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Don’t listen to the spin, we’re cutting defence spending

Robert Clark, 22 November 2022

During last week’s Autumn Statement, the Chancellor praised the Armed Forces in one breath, whilst also failing to fund the British military to the level which it is required to operate.

Announcing that defence spending confirmation would have to wait until the new ‘review of the review’ is conducted, sometime likely next spring, he hinted that the government’s priority would be to meet its two per cent NATO commitment.

However, without further funding, that is now likely in doubt. Historic levels of inflation combined with lower than expected growth will result in real-terms cuts to the defence budget from next year onwards. At the current trend, this will result in the UK missing the NATO two per cent commitment by 2025.

Given the mounting threats facing the UK, primarily from authoritarian states, this risks significantly jeopardising national security, potentially leaving Britain in a position where it will be difficult to maintain current global defence commitments, stretching already reducing forces too thin.

The Ministry of Defence is currently attempting for an £8 billion uplift over two years, which would stave off the worst effects of inflation. It is rumoured that the figure settled on with the Treasury will be £3 billion.

This is an incredibly disappointing end to what was promised to be a once-in-a-generation year for defence spending. First Boris Johnson pledged an increase to 2.5 per cent of GDP, then Liz Truss declared that she would raise it further to three per cent. Even the current Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced that he would raise it to three per cent in his failed Conservative party leadership bid.

Highlighting the threats facing the UK, Russia continues to wage its barbarous war in Europe, its reinvasion of Ukraine soon to swell with 200,000 mobilised soldiers. Whilst poorly trained, armed, and motivated, that figure will still have a significant battlefield metric to it, even just fixing Ukrainian Armed Forces over the winter ready to manoeuvre for fresh offensives come the spring.

As long as this war continues, the UK will likely continue funding Ukraine, and rightly so. But this is not cheap. A further £2.3 billion has been ringfenced for Kyiv next year, whilst rearming depleted UK munitions stocks has yet to even be successfully negotiated.

Meanwhile, Russian submarine activity continues to harass British coastal water; undersea cable attacks have been reported in Shetland and France in recent weeks, in addition to the likely Russian attacks against the Nord Stream gas pipelines in September. Make no mistake, when squeezed in one corner, Russia presses in others.

Elsewhere, China continue arming ready for a likely invasion of Taiwan within the next five years. To disregard this as hawkish thinking is the same ignorance which saw many experts caught off guard over Ukraine. Furthermore, Russian and Chinese military activity converge around the Arctic, NATO’s vulnerable northern flank.

Given that these are times characterised by great power competition, with wars being fought involving hundreds of thousands of infantry, massed artillery and tanks, whilst navies are used to control the seas, Britain is likely about to slash defence spending once more, as the government are doubling down on shrinking the size of the British Army and their tank fleets.

Meanwhile, back in Whitehall, the politically convenient decision to freeze defence spending for the next three years will result in real terms cuts. Given the level of threats facing Britain and its allies this is nothing short of strategic incoherence and must be reversed, or risks demonstrably endangering our national security.

Robert Clark is director of the Defence and Security Unit at Civitas


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