Michael Fallon: Britain must aim to spend at least 2.5% of GDP on defence
Defence must come first in the spending review if we are to protect our people and maintain our commitments around the world, says Michael Fallon
Pressures on the defence budget are nothing new. Our strategic review in 2015 concluded that the threats to our country had risen since the 2010 review; that’s why I won agreement that the budget should start increasing again, ahead of inflation, each year up to 2020.
Since 2015, those threats have intensified again. Russia has broken international treaties, prolonged the civil war in Syria, undermined democracies in the Balkans, waged information war on the west, and of course committed murder here in one of our cathedral cities.
Despite the defeat of Daesh in Iraq, it and other international terror groups continue to inspire random atrocities around the world. And rogue states like Iran and North Korea have yet to properly dismantle their nuclear programmes.
So, we need to look again at the level of defence spending needed to counter those threats. We currently meet the Nato target of 2%. But as I told our party conference, that target is only a minimum. As one of Nato’s leading members we should aim to do better.
Our Brexit and general election commitments towards a global Britain should not limit our ambitions to agreements about trade. The promotion of our values around the world is the surest way to ensure our citizens’ safety and prosperity. If we want to stand tall in the world, then we must live up to our international responsibilities.
That means continuing to underpin those fragile democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq, continuing to provide military training and counter-terrorism support. It means doing more peacekeeping in troubled countries in Africa. It means following through our commitments to our friends in the Gulf, working with their forces to protect vital trade routes and tackle terrorism. It also means developing our presence in Asia-Pacific with key allies such as Australia and Japan.
We must also respond to the changing technologies of defence. Cyber warfare is now part of our armoury, both defensive and offensive. Keeping ahead of our rivals will not come cheap. Better ballistic missile defence will be essential while rogue states and terrorist groups can get hold of longer-range missiles. Russia is spending more on everything – conventional weapons, hybrid warfare, nuclear submarines and missiles.
Essential major programmes such as the fighter aircraft to replace Typhoon, and new frigates to replace the Type 23s won’t get any cheaper by being postponed or commissioned piecemeal. The equipment programme is already challenging as industry costs keep rising. It needs a long-term approach that locks in proper funding from the start. Investment in defence also leads to the creation of more high-quality jobs, benefiting the wider economy.
Of course, defence, like any other large organisation, can always become more efficient. All four commands have more to do to root out duplication, offload unused buildings and land, and find new ways of working better together. But the Treasury in turn must recognise the pressures arising from the exceptional costs of the nuclear programme and the unexpected fall in sterling since the referendum, which has made defence equipment purchased abroad more expensive.
The 2010 review necessarily involved some painful cuts. In the 2015 review I was able to start growing the budget again. This spending review is the opportunity now to put defence spending on a firmer footing for the 2020s and beyond.
So, in our first post-Brexit spending review let’s be more ambitious. I want ministers to set a new target – at least 2.5% of GDP, to be reached by the end of the new spending period.
In the spring, defence will inevitably be competing against other compelling claims. As our population ages, social care must be properly funded. The schools and police budgets, too, have been under pressure. But defence comes first. Without properly funded defence we can neither protect our people nor play our full part in the world.
Sir Michael Fallon is Conservative MP for Sevenoaks and a former defence secretary