30 June 22. The Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, Tobias Ellwood, is absolutely right to say that ‘our defence spend must match security threats’. This is a view that I well know a great many of those reading this commentary piece today will completely agree.
On Tuesday, in what I can best describe as being an extraordinary twist of fate but sadly, one that is also rather typical of the current Government, one specific sentence that was supposed to have been included in an address given by Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace to a RUSI conference was removed by Number 10 in the regrettable vetting process. The words that Mr. Wallace’s speech writer had wanted to say and that he himself had suggested and approved were that ‘the defence budget should be lifted to 2.5% of GDP by 2028 – a roughly 20% increase on the presupposed current level.
HMG claims that our spending on defence already represents 2.3% of GDP although calculations from NATO suggest that this year, the UK will spend 2.12% of GDP on Defence, 2.03% in 2023 and just 2% in 2024. The Conservative Party Manifesto was based on increasing the amount of the defence budget by at least 0.5% above inflation in every year of the new Parliament.
However, ahead of the Integrated Review process announcement last year the Treasury suggested that spending on defence would fall between 2021/2 and 2024/5 by an average of 0.4% each year having adjusted for inflation which back then if I recall correctly was forecast in the region of 2.5% to 3% annually.
Inflation today is currently around 9% and likely to continue rising. Thus, unless the Treasury agrees a substantial increase in the defence budget, we are likely to not only see a another massive ‘black hole’ appearing in the amount spent against the agreed budget level but also another substantial and in my view, unsustainable level of cuts across all aspects of defence. The latter would be completely unacceptable either as a reality or indeed, politically for the Johnson Government.
As I have said many times since, in order that the 2014 Nato Summit in Wales could claim to have achieved at least something, then Prime Minister, David Cameron and the then National Security Advisor, (Kim now Lord Darroch of Kew) cobbled together a paper that called for Nato member states to ‘work toward achieving a target spend on 2% of their GDP on defence. This was agreed by member states before the Summit even began and the words ‘work towards’ are extremely important in this context because they basically provided a ‘get out of jail free card’ for those that would not be able to reach such an amount and for other who claim to do from a political perspective.
The position on defence inflation is bad enough but in addition and because GDP of many nations including here in the UK is falling the actually of achieving/claiming the 2% figure may even be made easier if GDP is declining. Worse perhaps is that if the figure to be spent on defence remains as per the annual defence budget agreement – then it is easy to display this as a figure that is still rising.
According to the NATO figures the UK will spend 2.12% of GDP on defence in 2022 – a figure that is actually exactly the same that Nato claims the UK spent on defence back in 2014.
That the UK is, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson claims, the third largest defence spender in the world, is not worth a jot if the perception and reality here at home is that we are not spending nearly enough on defence and security. Things have changed substantially over the past year; life has changed for everyone and not for the better and the now dramatically increased level of threats against the West cannot be ignored.
Boris Johnson is quoted as yesterday as having admitted in an interview that he was going to break a Conservative Party Manifesto commitment to spend 0.5 per cent above inflation on defence.
We had earlier been informed by Mr. Wallace’s team on Twitter that he had reportedly written to the PM asking to increase defence spending to 2.5 per cent by 2028, although once Number 10 got involved I am told that he was forced to use more meagre words at the RUSI conference on Tuesday saying that ‘investment needs to continue to grow before it becomes too late’.
Some of what Mr. Wallace said in a later LBC interview are very worthy of repeating. He warned that the “world is less secure than it was” when the Treasury allocated the budget for his department for the next three years last autumn and that “I would not be doing my job if I didn’t say the threat is changing and come 2024 we should look at increasing our spending on defence to keep us all safe.”
He is also reported as saying that if Britain wants to retain its leadership role among Nato members after 2024 then it will require much more investment in defence to tackle threats from hostile nations, such as from Russia. “You’ll see some people briefing there’s a need for a reality check with inflation. I totally agree with that he said “but there’s also a reality check that Russia is very dangerous now.”
Mr. Wallace subsequently went on to attend the Nato summit in Madrid alongside the PM and is reported as saying in a separate interview on Sky News that while he had enough funding for the “here and now”, that won’t cut it as the decade goes on. “We were prepared to take certain vulnerabilities on board in the middle of the decade as we got rid of some equipment and re-equipped with new but I think “I think the invasion of Russia into Ukraine has changed that which is why I think discussions are so important for the middle-of-decade funding. In the here and now we are rightly set. The question is what happens in the middle of the decade.”
He reminded that the Ministry of Defence’s funding settlement in the comprehensive spending review was done before Russia invaded Ukraine, and that Moscow is now “very, very dangerous on the world stage”.
“The world”. he suggested, “is less secure than it was two, three years ago and is not looking likely to change for the rest of the decade. That is the moment, in the middle of the decade, to say we should commit to increased funding.”
But for all that and hardly unexpectedly, he denied claims that he was ordered by Downing Street to rewrite a keynote RUSI speech in relation to defence spending.
Separately, the Daily Telegraph reported Mr. Wallace as wanting to argue in his RUSI address that the existing Nato target of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence was outdated and should be raised” although in the subsequent climb down he appeared to appease Number 10 by explaining that he simply wanted to ensure he did not pre-empt something which Johnson was due to say at the Nato summit [yesterday] and that “there were some words in my speech that were taken out because the Prime Minister is going to say them today.”
Make of it what you will but the bottom line of all this is yet another fudge, yet another denial of reality that we find ourselves in, yet more failure of Government to understand that defence must be a priority, yet more failure to think and plan forward and yet more myths being exposed.
Meanwhile, we have an announcement this morning that UK spending on military aid support to Ukraine is to be increased by another £1bn taking this to £2.3bn since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia began with money apparently to be spent according to MOD on paying for “sophisticated air defence systems”, drones, electronic warfare equipment, and “thousands of pieces of vital kit”. True, these money’s come directly from HM Treasury rather from the MOD defence budget but that HMG continues to stick to its position that there will be no additional money for ‘national’ defence frankly beggar’s belief and particularly when the UK’s new commitment to the NATO ten-year strategic concept which has been agreed in Madrid in order to address future threats to European and global security makes a very bad situation look even worse.
The UK must cease from its persistent and now dangerous pretence or lie if you prefer, that in the wake of Ukraine and the new threat that we and all others in the West face from a renegade nation state that has no respect for international law that we have all that is needed and all that this will take.
We are short on air and maritime power in all its various forms and yet we promise 1,000 extra troops to Estonia and one of our two Queen Elizabeth class carriers to add to the defence of Nato borders when it is generally agreed that we do not have the capacity to fund and deploy two carrier groups simultaneously.
Finally, on this depressing day for national defence and one in which the Treasury and Number 10 appear to be on-side to ensure that the position of UK defence capability remains moribund and that the low morale of those serving our nation continues to be ignored, how sad it is note that the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Patrick Sanders, has also apparently been rebuked by No 10 for daring to say that it would be “perverse” if the PM were to advocate reducing the size of the army as a land war rages in Europe and Putin’s territorial ambitions extend into the rest of the decade, and beyond Ukraine”.
The conclusion from all this is that the smoke and mirrors that is UK defence today shows no sign of abating. This story will be continued…….
(Commentary will next appear on Tuesday July 5th)
CHW (London – 30th June 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785