article 5 commitment to mutual self defence.

The EU and the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)

For a long time NATO was the only effective multinational transatlantic defence alliance. Being allied to the world’s only military super power clearly had its advantages in securing a stable and prosperous existence, and in providing a supportive framework for further European integration. And this included closer defence integration between EU member states. It is just that the British never really signed up to the idea of closer intra EU defence cooperation, dragging their feet on some issues, and opting out of others. Not often commented on is how the EU council of ministers decided to step up and enhance intra EU defence cooperation in 2016 after the results of the Brexit referendum were known. It was realized in Brussels that the UK would no longer be around to block progress towards closer EU defence union in the future.

This has created space for increased funding for European defence from a European Defence Fund, closer coordination on defence capabilities (CARD) – encouraged by the European Defence Agency – and the introduction of shared defence infrastructure (PESCO). While still at relatively early stages, and continuing to move carefully, the CSDP shows signs of innovation and growth, unlike that of NATO – as President Macron pointed out.

And as recent history has shown, EU and US defence interests are diverging. For all the talk of alliance, recent years have seen only partial support by NATO members for several military operations, and a complete disagreement on committing forces to Iraq in 2003. Since Britain, on many occasions, decided to back the US rather than side with its European allies, this contributed further to the confusion of the direction in which British defence policy was headed.

It looks as if, once again, Britain is de-selecting Europe, missing the boat, leaving it with what options? In the past there were changes in policy so that Britain joined in late, and eventually caught up with the mainland. With Brexit this option is denied.

Britain’s muddled options on Europe

Britain’s role in the new EU defence initiatives was ambiguous. Britain joined in the CARD exercises, but declined the opportunity to contribute to PESCO. And its intentions towards the EU in the Withdrawal Agreement remain similarly vague. On the one hand it apparently wants to continue to have close relations, while at the same time trying to pick and choose those projects it wants to contribute to in PESCO and elsewhere, otherwise known as cherry picking.

There is though a significant catch. As a third country, the UK will not be able to influence EU defence policy; and it cannot veto it. It will not contribute HQ staff, and will not be able to lead operations as at present. Moreover, it will have a much reduced role in transmitting US views to the EU through EU based defence institutions.

If the UK government claims that Brexit will be good for the British economy, we need to remind ourselves that European defence integration is also accompanied by steps towards integrating the European defence industry and in streamlining European defence procurement, something NATO was never able to achieve. This will improve the efficiency of European defence production and lower costs. Britain’s arms suppliers are likely to have a reduced role in this system going forward.

Changing Threats and Challenges

The defence landscape is changing, and the continued assumption that all is what it was is mistaken. Since 2014 and the annexation of the Crimea, the threat of peer on peer conflict in Europe has re-emerged. This has focused attention on tactics, the role of armour, and the great improvements in the accuracy of artillery. Translated into procurement orders, it involves an upgrade in a lot of ageing land equipment. On the other hand, conditions on the southern flank of NATO involve amphibious operations, expeditionary forces, and more lightly armed mobile forces – a very different type of warfare. In addition to which there are pressures of immigration on the southern borders/ Mediterranean areas of the EU.

Within a more structured alliance and agreed division of labour and specialization, European suppliers may meet these demands. For Britain though it is not clear whether the country’s defence should be structured to meet all of these threats – for which the funds are not available, or whether to select which of them appear to be more serious, and work towards trying to defend against them. Britain, on its own, is unable to effectively deal with all of them.

Similarly, with the US, there have been significant changes in threats and capabilities. Britain has 19 surface combat naval vessels, it can no longer field an expeditionary force of 50,000 as was the case in 2003 in Iraq. Indeed some argue that repeating the Afghanistan commitment of 10,000 troops is now also beyond Britain’s capabilities. On that basis, irrespective of US views on NATO, how seriously could US military planners take UK military efforts?

Neutrality as the most feasible option?

Britain needs to cut its defence cloth according to the threats it appears to be facing. Britain remains in Europe geographically, even if there remains nostalgia for former Imperial and global times. 2% of UK GDP does not stretch that far when you are paying for an expensive, but diminishing, nuclear deterrent, are trying to support expeditionary forces operating at a distance, and are also committed to helping allies in potential conflicts on the European mainland. Earlier commitments to expeditionary forces were not a great success. A more limited role in defending Britain and NATO borders in Europe looks more feasible. However, if the EU’s CSDP continues to grow, it, rather than NATO may develop into the main focus of European defence. And if this were to be the case, Britain would play a subordinate role at best.

At which point, perhaps a change of direction, and a realization that Britain’s imperial days are well and truly over, points logically towards joining Ireland and other neutral states in keeping defence anchored to the British isles, rather than wasting time and money in the Middle East and elsewhere. It would also be more consistent with the growing isolationism likely to affect Britain as a consequence of Brexit.