LONDON — After days of infighting between senior members of the British government over the future level of defense spending Prime Minister Boris Johnson has used his closing remarks to the NATO summit in Madrid June 30 to suggest the budget may rise substantially by the end of the decade.
Johnson told reporters at a news conference in Madrid that defense spending could reach 2.5 percent of GDP within eight years.
“We need to invest for the long term in vital capabilities like future combat air, while simultaneously adapting to a more dangerous and competitive world,” he said. “The logical conclusion of the investments we propose to embark … is 2.5% of GDP on defense by the end of the decade.”
The statement about spending came after Johnson said Britain was increasing military aid to Ukraine by £1 billion, or roughly $1.2 billion taking London’s total contribution to £2.3 billion – paid for by the Treasury.
Currently the British just meet the NATO target requiring members to spend 2 percent of GDP on the military. Few countries in the alliance currently meet that target.
The remarks by Johnson referring to a “logical conclusion ” that spending would rise to 2.5 percent fell well short of a commitment to raise defense spending to levels many here think are required to meet the threat posed by Russia.
Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told BBC Radio 4 news that for the moment Johnson’s remarks were simply “encouraging words.”
The Conservative Party lawmaker also called on the government to reverse planned cuts that would see the British Army numbers reduced to 72,500 personnel from its current level of 82,000.
John Healey, the Labour Party shadow defense secretary, said that defense spending needed to be raised immediately.
“With war in Europe and the threats growing, Britain needs to reboot defense planning now – not duck difficult decisions until the end of the decade. No one thinks the prime minister will be around to keep this 2030 pledge,” said Healey.
The BBC reported Tobias Ellwood, the chairman of the Defence Select Committee, as criticizing the increase as too little and too late.
“This timid increase over eight years shows we still don’t appreciate the changing geopolitical landscape and the scale of threats coming over the horizon,” Ellwood, a strong Johnson critic, said. “The funds are needed immediately to reverse cuts to troop numbers, tanks, ships and fast jets – not in eight years’ time,” he added.
Estimates put the proposed increase in defense spending cumulatively at £55 billion, or $67 billion, by the end of the decade.
Nobody is clear just where the money might come from without raising taxes.
High inflation numbers are also putting pressure on a government commitment to increase the MoD’s annual equipment spending 0.5 percent above inflation until 2024.
Johnson’s remarks bring to a close for now his feuding with Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and others over defense spending levels.
Earlier in the week Wallace was reported to have written a letter to Johnson calling for an increase in spending to the 2.5 percent level by 2028 but was told by Johnson’s office to take out the numbers he planned to use in a speech to the Royal United Services Institute on June 29.
Instead Wallace settled for a revision of his speech which merely said: “It is now time to signal that the peace dividend is over, and investment needs to continue to grow.”
Wallace was critical of cuts to military capabilities in the past few years.
“For too long defense has lived on a diet of smoke and mirrors, hollowed-out formations and fantasy efficiency savings, while in the last few years the threat from states have started to increase,” Wallace said.
In a speech at RUSI ahead of Wallace the new chief of the General Staff, Gen. Sir Patrick Sanders, lashed out at continuing with cuts to the Army, saying it would be “perverse” to go ahead with the reduction as the threat grew.
Sanders said one of the initiatives he intended to move forward was the mobilization of the Army. Drawing a parallel with the run-up to World War 2 Sanders warned the audience, “This is our 1937 moment. We are not war – but must act rapidly so that we aren’t drawn into one through a failure to contain territorial expansion.”
Sanders said he intended to crank up the pace of delivery of key platforms and capabilities. “We will seek to speed up the delivery of planned new equipments, including long-range fires, attack aviation, persistent surveillance and target acquisition, expeditionary logistic enablers, ground-based air defense, protected mobility, and the technologies that will prove pivotal to our digital ambition: communications and information systems, and electronic warfare. Most importantly, this will start now – not at some ill-defined point in the future.”
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.