Michael KreponBritain Increases Its Defense Spending and Shortchanges Its Future

Quote of the week:

“Anyone attempting to understand why there has been no third world war confronts a problem not unlike that of Sherlock Holmes and the dog that did not bark in the night: how does one account for something that did not happen?” – John Lewis Gaddis

How have we evaded major war for seven decades? Nuclear weapons are part of the answer, but only a part. Major wars have become too expensive to wage. Aggression on a massive scale now yields questionable benefits while risking everything. Seizing and holding even modest amounts of foreign real estate can be costly enough, especially when competitors reinforce local opposition. Economics is the modern currency of power. Soft power helps but requires back-up: states still need to have useful military capabilities on hand to defend themselves and their national interests.

What do nuclear weapons offer in advancing national interests besides deterrence and the ever-present reminder to avoid a third world war? Not much. They are akin to monarchical trappings, providing reassurance of status and power, even when their utility is hard to explain. Since states still have interests to defend, the Bomb cannot substitute for usable instruments of power projection — except when national leaders commit expeditionary forces in pursuit of profoundly unwise purposes. 

Poor choices also result when symbology trumps substance, and when worst-case thinking robs states of the means to defend national interests in less-than-worst cases. Some countries can afford to spend unwisely, and this is what they do. Not so for Great Britain, which seeks to reassert ambition while maintaining a minimal, credible and independent nuclear deterrent.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has proposed significant increases in defense spending to cover both nuclear and non-nuclear military expenditures. If past is prologue, future defense budgets will be sorely skewed toward status and confronting worst cases at the expense of far more likely military contingencies.  

New challenges to national security arise with technological advances, cyber intrusions and influence operations. These new challenges require adaptive responses. They do not readily lend themselves to the initiation of conventional warfare, let alone the detonation of mushroom clouds. Deterrence against new threats requires both novel practices and an assurance of retaliation in kind.

The field of competition has changed markedly while we attend to our Maginot Lines. The blunderbusses of nuclear warfare aren’t too big to fail; they are too powerful to succeed. Downsizing yields without escalation control isn’t adaptive — it’s an invitation to failure. Since 1945, no weapon has proven to be less cost-effective than the Bomb. Yet we continue to wrap the Bomb in layers of imaginary utility. National leaders spend amply for symbology instead of military effectiveness.

If military effectiveness governed decision making, Great Britain would have announced its intention to spend very large sums on a new fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines, not those carrying nuclear warheads atop globe-spanning ballistic missiles. Quiet, nuclear-powered attack submarines can clear a contested sea of opposing surface ships and submersibles. They can also attack targets on land from safe distances using conventionally-armed, accurate, stealthy cruise missiles. Or, if Armageddon has arrived, they can fire nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. The nuclear-powered attack submarine is the most powerful, cost-effective military instrument that has yet to demonstrate the extent of its utility. 

Instead, Her Majesty’s government has opted for the continued ability to keep at least one ballistic missile-carrying submarine on patrol at all times for the Armageddon contingency. To do so, given the needs of refurbishment and other factors, four of these subs are required. The rationales for doing so can be found here

As large as the U.S. defense budget is, tipping the scales at over 700 billion dollars, it imposes trade-offs between spending for nuclear forces and non-nuclear military capabilities. Great Britain, which spends less than one-tenth this much for national defense, faces more dramatic trade-offs, notwithstanding Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s proposed plan for sustained increases in conventional capabilities.

The U.S. Congress is deeply reluctant to demand hard choices between planning for nuclear and conventional warfare; it’s far easier to keep building what has been built before and to tack on new capabilities as deemed warranted. This both/and approach to defense spending will be much harder for London to emulate. If a combination of nostalgia and old-school beliefs about the value of nuclear weapons carry the day, the result is likely to be deeper cuts in conventional force structure.

Great Britain’s Integrated Review calls for “a renewed commitment to the UK as a force for good in the world.” The Review lists four “overarching objectives”: sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology, shaping the open international order of the future, strengthening security and defense at home and overseas, and building resilience at home and overseas. All four will likely be shortchanged by investing significant sums in weapons of last resort. 

No U.S. analyst who has spent his or her professional life hemmed in by deterrence orthodoxy has any right to critique Britain’s choices. But allow me to clarify them. In 1982, a task force of 100 ships set sail to reclaim the Falkland Islands. Since then, the expeditionary Royal Navy has shrunk by 74 per cent. Britain’s standing Army now consists of 80,000 troops and almost 8,000 Royal Marines. Like submarines, only a fraction of these troops are available for deployment. During the past quarter-century, the British Army has not delivered a single new armored fighting vehicle to front-line units. 

It’s hard to demonstrate credibility and resolve – two of the usual reasons for spending outlandish sums for nuclear forces – when you have less to contribute when national interests are challenged in less-than-worst cases. 

The top-most reason for replacing the Vanguard Class of submarines with the Dreadnought Class, as explained in the Integrated Review, are threats posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The distance between Russian and British nuclear holdings are great. Well before the time new submarines go on patrol in the 2030s, Britain will also be outnumbered by second-tier states in the global nuclear order. China has surpassed Great Britain’s nuclear holdings, as will India and Pakistan in this decade. The threats of chemical, biological and cyber warfare don’t lend themselves to nuclear retaliation, no matter how often government officials, regardless of nationality, try to convince themselves by restating broader roles for nuclear deterrence.

Because Great Britain will be outnumbered in any barely conceivable nuclear order of battle, its sea-based nuclear deterrent has no plausible coercive value. There is no great rivalry for which London feels compelled to compete. Nor is there a use for nuclear weapons in the defense of the former realm. These are weapons of last resort, to be used in conjunction with many other ruinous volleys. 

This makes the announcement by Her Majesty’s government of projected increases in force loadings on its submarines both gratuitous and injurious, as increased warhead totals will have no discernable, positive, or credible effect on the threats enumerated in the Integrated Review. For particulars, the redoubtable Hans Kristensen offers possible ways in which Britain might proceed with the projected increase in deployable warheads. 

It’s one thing to retain the status quo; it’s quite another to add impetus to negative trend lines that impute growing influence to nuclear weapons after three-quarters of a century of non-battlefield use.

Does this contribute to arms racing? I doubt it, because Great Britain has neither the interest nor the capacity to catch up to anyone. The competition among China, India and Pakistan – all states with rising warhead totals – will continue with hardly a nod to London’s Integrated Review. The drivers for an intensified strategic competition between Russia and the United States or between the United States and China have little to do with Great Britain’s nuclear posture, although Moscow will claim otherwise.

Will Great Britain’s announcement add to the Nonproliferation Treaty’s woes? Yes, without question. The NPT faces many challenges, headlined by an unchecked Iranian nuclear program. Nuclear-armed states that belong to the NPT talk the talk but don’t walk the walk of Article VI, which points in the direction of reduced holdings. The norm of nonproliferation and the global nuclear order are weakened when states impart greater value to their nuclear weapons. Great Britain used to be on the right side of this divide; now it’s not.

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