25 April 2024

Rishi Sunak’s defence commitment is a paltry offering


Rishi Sunak’s commitment to raise defence spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2030 is long overdue. In his words, our defence industry must be put on ‘war footing’ in an ‘increasingly dangerous world’. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Iran’s machinations in the Middle East and China’s covetousness towards Taiwan, the global outlook is more threatening and frightening than at any point since the Cold War. 

It will also allow Britain to speak from firmer ground when encouraging our neighbours to hike spending too. Sunak is conscious of the need for Europe to ‘make greater sacrifices for [its] own security’ considering a potential Donald Trump return to the White House. Around half of Nato members are still not meeting their 2% commitment. Habitual freeloading must end. 

The announcement will also do Sunak no harm in appealing to the more hawkish backbenchers just ahead of a likely awful set of local elections. His pledge is one previously adopted by Boris Johnson that, as Chancellor,Sunak junked for fiscal reasons. Reviving it has won praise from former Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and former Armed Forces Minister James Heappey, who were hitherto disgruntled by Sunak’s unwillingness to cough up.

It also provides a challenge to Labour. Keir Starmer has previously taken cover in aping Sunak’s formulation that spending would rise 2.5% when ‘resources allow’. He will now have to choose whether to copy the Government by setting a hard deadline. Then again, since polls now suggest he is more trusted than Sunak on defence and national security, he may not be too bothered.

Nonetheless, even if one can easily point towards both the domestic and international rationales behind Sunak’s announcement, one cannot escape from the obvious air of unreality surrounding it. We can all read the opinion polls. The chances of the Prime Minister being in Number 10 between now and 2030 to ensure this increase goes ahead look vanishingly slim. This is all pre-election posturing.

Were Sunak to ape John Major in 1992 rather than John Major in 1997, he would have to find the money to fulfill his pledge. The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates it would require increased cuts to unprotected government departments by about £8bn in 2028. Keeping government spending and capital investment stationary post-election has already been said to require around £45bn. 

National defence may be the state’s fundamental raison d’etre. But with levels of debt and taxation already unprecedently high, a Chancellor addicted to fruitless tax cuts, and an electorate unprepared for another age of austerity, hiking spending on our armed forces will mean trade-offs elsewhere. What does Sunak consider less important than lining the pockets of defence contractors?

The commitment is as a share of GDP, so fulfilling it would be required however much the economy grows. But bolstering our anemic growth rate would make the choices easier. Alas, an unhappy correlation exists amongst some Tory backbenchers between a desire to demand defence spending increases and an unwillingness to back the planning reform our economy so desperately needs. 

Even if the money were to emerge, it would only help to ameliorate the shrinkage in our armed forces since 2010. Under the Conservatives, recruitment targets for the armed forces have been consistently missed, with headcount falling by over 43,000 personnel. Our army is too small and unprepared for a major land war, whilst Trident remains a pointless and unaffordable token of national virility. 

Numerous reports have also revealed that the Ministry of Defence is not only underfunded, but remarkably poor at spending even that money which it has. As Eliot Wilson has highlighted, the Public Accounts Committee recently found a £17bn hole in the Government’s Defence Equipment Plan. A 2021 report found that, of the MoD’s 20 largest projects, 13 were running late by a total of 21 years.

Losing more money down the MoD plughole has always been a reasonable concern of the Treasury when cries have come up for defence spending to be hiked. Despite the best efforts of Dominic Cummings, one fears that even if future governments were to make this funding available, it would be similarly wasted in procurement failures and delayed projects, rather than make Britain any safer. 

Underlying the whole debate over spending is the more basic question of what we see our global objectives as. The 2021 Integrated Review and its 2023 refresh made clear ministers still see our role, for better or for worse, as a global one. Since Suez, keeping in with the Americans has been our watch word: the Greece to their Rome, the Watson to their Holmes, the Lewis to their Morse.  

Over both Ukraine and October 7, claims that Washington was disengaging with the world were proved to be greatly exaggerated. Whether or not Trump does win a second term in November, America will find its attention drawn in the coming years towards the Pacific. Britain might hope to follow, even if our only contribution to a war with China would be sending an aircraft carrier to be sunk within hours.

Doing this whilst remaining committed to supporting Kyiv, vigilant in the Middle East, and capable of acting globally will require a lot more than 2.5% of GDP. We cannot play the global policeman on the cheap. Despite early hopes, Sunak now shows a depressing unwillingness to be honest about our capabilities. He has drunk the Global Britain Kool-Aid without being serious about how to fund it.

As such, whilst Sunak’s announcement may be a step in the right direction, either vastly more money or a far greater honesty about our limitations are required before Britain is better defended. Whichever party finds themselves governing to 2030 and beyond, we are hideously unprepared for our more dangerous world. Boosting defence spending to 2.5% of GDP is a paltry attempt to fix that. 

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

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