Military cuts mean 'no US partnership', Robert Gates warns Britain


Robert Gates: "The UK won't have full spectrum capabilities or the ability to be a full partner"

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UK armed forces cuts will limit the country's ability to be a major player on the world stage, ex-US defence secretary Robert Gates has warned.

The UK plans to cut 30,000 armed forces personnel by 2020, leaving 147,000.

The prime minister said Mr Gates was wrong and that the UK was a "first class-player in terms of defence".

Mr Gates also questioned whether "artificial" states in the Middle East "like Libya, Iraq and Syria can be held together absent of repression".

Mr Gates, who served under presidents Obama and Bush, told the BBC that was because they were made up of "historically adversarial groups".

And he said that although it was unlikely to happen, the US did have the capability to intervene in the Syrian conflict but lacked a "broader strategy to deal with the broader conflicts in the Middle East".

'Hollowed out'

On the UK's military cuts, Mr Gates told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "With the fairly substantial reductions in defence spending in Great Britain, what we're finding is that it won't have full spectrum capabilities and the ability to be a full partner as they have been in the past."


There have been many voices warning of the scale of this government's defence cuts. But it will be harder to ignore that of Robert Gates, a man who served two US presidents of very different political persuasions, and oversaw the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Not a man given to hyperbole, Mr Gates doesn't say the special relationship is dead. But he does believe that it's been fundamentally altered by the scale of Britain's defence cuts. He says without the "full spectrum" of military capabilities, Britain will not be able to be a "full partner". Given the unpopularity of the wars during his tenure, some may now be breathing a sigh of relief. But that's not true for senior politicians and military brass inside the MoD. They value being so close to the most powerful military nation on earth.

Mr Gates's intervention is unlikely to reverse the cuts. But his comments will still hurt, and wound pride. It will also fuel the debate as to Britain's place in the world.

The spectrum refers to the ability of a country's military to fight across air, sea and land.

Mr Gates singled out cuts to the Royal Navy as particularly damaging and he noted that - for the first time since World War One - Britain did not have an operational aircraft carrier.

Mr Gates warned against nuclear disarmament by the UK, but acknowledged that there was scope for changes to the way the deterrent was deployed.

Mr Gates's comments echo the concerns of other senior military figures.

The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, warned last month Britain could be left with the "spectre" of a hollowed-out force.

Admiral Lord West, the former First Sea Lord, told the BBC the government had underestimated how important the government's relationship with the US was and had not factored that in when deciding on the cuts.

He also said the gap with no aircraft carrier, between scrapping the Ark Royal and the introduction of a new aircraft carrier in 2020, represented a "huge risk".

Under the government's proposals, by 2020 the Army will lose 20,000 soldiers, the Royal Navy 6,000 personnel and the RAF 5,000 - although there are also plans to increase the number of reservists in each service.

Prime Minister David Cameron said he did not agree with Mr Gates's comments about Britain's future military capability.

"We have the fourth largest defence budget anywhere in the world. We are investing in future capabilities," he said.

"We are a first-class player in terms of defence and as long as I am prime minster that is the way it will stay."

Jonathan Beale, the BBC's defence correspondent said the American's latest intervention would be unlikely to reverse the cuts but would wound Britain's pride.

Graphic showing cuts to Armed Forces: Army from 102,260 to 82,000 in 2020, Navy from 35,500 to 30,000 and the RAF from 40,130 to 35,000

The Ministry of Defence said the UK - like the US - had had to take "tough decisions" on defence spending but had "the best trained and best equipped armed forces outside the US".

Start Quote

The government must ensure that Britain's defence capability is maintained”

End Quote Vernon Coaker Shadow defence secretary

In a statement, it added: "Over the next decade, we plan to spend £160bn on equipment, to ensure our armed forces retain their formidable range of cutting-edge capabilities and ability to project power across the globe, including by maintaining our major naval presence in the Gulf Region.

"Construction of the first new aircraft carrier, the largest ship the Royal Navy has ever operated, is almost complete and the navy will also operate state-of-the-art Type 45 destroyers, new Type-26 Frigates, and seven new Astute Class submarines."

And former Defence Secretary Liam Fox told the Today programme Britain was "one of only four or five countries inside Nato" to meet the target of spending 2% of GDP on defence.

"America is the world's biggest economy with the world's biggest defence budget. We're the world's eighth biggest economy with the fourth biggest defence budget, so certainly we're pulling our weight on that," he said.

Shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker said the prime minister should be worried about the concerns of "Britain's strongest ally".

Sir Christopher Meyer: "A great hole in defence capability'"

"It's clear that there needs to be a rebalancing after withdrawal from Afghanistan and the closure of bases in Germany," he said.

"And no-one is disputing the financial constraints within which the UK military must operate. But the government must ensure that Britain's defence capability is maintained."

Stop the War Coalition convenor Lindsey German said "many people in the country don't particularly like the special relationship with the US" and would not be concerned by Mr Gates's comments.

She said in times of austerity defence spending was the "wrong priority".


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  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    Its how the budget is spent, not its size. I spent ten years serving on our warships and the crews are the very best trained in the world. Sadly, the resources available are massively overpriced,unreliable and becoming obsolete and well passed their original life span, which incidentally is is continuously extended.Explains why our sailors jump ship to the private sector,more money and better kit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 238.

    The world is heading for a major change over the next few decades, with new emerging powers all building larger and more impressive armed forces. The big question is where will Britain stand? Are we interested in getting involved in their disputes? Better to have a small but fully capable force at the ready, than a mixture that relies on many other countries for support.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    Britain's military power has come to an end and therefore our ability to intervene in areas outside the defence of the realm is both curtailed and truncated and frankly is that such a bad thing! Every time we involve ourselves in military matters overseas the outcomes are no longer satisfactory and can we afford such expense and the associated complexities. We are facing a new paradigm.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Its painful to know the UK's position as world power is coming to an end. But at the same time we have no other option. We need to live within our means. Its too much to expect for a small island nation with not even 1% of world population to dominate the world. Reducing our debts is far more important than keeping Big army and Navy just to dominate the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    It's is not about numbers it is about capability, and the ability to deploy that capability where and when required. The govt should decide what capability is required i.e. expeditionary, defensively etc and then select and maintain that aim, and fully fund it. Also, interservice squabbling should be stopped as it invariably involves bad decisions and all 3 services being weakened.


Comments 5 of 8


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