UK defence budget gets a big boost, but will the money be spent wisely?

The £16.5 billion was more than expected but we will have to wait until Rishi Sunak’s announcement next year to see where the money will go

Thursday 19 November 2020 09:23 GMT
The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)
The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)

The announcement on defence spending has been presented by Downing Street as the Prime Minister personally giving primacy to safeguarding the nation at a dangerous time.

The sum of £16.5 billion is larger than many in the security sphere had expected with resources being drained by the coronavirus pandemic. The fact that it is a four year settlement, rather than a sum allocated for just twelve months, would also help in longer-term budget planning.

The allocation, said Boris Johnson, was the “biggest programme of investment since the end of the Cold War”. He told the Commons: “The defence of the realm must come first. The international situation is more perilous and more intensely competitive than at any time since the Cold War and Britain must be true to our history and stand alongside our allies. To achieve this we need to upgrade our capabilities across the board.”

The investment, it was claimed , would create 10,000 jobs annually in this country and “marked the first conclusions from the Integrated Review of the UK’s foreign, defence, development and security policy". The problem, however, is that the next, crucial, part of how it will be used will not be known until next year with the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, postponing the  Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), which was due to be unveiled this month.

The Integrated Review is meant to bring together all aspects of the UK’s foreign, defence and security policy from cyber-warfare and space to international aid with the different government departments and the intelligence services having an input. What will eventually emerge remains to be seen.  

It also unclear what effect the departure of Dominic Cummings has on some aspects of the planning. The Prime Minister’s chief advisor had taken a keen interest in the Review and was given a personal tour of  military sites, including sensitive ones like the Porton Down research centre and SAS and SBS headquarters, by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.

Before taking up his Downing Street job, Cummings had accused the Ministry of Defence of “continuing to squander billions”, pointing, as an example, to the £6.2 billion spent on two aircraft carriers.

One figure which looms over defence spending is a shortfall of £13 billion in the equipment budget, according to the estimate of the National Audit Office, with its impact on traditional equipment like armour to new weaponry like drones which will become increasingly important in combat.

The Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, the chairperson of the Commons Defence Select Committee, told The Independent that the large sum in funding  would send a clear signal to President-elect Biden that Britain would be a strong ally of the United States, and would be a willing partner on the global stage.

“The US election gives us an opportunity to show we are committed to the alliance, want to work internationally and will take up our responsibilities with America and also other Western partners," he said.

“The amount being put forward, with all the constraints on funding because of the pandemic, would be welcomed in defence: but  the pieces of the jigsaw missing is how it’s going to be spent and we have to wait for that until next year for that.

A Royal Navy officer and a member of the US Marines stand next to a Merlin helicopter on the flight deck as the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (Andrew Matthews/PA Wire)

“This is a crucial Review with the need for major recalibration of our policies. We know what the challenges are from cyber and information warfare, to how to deal with China and how it is spreading its influence. This is an area where the Foreign Office bit of the Integrated Review would come in as well as the MoD. What will we be doing with our allies in the Asia-Pacific and also about China’s influence in countries in places like Africa with who we have had long tradition ties. These are hugely important issues  which need to be addressed.”

Malcolm Chalmers the deputy-director general of RUSI ( Royal United Services Institute)  had warned that postponing the Comprehensive Spending Review would be “especially costly” for the Integrated Review “as key decisions on long-term defence priorities may now have to wait until a full CSR".

He added: “Meanwhile the world of external threats, force development and contractual obligations will not standstill. The pressure on the defence programme remain relentless, driven by the increased importance attached to major power competition and by the government’s commitments to play a more active military role."

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