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15 September 2016 · 3 min read

The ‘special’ relationship?

Carter and Trump's speeches raise big questions about US and UK defence

Events of the past week have raised some fascinating questions about the ‘special relationship’ between the United States and the United Kingdom. Firstly we saw Ash Carter (US Secretary of Defense) hold Theresa May and Michael Fallon’s feet to the fire to ensure the UK supports the US in its role as global policeman, and continues to spend 2% of GDP on defence. Subsequently Donald Trump set out his plans to increase the size of the US military without any explanation of how he would fund it. So what do these two acts of showmanship actually mean for the defence landscape?

Ash Carter’s speech last Wednesday was a somewhat surprisingly effusive ode to the ‘special relationship’ between the US and UK. The exact nature of the relationship has been under question since the UK Parliament voted not to send troops to support US military action in Syria, and Brexit has then lead to uncertainty as to how the US is intending to treat its long standing ally.

Mr Carter was full of platitudes – “the US has no closer ally, no stronger ally than the United Kingdom.” However, he firmly set out his stall to our new Prime Minister. He spoke of the two countries needing to “re-commit” to standing together and implored the UK to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence.

“President Obama and all Americans are heartened to know that we can continue to count on our allies and alliances, and especially on the United Kingdom, to join us in meeting these challenges and defending the principled world order.  That’s because – even with all the change in the world – the inherent logic of our countries’ special relationship still stands.”

Michael Fallon, the UK Defence Minister, responded, saying “as the world gets more dangerous, we continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States.” Interestingly, he highlighted how the UK is focusing on interoperable equipment, for example the new fleet of Apache helicopters and the deployment of US F-35s on the UK Aircraft Carrier. During the height of the Afghanistan campaign, there was a reticence to become reliant on US equipment, because of the desire for the UK military to be able to act alone if required. Perhaps Fallon’s latest comments indicate an acknowledgement that this is unlikely to happen? In my 9 Aug blog, ‘Common sense in UK defence?’ I questioned whether the decision to buy Apaches from Boeing ‘off the shelf’ heralded a new dawn in defence procurement, where capability and price trumped national allegiances. It sounds as if the MOD is willing to make more such decisions.

Ash Carter’s measured comments last week were in sharp contrast with Donald Trump’s speech outlining his plans for the US military. He pledged to scrap the budget caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Agreement which would allow him to increase the number of active duty US solders from 500,000 to 540,000. He also promised to increase the Navy’s surface ships from 276 to 350 and to boost the number of fighter jets from 1,113 to 1,200.  An equipment uplift of this scale would be music to the defence industry’s ears, although his plans remain theoretical because he has not outlined how he would pay for the additional equipment, nor has he detailed how he would use the additional assets. However, he has said that if he becomes President, he will give his Generals thirty days to develop a plan to destroy Isis.

Events of the past week will undoubtedly have given those at the top of the defence industry cause to reflect and question. The nature of the ‘special relationship’ between the US and UK will be defined by who wins the US Presidential Election, not by anything Ash Carter can convince Theresa May and Michael Fallon to do at the moment.

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