FP National Security Exclusive Interview: U.K. Defense Secretary Philip Hammond

At the British ambassador's residence in Washington, British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond sat with the E-Ring the for an exclusive one-on-one discussion about the United Kingdom's defense priorities and challenges amid shrinking military budgets, the threats along NATO's Middle Eastern and North African boundaries, and its role in collective security post-Afghanistan.

In 2010, nearly 20 percent of the British army was still in Germany, manning heavy armor against a Cold War threat from the Soviet Union. Today, the United Kingdom wants to build a more affordable, yet shared defense. That requires Hammond to convince European NATO partners to do more while convincing the Pentagon to treat its allies more as partners in collective security, rather than as add-ons to its missions.

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

E-RING: I'd like to talk about how you see the U.K.'s role in interoperability or "Smart Defense" for Europe and beyond, elsewhere in the world. What are some of your ideas of where the U.K. should be or doesn't need to be? But in the immediate future, Syria and the possible responses to come brings about the criticism of Libya, and what capabilities Europe was exposed to have lacked: ISR, tankers --

HAMMOND: We have not fixed those problems. In our own case, we're well on the way to fixing our tanker capability problem. We're still using, at the moment, 50-year old VC-10s but they're -- within the next 12 months, maybe sooner, they will have been replaced by the new air-to-air refuelers that we've bought. They're already in service in their trooping role, but there are still some teaming problems on the air-to-air refueling thing which we're confident are now solved. So that's a work in progress. But as of right now, we in the U.K., and certainly across Europe, still have a lack of the air-to-air [capability].

E-RING: Refuelers are a good example. How long before those become fully operational and your pilots are trained?

HAMMOND: The pilots are trained already. It's a technical problem around the basket and we're not fitting a U.S. basket. The program slipped, I mean, these aircraft should have been in service now. The VC-10 should have gone out of service before its 50th anniversary. [The first should be ready by September and fully operational by March.]

E-RING: With the downsizing and defense budgets, realistically what is the plan to correct those wrongs, if you call them, the capabilities that Europe didn't have? Or is that not the plan, is there a sense of, well this is what the Americans are going to provide so we're going to provide something else?

HAMMOND: No, there's not a sense of that. The most important thing is the planning. It's the NATO planning process and looking at the overall capability that European NATO needs to be able to field and making sure that in the next planning framework horizon we get the capabilities we need, we deal with the surpluses. Because the truth is, we have surplus capabilities in some areas and inadequacies in other areas, and it's about shaping the pattern of investment across the alliance to address those gaps, those inadequacies, and to do it efficiently by collaborating together, "pooling and sharing" where that's possible. Although, "pooling and sharing" is a term that's been coined and frequently used and is not so easily delivered into an operational context.

E-RING: That was my immediate thought. How long does it take to do this?

HAMMOND: I think our approach, the U.K.'s approach, is so long as we sit around a very big table talking about "pooling and sharing," nothing will happen. So our preference is to start doing some small bilateral deals with individual partners and allies where we have sensible arrangements that we can build or build on. In fact, you got those things we already do, long before the term "pooling and sharing" was invented, that we can build upon.

But the real key, the real win here, as NATO has to address trying to do the same with less, is driving deployability and operability -- effectiveness of NATO forces. Of course there's an issue, as [former U.S. Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates very clearly pointed out, about inadequate budget contributions in European NATO countries. I wouldn't for a moment dispute that. I would caution about putting too much hope on being able to resolve that in any time soon, or maybe in any time, absent a major shock of the scale of 9/11 to the system. [It] isn't clear to me what would persuade European public opinion to devote greater proportions of national resources to defense.

But there is huge headroom, even within the money we're spending now, which is too little -- but even within that, vast amounts of it are wasted. They're wasted because of national duplication. They're wasted because they're being spent on the wrong things: excessive force size without deployable capability. I'm thinking of some allies in particular, where a focus on reshaping how we spend the budgets [inaudible] to smaller more deployable, more agile forces properly equipped for the kinds of tasks we need to do [that are] interoperable with the U.S. so that they can effectively deploy alongside either a U.S-led operation, or an Anglo-French led operation if it is a European-only mission. That is the way to go, and we have quite a lot of headroom within the NATO and European budget. Yes, it's a small -- too small budget overall. But if you walk through that budget and scrubbed all the stuff on which we are spending money that delivers no real military effect at all, you would find that you have a large pot which was usable to deliver real effect.

E-RING: So, thinking of public opinion, the desire to spend on defense, there's a sense here that over the last few years as the U.S. withdraws out of Afghanistan and draws down its own budget, one of the things debated is pulling somewhat out of Europe and asking Europe, per Gates' speech, to pay for its own defense a little more. But is there really that desire in Europe to have more? To have a bigger military? The kind of military the Americans envision? Or is there a sense in Europe that a much smaller vision of that is okay? That we're comfortable with our defense, we're comfortable saying out loud, as you just did [in an earlier media roundtable], that we don't see state-on-state war happening with a Russia, so we're going to give up that entire capability?

HAMMOND: It's not a homogeneous picture. The further east you go, the more of the concern remains that we should be prepared for a -- maybe not full-blown state-on-state conflict -- but we need to be prepared to protect the borders of NATO against incursions, probings, mischief-making, ethnic trouble.

If you go to Poland, for example -- you probably in your daily life are not focused on the Kaliningrad enclave -- but if you go to Poland to talk about defense, the Kaliningrad enclave is the number one issue on the Polish agenda. So I think we have to recognize that many of the Eastern European partners joined NATO as an insurance policy against Russia, and now they are slightly alarmed at seeing NATO turning away from Russia to focus on other threats, including asymmetric threats.

So there's definitely not a single European view of this. But the further away you get from Russia -- so this is not just an East European/West European question. The Norwegians are closer to the Poles' thinking than they are on our thinking on this. But the further away you get, and certainly by the time you get to the U.K., the idea that somehow we need to configure ourselves to be dealing with the Russian threat doesn't feel very real to public opinion. Although, of course at a strategic level, the Russians do still pose the most credible potential threat.

E-RING: So you have a lot to balance. East versus West, state-on-state versus asymmetric, and then you just mentioned the strategic deterrent. Going back to the budget, the New York Times just questioned the value of the Tridents.

HAMMOND: Well, we consider it has a very high value. We have no intention of giving up our independent nuclear deterrent. And that is not the view -- the New York Times' opinion is not the view of the U.S. administration, which places a high value on having a second nuclear deterrent within NATO.

But it is clear that when we talk about how we configure European NATO defense, we have to be clear what we're trying to defend against -- where the threat is coming from. Certainly among most NATO countries, we see the most immediate threat being from North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East region and delivered in the form of an asymmetric threat, terrorist-based threat, rather than state-on-state warfare. Although, Libya, Syria, Iran are reminders state actors can have an important role to play.

So, I think it's wrong to think about the debate in Europe as whether we put more troops in Europe to replace U.S. troops being taken out of Europe. The debate we should be having is whether European NATO is prepared to extend its focus of operations into an area where traditionally the Americans have led -- in the Middle East, Near East, Horn of Africa, North Africa.

And there are some political challenges. Britain and France recognize this demand and recognize our responsibilities in those regions. There will be some issues, some challenges where U.S. leadership is always required -- Iran, Syria. There will be others -- Mali, for example -- where it is possible for the Europeans to do things without active U.S. engagements. Certainly without U.S. leadership.

But we also have to recognize that some of the European partners are not yet at the point where they can embrace this agenda for political reasons -- most obviously Germany. The idea of -- NATO is well established in the German public's mind, and well understood and well accepted. But as we move NATO to look more like the basis of expeditionary forces into areas like North Africa, Horn of Africa, this becomes much more difficult for some of the allies.

And this is not a static position. Germany's government position has evolved dramatically over the last 20 years. I mean, if you had said 20 years ago the Germans would have 1,000 troops dug in, in the middle of Central Asia somewhere conducting combat operations, nobody would have even believed that was even conceivable, and yet now it's -- I won't say it's popular in Germany but it's accepted by the German public that Germany has to engage in these types of operations. But this is work in progress, it may take another 20 years to get Germany to the place where we'd ideally like it to be.

E-RING: Give us a sense of British support of the military back home. Is there a sense of good feelings or reestablishment coming off of Afghanistan that the British military that is well respected, hundreds of years old, with a purpose? Or is there a conflict? Look at America's pivot, rebalancing to Asia, is there no vision to be part of that, to have a more global sense beyond the Middle East and North Africa?

HAMMOND: First of all, public opinion on the backs of significant losses in Afghanistan is very favorable to the military. But public opinion distinguishes, as I suspect U.S. opinion does, between the men and women who make up the fighting force and the institution of the military, and certainly the political institutions that sit over it. The support for "our boys," as the tabloid media call them, does not translate into support for the generals and the politicians who make the decisions necessarily. There's a skepticism about the senior leadership which persists.

There is also a question mark in the minds, I think, of quite a lot of people, including military charities, about how long post-Afghanistan this hagiography will continue, this public mood of unquestioning support for the armed forces will continue. It's not a given that the public mood has shifted permanently in the favor of the armed forces.

On the question of Britain's ambitions, part of our strategic defense and security review in 2010 was about trying to be realistic about making sure that we add value in what we do. In many cases, that will be adding value to U.S. operations. We expect to operate normally in partnership, and most likely in partnership with the U.S. So we're focused on making sure that we deliver components of a combined force which will have real value to our allies -- genuine interoperability and niche skills and capabilities, rather than trying to have global broad-span reach. We're too small to do that effectively and credibly.

So we will have, we do have, involvement in the Pacific, but it's very limited. We have a commitment to something called the Five Powers Defense Arrangement around the defense of peninsular Malaya. So it's Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K. That's our principal defense commitment in the Asia-Pacific region.

We are an Indian Ocean nation, in the sense that we retain British Indian Ocean territory and we, therefore, own some numbers of millions of square miles of the Indian Ocean. And so we have a seat at the table when Indian Ocean matters are being discussed. But as with Diego Garcia, we try to leverage that with our allies to the maximum alliance effect. It's much more effective for the U.S. to use Diego Garcia than for us to be sitting on it. It gives more value to the alliance.

So we're trying to maintain a capability to deliver our own sovereign national tasks, including if I may make a more political point, including the defense of the Falkland Islands, where we have to assume that we do that alone. And to some extent that distorts the shape of our military. If we knew that our allies would support us were we ever called upon to defend the Falkland Islands, we would not need to shape our military in the way we do to carry out that particular national [inaudible] pretty much the rest of our military effort is focused around making the best contribution to the alliance that we are able and being as interoperable as we possibly we can with, principally the U.S., but also the French more and more.

There's a kind of hierarchy here. We seek to be interoperable with the U.S. We seek to shape our military so that U.K. units can operate effectively as part of a U.S.-led force. Other, smaller NATO partners like Denmark work with us with the same aspiration, to shape their military so that Danish units can embed with our forces and work effectively with them. So there's a kind of hierarchical structure which I think is quite practical way to do it.

E-RING: How was the recent meeting of our Joint Chiefs and yours? Is there going to be any announcement?

HAMMOND: I don't think there's to be a formal agreement. I mean, the sense was obviously it came together in the context of a very important historical event. But it was an opportunity to take stock of the extraordinary level of cooperation and collaboration we already have. I mean, it's been described -- and I would absolutely endorse this, in many areas -- the level of collaboration that we have is about as far as it is possible to go while remaining sovereign. And I think that's what we aspire to do: the maximum level of collaboration between our nations, which is compatible with maintaining our individual sovereignty.

And the chiefs certainly are energized about strengthening the possibilities for strengthening collaboration in areas where, perhaps, we've not gone as far as we can. And on both sides of the Atlantic, the chiefs are looking at some very difficult resource challenges and are seeing one strand of the solution: additional levels of cooperation.

We're very excited about the prospect that, possibly, the U.S. is willing to engage in a planning process for its capabilities that envisages incorporating the capabilities of allies into its core plan. Whereas for many years the U.S. has built its -- has used as a planning assumption that it will be fighting on its own and if allies come along then that's a bonus. The idea that we may be able to embed some core capabilities as part of U.S. planning is something that we're very enthusiastic about.

As an example, in the [Persian] Gulf, where we provide countermine capabilities as part of the combined U.S.-U.K. effort, that is a vital capability, of course, nobody can move without countermine in the kind of environment that we're looking at there. And we know that we have a task and an obligation and a responsibility by taking that on, but we have to deliver. And therefore it's a very high priority in our own spending. 


Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images