'Security comes before anything else': Rishi Sunak urged to boost defence spending 'before it's too late'

8 March 2024, 22:59 | Updated: 9 March 2024, 00:26

Rishi Sunak has been urged to boost defence spending
Rishi Sunak has been urged to boost defence spending. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

Rishi Sunak has been urged to increase Britain's defence spending to face up to the threat from Russia.

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Three former ministers of defence said that the British government should be increasing its military spending to 3% of GDP by the end of the next Parliament, up from 2.2% currently.

The government has said that it wants to increase spending on the military to 2.5% when it has the money. NATO members are supposed to spend at least 2% on the military, although most do not meet that target.

It comes after Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced in his Budget on Wednesday that there would be no real increase in defence spending, despite having received a formal request from Defence Secretary Grant Shapps.

Read more: Ministry of Defence has no 'credible plan' to fund UK's Armed Forces, MPs warn

Read more: Rishi Sunak contemplates defence budget boost amid warship concerns and foreign threats

British Army infantry soldiers on exercises in the UK
British Army infantry soldiers on exercises in the UK. Picture: Alamy

Sir Michael Fallon, Sir Gavin Williamson and Ben Wallace all called for military spending to be increased to 3% on Friday night.

Writing in the Telegraph, Sir Michael, Defence Secretary from 2014-2017, said that if the government fails to spend enough now, conscription could be necessary later.

"Raising defence spending should be in every party manifesto this year," he wrote. "Every candidate should be challenged to support at least 2.5% in each year of the next Parliament, and 3 per cent by the end of it.

"Stronger forces, a bigger navy, more air defence – these are not alternatives to spending on welfare, the NHS or overseas aid but the preconditions for it. Security comes before anything else.

"The lesson from the 1930s is surely that if we don’t prepare properly, it will be much more expensive to do so later on. If we don’t recapture the political will and build back the defences that enabled us to win the Cold War, our sons and daughters could face conscription for the first time in over sixty years."

Sir Michael Fallon
Sir Michael Fallon. Picture: Alamy

Sir Gavin, Defence Secretary from 2017-2019, said: "We need to spend what we need to defend ourselves. The reality of the threats we’re facing is that this figure is going to be at least 3% of GDP, and most likely more. We should put that promise in the election manifesto.

"We can’t continue to be in a place where we are thinking that we can hopefully get there.

"This has to be planned; this has to be well thought through. We’ve got to be in a situation where we start building the capabilities. We have to look at how in essence we rearm ourselves."

Gavin Williamson
Gavin Williamson. Picture: Alamy

Mr Wallace, who was Defence Secretary from 2019-2023, said that he also supported the 3% pledge.

"All the main political parties should have it in their manifesto if we’re serious," he said.

"For our Armed Forces to do what they’ve been asked to do alone, and for No 10 to put its money where its mouth is on the global stage it needs to spend 3%.

"For years Britain has boasted capabilities and scale that it hasn’t really had. It has fooled no one, least of all other Nato members and our adversaries. In order to simply be a deployable global and full member of Nato, 3% is vital."

Ben Wallace
Ben Wallace. Picture: Alamy

Meanwhile MPs have warned that the government is lacking a "credible plan" to fund the Armed Forces.

The gap between the MoD's budget and the cost of the UK's desired military capabilities has increased to £16.9 billion - the largest deficit on record, despite an expected injection of £46.3 billion over the next ten years.

The real deficit could even reach almost £30 billion, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) warned, as some parts of the Armed Forces only included affordable capabilities as opposed to those the government had requested.

Dame Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the cross-party PAC, said: "In an increasingly volatile world, the Ministry of Defence's lack of a credible plan to deliver fully funded military capability as desired by government leaves us in an alarming place."

Labour said the report was "more proof" that the Tories had failed to "deal with the deep problems in the MoD".

Speaking on LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast, Treasury minister Gareth Davies said: "We have record funding going into our defence sector, we uplifted defence spending by £11 billion in the last spring budget and I think there’s about £50 billion being spent this year.

"The nature of conflict has changed and so it means money is spent in different ways, particularly on new technology."

He added: "The fact is that we are meeting, if not improving on, the 2 per cent target at Nato.

"We have ambition to move to 2.5 per cent…but we can only do so when it’s responsible to do so and we have the money in place available."

Nick Ferrari quizzes Treasury minister Gareth Davies on defence spending

The PAC warned that gaps in military capabilities had left the UK more reliant on its allies to protect its own interests, while the credibility of Britain's armed forces had been "undermined".

MPs pointed to "widely reported" recruitment issues, with more people leaving the Armed Forces than being recruited and the mothballing of Royal Navy vessels due to crew shortages.

"With the support of its allies, the UK's armed forces continue to fulfil a crucial international role," MPs said.

"However, many of its allies are facing similar challenges to the UK, which might affect their ability and willingness to continue providing extensive support."

It follows warnings from the EU that it will halt ammunition and weapon exports to the UK if war breaks out with Russia.

Watch Again: Nick Ferrari is joined by Treasury minister Gareth Davies | 08/03/24

The report also accused the MoD of dodging "major decisions" about cancelling procurement programmes it cannot afford.

Dame Meg said: "This problem is not new. Year-on-year our committee has seen budget overruns and delays in defence procurement.

"A lack of discipline in the MoD's budgeting and approach has led to an inconsistent plan that just isn't a reliable overview of the equipment programme's affordability.

"We're disappointed that not only are the same problems we're used to seeing on display here, but they also appear to be getting worse. Despite a budget increase, this year's plan shows a clear deterioration in affordability. The MoD must get to a better grip, or it won't be able to deliver the military capabilities our country needs."

John Healey, Labour's shadow defence secretary, said: "Conservative ministers might talk a good game on defence but this report is more proof of their failure to deal with the deep problems in the MoD.

"Ministers have lost control of the defence budget, failed to fix the 'broken' defence procurement system and wasted billions of pounds of public money.

"With war in the Europe and conflict in the Middle East, ministers risk leaving our armed forces without the equipment they need to fight and fulfil our Nato obligations.

"Labour has a plan to defend Britain better. In government, we will establish a new military strategic headquarters and appoint a national armaments director to make sure our forces are ready to fight and defend Britain."

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