Defence spending: Pay more for weapons research or face 'disastrous' consequences, experts warn MoD

Former ministers, soldiers and contractors warn that Britain is falling behind rival nations in the development of cutting-edge weapons

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Britain must heavily increase spending on defence research otherwise national security will be breached and troops killed by technologically advanced opponents, former ministers, soldiers and contractors have told The Independent on Sunday.

Ahead of a Nato meeting of defence ministers in Brussels this week, they warn that Britain is falling behind rival nations in the development of cutting-edge weapons and security systems designed to counter enemies ranging from cyber-terrorists to conventional armies. Sir Peter Luff, the former Conservative defence minister, called on science and technology spending to be doubled, or the consequences will be “disastrous”; Lord Richards, former Chief of the Defence Staff, warned that “the failure to invest properly in the future will come back to bite one day”.

The Nato summit, which Defence Secretary Michael Fallon will attend, is likely to concentrate on making sure that member countries meet their commitment to spending 2 per cent of national income on defence.

Only four of Nato’s member states met that commitment in 2013 – the UK was one of those, but there are fears that this cannot continue due to pressure on the Ministry of Defence’s budget as the Government tries to balance the nation’s books. Russia bumped the UK into fourth place among the world’s biggest defence spenders in 2013, with the US and China investing the most.

However, of potentially greater concern is the fact that research and development (R&D) expenditure has declined since the turn of the century in the UK and in Europe. A Center for Strategic & International Studies briefing in January showed that Britain’s R&D has more than halved since 2001 – it is now less than £2bn of the MoD’s £33bn budget.

There are particular concerns over the lack of spending on new science and technology. Sir Peter introduced a rule for 1.2 per cent of the MoD’s budget to be set aside for the science and technology part of R&D when he was a minister in 2012, which comes to around £400m. He said this was “not enough, but stopped the rot”, and wants to see this expenditure increased to more than 2 per cent.

“This target is vital for our safety,” he said. “We need to double the percentage and see [if that’s enough]. The consequences [of not having an increase] could be disastrous.”

Sir Nick Harvey, who was Armed Forces minister when the 1.2 per cent floor was introduced, added: “Science and technology is the loser in cuts. Our ability to outfox the opposition now depends on the Americans sharing their technology with us.”

Robin Southwell, the former head of defence contractor Airbus UK, said: “This level of expenditure on science and technology means we cannot undertake genuine, fresh research in areas like the next generation of radar technology and tackling the cyber threat. The fundamental issue is that the budget only means we maintain existing resources.”

The chief executive of a leading British defence contractor warned that Nato should demand that countries set aside 10 per cent of their defence budgets for expenditure on R&D. He said: “R&D spend is almost bordering on a scandal, it’s what our military future depends on.”

General Sir Richard Shirreff, the former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, also highlighted the need for developing systems to protect the country from cyber-attack. He pointed out that Russia, a “potential strategic rival” given the Ukraine crisis, is spending heavily on R&D. “The principle [of spending more on R&D] is absolutely right. You can’t just sit on your laurels and assume that potential adversaries aren’t going to [invest in R&D], they clearly are. The history of warfare is the history of technological development of weapons and counter-weapons.”

He added that reduced European R&D expenditure had led to a “dependency” on the US. “That’s not good enough; we can’t expect the Americans to spend our R&D for us.” 

Lord Richards claimed: “The huge relative reduction in R&D is another neglected symptom of the relative reduction in defence spending over the past 20 years.

“Our failure to invest properly in the future will come back to bite one day. Servicemen and women will die unnecessarily and our national security will be imperilled.”

Lord West, a former security minister and First Sea Lord, warned that the cuts had meant the UK has “effectively stopped blue sky research”. He argued that British ideas, such as the electromagnetic gun, have “effectively gone to the Americans now for development”.

A Major-general, who did not want to be named, added that technology spending was now a “valley of death” and that the UK “can’t compete” with the Russians. He said “too much R&D is frittered away on analysis”, and that the UK will struggle to counter threats from terrorist groups that do not rely on conventional weapons.

Shadow Defence Secretary Vernon Coaker warned that the UK risks losing its “technological edge within a decade”.

An MoD spokesman said: “The UK is one of the highest spenders on defence research and development in Nato, and we have met our previous commitments to spend at least 1.2 per cent of the defence budget on science and technology research.

“The Government has already committed to spending £160bn over the next decade to make sure our armed forces have the equipment and capabilities they need to keep Britain safe. Decisions on spending after this financial year will be determined in the next spending review.”