In the past month, two unrelated events occurred that shine a light on the most important alliance in history. One of those events—the passing of Margaret Thatcher—drew the world’s attention, and rightly so. The Iron Lady rescued Britain from statism and then, working alongside President Ronald Reagan, rescued the world from Soviet expansionism, guided the West through the Cold War’s final chapter, and “freed the slaves of communism,” as she once put it. The other event drew far less attention, but it was extraordinary—and nearly unprecedented.
This other event happened the last week of March, when Britain’s entire Defense Staff quietly traveled to Washington to meet with its American counterpart, the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff. The result was a “Combined Chiefs of Staff Committee,” the first such gathering since 1948.
Recalling how Field Marshal Sir John Dill and General George Marshall endeavored during World War II to “make sure that their relationship would advance the cause of not only their own countries, but, truthfully, the world,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey explained how he and his British counterpart want to continue in that spirit by building on a decade-plus of continuous joint military operations. “We charted a course to ensure that they remain our strongest partner.”
Indeed, in an unpredictable and unfriendly world, the U.S.-U.K. partnership—built on shared history, shared values and a shared vision—is a priceless asset that must never be taken for granted.
The reconstitution of the Combined Chiefs of Staff Committee is more than the latest example of what Winston Churchill called the “special relationship.” It’s an indication that something profound is happening in the realm of Anglo-American defense cooperation. In fact, it appears the British and American militaries are moving beyond mere coordination and toward coalescence.
Before exploring the remarkable depth of the special relationship today, it’s helpful to look at its historical underpinnings.
Although the two countries had a fitful history—going to war in the late 1700s, early 1800s and almost in the early 1900s—the foundation of close collaboration was always there. TR, for example, said the British and Americans are “akin…in feeling and principle.”
Pushed by those shared principles, the U.S. bankrolled the British in World War I, fought alongside them in the decisive final year of the war, and by the 1930s the nascent Anglo-American alliance was sharing intelligence about Japan. But it wasn’t until World War II that the special relationship was born.
The special relationship was christened in August 1941, when FDR and Churchill met to chart a course through World War II and beyond. Their vision came to be called the Atlantic Charter, and it continues to shape the world today.
After returning from the Atlantic Conference, Churchill told the House of Commons that Britain and the United States “will have to be somewhat mixed up together in some of their affairs for mutual and general advantage.” He envisioned joint military bases, “common study of potential dangers,” and “interchange of officers and cadets.” He even mused about “common citizenship” for Americans and Brits.
Washington and London never got quite that far, but they did forge a unique bond to protect and promote their common interests.
As if to consecrate the U.S.-U.K. bond, FDR’s personal envoy to Britain, Harry Hopkins, rose during a dinner with Churchill and quoted from the Book of Ruth: “Whither thou goest I will go, and whither thou lodgest I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God,” he declared, dramatically adding, “even to the end.” Churchill wept openly.
As Britain fought alone against Hitler, FDR opened the “great arsenal of democracy” so that Churchill might keep his island nation alive. Churchill knew America paid a price for focusing on the Atlantic. “If the United States have been found at a disadvantage at various points in the Pacific Ocean,” he said in an address to Congress just days after Pearl Harbor, “we know well that it is to no small extent because of the aid you have been giving us.”
Once the U.S. was in the war, Churchill set up a Joint Staff Mission in Washington, D.C., as a liaison to the U.S. military. FDR’s military liaison to Churchill would be the Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.
Churchill and FDR created the Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) to coordinate strategy, operations and tactics. In his history of World War II, Gerhard Weinberg notes that the CCS had many unintended side-benefits, among them: it forced the Americans to adopt a standing structure for inter-service coordination (the Joint Chiefs of Staff), and it yielded a vast web of sub-commands, procedures and relationships that paved the way for the creation of NATO after the war’s conclusion.
The alliance deepened after the war, enfolding cooperation on trade and monetary issues, intelligence sharing, weapons procurement and development, military basing and training, and strategic military doctrine. By the mid-1950s, for instance, Britain and America agreed, in the words of a Pentagon memo, to “coordinate the atomic strike plans of the United States Air Force with the Royal Air Force” and share “atomic bombs in the event of general war.”
Although Britain and America have had occasional disagreements—Suez and Vietnam come to mind—they have been nearly inseparable in navigating the postwar world: The Berlin Airlift was an Anglo-American operation. NATO was built around an Anglo-American core. Brits and Americans defended Korea at the beginning of the Cold War; liberated Kuwait at the end; and faced down Moscow in the years between.
Those in-between years included smaller crises that had a big impact.
When Argentina invaded Britain’s Falkland Islands, Thatcher vowed to reverse the aggression. Reagan told his staff, “Give Maggie everything she needs to get on with it.” So, just days after the invasion, Washington stood up a special task force within the Pentagon to coordinate with the Brits. The Americans allowed the British expeditionary force to use the U.S. airbase at Ascension Island for refueling and resupply; provided Britain weaponry and logistics materials; and, as we learned decades later, secretly offered to loan the amphibious aircraft carrier USS Iwo Jima to the Royal Navy.
“The depth of the special relationship made it impossible for us to remain neutral,” Reagan explained.
Thatcher returned the favor a few years later. When Reagan asked her to allow 24 FB-111s to fly out of RAF Lakenheath for strikes against Libya’s command-and-control assets—assets Moammar Gadhafi had used to support terror attacks against U.S. troops in Europe—Thatcher agreed without hesitation. “It had the effect of cementing the Anglo-American alliance,” Thatcher said. “It made America realize that Britain was her real and true friend,” she added, tacitly referring to other “allies” who refused Reagan’s request for help.
When another Arab strongman threatened global energy supplies, the Anglo-American alliance served as the cornerstone of the Gulf War coalition that rolled back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Thatcher bolstered the elder Bush early in the Gulf crisis, famously reminding him, “This is no time to go wobbly.”
When Prime Minister Tony Blair took the helm of the United Kingdom in 1997, he invited President Bill Clinton to address a cabinet meeting in London—a first for a foreign leader. It was an early indication that Blair took the special relationship very seriously.
In 1998, when the UN lost interest in enforcing its own resolutions, only Blair sent warplanes to participate in U.S. raids on Iraqi WMD sites. Then, as Britain and America braced for another kind of war, in Kosovo, Blair recalled Hopkins’ toast during a summit with Clinton. This time, it was the American leader who wept.
When war came to America’s shores, Blair rushed to America’s side. “America has no truer friend than Great Britain,” the younger Bush declared before a joint session of Congress nine days after 9/11. Fittingly, Blair was on hand, sitting beside the First Lady. Through the smoke, blood and controversy that followed 9/11, Blair recognized that the war on terror was not just America’s war; it was civilization’s war.
That war has spanned 11-and-a-half years, five national elections, three prime ministers, two presidents and too many fronts to count—Manhattan and Madrid, Kandahar and Karbala, Bali and Boston, America’s Pentagon and Britain’s Underground—which brings us back to the depth of the special relationship today.
Britain recently sold its entire fleet of Harrier jump jets to the United States for next to nothing—a deal that helped London husband its resources ahead of the F-35’s arrival and helped Washington extend the USMC’s use of the versatile airframe well into the 2020s.
In the Persian Gulf, an Anglo-American armada of 27 ships—19 American and eight British—is permanently based in Bahrain. Together, as Defense News reports, they escort cargo ships and keep an eye on Iran. Related, an Anglo-American counter-mine taskforce prowls the Gulf. “We are more coordinated and combined than any other U.S.-U.K. cooperation effort,” according to a British commander.
“Combined” is the operative word when it comes to the American and British militaries.
U.S. Adm. Jon Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, has raised the prospect of British assets being blended into the Pentagon’s Global Force Management System, the process by which U.S. military chiefs determine where personnel and equipment are deployed. “It would be unprecedented that two nations could bring together such a far-reaching strategic commitment for so many years ahead,” Greenert said. “It is feasible, but it would be totally unprecedented.”
But the foundation for the unprecedented has been laid. In 2012, the British and American navies began collaborating on aircraft-carrier interoperability. Already, British pilots are flying with U.S. squadrons to maintain their proficiency until the F-35s are ready. In fact, British pilots are flying operational missions from U.S. aircraft carriers.
So, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, a U.S. F-35 will take off from an American carrier and refuel on a British carrier, while a British warship fills in for an American ship being repaired or replenished. If such an arrangement augments U.S. power while saving resources, it makes sense.
In the less-distant future, Britain is contemplating the use of a U.S. submarine base in Kings Bay, Georgia, in the event that Scotland decides to boot Britain’s nuclear submarines from Scottish bases. (A referendum is set for 2014.) British subs already port at Kings Bay to offload and reload Trident D-5 missiles.
In a similar vein, the RAF recently stood up a special unit at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, to operate killer drones alongside U.S. drone strike teams.
A number of U.S. assets nest at British facilities—F-15s at RAF Lakenheath, combat-support units at RAF Alconbury, Special Ops C-130s and intelligence-gathering RC-135s at RAF Mildenhall, missile-defense radars at RAF Fylingdales—and Britain allows the U.S. military to maintain bases on the British territory of Diego Garcia.
Moving from defense cooperation to policy coordination, the two allies have formed a National Security Strategy Board to develop “a shared view of emerging challenges [and] how we should deal with them,” according to Prime Minister David Cameron’s office. Co-chaired by the British and U.S. national security advisers, the group meets several times annually to coordinate policy.
Somewhere, Churchill and Thatcher are smiling.