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Increase in defence spending is needed to combat growing threat of Russia and China

4 min read

Even with an extra £16.4 billion announced in the Integrated Review spread over the next four years, defence spending will be nowhere near the 3 per cent of GDP recommended by the Defence Committee.

In 1980, I first examined a Strategic Defence Review during academic research. Commissioned by the Chiefs of Staff Committee, a year after the war in Europe ended, the Review of Defence Problems was conducted by a specially created COS Future Planning Section and completed at the end of March 1947. Like the succession of modern documents – with increasingly cumbersome titles – published periodically since 1998, the FPS report was substantial: over 100 pages of text supported by 16 annexes, three maps and an index. Yet, there was one unique feature. The 1947 Review was so highly classified that, more than 30 years later, it was still not freely available.

Are comparably secret versions held under lock and key, in Whitehall, of all five major Defence and Security Reviews held since I entered Parliament in 1997? I certainly hope so, for it has always seemed strange to forewarn one’s enemies precisely how we intend to thwart them. In one respect, at least, the latest Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy acknowledges this. No longer will figures be revealed for the number of nuclear warheads in our ‘operational’ stockpile (said to be no more than 120 in the 2015 Review) nor for the numbers deployed on each Trident submarine at sea (reduced from 48 to 40 after the 2010 Review).

Both the 2010 and 2015 Reviews also undertook to reduce the ‘overall’ nuclear warhead ceiling from a maximum of 225 to a maximum of 180 by the mid-2020s – a pledge which has now been scrapped and replaced by a new overall ceiling “of no more than 260”. Predictably, this is being denounced as a 40 per cent increase in the stockpile; but it is probably nothing of the sort. It is more likely the cancellation of a reduction which has not yet been completed (if, indeed, it ever began). Although the new maximum (260) exceeds the existing maximum (225), this could be to accommodate any temporary overlap during the transition from the current warheads to their replacements. Yet, that changeover is not due to happen for well over a decade.

At the root of our defence dilemma is one inescapable limitation: between 1988 and 2018, Defence expenditure halved as a proportion of GDP

Since the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1991, the pendulum has swung drastically and erratically between the different threat scenarios with which UK Armed Forces might be confronted. After the Islamist attacks of 2001 and our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, senior military figures understandably questioned whether we should continue preparing for ‘state-on-state’ warfare at all, in an era dominated by counter-insurgency campaigns. With the re-emergence of an aggressive Russia and the rise of an assertive China, we can now see how dangerous a shift that would have been.

At the root of our defence dilemma is one inescapable limitation: between 1988 and 2018, Defence expenditure halved as a proportion of GDP. Even with an extra £16.4 billion spread over the next four years, defence spending will be nowhere near the 3 per cent of GDP recommended by the Defence Committee, let alone the 4 to 5 per cent of the Cold War era. The taking of a ‘peace dividend’ was probably inevitable after the collapse of the Soviet empire; but that particular honeymoon has now entirely evaporated. As the Integrated Review bluntly states: “NATO will remain the foundation of collective security in our home region of the Euro-Atlantic, where Russia remains the most acute threat to our security.”

The approach to China is far more ambivalent. It is “the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security” and “a systemic challenge…to our security, prosperity and values”. Yet, at the same time, it is also “an increasingly important partner in tackling global challenges like pandemic preparedness” and the UK “will continue to pursue a positive economic relationship, including deeper trade links and more Chinese investment in the UK”. The authors of the Review clearly worry about the threat but want to grasp the opportunity. This may explain repeated disavowal by Ministers, when it was published, of any wish for a “new Cold War” with China.

Yet, the document is peppered with references to what is termed “systemic” competition and challenge, ranging beyond traditional defence and security, and testing “the line between peace and war, as malign actors use a wider range of tools … to achieve their objectives without open confrontation or conflict”. To those of us active in the 1980s, that sounds strikingly similar to the cycle of Cold War and Détente. This time, however, Communism merits no mention anywhere in the Review – a curious omission, under the circumstances.


Julian Lewis is the Conservative MP for New Forest East and former chair of the Defence Committee from 2015–19.

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