Government 'slightly deluded the public' over affordability of UK defence programme, says former army chief

General Lord Houghton says ministers have a 'hard choice' over whether to increase defence spending or 'actually diminish ourselves in terms of our status as a military power'

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Tuesday 26 June 2018 19:40 BST
Lord Houghton on military spending: We’re living a lie

Ministers have “slightly deluded the public” and are “living a lie” over the affordability of Britain’s defence programme, according to the former head of the armed forces General Lord Nick Houghton.

The scathing remarks from Lord Houghton, who stepped down from his position in 2016, follow the publication of a Commons select committee report urging the government to increase military spending to maintain its defence relationship with the United States.

His intervention also comes amid reports the defence secretary Gavin Williamson threatened to bring down Theresa May’s government over a demand for increased funding for the Ministry of Defence.

Asked whether the UK should increase its defence spending from the Nato minimum of 2 per cent of GDP to 3 per cent – as recommended by the Defence Committee on Tuesday – Lord Houghton replied: “It’s not just what the armed forces needs, it’s what the country needs.”

“The government now finds itself in a very difficult situation. It does have a defence programme which is currently wholly unaffordable within the available funding.”

He told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme the government had a “hard choice” to make, asking: “Do we increase the defence budget to make this ambition affordable, or do we actually diminish ourselves in terms of our status as a military power?”

Referring to the prime minister’s pledge to increase spending on the NHS by £20bn to mark the 70th anniversary of the health service, Sir Nick continued: “For me its quite remarkable. What is being promised to the health service as an increment is more than twice the annual defence budget.

“More funding for health can win you – dare I say it – tactical advantage in domestic elections, but won’t enhance Britain’s influence, power and respect in the world.

He continued: “The government has a duty to the nation to make it aware of what the true nature of the security of the country is, the state of its armed forces, the state of the world.

“The first duty of government is the protection of the nation and to be honest, we have slightly deluded the public of late that we have a defence programme which frankly, we know, the insiders know, those who run the select committee are aware, is unaffordable.

“So, to an extent, we’re living a lie. We’ve got to come off the fence one way or another.”

He said David Cameron’s defence programme in 2015 was “never affordable” without some “Herculean assumptions coming to pass”, including the country’s GDP rising steadily year on year in “significant amounts”.

“None of that has come to pass,” he added. “We have almost deluded the country that this incredible range of new capability was coming and was affordable. Frankly, the strategic situation has changed.

“We’ve got to make a hard choice therefore: do we increase the defence budget to make this ambition affordable, or do we actually diminish ourselves in terms of our status as a military power?”

On Tuesday, the Commons Defence Committee said that without further investment UK forces would struggle to maintain “interoperability” with the US military, diminishing their usefulness as allies.

It is expected that at next month’s Nato summit in Brussels US president Donald Trump will reiterate demands for European allies to take on a greater share of the burden of collective defence.

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson: 'Frankly, Russia should go away, and should shut up'

The committee also repeated its call for the government to raise defence spending from the Nato minimum of 2 per cent per cent of GDP to 3 per cent – around £60bn a year – saying without additional funding the UK would be unable to maintain its military capacity and capability.

“Diminished capacity reduces the UK’s usefulness to the US and our influence within Nato. The government must not allow this to happen,” it said.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said: “The UK maintains the biggest defence budget in Europe we have been clear we will continue to exceed Nato’s 2 per cent spending target.

“The defence secretary launched the Modernising Defence Programme to strengthen our armed forces in the face of intensifying threats.”

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