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After Ukraine, Britain’s defence plans need a reboot

Lord Coaker

Lord Coaker

3 min read

There are key moments in history when everything changes. The geopolitical landscape is forged by these moments – the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the Cuban missile crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or 9/11.

When these moments transform the world, the security role that Britain can, and must, play also transforms. After 9/11, for example, the then Labour government introduced the longest sustained real-terms increase in defence spending for two decades.

When I served as shadow defence secretary between 2013 and 2015, things were very different to today, as I sit as Labour’s defence spokesperson in the Lords. Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has changed everything – and this moment demands a matching change in approach.

But as the United Kingdom enters this crisis, the foundations for our defences have been weakened. Since 2010, our full-time armed forces have been cut by more than 40,000. One in five ships has been removed from the navy’s surface fleet. And more than 200 planes have been taken out of RAF service in the last five years alone.

Ministers must rectify the flaws in the integrated review

Labour welcomed the boost to defence spending announced in late 2020 – which the Prime Minister said would “end the era of retreat”. Too much of that money, however, is needed to simply plug the £17bn black hole in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) budget.

Last March, the government’s Integrated Review confirmed the threats to our security “are growing and diversifying”. Despite this, ministers still plan to cut troops by 10,000 over the next three years while also not being able to deliver a fully modernised warfighting division until 2030. 

At the same time, they have put Ajax armoured vehicles on end-of-life watch but won’t make a decision to scrap or stick with them for another six months. And they lack a systematic plan to fix the military procurement system, which the Public Accounts Committee describes as “broken” and “repeatedly wasting taxpayers’ money”.

The government is also pushing ahead with a £1.7bn revenue cut – the Achilles’ heel of its defence plans. The MoD is the only Whitehall department projected to have a cut in day-to-day spending between now and 2024/5. The Defence Secretary – whose work throughout the invasion of Ukraine has been rightly praised – should never have agreed to it. It means less money for forces’ recruitment, training, pay and families.

Labour Party research into MoD expenditure has confirmed that £6bn of the £15bn wasted since 2010 has been since 2019. This is entirely unacceptable. If wasted expenditure had been avoided or reduced, funding would have been available to strengthen our armed forces, and cuts brought on by financial pressures to troops and equipment might have been avoided.

While the government’s vision of “Global Britain” has set ambitions high, the means of achieving them have been scarce. What’s more concerning is that war in Europe hasn’t seen a rethink of approach. In fact, ministers have claimed that Ukraine proved their defence plans “right”.

In response, the UK is fast becoming an outlier in comparison to our allies. A dozen other European countries have already rebooted defence planning and defence spending. Germany, Finland and Sweden have all overturned decades-long defence policy to reflect the new reality. 

We, too, need an urgent reboot in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. That’s why Labour has argued that ministers must rectify the flaws in the integrated review – they must review defence spending, reform defence procurement and rethink army cuts.

Our armed forces are essential for our national defence, as well as our national resilience – as seen during the pandemic. On 27 June, I have an opportunity to ask the government in the Lords Chamber what recent assessment it has made of the size of the British army. Hopefully, I’ll begin to hear something different from ministers. 

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