What would a Donald Trump presidency mean for UK and European defence?

Donald Trump’s recent ascendency to the position of the Republican Party’s presidential candidate has been controversial to say the least. Throughout his campaign, Trump hasn’t minced his words or left anyone in doubt on a number matters. The issue of American defence spending has not escaped Trump’s attention, specifically his nation’s contributions to NATO.

In an interview with the New York Times (March 26, 2016) he stated: “NATO is unfair, economically, to us, to the United States. Because it really helps them more so than the United States, and we pay a disproportionate share.” In a foreign policy speech in Washington Trump went a step further saying: “The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defence … and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves. We have no choice.” Trump’s perception is that countries are ‘free-riding’ on American defence spending support for NATO.

Trump is suggesting the US could pull out from NATO if the majority of nations don’t start pulling their weight. NATO wants its member to contribute 2% of their GDP to defence spending, currently, only five do. The UK itself only committed to the 2% target last year and has really only achieved it by ‘creative accounting’.

Trump’s claims aren’t without merit. The US accounts for by far the largest expenditure in NATO because it has the largest military budget. The US represents 73% of defence spending of the NATO alliance as a whole. As a result the US military is spread all over the globe, having a large presence in Europe.

The withdrawal of US assets from Europe would create a dangerous vacuum that could not be easily filled. Europe is not accustomed to the same level of defence spending nor does it have sufficient industrial infrastructure in place to quickly fill the gaps that would be left.

Since the end of the Cold War the presence of American naval assets in European waters has declined. The size of the US Sixth Fleet has reduced from two carrier groups to just four Arleigh Burke destroyers, maritime-aircraft patrol assets and small patrol boats. The destroyers host the Aegis RIM-161 SM-3 missile, forming the backbone of US missile shield in Europe. Despite fewer larger naval assets being based in Europe, the US is still a lead player in the NATO exercises around the continent. The annual BALTOPS exercise now has increased in importance due to growing Russian threat in the Baltic region. This year’s exercise has placed greater emphasis on high-end maritime warfare, including amphibious landings.

USS Porter

USS Porter, one of 4 destroyers currently ‘forward-deployed’ in Europe carrying SM-3 anti ballistic missiles (US Navy photo)

Britain’s amphibious capability is precarious. HMS Ocean will go in 2018 , leaving only HMS Albion and Bulwark (one of which is the mothballed) and 3 RFA Bay class auxiliary landing ships, which are currently filling other roles, plugging gaps that were once filled by the main surface fleet. (The RN’s new strike carriers will have to double as assault ships, a situation that is far from ideal). American hardware and numbers send a simple message to those in the Kremlin: America is committed to European defence. Donald Trump’s posturing does raise an important question: how much longer should the US tax-payer be subsidising European defence spending?

On a domestic front, the Royal Navy has certainly benefitted from American defence projects. Co-operation with the US has allowed Britain get a very effective nuclear weapon delivery system without bearing the full weight of research and development, only contributing around 5% of the cost. (According to the Pentagon, the Trident program had cost the US $39.546 billion by 2011). UK media often misunderstand that the successor submarine project is just one-third of the complete system. The warheads and submarines are built in Britain, but the missile is made in America. The RN leases missiles from a joint pool in Kings Bay, Georgia where they are maintained. This arrangement is unlikely to be significantly altered during a Trump presidency but Trident’s life comes to an end in 2040. It could have an effect on negotiations for the replacement which will surely start a decade before.

Trump has a well known dislike of the F-35 and says he would axe the project. $163 billion over-budget, and experiencing development problems, the F-35 is an easy target for critics. In Trump’s black and white world view this is just another simplistic judgement about an exceptionally complex programme. There is now much evidence that despite initial problems, the F-35 will prove to be a great success but it may take years to shake its ‘problem child’ reputation. The success of the RN’s carrier project is almost entirely reliant on the delivery of the F-35B. The only alternative would be a lengthy and costly return to CATOBAR configuration. While this maybe desirable in many ways, there are simply not the funds available and it would delay the carriers coming into service for years.

F35-B in UK Airspace

Axing F-35 would be a colossal waste of the money already invested and would have disastrous consequences not just for the RN, but the defences of the entire Western world.

The F-35 is another example of UK reliance on American hardware. Britain, being the only level 1 partner has a major stake in this aircraft. British defence companies are responsible for around 15% of the construction of each aircraft. This is great for British industry and jobs, but there is still a major issue. The software source code: the foundation of the F-35’s central computer core is not being shared with any partner nations. The problem with this is that any maintenance and upgrades won’t be able to occur without American involvement. This allows the Americans to maintain its software security but also its partners fleet updates. Britain has pleaded on many occasions for this to change, but as of yet, there appears to be no change in the US administration’s decision on the matter. Trump and Clinton would both likely take a similar line, the source code is a matter of national security, hence the current reluctance to distribute them now.

A Trump presidency would probably deliver limited initial change and he may find internal opposition thwarting many of his more wild policies. In the long-term there could be greater reason to worry. If the European NATO partners did not step up their defence spending quickly this could further embolden Putin and put peace in Europe at risk. Trump doesn’t like to appear weak and only time will tell how much of what he says he actually believes. He certainly hasn’t been afraid to be provocative but if he did begin a US withdrawal from NATO it would completely undermine the credibility of European defence.

The huge political fallout from the Brexit vote will take time to be resolved and there is much work to be done in re-defining our relationship with the continent. France, Germany and the UK would have to work quickly and effectively together, should the US abandon NATO. Some may fear Trump’s rhetoric but he highlights Europe’s lax attitude to defence and its reliance on America. This could be an opportunity for Europe to fundamentally rethink its defence policy and resourcing before a move towards greater independence.

Although Trump appears to want to adopt isolationist policies for the US, his outspoken and bellicose approach suggests his presidency has the worrying potential to trigger conflicts around the globe. As ever the UK should be prepared for the unexpected but the ‘Trump factor’ can only add to uncertainty. The majority of Europeans maybe hoping that we do not have to endure a Trump presidency, but either way, it’s a wakeup call.


This is a guest post from Peter Henson, a former Royal Navy communications specialist, postgraduate and military blogger. Twitter: @phenson1987