US Troops land on Normandy beach

D-Day. June 6. London. Good news – it is raining. Good to see the natural order restored. Back in 1944 Americans, Britons and Canadians were struggling ashore onto Norman beaches under heavy fire to rid Europe of the Nazis. On this day of days it is right and proper to look back and remember and in that light consider Anglo-American defence relations today.

For me this is an especially poignant moment as my grandfather was there and this week I have been called to give evidence to the British Parliament on Britain’s future defence strategy, or what is left of it! The word on the street in Washington is that Britain is seen as an increasingly unreliable ally, abandoning the four principles of alliance upon which D-Day was launched – strategy, influence, competence and commitment. Was D-Day the high water mark of Anglo-American defence relations?

First, let me de-mythologise the relationship that existed back in 1944. The US routinely demonstrated frustration bordering on a lack of respect for the ‘ponderous’ British. That was unfair. D-Day and the subsequent battle for Normandy are cases in point. Of the 156,000 allied troops landed on D-Day, only 57,500 were American, with the rest being mainly British and Canadian, with the bulk British. British General Montgomery (Monty), so often derided by American historians, was the architect of D-Day, which worked like clockwork on the two British and one Canadian beach.

It was the British and Canadians who took on and defeated the cream of the German 7th Army, particularly the Panzer Lehr and Hitler Jugend SS divisions. This enabled the Americans to eventually break out of much more lightly-defended parts of Normandy. Montgomery said the Allies would reach the River Seine on D plus 90. That objective was achieved on D plus 81.

Furthermore, the British advance from Normandy to Antwerp was the fastest advance in military history until the American advance on Baghdad in 2003. Even Operation Market Garden, the attempt to get over the Rhine at Arnhem bridge in September 1944, and widely regarded as "Monty’s Folly," could have worked if US Airborne had taken intact the bridge over the River Maas at Grave. Their failure held up the British XXX Corps for a critical thirty-six hours.

But what of today? The evidence of the past decade would suggest the high-water mark may indeed have been reached. Britain was an effective junior partner during the re-taking of Kuwait in 1991 and the performance of the British armed forces during the 2003 Iraq War was solid, if not spectacular. However, in Afghanistan the British Army has come close to being broken, trying to follow American strategy on British resources over a long time and at great distance from a politically uncertain home base.

And yet, the British are still there and in force in Afghanistan, with some ten thousand troops deployed unconstrained by the absurd caveats and rules of non-engagement of other Europeans. Equally, Britain took the lead wth France to uphold UN Security Council Resolution 1973 in Libya, an operation which has just entered a new and dangerous phase with the deployment of British Army attack helicopters.

So, why is Washington sniping (at least the ever-shrinking bit that cares about Britain)?

There are three main concerns which have been apparent since London launched the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) back in late 2010 and which are growing in intensity. First, Britain’s ability to work effectively with the US is being rapidly eroded. Second, Britain’s ability to influence and lead European and other allies and partners is being dangerously undermined. Third, Prime Minister Cameron is retreating ever further into strategic and defence ‘spin’.

Current actions are particularly exercising the Americans. First, Defence Secretary Fox seems to be re-visiting the SDSR by carrying out a further review to ‘match’ defence planning assumptions to funding. It is little more than yet another thinly-disguised Treasury-driven attempt to force armed forces at war to squeeze a further £1 billion of cuts above and beyond the savage cuts announced in the SDSR. The SDSR abandoned any pretence at ‘strategy’, this review is in danger of burying it.

Second, the British seem unsure as to the effect of policy. The Government aims to cut some £38 billion ($62.4 billion) of unfunded commitments inherited from its Labour predecessor, mainly in the procurement and acquisition of defence equipment. Not an unreasonable goal the Government thought it had successfully found at least £19 billion ($31.2 billion) of savings by 2015. However, my sources in Washington tell me that a further £9 billion ($14.8 billion) of over-spend has now been uncovered and that the real figure is back up to £28 billion ($46 billion). Any pretence to competence is being rapidly abandoned.

Third, the British are behaving badly. Prime Minister Cameron is ‘punishing’ the Americans for not supporting him more aggressively over Libya. Specifically, he is refusing to permit the British Army to replace the successful US Marine Corps mission in the upper Gereskh valley, which ends in October. This is in spite of military advice that the British Army is up for the mission and can do the job. As a consequences the Taliban will re-infiltrate an area of critical strategic significance close to the main Helmand province base at Lashkar Gah. Such a failure could torpedo any hopes of handing authority over to the Afghans as part of the transition. Any pretence to commitment is in danger of being abandoned.

This is not the first time Prime Minister Cameron has behaved in such a dangerously churlish manner. He scrapped the brand new MRA4 spy aircraft, to teach a ‘lesson’ to BAe Systems, a defence contractor. How we British could have done with such eyes and ears over Libya today. The Prime Minister is also micro-managing the Libyan campaign, issuing so-called ‘red cards’ to stop attacks on targets the military regard as essential. As for the famous attack helicopters, much of it is ‘spin’. The British can only deploy four, the French fourteen. The Americans? They are quietly having to divert their own over-used and over-stretched strategic eyes and ears to support the British and the French. No wonder the Yanks call the Brits the ‘Borrowers’. Just wait until Congress finds out!

In this light D-Day does indeed seem a very, very long time ago and the Americans have a point. Both the Americans and the British armed forces deserve better. Too often they are forced to make up for London’s strategic contradictions, its lack of vision, the strategy and policy mistakes, as well as the endless prevarications of an increasingly surreal Whitehall village. With the gap between stated ambition and available forces now yawning London is snatching contempt from the jaws of American respect. Strategy, influence, competence and commitment underpinned D-Day. The four principles still inform an Anglo-American defence relationship which the British still regard as vital to both national and defence strategy.

If London is serious (a big ‘if) it is time for to wake up and smell the coffee…as the Americans would say.

Professor Julian Lindley-French, a member of the Atlantic Council Strategic Advisor’s Group, is Special Professor of Strategic Studies, University of Leiden, Netherlands and Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.