British Forces: Still Punching Above Their Weight?

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Toby Melville / AFP / Getty Images

British Defence Secretary, Liam Fox (2nd right), and outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshall, Jock Stirrup (right), listen as Prime Minister David Cameron addresses military staff at The Permanent Joint Headquarters in Northwood, north London on October 19, 2010

Forget the Cold War and the prospect of the West and the old U.S.S.R. lobbing nuclear warheads at each other. According to the U.K.'s first defense and security review in 12 years, it's computer hackers crashing entire transport, communication, financial, security and weapons systems we now need to worry about.

And this invisible warfare may already be underway, with the most dramatic example being the Stuxnet computer worm which was discovered primarily in Iran, but to a smaller degree in the U.K., U.S. and elsewhere this July amid speculation it's aim was to sabotage Iran's nuclear program, although by whom remains a mystery.

Released on Oct. 18 and 19, the report warns that such an attack on the U.K. "could have a potentially devastating real world effect." As a result, the government officials who drew up the review described four "tier one" risks deemed to be "the highest priorities for U.K. national security over the next five years." They include cyber attacks, international terrorism, an international military crisis drawing in the U.K. and natural disasters.

Against this backdrop it might be understandable that a root-and-branch review of the U.K.'s military capabilities and strategy was overdue, with question marks raised over the need for huge aircraft carriers that would have made Nelson proud, battle tanks ideal for fighting Soviet forces on the German plain and huge conventional troop numbers. But, when Prime Minister David Cameron announced Tuesday the results of the coalition government's long-awaited security and defense review designed to meet the changed circumstances, critics immediately claimed it had been driven entirely by the need to slash government spending as part of the battle to reduce the U.K.'s massive deficit of £155 billion ($245 billion) this year alone, and had little to do with re-configuring Britain's defenses for the 21st century.

The opposition Labour party led the charge by focusing on the decision to press ahead with the building of two new aircraft carriers with a price tag of £5.2 billion ($8.2 billion) — on the grounds that canceling them would have cost as much — but then axing the very Harrier jump jets that would fly off them, leaving them with only helicopters until at least 2019. Opposition leader Ed Miliband questioned that logic before Parliament: "Is it the best strategic decision for the next decade for Britain to have aircraft carriers without aircraft?"

Similarly, decisions to cut overall forces' numbers by 17,000 to 158,500, cut by 40% the compliment of tanks and heavy artillery, decommission four years early the navy's flagship Ark Royal carrier and delay the replacement of the Trident nuclear missile system were being criticized by Labour as pure cost-cutting exercises aimed at slashing the £46 billion ($73 billion) defense budget by around 8% — "a spending review dressed up as a defense review," as Miliband put it.

Not so, insisted Defense Secretary Liam Fox, who fought a pretty public campaign against attempts to slash his budget even further when a letter he wrote to Cameron warning of the disastrous consequences of such cuts was leaked to the media earlier this month.

According to Fox, widely believed to have won his war with the treasury and to have avoided a 10% budget cut, the savings seek to strike the "correct balance over 30 to 40 years." He told the BBC: "My aim in this review was to be able to ensure that, whatever threats come at the U.K., we have a sufficiently large and capable army, special forces, a flexible navy and an air force with the ability to project British air power where required."

And, needless to say, those computer warriors at the Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) in Gloucestershire were one of the beneficiaries of the package, receiving a £500 million ($791 million) boost to help them fight the cyber war, with a particular focus on any threat to the 2012 Olympics in London.

Both Fox and Cameron have insisted the changes do not undermine Britain's place in the world or its commitment to NATO by continuing to meet the alliance's target of defense spending of 2% of G.D.P. And Cameron has been eager to stress there will be no changes whatsoever to spending on and commitment to the ongoing operation in Afghanistan.

But the Prime Minister clearly felt a need to reassure his U.S. allies on that point after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concerns over cuts last week. He phoned President Obama on Oct. 18 and told him the U.K. "would remain a first rate military power and a robust ally of the United States."

"We will be reforming our defense and security capabilities for the challenges of the 21st century and remain committed to meeting our responsibilities in NATO and will continue to work closely with the U.S. on the full range of current security priorities," he said, according to a Downing Street spokesman.

But, allied to those fears this was a review driven by savings rather than strategy, that remains the big question hanging over the announcement. In 1993, the then Conservative Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd famously declared that, thanks to its military strength, Britain "punched above its weight" in the world. After the 2010 defense cuts, will that still be the case or will the U.K. have slipped into a lightweight league?