NARVA, Estonia — On NATO’s border with Russia, soldiers with Britain’s Yorkshire Regiment recently joined Estonians in a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Royal Navy’s critical intervention in the country’s battle for independence against the Bolsheviks. Schoolchildren clambered over a huge Challenger 2 battle tank, an AS-90 artillery gun and an armored personnel carrier.
To all appearances, it was a stirring reminder of Britain’s commitment to European defense, Brexit or no Brexit.
But the battalion, based in Estonia as a critical part of NATO’s response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, is the polished surface of a hollow shell — a British military that has been badly damaged by austerity and political choices that have consistently favored symbol over substance in a struggle to remain a global power.
For a military that once spanned the globe, this squad of some 1,000 troops and assorted armor represents the largest British battle group deployed anywhere in the world. Budget cuts have led to sharp reductions in troops, equipment and investment, and analysts warn that Britain is no longer capable of defending its homeland by itself.
Britain remains a nuclear power and a member of the United Nations Security Council. It is one of the few countries able to fight on land, sea and air, and its intelligence capability is world class. In a post-Brexit world, should that come about, Britain’s role as a military power will be vital to its self-image, its geopolitical clout and its relationship with the United States.
But the budget cutbacks have contributed to growing doubts in Washington about whether Britain remains capable of fighting a war alongside the American military. The British House of Commons Library assessed that in real terms, between 2010 and 2015, Britain’s defense budget fell by 8 billion pounds, or $10.5 billion, a cut of 18 percent compared with the 2009-10 budget. The budget has stabilized since then, but has not grown significantly.
Experts say that France is gradually supplanting Britain as the leading European military ally of the United States, further weakening the “special relationship” between Britain and America — a deep concern at a time when both Brexit and the isolationism of President Trump are weighing on British security officials.
“Over the last 10 years, there is a steady decline of Britain as the partner of first choice for the U.S. military,” said Derek Chollet, the former United States assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. “Libya in 2011 was really the last gasp of Britain as a leading military power. Brexit is just a continuation and acceleration of the extended existential crisis.”
Britain has fought alongside American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and joined the fight against the Islamic State. But “the forever wars” have badly sapped British equipment and morale, and have deeply damaged faith in the judgment of the United States. There is waning public appetite for military adventures, and the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, is an old lefty who spent decades opposing nuclear weapons and NATO itself.
Perhaps most telling of Britain’s lower military status, the last three formal defense reviews have been predicated on the assumption that Britain will never again fight a war without the United States.
“That’s a big concession to make,” especially in the time of Mr. Trump, said Kori Schake, a former Pentagon official who is now deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. When it triggered Brexit, she added, “Britain made a big bet on the U.S. relationship, so that explains a lot of the jangled nerves now.”
Oddly, the problems with the British military echo the debate over Brexit. “What does Britain actually want to be in the world?” Ms. Schake said. “They don’t know the answer.”
For Julian Lindley-French, a defense analyst and senior fellow at the Institute of Statecraft in London, austerity-shrunken Britain is “retreating behind a nuclear shield, no longer with the popular will or the capacity to defend the Continent.” The British, he added, “want the symbols of power — the nuclear deterrent and the ensign on the aircraft carrier.”
In an interview, the British defense minister, Gavin Williamson, spoke proudly of securing another £1 billion or $1.3 billion over the next two years for a military budget that would total £38.4 billion in fiscal year 2019-20, or about $50 billion. That represents 2.1 percent of gross domestic product, just over NATO’s guideline of 2 percent, although since 2015 it includes spending for military pensions and intelligence.
Britain cannot have “the scale or the mass” of the United States, he said. “But we are the only other country in NATO that can lead the way the U.S. can lead, the only country in Europe that has the full range of capabilities.”
Britain is making difficult spending choices, Mr. Williamson said. “How we use our technology and new ideas to improve the lethality we have on the battlefield” in the face of new threats. As for NATO, he said, “I struggle to think of a request from NATO that Britain hasn’t met.”
Another billion helps, but in June, the House of Commons Defense Committee called for an extra £20 billion in military spending, about $26 billion, up to 3 percent of G.D.P., a recommendation unlikely to be met.
It is not just the level of spending, however, that is hurting the British military. More important is how the money is being spent.
The expenditures focus on two projects: replacing four aging nuclear missile submarines and building two world-class aircraft carriers, with all the ships, planes and submarines required to protect them and the F-35B fighter jets to put on them.
The nuclear program alone is costing £5 billion a year, or $6.5 billion, about 14 percent of the annual defense budget, with total costs for the new subs estimated at £31 billion to £41 billion, or $40 billion to $53 billion. Throw in the cost of attack submarines to protect the nuclear subs and total spending on the nuclear enterprise rises to around £70 billion, or more than $90 billion, over the next decade, said Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director general of RUSI, a military research center. That comes to nearly 18 percent at today’s budget and G.D.P. levels.
While capital costs on the two carriers are coming down, with the second due to enter sea trials, the question remains how much of the Navy and the Air Force — submarines, destroyers, frigates, maritime patrol aircraft and F-35s — will be committed to just the nuclear deterrent and the carriers.
While it is hard to put an exact number on all that, Britain plans to spend some £186 billion (about $240 billion) on new equipment and support over the next decade, but the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee called the plan incoherent and estimated a significant shortfall.
Presuming the annual defense budget remains more or less the same as a percentage of G.D.P., that spending on equipment and support will represent at least 40 percent of the budget. Submarines alone represent a quarter of that spending, with an additional 22 percent going to aircraft and its various support systems and platforms.
The combined impact of austerity-era cutbacks and spending choices has hit the British Army the hardest of all the services. Now smaller than at any time since Waterloo, it has failed to meet even modest recruitment goals, in part because of an embarrassing effort at outsourcing. It is still several thousands short of its goal of 82,000 “fully trained regular army soldiers,” despite downgrading what it means to be “fully trained,” as well as falling short of its goal of 30,000 in the army reserve.
In other areas of modern warfare, however, Britain’s capacities are more highly regarded, especially in cyberdefense and cyberoffense, intelligence and space.
Tom Tugendhat, a lieutenant colonel in the army reserves who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now chairman of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said: “The fundamental problem in defense is always personnel. Our army and navy are too small, and our reserves are not even vaguely close to being fully manned,” partly because of the new carriers and nuclear submarines.
But the big-ticket items are a measure of British resolve, he said. “The U.K. will be the only European country with two aircraft carriers, the ability to deploy force and the willingness to do it,” he added. Island Britain “has always used a heavy navy to project a light army,” while Continental forces usually have the reverse.
NATO may complain about Britain’s not providing territorial forces to deter Russia, “but it’s Germany that should be providing them,” he said.
In Tallinn, the Estonian capital, the defense minister, Juri Luik, praised the British presence as a symbol of solidarity. Estonian troops fought in a British brigade in Afghanistan, he said, “so it’s a close relationship.”
Whatever their current shortcomings, Mr. Luik said, “the British have a real military culture. They understand a battle is a battle. And they can take casualties.”
Orignially published in NYT.