15 November 2022

Cutting defence spending now would be a dangerous mistake


This week the Chancellor is due to freeze defence spending for the next two to three years, as the Prime Minister avoids directly confirming this, by reassuring reporters that the UK is still the second highest defence spender in NATO. This fact, however, is very likely to change considerably over the next two years – just as threats to British security begin to inordinately gather pace.

New research this week reveals that unless recent promises of boosting British defence spending bear fruit, then by 2024 the UK risks spending 3% less – £1.3bn in real-terms – on defence than 2023. That also means that by 2025 will will miss the Nato minimum of spending 2% of GDP on defence. 

After several decades of underfunding, the Ministry of Defence – the bulwark of this government under Ben Wallace’s leadership – is having to now fight tooth and nail with the Treasury to avoid fresh cuts. Any reduction in the budget would be terrible news, not only Britain’s defences, but for our standing in the world.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, who has previously been a strong proponent of raising defence spending, has already warned of a departmental-wide tightening of belts when he makes his Autumn Statement this week.

Meanwhile the Defence Secretary is currently fighting to ensure that his department will be injected with enough cash over the next two years to stave off the worst effects of this period of high inflation. This is seen as an absolute baseline minimum objective. Of more concern longer term is the ability to meet the rising threats of a Russian and Chinese quasi-military alliance, where their national interests converge at the expense of the UK and our allies.

Whilst domestic security for their respective regimes (one flagging, the other not so much) remains their core priority, both Moscow and Beijing are undertaking incredibly aggressive and revisionist foreign policies, both regionally and globally.  

As Putin’s reinvasion of Ukraine continues into the winter, threatening wider European security concerns from the Baltics to the Black Sea and beyond, the Russian submarine and air presence continues to menace British coastal waters and threaten our airspace. Earlier this year the Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, warned that Russian attacks against British undersea cables could be seen as an act of war, as fibre-optic cables connected to the UK transmit roughly 98% of global communications and £7tn in daily financial transactions, and include special cables jointly owned by Google and Facebook.

Over the summer, only six months after Radakin’s remarks, Russia launched the world’s largest nuclear-powered submarine, the Belgorod, capable of controlling six submarines specially designed to cut undersea cables. These submarines are part of the Directorate for Deep Sea Research, and answerable only to Putin. Already this autumn, there have been suspected Russian attacks against the Nord Stream European gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea, and cables in the Shetland Islands and in France.

Elsewhere, China has conducted extensive military exercises across the Taiwan Strait this summer, in effect blockading Taiwan and closing off international shipping lanes in the process.  Many analysts now predict that Beijing will attempt the forced unification of Taiwan within the next two to five years. The US will likely provide a Task Force to assist Taipei militarily, and will look to the UK as the only European ally militarily and politically capable of assistance. Such conversations have already taken place between officials in Washington and London.

Closer to home, we can see increased Sino-Russian maritime activity converging across the Arctic; a joint force involving seven warships were spotted off Alaskan waters only last month.  Increased Chinese access across Russian Arctic waters will likely bring NATO’s northern flanks into some form of conflict with Russia and China in the near future.

Put simply, the threats facing the UK are now far more unpredictable and serious than even during the Cold War, where mutually assured destruction remained an understood framework for détente between the superpowers. Now, nuclear doctrine is cobbled together on the hoof by Moscow, whilst Beijing continues to ignore international treaties by increasing both its nuclear and direct energy weapons stockpiles.

Our adversaries understand deterrence through strength, and it is through deterrence that we seek not to fight in the first place. However, without adequately resourcing our defences, we are not deterring, and so are already losing. 

The time has come to change that. The time has come to stop cuts to defence, make good on political pledges and invest in our capabilities.

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Robert Clark is the Director of Defence and Security at Civitas. Prior to this he served in the British military for 13 years, including combat tours of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.