The UK defence secretary has urged the Treasury to stop banking the “peace dividend” and increase the military’s budget, as the head of the British army warned that Europe was facing a “1937 moment”.
Ben Wallace’s comments were made as Britain prepared to send more artillery, helicopters and air defence systems to Estonia, where UK forces are on the Nato front line of any possible Russian attack against the Baltic states.
The defence secretary wants long-term investment in Britain’s military but claimed the issue “doesn’t get into that political top three or four that motivate chancellors and prime ministers of the day”.
He spoke as Boris Johnson travelled to a Nato summit in Madrid, where the prime minister will urge other members of the alliance to go beyond the agreed target of spending 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defence.
Wallace denied a report that he had called on Johnson to increase Britain’s target for military spending by £10bn by 2028 to a new target of 2.5 per cent of GDP, insisting he had not requested a specific number. But he told an event held by the New Statesman magazine that while prime ministers and chancellors responded to a winter health crisis by increasing NHS spending, they did not view security crises in the same way.
He said the Treasury continued to take a “peace dividend”, referring to savings made since the end of the cold war. “If the threat changes, you need to have that discussion about investing rather than taking [the peace dividend],” he added.
Figures released by Nato on Monday showed the UK was projected to spend 2.1 per cent of national income on defence in 2022. Johnson claimed the figure this year would be 2.3 per cent, when £1.3bn of emergency support to Ukraine was included.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak approved a four-year spending settlement for the Ministry of Defence in 2020, increasing annual spending by over £6bn a year in cash terms. Johnson insisted on the significant cash injection.
Treasury insiders argue that future discussions on military spending will have to wait until the next spending review, although emergency cash for military operations could be released from the reserve.
Allies of Johnson confirmed that the government had abandoned its 2019 manifesto pledge to increase the defence budget by 0.5 percentage points above inflation every year in this parliament.
They said that soaring inflation and the damage caused by Covid-19 had changed everything, adding that the manifesto promise was made in “a different age”.
Commenting on speculation over the 0.5 percentage points commitment, Johnson said on his way to the Nato meeting that the UK had “been running way ahead of that target for a while now”.
He added: “We are confident that we will meet that. You don’t look at inflation as a single data point, you look at it over the life of the parliament and I’m confident we will meet that.”
Meanwhile, General Sir Patrick Sanders, chief of the general staff, denounced the “brutal aggression” of Russian president Vladimir Putin in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute, a defence think-tank.
“Let me be clear, the British army is not mobilising to provoke war — it is mobilising to prevent war,” said Sanders, adding: “This is our 1937 moment. We are not at war — but must act rapidly so that we aren’t drawn into one through a failure to contain territorial expansion.”
Johnson will tell the Nato summit that the 2 per cent of GDP target for defence spending was “a floor, not a ceiling” and suggest he is sympathetic to calls for a bigger MoD budget in future.
“As we think about crafting a future in which the people of the UK are safe and prosperous, we must again turn to defence,” Johnson will say. “To neglect the needs of our armed forces is to neglect our country.”