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  • Writer's pictureJames Maclaren

UK Defence Expenditure: Falling Short of Global Aspirations

By James Maclaren

The United Kingdom wishes to remain a global power, but to do so it faces a critical issue - its defence expenditure is simply not enough. The government's rests on its record in meeting NATO's expenditure benchmark of 2% GDP. But this complacency means its defence programme falls short of the capabilities required for the global operations it insists the nation is capable of. As a result, we continue to witness a hollowing out of force structures, major capability gaps, delayed procurement programmes, and a lack of attention to the well-being of our personnel.

It is important to recognize that NATO's 2% benchmark represents a comparison with member states that primarily focus on defending their home territories through a treaty of mutual defence. However, the UK, belongs to a different club which has wider responsibilities and prominence on the global stage. It is a P5 member of the UN Security Council, and a leading member of the OSCE as well as numerous other international organisations across defence, security, diplomacy and trade. Post-Brexit, it is increasing its global footprint, tilting towards the Asia-Pacific region making new commitment to international organizations, renewing defence alliances such as AUKUS and making new ones with Japan and other South East Asia states. As a consequence, the NATO benchmark is insufficient and a national expenditure figure of 3% GDP is more realistic.

The world we live in today is fraught with challenges, including an aggressive Russia, potential threats from China, and the enduring threat of Islamic extremism. To effectively counter these threats and fulfill our international obligations, our armed forces must possess capabilities that extend beyond territorial defence. This includes strategic logistic lines of communication which require sufficient air and sea heavy transport lift and can be protected, global communications, other strategic enablers such as air-to-air refuelling, and additional intelligence assets.

It’s true, the current state of our procurement process is nothing short of a mess and while desperately needed reform would help alleviate overall budgetary pressure and resolve some of the horrific equipment procurement failures, this reform alone will not create the budget headroom necessary to meet the long-term foreign policy objectives of the UK. To ensure the safety of our country and its allies, promote our standing in the world, and adequately prepare for the range of threats we face, the UK must invest more in its defence.

The RN Crowsnest system is years behind FOC and is probably less than a full fleet expeditionary capability needs (Image: Flight Global)

In times of peace, it is probably right that maritime and air forces are prioritised. These branches require substantial capital equipment programs with long lead times and are the services which give the United Kingdom military reach. However, in the short-term it is the army, which finds itself in the most parlous and greatly diminished state. It did the heavy-lifting in recent counter-insurgency operations and has paid the price with its doctrine and equipment deep out of kilter with future requirements. It is struggling to prepare for conventional high-intensity operations while simultaneously providing medium-weight expeditionary forces for rapid deployment. With a manpower ceiling of a mere 72,000 and an equipment inventory that includes vehicles dating back six decades, it is caught in a difficult position and left with little hope of fulfilling either role effectively. It cannot even meet its NATO commitment of fielding a warfighting division, a situation which puts its leadership within the alliance at risk

While the Royal Navy (RN) and the Royal Air Force (RAF) fare slightly better in terms of capabilities, they suffer from a shortage of units and insufficient numbers. Moreover, critical capabilities and capability balance are lacking within these branches, leaving them ill-prepared to tackle the challenges of the modern world.

To rectify this situation, meet the foreign policy obligations we own, confront the security challenges we face, all the time looking after and nurturing the service people we need, the UK must allocate more resources to its defence. A figure of 3% GDP is a more realistic target, especially considering the uncertainties brought about by Brexit and the evolving global landscape.

It is time for the government to get realistic and face up to some long-term decision making. It’s no longer about appearances, our country's security and global standing depend on it.

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