Austerity-Battered U.K. ‘Retreating Behind a Nuclear Shield’

A child climbs on a tank put on public display by the British Army in Narva, in eastern Estonia near the Russian border, Nov. 28, 2018. As Britain spends heavily on big-ticket items like nuclear-armed submarines, its military is no longer deemed capable of defending the homeland by itself. (Laura Boushnak/The New York Times)

To all appearances, it was a stirring reminder of Britain’s commitment to European defense, Brexit or no Brexit.


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.

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 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 U.N. 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, 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 budget cutbacks have contributed to growing doubts in Washington about whether Britain remains capable of fighting a war alongside the U.S. military. The British House of Commons Library assessed that in real terms, between 2010 and 2015, Britain’s defense budget fell 8 billion pounds, or $10.5 billion, a cut of 18% compared with the 2009-10 budget. The budget has stabilized, 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.

“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 U.S. 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.”