* UK cutting defence spending 8 pct over five years
* Thinktank sees combat capability down 20-30 percent
* France seen more militarily assertive
* Defence chief warns of "strategically incoherent" force
By Peter Apps
LONDON, Feb 9 As British troops strip down
equipment and load containers to leave Afghanistan, its military
self-confidence has rarely been lower.
When Britain ramped up its presence in Helmand Province in
2006, it was a different story.
Afghanistan, current and former officers say, was seen as a
winnable war that would showcase Britain's military and rebuild
its reputation with U.S. officers underwhelmed by its
performance in Iraq.
Both inside and outside the armed forces, however, the
recent campaign is increasingly seen as a disastrous error,
seriously sapping Britain's enthusiasm for using military force
just as savage budget cuts begin to bite.
Other Western allies are cutting their budgets too. However
the bottom line for Britain, analysts say, is that it may simply
be left without the forces or the will to mount operations as it
has in the past.
Last month former U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates
complained Britain's military could no longer offer a "full
spectrum" of military capabilities to act as a full U.S. ally in
future conflicts or confrontations.
That prompted an angry rebuttal from Prime Minister David
Cameron, pointing to new equipment purchases. Britain will
launch the first of two new aircraft carriers later this year,
having spent several years with none. Defence sources say its
first order for more than a dozen F-35 Joint Strike Fighters
could come within weeks.
Even within Whitehall, however, there is open debate over
the military's focus.
In a speech to the Royal United Services Institute in
December, Chief of Defence Staff General Nicholas Houghton said
that concentrating too much on "exquisite equipment" risked
leaving a "hollow force" with inadequate personnel.
"Unattended, our current course leads to a strategically
incoherent force structure," Houghton said.
He said that while in his 40 years of service the military
been never been held in such high public regard as it is now,
"the purposes to which they have most recently been put have
seldom been more deeply questioned."
Recent wars, he said, had produced a "creeping reluctance"
to use force that could prove problematic. Britain lost 447
soldiers in Afghanistan - twice the losses in Iraq or the 1982
In September, when Parliament vetoed British involvement in
any U.S.-led strike on Syria, many officials saw the move as
setting a precedent that could also limit future operations.
London's International Institute for Strategic Studies
(IISS) estimates that the eight percent planned cuts in defence
spending from 2010 would reduce Britain's combat capability by
On Wednesday, the IISS's annual global military balance
assessment showed Britain has lost its place as the world's
largest defence buyer to Saudi Arabia, although it remains the
largest in Europe outside Russia.
France might have a lower overall defence budget - $52
billion in 2013 against Britain's $57 billion, according to the
IISS - but it is increasingly seen to have greater military
reach and enthusiasm to act.
A Pentagon-funded report by the U.S.-based Rand Corporation
said France had built a more flexible military able to adapt
more quickly to conflicts like in Libya or Mali. By comparison,
Britain's focus on Afghanistan had left its army "too bespoke"
and ill-suited to other conflicts.
In the words of one UK defence source, the British military
"is now perfectly designed to support the U.S. in the kinds of
wars America has no intention of fighting again."
Nor is that the only worry.
"The Syrian vote was a big deal," says Nikolas Gvosdev,
professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War
College. "We had always assumed Britain would be there and then
suddenly it wasn't."
ROYAL NAVY RISKS LOSING CRITICAL MASS
A new strategic defence review is expected in 2015, also the
year of Britain's next general election.
Interservice rivalries, some say, have long bedevilled
British defence planning, as has a political focus on retaining
defence industry jobs in marginal constituencies.
In addition, Scotland - home to Britain's nuclear deterrent
submarines - will be voting in a referendum this year that could
see it secede from the United Kingdom, although most polls
suggest it will not. Cameron's promised vote on Britain's
membership in the European Union could also have an impact on
military relations with European powers, particularly France.
With garrisons in Germany closing, a larger majority of
Britain's army will be based within its shores than at any time
since the 18th century.
On paper, Britain's "Force 2020" - the military it expects
to have by the end of the decade - should be able to provide one
ongoing "stabilisation operation" with up to 6,500 personnel,
ships and aircraft, together with shorter-lived operations with
The largest single one-off operation the military could
mount, the Ministry of Defence said, would involve some 30,000
personnel, roughly two-thirds of its 2003 Iraq force.
However, defence experts say that assumption was based on no
further cuts - something seen as relatively unlikely.
Britain's military is still broadly respected. Its special
forces remain legendary - if small - and the Royal Navy's
15-ship minesweeper force is amongst the world's largest, much
of it permanently deployed to the Gulf where U.S. commanders say
they would prove vital in any war.
The new carriers - although the second may yet be mothballed
- will be the largest warships Britain has ever launched,
potentially valuable to U.S. and other allies as their
overstretched navies struggle to cover the globe.
Still, defence chief Houghton warned the Royal Navy in
particular risked losing "critical mass" in personnel.
In January, British media reported the country's only
available warship was forced to sprint the length of the North
Sea at maximum speed after a Russian warship began loitering
near UK territorial waters off Scotland.
"GUARANTEED ARMY'S DESTRUCTION"
A smaller military is not necessarily less capable. Britain
might now have only 230 fast combat jets against 450 in 1993,
but they are much more capable, able to launch Storm Shadow
cruise missiles without even entering enemy airspace. British
defence technology is still seen as world-class.
There is also no shortage of enthusiasm for new tasks.
Houghton said he favoured increasing the number of troops on U.
N. peacekeeping and others talk of increasing training missions
Finding those troops could be tough, however. The army will
take by far the brunt of impending cuts, losing 20,000 soldiers
from 2010 numbers to stand at 82,000 by 2018.
Plans call for reserve forces to grow from some 22,000 now
to 35,000 by the end of the decade. But recruitment has so far
been lacklustre at best, and the number of part-time soldiers
has actually fallen, according to the MoD's latest quarterly
report. A new recruitment campaign has begun.
Britain's fourth Anglo-Afghan war looks set to end better
than the first, an initially successful 1839 invasion that
turned into outright defeat and disastrous withdrawal three
However critics say that by going on the offensive in
Helmand in 2006 Britain may have made matters in Afghanistan
worse, helping kickstart a nationwide insurgency. The operation
was launched when a UK general, David Richards - later head of
the entire British military - was commanding the NATO force.
U.S. officials were also unimpressed after a September 2012
attack on the UK-guarded Camp Bastion killed two U.S. marines
and destroyed several aircraft. The Pentagon fired two U.S.
generals shortly after but no British officers were punished.
The MoD says there was no evidence UK commanders were
"The irony is that Afghanistan was supposed to justify the
Army's existence," said one former officer on condition of
anonymity because he was still involved in defence policy.
Instead, "it's ended up guaranteeing its destruction."
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)