Foreign Policy Blogs

U.S./U.K. Defense: Let’s Talk About Tech

MC3 Ian Carver/U.S. Navy

MC3 Ian Carver/U.S. Navy

Young eyes pull upward, searching for the man buried beneath thick matted grass. A soldier stands encircled by a small crowd draped in a sniper’s woodland ghillie suit, a disguise useless against the dusty soil of Horse Guards Parade. But that’s the point.  For on a brisk London day last October, among parachuters and fly-overs, the man dressed as earth was meant to be on full display – a participant in one of now many nationwide events organized to roll out the U.K. Defence Ministry’s scheme to reconfigure Britain’s armed forces.  Fast-forward four months to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s formal announcement of cuts in American force size.  Come one step closer — to just last week — and see this stayed pair of partner states meet to discuss a joint defense technology development plan.  Independently, these are but a collection of pegs on a timeline from which both states hope to mold sleeker, safer, smarter militaries.  Taken together, though, and they offer the latest conversation on the shape of transatlantic ties.

After years of exhaustive war fighting and nation building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. and the U.K. are in the throes of complex revisions to the composition of their armed forces.  Both are wrestling with questions of identity — questions about the future of land war, cyber terrorism, non-state actors in conflict, the use of unmanned drone air and land crafts, the role of private contractors in security efforts, whether nation building should even fall within the scope of military responsibility, and what skills need augmenting to meet these challenges.  The answers will reshape our cross-Pond security relationship.

By the Numbers, Side by Side

The U.S. military is lessening its numbers in a few ways.  The Army alone will sever roughly 80,00 soldiers — bringing personnel levels from 520,000 to 440,000 — in as little as two years, an effort that splits the original timeline for drawdown in half.  Units across the branches are already disbanding, leaving many in the unpleasant position of having to switch occupational specialties or leave the military.  Blemishes on performance reviews will be treated with increasing scrutiny for promotions and upward mobility throughout the ranks could be less accessible as merit trumps length of service.  If all goes as planned, Hagel argues, we will be able to fight in one theater at a time while still capable of responding to ally crises. 

Cuts are just as painful across the Atlantic.  As British forces race to leave Afghanistan, the end of their involvement coincides with the implementation of a plan to decrease the size of its full-time Army from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2015.  The Royal Navy’s only two aircraft carrier projects, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and the HMS Prince of Wales, have sputtered as their considerable cost might shutter at least one of them; the Royal Air Force will privatize some of its services, handing control of these over to civilian agencies; and at least two Coastguard bases will close. To fill the gaps, the government plans to boost its reserve force from 11,000 to 30,000 by the close of the decade.   The scheme, titled Future Forces 2020, aims to bring down personnel maintenance costs as the U.K. battles its way through domestic austerity.  Redundancy notices have thus far been handed out in three phases, with a fourth expected shortly.

The public relations work to sell these plans to domestic constituencies was always going to be an uphill trudge. If the broad strokes of the above discussion don’t sound particularly new, there’s a reason.  These moves have been in the works for years — both highly publicized and analyzed along the way.  The gift of time gave critics plenty of space to form the barbs that cast both administrations and their defense secretaries as foolhardy toward national security and the safety of overseas allies. For those who wear these nations’ uniforms, the plans threaten a livelihood that so many built on serving in harms way — and who now face separation.

Before the conversation turned to Crimea, Secretary Hagel intended to take the U.S. plan on the road, outlining new military measures as beneficial to both the budget and the service branches.  For its part, the Ministry of Defence is throwing the kitchen sink behind making the part-time service initiatives in Future Forces look appealing to war-weary Britons through reserve recruitment campaigns like the one profiled on this post at Horse Guards Parade.

Show me the Science

What may be less familiar is the U.S.-U.K. defense science and technology development agreement signed in London at the start of February.  The heart of the pact focuses on cyber security, space, and energy use as primary areas of joint research between the MoD’s Defence Science and Technology Agency and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in Arlington, Virginia.  As the partnership progresses, other government research facilities may be brought on board for additional projects.

Last week the MoD’s Science Advisor, Professor Vernon Gibson, traveled to Washington to meet with Al Shaffer, the acting U.S. Assistant Secretary for research and engineering to thrash out the breadth and depth of the arrangement.  The pact’s rather open-ended terms – in both project parameters and timelines – left plenty to discuss about how far this research could go.  If both sides really let the agreement take on some dimension, it has the makings of a compelling addition to our allegiance with London.

The agreement is the first formal pact of its kind between the U.S. and U.K., following decades of other forms of tech sharing under the Special Relationship.  Which begs the question: why now? One suspects it has to do with seeing defense sciences make a reasonable appearance on the budgets.  Tech development took hits on both sides of the Atlantic during respective sequestrations.  The heads of service branches are often wary of losing personnel numbers, and thereby the leverage to protect their split of defense monies.  When machine threatens to replace man, it comes as little surprise that it’s an easy area to target for cuts.  Sharing in science could mean money saved on both sides and the formalized nature of the pact presses each to live up to its end of the arrangement.  To do so means defense sciences can’t be so simply pushed off the map.

For clarity, the “space” element here speaks more to surveillance than interstellar exploration (although one can always hope).  To many, satellite technology goes hand-in-hand with intelligence gathering, and advancements in this arena will be ever more vital as we venture further into the realm of unmanned aerial strikes.  If the chief argument for drones is accuracy without threat to the life of a living pilot, then clearer imagery could combat the counter-claim that the often-covert nature of their use and remote operation leaves too much gray area for accountability in cases of questionable collateral damage.  See better, aim better.  It’s an unpleasant phrase to utter, but one that the international legal community wrestles with as these weapons become more prevalent in military action.

An agreement in shared tech development clears a few uncomfortable hurdles from our recent history with our British partners.  Nine years ago, the U.K. threatened to walk out on the Joint Strike Fighter program because the bureaucratic process for accessing American security technology, such as coding for fighter jets, proved too long for London’s patience.  Applications could take weeks or months to be approved, and at the height of war, the slow pace was lost on our friends.  Developing technology together could cut through the tape by translating shared brain power into fewer barriers, but it remains to be seen just how proprietary each side might get if the contributive balance scale leans too far in one direction or the other.

The less pleasant angle to consider in this arrangement is its other potential costs.  As we barrel headlong into the exploration of evermore-sophisticated defense science in the high-speed internet world, more hands in the pot will require tighter protections around new projects. The cost of collaboration could be high if third parties obtain vital information on our advancements without either side’s consent, leaving our firmest allegiance open to a blame game over butterfingers.  It will be paramount, then, that any cyber security developments ensure that sharing won’t give away the war game.

Britain has already indulged in a few of these shared science agreements with other states recently – to include Australia, France, India and Japan – in line with longstanding collaboration expansion goals from the government’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review.

Partners In Context

The confluence of Hagel’s press conference and the defense development meeting is pitched as entirely coincidental.  Though they may be autonomous events within the recent news cycle, they still offer an opportunity to reflect on how their interplay could impact security politics.  The changes to these respective militaries aren’t being constructed jointly, but the U.S. and U.K. share a long history of partnership in conflict and war, so it stands to reason that these transitions and adoptions may speak loudly to the direction of western engagement in the coming years.

Britain’s reserves focus raises practical questions about the direction of British forces.  A full-time volunteer force may be more expensive, but they act in the exclusive employ of the government.  Should more reservists be called up for longer-term foreign service, the government will be answerable to the businesses losing employees and reserving those vacancies.  This is to say nothing of how difficult it will be to reach the recruitment numbers the MoD hopes to meet.  Nineteen thousand isn’t necessarily a massive number, but the Ministry is combating more than a decade of war narrative in which reservists are in no way safe from being sent into harm’s way, and sent there again.  If they want to raise those numbers, they’ll have to offer more than the promise of boy- and girlhood dreams of heroism.  Those incentives will also be expensive and will be difficult to rescind down the road.  Once given, it becomes political dynamite to threaten a discontinuation of military and veteran benefits.

Unfortunately, as we’re now witnessing in Ukraine, no one can fully command the timing of conflict.  Just as a catastrophic terror event in 2001 propelled this transatlantic coupling into action, so might another or any other unforeseen impetus for troop movement. We may hope that the searing unpopularity of the wars of the last twelve years will dissuade future leaders from choosing war over diplomacy, but a wide gap exists between public reception and top-level responsiveness.  After a long sit you’d be hard pressed to find an example of war that ended simply because the people objected to it.  Our engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq have been unpopular from, if not the start, pretty close to it.  Twelve years and a lot of anger later, we’re still unraveling from one and only clumsily removed from the other.

It is necessary to make this point as one cannot so quickly assume that smaller forces will dictate smaller “sticks.”  It is a common exercise to expand and contract a state’s armed forces depending on needs.  Twentieth century land wars in Europe and Vietnam saw ranks swell with the Draft, Iraq and Afghanistan saw the Department of Defense flood airways with recruitment schemes and relax enlistment standards to increase its deployable personnel.  And just as the GI Bill aimed to guide so many young men toward civilian education and employment, the DoD hopes to lighten its load and lessen the political heat focused on its bloated budget by pushing people out.

Our wait to see what impact these reforms will have on joint crisis management could be a long one, as change is slow.  But if that change, potentially born from allies-turned-lab partners, keeps our forces safer and better protects civilians in harms way, then there are worse ideas than more white coats among the fatigues.



Sara Chupein-Soroka

Sara Chupein-Soroka is a former Program Associate at the Foreign Policy Association. She holds an M.S. in Global Affairs from New York University with a focus on U.S.-European relations, and a B.A. in Political Science from Hunter College. Her graduate thesis examined U.S.-UK bilateral security relations (an ongoing project) and she undertook an in-field intensive at The Hague, Bosnia and Serbia examining transitional justice in the former Yugoslavia in 2011.