2 May 2024

Politicians need to start being honest about defence


Last week, during a visit to Poland, the prime minister caused a mild media stir by announcing that the defence budget would rise over the next five years until the United Kingdom spends 2.5% of its GDP on the military by 2030. This was framed as a major boost to the country’s capabilities and resources, but we will be lucky if it simply makes good on current shortfalls and deficiencies.

Nato members first committed to 2% of GDP for defence in 2006 and reiterated the pledge at the Wales Summit in 2014. Recently, as the global security situation has deteriorated and new threats have emerged, ministers and others have indicated a desire to increase this to 2.5%, but these have remained exercises in careful linguistics.

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps claimed ‘the Government is committed to 2.5%’. Leader of the Commons Penny Mordaunt said the UK ‘must keep pace with the growing capabilities of other nations’, while James Cartlidge, Minister for Defence Procurement, declared a ‘longer-term aspiration to invest 2.5% of GDP on defence when fiscal and economic circumstances allow’.

Sunak’s announcement transformed an aspiration into a commitment. He called it the ‘biggest strengthening of our national defence in a generation’, while Shapps echoed that it was ‘the single greatest strengthening of our defence since the Cold War’. While additional resources for defence are always welcome, the whole future scenario mapped out by the prime minister is based on flawed logic and turning a blind eye to harsh reality.

Here are some basic figures: the Ministry of Defence’s budget for 2024/25 is estimated to be £55.6bn. Sunak has claimed that this will rise to £87bn by 2030, which is a reasonable estimate based on current projections of the growth of Britain’s GDP over the next five years. So, assuming everything happens as predicted, the defence budget will rise by around £30bn.

That is a huge sum of money. As a comparator, our two aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, together cost around £7.6bn. Alternatively, we spend around £60bn running the school system. It is easy to imagine that this enormous uplift will surely allow the UK to do much more and procure new equipment and supplies on a large scale. But that would only be true if the status quo were a balanced and sustainable defence budget.

In fact, we know the current situation is deeply parlous. In March this year, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee published a report examining the MoD’s Equipment Plan 2023-33. Its conclusions were starkly scathing: the deficit between the UK’s military capability requirements and the available resources was at least a yawning £16.9bn.

‘The MoD has not had the discipline to balance its budget by making the difficult choices about which equipment programmes it can and cannot afford’, the report stated. Instead, ministers and officials were simply hoping that improving economic conditions would drag the defence budget upwards.

The total deficit will in any case be much larger than £16.9bn and maybe as large as £30bn. In other words, the entire uplift for 2030 could be swallowed up simply making current commitments achievable in real life.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. In February 2024, the House of Commons Defence Committee produced a report on the readiness of the armed forces for a major conflict. It was damning. ‘The Government risks being unable to build true warfighting and strategic readiness because of the sheer pace of operations, which could threaten the security of the UK,’ MPs warned. ‘We are concerned that the breadth of ministerial requirements is in danger of pushing the Armed Forces far beyond what is sustainable’.

Britain is currently overcommitted and under-resourced in terms of its defence and security policy, trying to do too much with too little. This fundamental tension has been identified by parliamentary scrutiny, and the Ministry of Defence’s response has been weak and unsupported by evidence.

The scaling-up of our defence spending announced last week is a step in the right direction. But the government is fooling not just the electorate but itself if it creates a narrative of a substantial windfall leading to more capability and greater procurement. What the Prime Minister has presented as bold and decisive strategic leadership is no more than a refurbishment of the status quo, bringing reality into closer balance with ambition.

As David Cameron liked to say in the run-up to the 2010 general election, ‘we can’t go on like this’. Labour’s John Healey has said weakly that his party ‘wants to see a fully funded plan to reach 2.5%’, but could only promise that ‘we will examine the detail of their announcement closely’. That’s not enough. Whichever party is in power in 2030 will find significantly more money will be needed for defence if the UK’s global reach and influence is not to stagnate and decline.

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Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point Group.

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