An International Regulator: A US View on Future UK Defence Plans

From an American perspective, the United Kingdom is uniquely placed to complement US strategy and has a key role in upholding international security. The international community and Americans expect the UK and US to act in concert. Defence reviews on both sides of the Atlantic must be mindful of this consideration.

By Travis Sharp for

In 2010, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, the United Kingdom and United States will release their key defense planning documents during the same year. These strategy reviews, known respectively as the Strategic Defence Review and Quadrennial Defense Review, come at a difficult time. While years of war and the lingering global recession place real constraints on defence spending, the West's conventional military superiority is increasingly driving potential adversaries toward asymmetric responses to transatlantic power. In this challenging environment, the UK must, from an American perspective, adopt defence plans that, first complement US strategies, secondly, uniquely suit the UK and third, perpetuate UK military power. The UK also must recognise the influence it wields as an international regulator in America's efforts to combat the dangerous transnational threats of the twenty-first century.

Challenges Ahead

The UK's wartime sacrifices, in blood and treasure, are not lost on President Obama, whose first official phone call and first overseas visit as president were both made to the UK. 'I want to honour the British troops and their families who are serving alongside our own on behalf of our common security', he said last year. The US needs the UK to persevere in Afghanistan, and stay engaged in Pakistan, to ensure that the 'AfPak' region does not become a breeding ground and staging location for terrorist attacks against the West.

Looking ahead, the new US Quadrennial Defense Review released in February placed new emphasis on the non-traditional threats posed by irregular warfare, potential WMD proliferation and terrorist attacks, hybrid warfare combining high- and low-tech tactics, climate change, and the loss of shared access to the 'global commons' in air, sea, space, and cyberspace.[1] Dependable access to these commons forms the backbone of the global order from which the UK benefits politically, economically, and militarily. Yet access to the commons is being contested today by state and non-state actors using asymmetric strategies and capabilities.[2] The UK Ministry of Defence's recent Adaptability and Partnership Green Paper and Future Character of Conflict report offered similar assessments of a future security environment that will be contested, congested, cluttered, connected, and constrained.[3]

To overcome these nontraditional threats, the Quadrennial Defense Review recommended rebalancing the US military to better support six key missions:

1. Defend the United States and support civil authorities at home;

2. Succeed in counterinsurgency, stability, and counterterrorism operations;

3. Build the security capacity of partner states;

4. Deter and defeat aggression in anti-access environments;

5. Prevent proliferation and counter weapons of mass destruction; and

6. Operate effectively in cyberspace.

Because of its historical and political comparative advantages, the UK is well-suited to orient itself toward missions 2, 3, 5, and 6.

The UK and US must retain and institutionalise the capability, hard-earned in Afghanistan and Iraq, to conduct successful irregular operations that can neutralise potential terrorist threats against the West. Through its successes and failures in Malaya, Northern Ireland, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the UK has much to contribute to future counterinsurgency, stability, and counterterrorism missions (mission 2) undertaken with the US. This includes building partner states' security capacity (mission 3) in a 'train and equip' role. Cooperation between the UK military, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Department for International Development must be strengthened to support more comprehensive approaches in conflict and post-conflict zones.

The UK also must continue to lead efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation (mission 5). With US-Russian strategic stability cemented in the recently-signed New START agreement (assuming it is ratified), the US is shifting its attention to the threats posed by nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism, which were identified as the most pressing threats by the recent US Nuclear Posture Review.[4] The UK is well-positioned politically to combat these threats given its leading role in the P5+1 and active commitment to the global nonproliferation regime.

It is also worth noting that despite his disarmament rhetoric, President Obama seems committed to keeping the US nuclear deterrent - and by extension the nuclear umbrella protecting US allies - viable for as long as these weapons exist. For example, the Obama administration has announced plans to spend billions of dollars on refurbishment of the B61 gravity bomb, a next-generation bomber, and a successor to the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine.[5] Such investments leave UK policymakers free to decide about Trident based on their own military and political calculations, not some misperception that the US plans to unilaterally disarm anytime soon.

Finally, cyber security (mission 6) must be a defining area of emphasis for the UK. Intelligence has historically been one of the strongest elements of US-UK cooperation, and the intelligence demands in cyberspace will grow exponentially in the years ahead. More work can and must be done by the UK and US to enhance their cyber defences, clarify lines of authority and rules of engagement, and cooperate whenever possible.

An International Regulator

In developing its comparative advantages, the UK must not forget that the ongoing diffusion of political and military power will inevitably lead to unforeseeable future contingencies. By retaining the military capabilities required to hedge against uncertainty, the UK will ensure its continued ability to protect itself, maintain interoperability with its European allies, and stay relevant in US and international security decision-making. This is not an argument against strategic choice in dire fiscal straits. Instead, it is an appeal for the UK to remember that the future is dangerous and uncertain, and the US cannot face it successfully alone.

The international community and Americans expect the UK and US to act in concert. If they do not cooperate, serious doubts will emerge about the wisdom and legitimacy of US actions. Because the non-traditional threats outlined above are fundamentally transnational and therefore necessitate coordinated action across state borders, the US by definition cannot protect itself against these threats unless it cooperates politically with other nations. Since the UK is perceived as being the most important US partner, the UK will remain able to regulate the flow of international support for US security priorities. In this way, the UK will be an international regulator in America's efforts to combat the transnational threats of the twenty-first century.

Travis Sharp is a Research Associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for a New American Security.

Contact: +1 202-457-9407 (direct); 



[1] US Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report (February 2010),

[2] See Abraham Denmark and James Mulvenon, eds., Contested Commons: The Future of American Power in a Multipolar World (Washington: Center for a New American Security, 2010),

[3] See UK Ministry of Defence, Adaptability and Partnership: Issues for the Strategic Defense Review (February 2010),; and Future Character of Conflict (February 2010),

[4] US Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review Report (April 2010),

[5] Travis Sharp, 'Nuclear Deterrent Still Key', Washington Times (9 April 2010),


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