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Ex-Naval Chief Warns Of Nuclear War With Russia Without Defence Spending Increases

4 min read

The former head of the Navy has accused the government of a repeated failure to spend enough on defence, and believes this has increased the chances of nuclear war with Russia.

Lord West of Spithead, the former First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, told PoliticsHome that increases to defence spending were essential "should things turn nasty" with Russia across Europe following Putin's brutal invasion of Ukraine.

"Should there suddenly be a world war, if you haven't got the conventional forces available to fight properly you go pretty quickly to nuclear, and I don't think that helps any of us," he added. 

This week a Cabinet row has emerged over funding for the Armed Forces, with Defence secretary Ben Wallace calling for for increased spending before it "becomes too late”. He has warned the “world is less secure than it was” when the Treasury allocated the budget for his department for the next three years last autumn. 

The UK currently allocates around 2 per cent of its GDP to defence, in line with the target set for Nato members, but Wallace has reportedly written to Boris Johnson asking to increase the GDP contribution to 2.5 per cent by 2028. The Prime Minister has defended the current position, saying Britain is the third biggest defence spender in the world, and that the actual figure is currently 2.3% of GDP when Ukraine support is taken into account – though that was contested by Wallace.

West believes that Russia's invasion of Ukraine should "gird our loins” into adjusting UK government priorities.

He praised Wallace for understanding the problem, and called for an increase to defence spending. He said it was “an absolute disgrace” that money has not been found to improve resilience against foreign threats.

A Home Office minister under Gordon Brown after his naval career, Lord West said he finds it “extraordinary” that the need for more investment has not been grasped more widely within government.

“There's an absolute need, and there has been for several months, to give a boost to our defence spending because of the situation that the world is in,” he explained. 

New research shows defence spending faces real-terms cuts of £1.7billion over the next three years. Analysis from the House of Commons Library, commissioned by the Liberals Democrats, forecasts that the Ministry of Defence budget will be eroded by soaring inflation, leading to a 5.6% real terms cut to day-to-day spending by 2024/25.

Lord West said he was “delighted” that extra money for the MoD was found in the spending review last year, but added that didn't make up for the budget reductions put in place since 2010.

“The constant salami-slicing and cuts have actually caused real damage to our defence capability, and in terms of resilience we’re poorly placed,” the peer explained.

“It is an absolute disgrace. We've got to spend money to get these things so that we are resilient.”

He said the Navy doesn’t have enough ships and “we've got no bloody troops” to be able to fight even a defensive conflict.

“There is no resilience, we’ve got no stockpiles. We're giving material to Ukraine, taking stuff out of our own stockpiles which were low anyway,” he added.

Johnson is set to announce a further £1billion of military support to Kyiv, which will go towards sophisticated air defence systems, un-crewed aerial vehicles, innovative new electronic warfare equipment and thousands of pieces of vital kit for Ukrainian soldiers.

There are suggestions the UK’s much-admired response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine could convince the Treasury to allocate more money for defence to bolster the UK military, as well as to support Ukraine. 

“I bloody well hope it will,” Lord West added. “Because it is crucial – Putin watches this, Putin must laugh if he sees we're not even willing to increase defence spending, he'll think they're not interested in defence.

“That's what he thought over the last few years – he’s watched Europe and seen their spending, which is even worse than ours.

"That is very dangerous because should things turn nasty, and should there suddenly be a world war, if you haven't got the conventional forces available to fight properly you go pretty quickly to nuclear, and I don't think that helps any of us.”

On Thursday Foreign Secretary Liz Truss declined to say whether she agrees with Wallace's plea for a significant increase in defence spending, but said the budget must be "fit for purpose".

"I agree that we need to make sure that all of the Western alliance is spending more on defence and putting more into supporting our eastern allies,” she told Sky News from a Nato summit in Madrid. 

“I don't think any of us expected to see this type of war on European land in our lifetimes."

Labour has also criticised government spending, with shadow defence secretary John Healey saying plans to cut the size of the British Army to 73,000 troops should be abandoned because of the war in Ukraine.

"With threats increasing, the government risks leaving our armed forces without the equipment and troops they need to fight and fulfil our Nato obligations," he said.

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