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It’s time to increase UK defence spending to 3 per cent

4 min read

It’s time to review our defence posture and increase our defence spending.

To those who disagree, I invite you to treat the recent shocking developments in European security as a taste of where our troubled world is heading rather than an isolated incident on the fringes of Europe, that somehow can be contained.

After experiencing decades of relative global stability since the fall of the Berlin Wall, our way of life has abruptly been thrown into flux. The post-cold war assumption that the rule of law will prevail is dead.

Vladimir Lenin once commented: "there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”. The world is once again experiencing the latter. There is almost too much information for our peacetime construct to process. The good news is that we are learning fast - reminding ourselves that hard-fought standards and values require defending. But timidity and hesitancy still hang in the air.

We are in a battle between democracy and dictatorship

Britain’s military support for Ukraine, both before and after the invasion, has been exemplary. Nato has yet to fully explore how it can alter the battlefield advantage without the conflict escalating beyond Ukraine. This requires a swift return to a cold-war mindset, exhibiting greater self-confidence in stifling Russia’s aggression rather than asking Ukraine to do all the heavy lifting.

Likewise, we can congratulate ourselves for rallying an unprecedented package of sanctions against Russia. But if China, India and other Shanghai Cooperation Organisation nations fail to play ball, pressure on Vladimir Putin will not materialise fast enough to prevent him from seeking to decimate Ukraine.

Yet, as global attention focuses on Ukraine, it’s the bigger picture we should be equally focused on for which updating our last stock check, the March 2021 Integrated Review (IR), would offer clarity.

Simply put, the function of any Defence Review is threefold; firstly, to define the UK’s ambition, our role on the international stage and our long-term strategic aims. Secondly, to confirm what threats we face, both current and emerging. And finally, to ask how all this alters our conventional /non-conventional defence posture and our willingness to address those threats.

Whilst the IR accurately spelt out the looming threats, not least those posed by Russia and China, it did not predict the speed in which they would emerge over the horizon.

With defence spending capped at around 2 per cent of GDP, investment in cyber and space capabilities were made at the detriment of our conventional forces. With significant cuts to planes (fighter and transport and ISTAR), vehicles (tanks and armoured fighting vehicles) and to overall personnel numbers. If implemented in full, these reductions would place enormous strain on an already overstretched armed forces.

We need to treat Ukraine as a turning point in our history as state-on-state warfare returns. What is happening in Ukraine and how we respond will have long term consequences to European and global security.

If we accept our global security will deteriorate then we must prepare now for the role we aspire to play. It takes time to upgrade our hard power, procure new equipment, develop appropriate doctrines and train personnel. The strategic context on which our defence architecture is currently based has changed. Is the UK’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific still relevant? How do we leverage Germany’s more realistic foreign policy? Are prepared for the likely deployment of hypersonic, chemical and tactical nuclear weapons?  And should Britain seek to fill the void of American leadership in terms of European security?

Our history is littered with failures to understand, let alone to plan for seismic shocks. Tyrants from Philip of Spain through to Putin had agendas we chose to ignore or misread. Would Germany, for example, have invaded Belgium in 1914 had the Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, made it clear we would fight? He did not. This ambiguity, perhaps complacency, is not unique. It costs lives, often in the millions.

Understandably, the Chancellor will focus on domestic issues in his Budget statement. But our prosperity is directly linked to our security. We ignore this bigger picture at our peril. Regardless of what happens to Putin, China sees Russia as a long-term partner in dismantling our liberal world order.

For once, let us be ahead of the game. Let us recognise that yet again we are in a battle between democracy and dictatorship. We must step up.

I ask the Chancellor to view events in Ukraine as a skirmish before the main contest. Once again storm clouds are gathering. It’s time to increase defence spending to 3 per cent.


Tobias Ellwood is the Conservative MP for Bournemouth East and chair of the Defence Committee.

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