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British defense chief: ‘When your friends call for help, you’ve got to respond’

A British tornado warplane passes on the runway at the RAF Akrotiri, a British air base near costal city of Limassol, Cyprus, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015, after an airstrike in Syria, hours after Parliament voted to authorize air attacks against Islamic State targets there. (AP Photo/Pavlos Vrionides)
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LONDON -- The last time British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon met his counterpart in Washington, Britain's reputation as America’s ever-dependable partner in tackling threats to global security had taken a bit of a beating.

But when Fallon arrives Thursday for two-day talks with Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, there may be more of a bounce in his step. He says Britain has recently addressed many of the concerns raised over the years by European and U.S. officials -- including Carter himself -- over the cuts to its defense spending and worries that Britain has been retreating from the world stage.

Speaking to reporters from U.S. publications at the Palace of Westminster earlier this week, Fallon said when he was last in Washington in March, there were “legitimate questions” being leveled at Britain over its spending commitments.

It was unclear then if Britain would commit to spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense, a target set by NATO. There were also concerns that Britain was in danger of losing its global voice following the cuts it had already sustained as part of its austerity program -- in 2010, Britain slashed its defense budget by about 8 percent. There were worries, too, that Britain had lost its appetite to engage the resources it does have abroad following the unpopularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Carter told the BBC in June: "Britain has always had an independent ability to express itself and basically punch above its weight. I'd hate to see that go away because I think it's a great loss to the world when a country of that much history and standing… takes actions which seem to indicate disengagement.”

But over the summer, the government surprised many analysts by announcing it would meet the NATO target over the next five years. Not massive spending, but something.

The boost was “significant, but not transformative. This is not about a big step change, but it is stopping the decline,” said Malcolm Chalmers, research director at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London-based defense think tank. He calculates that defense spending is now at a similar growth rate to what it was before the 2008 financial crisis.

Last month the government published its Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR), a major defense policy review last published in 2010. While it did not replace what was lost in the cuts five years ago, it was better than some in the industry had expected, albeit with an emphasis on new equipment over new personnel.

The winners of the review included the security services, special forces, the cyber-security budget and the the Royal Air Force. The Ministry of Defense said it would be selling off its land holdings and reducing civilian staff by about 30 percent as part of “efficiency savings.”

Fallon said that U.S. defense companies were set to do well following the review -- Britain is buying nine P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft from the U.S. aerospace giant Boeing, for example -- but added that he would be pressing Carter for the United States to buy from British defense companies as well.

“We need to see more two-way traffic, we make no bones about this,” he said.

One of the most significant differences between this Washington visit and his last, Fallon said, was “crucially we have lifted the shadow of the Syria vote.”

He was referring to August 2013 when the British government suffered a major blow after it said it wanted to launch airstrikes against the Syrian government, but it failed to win enough votes in Parliament.

After the the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, France’s defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he hoped that Britain would expand its existing airstrikes against the militant group in Iraq to include Syria.

Last week, British lawmakers did just that, voting decisively to extend airstrikes into Syrian territory.

Fallon said that what Britain had signaled with the vote was that “we understand what comes with these alliances that when your friends call for help you’ve got to respond.”

“lt feels like the bottom of the curve has been reached, and the U.K. is moving up again,” said Chalmers, referring to Britain’s willingness to intervene in conflicts. “It doesn’t mean we are back at the peak, but we’re no longer at the bottom of the curve,” he said.