With the arrival of each new US president, the incumbent UK prime minster hopes to revitalise the UK–US ‘special relationship’ in defence and security. It has largely been missing in action since the heady days of the Reagan–Thatcher relationship.
There is a painful truth well understood in the Washington but rarely mentioned in London: the much vaunted ‘special relationship’ offers little military value to the US. While still a mainstay of narratives from London about the UK–US alliance, the reality is that the value that the UK has historically brought to the partnership has steadily declined since the late 1990s but has been vanishing especially fast since 2001. This is not simply due to the fact that the UK does not contribute as much as it once did (in terms of GDP percentage), but that what it was contributing has also declined in value. Politically, the UK’s presence in Afghanistan was valuable but the deployed British force lacked the military enablers and supporting infrastructure to make it useful, nor was the UK willing to deploy additional forces for operations (an experience the US also had with the British government in Iraq in 2006). On both occasions, British forces had to be shored-up by their US counterparts.
Beyond the political alignment of parties, people and Polaris, or the convenience of geography, with the UK or Diego Garcia acting as US airfields closer to the action, the UK’s key value to the US lay in intelligence, nuclear submarines, special forces and a willingness to deploy ground forces in harm’s way. Each had their own significance.
In submarine operations, it was only British and American submarines that could operate for extended periods under the ice caps of the Arctic sea to track and mark the Soviet submarine fleet. The UK brought an expertise in acoustics that the US ruthlessly exploited.
With special forces, the UK delivered ways of operating and experience with irregular warfare that the US could not match. Simultaneously, the US provided the support and enabling tools that the UK was missing, as well as the mass of forces needed for direct action missions.
For intelligence, it was British expertise in areas like signals intelligence and encryption that the US did not have. Finally, the UK’s willingness to fight was an assumption on both sides of the ‘pond’, with the UK usually contributing at least 10% of any US-led coalition military operation. Side-by-side, on the front lines and ‘going downtown on night one’ were the hallmarks of dependable and steadfast partners. All of this delivered access, influence and value.
Yet each of these abilities has faded as the US has adapted to operating in a post 9/11 world. The US signals intelligence and cyber capabilities now far exceed that of the UK; US special forces operate with greater freedoms and less oversight than their British counterparts; and the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarine fleet is too few and too thin to provide the coverage it was previously able to. The UK’s willingness to fight has been in question for some time, most clearly identifiable in the 2013 parliamentary vote on action in Syria. Reticence to put ‘boots on the ground’ against the Islamic State made the UK more open to a critique of waging war by remote control and lacking ‘skin in the game'.
The UK and the US will always retain a closeness of political and military language, and (perhaps) a similar outlook on the world. But London should not think it has a preordained preferred partner status over that of, say, Australia, Japan, France or India. Each of those countries possess more relevant regional expertise and military forces arguably more attuned to the upper end of great power competition than UK forces, which are increasingly being designed to counter ‘hybrid’ or ‘sub-threshold’ activity.
How, then, should the UK be outlining its future place in a bilateral relationship that brings it influence, access and utility?
One might suggest six areas that are worthy of consideration.
First, the UK’s cutting-edge research. The 2014 sale of Deepmind to a US company (Google) reinforced a view in the US that the UK was a hotbed of innovative intellectual development. Since then, large US technology, pharmaceuticals and biotech companies maintain a close eye on the UK’s small and medium businesses, buying up good prospects. China also recognises the UK’s strength in this area. Rather than stifling corporate buy-outs by US investors, the UK might make a virtue of its intellectual edge. If the UK can do this faster and better than the US, it becomes a military strategic advantage for any country aligned to the UK.
Second, development of niche products, not broad ones. There are areas in which the UK has excelled, but mass production and manufacture is not one of those that features in the defence and security sector. Rather than try to compete with the US with British products in, for example, sales of tanks or missiles, it is more sensible to focus on where British invention and innovation is working better. This might be in unique military submersibles, or acoustic signature mapping (where the UK has a historic niche), the latter conveniently synchronising with the Five Eyes element of the Pentagon’s Project Maven. This would have the benefit of focusing the UK’s meagre military investment in artificial intelligence into an area that genuinely requires leadership.
Third, a focus on intellectual honesty in private. The US has no end of friends and partners willing to be a cheerleader for them and their policies, nor is it short of public dissenters. But the US is missing an honest friend, willing to hold them to account in private and warn them of moments of hubris and flawed thinking. The role is of a challenging cousin not an annoying and nagging spouse. A large number of Western states dogmatically follow US military doctrine without understanding the deep flaws that exist within them. Who speaks this truth to power? The UK was once able to fulfil this role (and in doing so, strengthen the final product), but there is little evidence that it is willing to think about realistic alternatives, and have the courage to pursue them. One might contrast the UK’s approach to anti-submarine operations in the Cold War, where the UK had a very different approach from the US, with the wholesale adoption of US doctrine, tactics and processes today (see the UK Integrated Operating Model and the US Joint All Domain Operations doctrine).
Fourth, as a disruptor, not an industrial competitor. The UK has a comparatively small but well-respected defence industry sector. While once able to compete with US primes for business, there is less ability to do so now. For example, the UK space sector was once able to act as a competitor to US space programmes but despite the plummeting launch costs, the arrival of private US capital players into that sector has pushed the UK out. Instead, the UK would be better placed to act as a disruptor, developing and fielding niche space capabilities that others do not have the bandwidth for, and in persuading allied states that wish to get into space of an access route without alignment and direct subordination to US industry. This role as disruptor, rather than competitor, can underline a new UK approach adds value rather than dilutes it.
Fifth, focus on parts not the whole, specifically in platform constituent parts. The UK has a history of doing well here with, for example, engines from Rolls Royce, missile seeker heads, or electronic counter measures. The differentiation that the UK provided has been a core facet of its attractiveness both industrially and intellectually. The British and American main tank gun differed considerably and brought different merits to the combined fighting capability of US and UK armoured forces. The same was true of bomber aircraft. Replication of military tools does not make one valuable; differentiation does. Such an approach would require the UK to let go of its dated understanding of sovereignty in manufacturing and supply chains.
Finally, the UK can demonstrate to other partners that keeping up with the US and being able to interoperate is still possible, despite the speed with which the US military is changing and adapting to the future. While all must acknowledge the realities of never being able to completely integrate, allies need to see that alignment with US forces is possible without bankrupting their entire national economy. If the UK could retain this edge, it would be a valuable demonstration for US allies, and for the US itself.
While the UK might remain politically aligned with the US on many aspects of international politics that fact alone does not grant it special access, rights or influence. In playing to new strengths, not poorly articulated historical myths, the UK can construct a renewed security relationship with the US that will stand the test of great power competition. The UK can act as a disruptor, incubator, hot house and red team. In focusing on these strengths British leaders can gain credibility, access and influence with their peers in the US. It requires those in the UK to adapt their philosophy and their language. Rather than simply mimicking the US, the UK will need to have the confidence and robustness to go their own way, diverging to deliver multiplied common value. In doing so, the US might just rediscover what a real partnership is capable of delivering.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Professor Peter Roberts
Senior Associate Fellow