Illustration by Gregori Saavedra

What British defence is for

In response to Russian aggression and Chinese ambition, Labour and the Conservatives have committed to increasing the defence budget. To what ends?
June 3, 2024

In a speech in Warsaw on 23rd April, prime minister Rishi Sunak made an alarming declaration. The world, he said, is “the most dangerous it’s been since the end of the Cold War”. Just as during the decades of hostility between the west and the Soviet Union, preventing a large-scale war between Nato and Russia has taken centre stage in British and European military planning. This new urgency has increased calls for more money. The Ministry of Defence (MoD)’s past calls for added resources have had little effect. But the government’s recent, pre-election, announcement that the UK would raise military spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2030 suggests that the MoD is beginning to win that argument—and not before time. Labour has committed to making the same increase, though neither party has  explained how it will be funded.  

UK parsimony on defence is not a new story. In the early days of the Ukraine war, the UK was one of the countries which provided the most military support to Kyiv. But now Britain gives less military aid than either Germany or Scandinavia (the US remains the largest single donor to Ukraine, despite Republican opposition). Since the first Russian invasion in 2014, UK defence spending has risen by only 20 per cent in real terms, a lower percentage increase than in any other European Nato member. The rest of Europe has increased its military expenditure by some 57 per cent over the same period. 

This record challenges the common British belief that the UK is still Europe’s pre-eminent, and most reliable, military power. What explains its shifting commitment? There are three plausible theories. First, Britain got a head start and others are catching up. The UK began the past decade spending proportionately more of its GDP on military expenditure than almost all of its European allies. In 2014, Nato agreed, at American urging, to require that all member states aim to spend 2 per cent of their GDP on defence—which only the UK, the US and Greece were already doing. This put considerable pressure on countries with defence budgets that were well below this level, and they are now responding with big increases. By the end of 2024, around 20 member states will have met the target, up from three in 2014. 

Second, the low priority given to military spending is part of a wider turn inwards following the Brexit vote. The steep cut in the UK’s aid budget—even as humanitarian needs have intensified in Ukraine, Gaza and Sudan—is one of the clearest signs of this isolationist tilt. Successive governments have struggled with the fiscal consequences of low growth, the Covid pandemic and deteriorating public services. It has been tough, against this backdrop, for the MoD to argue for more money. 

There is another, underestimated, third factor. Unlike most other European countries, the UK’s armed forces were busier than ever after the end of the Cold War, fighting in conflicts in the Balkans, the Middle East and Afghanistan. As recently as 2021, Boris Johnson as prime minister emphasised the need for the UK to restore its military role “everywhere east of Suez”, a commitment largely abandoned in the early 1970s as part of the withdrawal from the former empire. The extent of this Indo-Pacific tilt, as it became known, turned out to be relatively limited for the MoD. The transfer of two offshore patrol vessels across the region was the only significant new deployment. Even so, after three decades of long-range interventions, discussions about the tilt may have reinforced a sense that defence was still as much about projecting an image of global influence as about combating real threats to the UK.

Perhaps in part because of this perception that current conflicts remain at a distance from the UK, most of the public have not focused on these issues. The cross-party support for Ukraine, underpinned by strong public sympathy, is now competing with the crisis in Gaza. In neither case has humanitarian concern translated into strong support for more money for the MoD. In the most recent Ipsos survey, only 4 per cent of respondents named “defence, foreign affairs and/or terrorism” as the most important issue facing the country. After two years of full-scale war in Europe, the British public’s priorities are still the economy, inflation, immigration and the NHS.

The UK’s core defence budget has not grown in real terms since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but its future commitments have risen sharply. The MoD’s 2023 Defence Command Paper contained a long list of new requirements, many of them derived from shortcomings exposed by the war. Similarly, the most recent National Audit Office report, published in December 2023, showed a gap between projected equipment plans and budgets of about £17bn over 10 years—the largest such gap since 2012. 

The government’s timetable for getting to 2.5 per cent will close this gap and provide additional resources for new priorities. Meanwhile, MoD officials are working on a Future Force Design Review, which  should provide ministers with clear choices on how to spend extra money (for consideration in the Defence Review to take place at some point after the election). As part of this exercise, whoever is defence secretary will need to show that the MoD has a plan to focus its budget on what matters for national security, and to spend taxpayers’ money efficiently. This will require an understanding of how Britain’s defence got into its current state. 

At the turn of the century, the UK was the world’s second-highest defence spender in absolute terms (not as a percentage of GDP), behind only the US. The disintegration of the Soviet Union had left the Russian military enfeebled and underfunded; it struggled to put down rebellions in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. China’s total GDP was less than that of the UK. Its future rise to global superpower status was a matter of speculation.

When the Cold War ended, the need to prepare for major conflict in Europe disappeared almost overnight. With the Army and RAF no longer required in Germany to deter Soviet aggression, the UK was able to send around 30,000 troops to the Middle East as part of the coalition to expel Iraq from Kuwait, after Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1990. In the years that followed, the frequency with which the UK military was deployed for operations returned to levels not seen since the end of empire. Political support for foreign intervention grew in the first ten years after the Cold War, buoyed by early successes in Iraq, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Kosovo. 

This ambitious turn in UK policy was encapsulated in Labour’s 1998 review of military capabilities, which promised that British defence would be a “force for good” in the world. After the 9/11 attacks, Tony Blair set himself the task of becoming the US’s most important ally in the Global War on Terror. “This is a moment to seize,” he told the Labour party conference in October 2001, “The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us.”

Over the next decade, the UK was the exception to the European norm. Both France and Germany were vocal in their opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and took no part in the troubled occupation that followed. There was wider European participation in the coalition operation in Afghanistan, including by Nato partner states in northern and eastern Europe. But most of these contributions were modest and largely symbolic, driven more by the need to show solidarity with the US than the commitment to secure Afghanistan. The UK, by contrast, stood out as by far the largest European contributor to the mission. Britain deployed around 10,000 troops to Helmand province to pursue a long and ultimately unsuccessful effort to suppress the Taliban insurgency. 

The costs were substantial. Between 1998 and 2010, under a Labour government, defence spending rose by some 23 per cent in real terms. The UK, as a result, remained the largest military spender in European Nato. In 2010, it devoted some 2.5 per cent of its GDP to defence. 

But the high tide of interventionism had begun to recede by the last year of the Labour government. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan turned out to be -strategic failures. In 2011, the Arab Spring led briefly to a revival of hope in the possibility of democracy for the region. During this window of optimism, David Cameron ordered British forces to take part in a coalition effort to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi as leader of Libya. The country’s elites failed to reach an agreement on post-conflict governance and Libya soon descended into a bitter civil war. More than a decade on, the country is divided and impoverished. 

The Arab Spring countries in which the west refrained from direct intervention did no better. Parliament’s 2013 vote against air strikes on Syria, in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, helped persuade Barack Obama to abandon his own “red line”, and opened the way for large-scale Russian involvement. Syria became a proving ground for the brutal tactics and firepower that Russia subsequently deployed against Ukraine. Even today, in both Syria and Yemen—the site of another Arab Spring revolt—there is little hope of reconciliation between warring parties, far less national reconstruction. 

The Arab Spring led briefly to a revival of hope for democracy in the region—and of the viability of military intervention by the west. Image credit: George Henton / Alamy The Arab Spring led briefly to a revival of hope for democracy in the region—and of the viability of military intervention by the west. Image credit: George Henton / Alamy

Among the main beneficiaries of the Arab Spring’s failure was Islamic State. The jihadist terrorist group took advantage of the chaos to establish a quasi-state in eastern Syria and northern Iraq. The subsequent coalition campaign against IS was a rare operational success, with the UK assisting allied forces in retaking territory from the group. That air campaign was the RAF’s most intense foreign commitment for more than two decades, involving more than 1,700 air strikes. Now, as the British armed forces turn their attention towards Russia, it is questionable whether those assets would be available for a comparable new operation in the Middle East today.

The UK’s retreat from intervention came during the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis and the decade of austerity under Cameron. Defence was not spared the public spending cuts. Between 2010 and 2016, total defence spending fell by 13 per cent in real terms. Personnel numbers fell sharply, and the decision was made to tolerate gaps in key capabilities—aircraft carriers and maritime reconnaissance aircraft—on the assumption that major conflict would not occur in the next 10 years. British forces pulled out of Helmand by 2015, leaving only a limited training presence in Afghanistan. 

By 2026 or 2027, the UK is set to fall to eighth place in the global ranking of defence budgets—down from second place in the decade after the Cold War. The most dramatic change is in relation to China, whose rapid economic growth after the financial crisis allowed it to boost defence spending. In 2024, China’s GDP is five times that of the UK and its defence budget is four times the size. Until the onset of the Ukraine war in 2022, growth in Russia’s defence budget had been relatively constrained. But Russia’s spending now dwarfs that of Britain, and is increasing rapidly to feed the demands of the war. It is unlikely to return to pre-war levels any time soon.

Amid higher rates of growth in the Middle East and Asia, as well as creeping geopolitical tensions, states across these regions have invested more in defence. The result is that, by 2023, the UK had fallen to sixth in the global league table of defence spenders, behind the US, China, Russia, India and Saudi Arabia.

Over the last two years, a further trend has emerged that is more surprising, but potentially of great significance. In 2024, Germany—despite its decades of anti-militarism—is due to overtake the UK as the biggest European defence spender in Nato for the first time since the Second World War. Japan is also cranking up its defence budget and aims to spend 2 per cent of its (much larger) GDP by 2027. Their decisions are driven both by growing worries about their large neighbours—Russia and China respectively—and by concerns about the reliability of the US as a security guarantor. 

Humanitarian concern has not translated into strong public support for more defence spending

It is in the UK’s interests that two of its staunchest allies, together with other smaller northern and eastern European allies, are rearming. It means, however, that Britain will have to work harder to maintain its influence within the west. The UK’s unique strengths—the special intelligence and nuclear relationship with the US, Britain’s membership of the UN Security Council, its cultural educational assets, and the global role of the City of London—will remain. Given the prospect of a reduced American commitment to Europe’s security, especially if Donald Trump wins a second term as president this November, the UK will also be more vital than ever for European defence.

In the wake of Russia’s brutal onslaught, and the rapid ensuing militarisation of its society and politics, any talk of restoring a peaceful relationship with the country must wait. For the foreseeable future, the main objective of the west’s policy towards Russia must be to convince its leadership that belligerence does not pay. This requires every effort to frustrate Russia’s ambitions in Ukraine. It also requires a Nato that is strong and united enough to convince Moscow that it could only lose by further aggression.

The lack of a clear dividing line between Nato and Russian spheres of influence in Europe means that the risks of escalation are greater than they were in the 1970s or 1980s. Today Russia is militarily weaker than it was then, as the performance of its army against the much smaller opponent of Ukraine has shown. But Nato must contend with a problem of its own—the very real prospect that the US will not be able to provide the backbone of Nato’s defence in Europe, as it would have done in the past. 

In the period of US global hegemony after 1990, there was a logic to shaping the UK’s defence priorities around the “special relationship” with Washington. In return, Britain gained privileged access to intelligence assets and nuclear technology. Such a model makes less sense as the geographical interests of the two powers diverge. It is no longer enough—indeed it never was—to decide UK defence priorities by asking: “What would the US want us to do?”

The key questions for next year’s likely Defence Review should be: what is needed for defence of the UK homeland? And how can the UK best work with its European Nato allies to secure the continent? America’s supporting role is critical, but it can no longer be relied upon to always be there.  

What does this mean for Britain? First, the nuclear deterrent should be a higher priority. In 2006, when the government decided to buy a new generation of ballistic missile submarines, it was assumed these would begin to enter service in the early 2020s. But, as part of wider cost-saving, the 2010 Defence Review delayed this programme, slowing preparations for a replacement warhead. 

Defence is paying the price for these delays, with strenuous efforts being made to maintain continuous patrols. Meanwhile, the total cost of the nuclear programme, Trident, has spiralled. The latest MoD estimate suggests that a remarkable 38 per cent of total equipment spending over the next decade will have to be ringfenced for the nuclear and submarine programmes—a massive increase from the 25 per cent projected share of just two years ago. 

There is little scope for savings. The nuclear programme—based on four submarines carrying US-supplied Trident ballistic missiles armed with UK-built nuclear warheads—is at the minimum size necessary to ensure a boat is always on patrol. Hopes for future nuclear disarmament, set out in Obama’s Prague speech in 2009 and strongly supported by the UK, have all but disappeared. It seems inconceivable that Britain will give up its nuclear arsenal while its most concerning potential adversaries maintain their own.

But what role should the UK’s nuclear force have? Deterrent threats are most plausible when directed at preventing a nuclear attack on the UK itself. If Russia—or any other state—were to destroy London, it would have to reckon with the strong probability of a retaliatory strike. Could the UK nuclear force also provide protection for Nato’s non-nuclear states in eastern Europe and elsewhere? This is less clear. To do this, the UK (and France, Nato’s only other European nuclear power) would not need to have an arsenal as large as Russia’s, or an ability to use nuclear weapons in battle. It would depend on Russia—and Britain’s European allies—believing that Europe’s two nuclear powers might be willing to take a nuclear risk in a future crisis. 

Either way, the UK needs to focus defence efforts on its most acute threat: Russian aggression in Europe. The prospect of US disengagement only adds to the urgency. Given the competing pressures that the US military faces in Asia and the Middle East, however, even a re-elected Joe Biden will expect European states to do more for their own security. Recent rises in defence budgets, and increased awareness of the Russian threat in northern and eastern Europe, are signs that this message has been understood. The UK could play a critical role in helping build the strong conventional deterrent that is needed. 

The need for a strong UK commitment to Europe is greater than it has been in four decades

A further priority is technological transformation. Both the Ukraine war and other recent conflicts have demonstrated that effective conventional defence today requires a much wider orchestra of capabilities than in the past. Mass is critical, and the armed forces need the munitions, spare parts and reserve forces to fight beyond the first few days. Artillery, which the British Army has neglected over the last three decades in favour of infantry, has been central in the prolonged land battles in Ukraine. That conflict has also seen the emergence of new types of uncrewed aircraft, more sophisticated electronic warfare and cyber technologies, and new ways of processing enormous amounts of battlefield data to maximise the lethality of frontline forces. The pace of change in battle is such that the effectiveness of any new weapon system peaks at the time of its introduction into action. It then often declines rapidly—within weeks—as the enemy works out how to counter it. 

New, and expensive, ships and crewed aircraft will be needed. It is a popular caricature, especially favoured by armies, that aircraft carriers are sitting ducks, ready to be overwhelmed by the drones and ballistic missiles of even a semi-competent foe. But most major powers, including the US and China, invest heavily in their surface fleets, along with the weapons (drones, missiles and lasers) necessary to make them survivable and effective. The recent deployment of Royal Navy warships to the Red Sea to protect the civilian shipping on which international trade depends, in the wake of attacks by the Houthis in Yemen, proves that the maritime battle matters. 

The optimistic days of nuclear disarmament—which Barack Obama set out in his famous Prague speech in 2009—are long gone. Image credit: Associated Press / Alamy The optimistic days of nuclear disarmament—which Barack Obama set out in his famous Prague speech in 2009—are long gone. Image credit: Associated Press / Alamy

Another lesson from today’s wars is the importance of defence against air and missile attack. The ability to shoot down projectiles that Russia has fired at it has been vital to Ukraine’s survival. The erosion of that capability, in large measure as a result of the recent freezing of US aid, undermined Kyiv’s ability to protect its cities. Missile defences are equally important for Israel in the face of Hezbollah, Hamas and Iranian threats. Yet the UK, after decades of fighting insurgents, has relatively little air defence capability. This will need to change. If there were a war, Russian submarines and long-range aircraft could attack the UK from the Norwegian Sea. Any ground forces deployed to eastern Europe or Norway would need protecting, too.

Despite all the hyperbole about new tech, people are central to defence. And they will need to be better paid, and better treated, if the armed forces are to attract the brightest and most capable. Take-home pay for the military has declined in real terms since 2010, falling behind civil comparators, especially in technical, nuclear and cyber specialisms.

The relationship, and sometimes tension, between Britain’s position in Europe and in the world has been at the heart of UK foreign policy since the 16th century. Brexit gave fresh impetus to those favouring a more international role, encapsulated by Boris Johnson’s commitment to an Indo-Pacific tilt. A future Labour government seems likely to put more emphasis on repairing relations with the EU, albeit without returning to either the single market or the customs union. No matter what third-party partnership the UK can negotiate, however, there will be limits to its ability to influence EU policy as an outsider. This could result in a political temptation to look elsewhere for arenas where the UK can “make a difference”.

Yet when it comes to defence, too great an emphasis on global commitments would risk diverting scarce effort from Europe and its neighbourhood. This would be dangerous. Given Russian aggression and US retrenchment, the need for a strong UK commitment to the continent’s defence is greater than it has been in four decades. If Ukraine loses and American leadership is absent, Europe’s ability to adopt a coherent response to a resurgent Russia is far from assured. Ensuring Europe remains a bulwark against Moscow will be a central UK defence priority as long as the Russian threat is as acute as it is today.

All this will require more money. In the Defence Review that will at some point follow the election, the MoD will need to prioritise ruthlessly. It will need to demonstrate that it is improving the effectiveness with which it spends its budget. In return, the Treasury will need to find the resources for a sustained increase in military expenditure.

The current political debate is too focused on committing to spending a set percentage of GDP on defence, whether 2.5 per cent or 3 per cent. But a one-off uplift of cash would be a recipe for inefficiency and waste. To deliver sustained increases in capability, the MoD needs a steady commitment to real-terms increases every year for the next decade, in exchange for a clear strategy and a commitment to deep reform. The white paper released by the government this April, with its pledge to increase military expenditure at a steady pace until 2030, with spending growing at a steady pace between now and then, is therefore a step in the right direction. If translated into concrete plans, it should make it possible for the MoD to plan long term, rather than rely on injections of unpredicatable sums every year. 

Such a  move would give greater confidence to defence companies looking to invest in the necessary industrial capabilities. Like the rest of the economy, the defence sector has a public investment problem. The inability to sustain long-term investment, glaringly evident with chaotic major infrastructure projects such as  HS2, makes the sector less attractive to industry and deters people from investing in training and longer-term careers. 

The UK faces the most challenging international circumstances since the 1980s, with major conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, and China committed to a “no limits” partnership with an openly revisionist Russia. If Nato can put in place the defence capabilities it is promising, and if Ukraine survives and begins to recover, Russia might abandon its imperial ambitions. But worse is possible. A fundamental change in Russian policy is likely to be years away. 

In the meantime, the UK cannot ignore the more comprehensive, and growing, challenge China poses to its interests and those of its closest allies. The world is probably in the early stages of a decades-long Cold War between the US and China. This competition will shape British foreign and defence policy for decades to come. The immediate priority, boosting the role of the UK’s military in deterring Russian aggression, will help us face the emerging multipolar global (dis)order. It will ensure, too, that international cooperation on key issues such as climate change and global health, where it exists, is robust—and that a balance of fear between the major powers underpins it.