Global policeman or border guard? Britain wrestles with military role amid sharp spending cuts

LONDON (AP) — Tens of thousands of troops, a gleaming new aircraft carrier, one or more of the nuclear-armed submarines that guarantees Britain's place at the world's top table: Something has to give as the government looks to make sharp cuts to its defense budget as part of deficit-shredding austerity measures.

After costly wars, and a financial crisis that has left the government's coffers bare, military officials and ministers will spend the summer grappling with a pressing problem — can Britain still afford to be a military power?

Britain's defense ministry is in the midst of the first major review of its capabilities and priorities since 1998 — a process aimed at predicting future threats and answering weighty questions over the country's role in the world. At the same time, the new coalition government is undertaking a grueling spending squeeze, aiming at restoring the nation's finances with uncompromising budget cuts.

It means the military, like the rest of British society, must take its share of the pain. Defense Secretary Liam Fox already has acknowledged he'll need to act "ruthlessly and without sentiment."

"Everything is on the table," said Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute military think tank, and an adviser to Parliament's defense committee.

Ministers in almost all departments have been asked to prepare cuts of up to 25 percent to their budgets, though the eventual savings demanded by Britain's Treasury are likely to be less.

Only the National Health Service and international development department are protected from the drive to cut Britain's national debt, which in May rose above 900 billion pounds ($1.33 trillion). Its deficit stands at over 10 percent of gross domestic product.

The defense ministry — with an annual budget of about 36 billion pounds (US$56 billion) — may need to find savings of up to 9 billion (US$14 billion). Worse, a recent National Audit Office study found the ministry already was 500 million pounds (US$784 million) over budget this year.

Departments will learn their fates in October, when Treasury chief George Osborne sets out the government's spending plans up to 2015.

But with about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, possibly until 2015, and an urgent need to begin work on a 20 billion pounds (US$32 billion) upgrade to Britain's nuclear weapons system — what can be cut?

"There really isn't any obvious candidate for making huge savings. The three armed forces are already pretty tight — they're already at the bone," said Paul Cornish, head of the international security program at London's Chatham House foreign policy think tank.

"I'm glad I'm not a policy maker trying to square the circle," he said.

Ministers will attempt to finalize decisions over the next six weeks, likely announcing their decisions in September. Officials already have been told to keep summer vacations brief, and to prepare to work on weekends to complete the job. They'll need to review 40 options papers already drafted.

Options were discussed last week at a meeting of Britain's national security council, which includes key ministers, military and intelligence chiefs and the country's national security adviser.

Analysts say they debated whether Britain should remain a global policeman, focus simply on defending its own borders, or attempt to do a little of everything but at a much cheaper cost.

The process is likely to produce a British military still able to mount campaigns overseas, but with less capability than before. It means that in the future, the U.K. is unlikely to be able to fight wars on two fronts, as it did from 2001 to 2009 in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Experts believe about 30,000 of Britain's 175,000 armed forces personnel are likely to be cut — probably 20,000 from the army, and about 5,000 each from the air force and navy. Britain could likely lose 100 to 150 aircraft and 12 major vessels such as frigates or submarines.

Ministers must also work out whether they can afford to equip two flagship aircraft carriers, being built at a cost of 5 billion pounds (US$8 billion) and due to come into service between 2016 and 2018, and how many of a planned 138 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets Britain can still afford.

Most urgently, they must make savings on the project to replace Britain's four nuclear-armed submarines. Fox said officials must review "the program timetable, submarine numbers, numbers of missiles," and other costs.

Britain could cut its fleet from four nuclear Trident submarines to three — though experts warn savings would be limited.

While Britain's military will be depleted following the cuts, it is still likely to be Europe's largest force — though it will lag further behind the military might of China or the United States.

Malcolm Chalmers, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, said Britain must accept it will play a smaller military role in the future. Britain "will still be able to contribute, but in a smaller way" to future interventions, he said.

"The U.K. will maintain its role as the strongest European NATO ally to the U.S. But the military power of Europe as a whole will decline relatively," Chalmers said.