Friday, March 17, 2006

Could defense budget cuts weaken the special relationship between Britain and the United States?

As shadow secretary of defense, I am an opponent of the current Labor government in Britain. But this week I came to Washington to submit testimony about an issue on which both our political parties see eye-to-eye: the need for technology transfer, STOVL and the second engine for the Joint Strike Fighter. It is not only vital to Britain’s future defense; it is essential to our continued ability to be an effective strategic military partner to the United States.

The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is a new multi-role fighter designed by the United States and Britain to replace the current generation of fighters, including a short take off and vertical landing version that will succeed the Harrier “jump jet” used by Britain and the U.S. Marine Corps.

While many other friendly nations are participating in the JSF program, the United Kingdom is the only Level 1 partner in the System Development and Demonstration phase, contributing our unique STOVL technology to the effort. We have invested $2.25 billion and plan to buy some 150 aircraft.

However, there are now proposals for the U.S. to discontinue this part of the JSF program. The Air Force and Navy versions, designed to take off from runways and large U.S. carriers, would go forward. But the STOVL version, planned for the Marine Corps and British aircraft carriers, would be canceled.

Some see eliminating the STOVL or the second engine as a mere cost-cutting measure. Others do not want to share U.S. technology with Britain to the degree necessary if we are to maintain our fleet over its projected 30-year lifespan.

There are, however, broader and more profound issues. Canceling the program would seriously disrupt our national defense planning. Britain is relying on this JSF variant for two new super-carriers that will be central to our ability to project power around the globe. We have made huge sacrifices elsewhere in our nation’s defense budget because we see this capability as fundamental to a continued active U.K. role in the strategic defense of the Free World.

Cancellation would also invariably effect future defense procurement decisions, with seriously negative consequences that may not be fully appreciated on this side of the Atlantic.

There is already growing concern across the British political spectrum that even after our substantial support in Afghanistan, Iraq and the war on terror, the U.S. has not been more forthcoming in allowing us access to vital technology for a project in which we are a major investor and partner.

Without doubt, cancellation of the program would play into the hands of those in Europe who are even now all too willing to suggest the U.S. cannot be relied on and that Britain should look instead to France and European institutions on defense.

One goal of the Europe-firsters is to use defense procurement to lock Britain into an exclusively European defense force, one in which the U.S. has no role. It’s no secret there are many in Europe who see this as an effective way to slowly but surely sunder the special relationship between America and Britain.

The same concerns apply to the possible termination of the development of a second engine variant for the conventional JSF, a project in which Rolls Royce has a major interest.

These projects are cutting-edge technology, and in similar cases the United States has traditionally developed two engines to offset risk and safeguard supply. It’s smart procurement policy to go forward with both.

But again, dropping the program would send very negative signals to British companies considering future collaborations with American industry and generate considerable economic pressure — on top of political pressure — to partner instead with European counterparts. In this way, “buy American” becomes, for Britain, an injunction to “buy European.”

In the war against terror, in the cities of Iraq and in the mountains of Afghanistan, the United Kingdom has stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States. We have been there, first, because we share the same values of freedom and democracy as America, but also because our close military collaboration — which extends from technology to intelligence — has given us the ability to “hit above our weight.”

Now is not the time to break up that partnership.

Dr. Liam Fox is a Conservative member of the House of Commons and shadow British secretary of state for defense.

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