THE BLOG

Defence Spending Will Have to Be Increased to Contain a Resurgent Russia

21/06/2015 20:34 | Updated 18 June 2016

The announcement that another £500 million is to be saved this year from the UK's defence budget has raised fresh question marks over whether Britain will meet its pledge to spend two per cent of GDP on defence. It's an embarrassment for David Cameron because only last year he called on fellow NATO leaders to join Britain in meeting the goal - something only three other countries out of the 29 members were achieving.

It is why, despite the cuts, we can expect frantic efforts in the coming weeks to demonstrate the two per cent target has been met. But while including military pensions as defence spending for the first time may please the statisticians, it will do nothing to make Britain more secure or ease growing concerns among our allies.

The cuts announcement came in the same week that US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter warned further reductions in UK military spending would put the country's global influence at risk. It is a concern shared by the Armed Forces themselves and many defence experts.

For it is hard to think when, in recent decades, the threats to UK security and national interests have been greater or the potential demands on British forces greater. As the all-party Commons Defence Committee warned in March, the risks are so numerous that Britain's already over-stretched forces could be needed in a dozen war zones all at once.

Looming over all these risks is a new threat from an old enemy. As the land grab in Ukraine has demonstrated, the West faces a resurgent Russia intent on recreating - at the very least - a sphere of influence corresponding to the former Soviet Union.

And let us not kid ourselves that this threat will lessen when Vladimir Putin goes. There are plenty of more extreme figures who make him seem like a consensus politician. Whatever the long-term effect sanctions will have on the Russian economy, they have already increased anti-Western sentiment, emboldened its nationalist fringe and made the country more unpredictable.

We may escape the worst days of nuclear brinkmanship but it is already plain that the West will again have to try to contain Russian ambitions. But what has changed since the end of the Cold War is the reluctance of the United States to foot the bill. America has endured a brutal two decades, paying a heavy human and financial cost for its military operations with little to show apart from a global loss of popularity.

Faced with a population and Congress tired of international adventures and what American see as a lack of gratitude, it does not matter whether it is another Democrat or a Republican who succeeds Barack Obama. The US is going to accelerate its retreat from the world and demand that its allies step up to the plate.

The problem, of course, is that defence spending in the UK and Europe is going down not up. Even before the latest cuts, the respected Royal United Services Institute believes UK defence spending could fall towards 1.5 per cent of GDP over the next decade.

The position is even worse among NATO's European members. France, Germany, Italy and Spain are all forecasting defence spending, in current plans, as low as 1 per cent of GDP. It is no wonder that the US despairs over its allies and is demanding they meet their spending pledges.

But the reality is that, given the state of the West's military forces and the heightened threats to security, debate over whether or not the two per cent level will be reached is academic. No matter what politicians now believe and plan, defence spending will have to rebound sharply in the coming years.

Restoring the UK's defence capability, for example, will be expensive. It may require, in the short-term, as much as 6 per cent of GDP before levelling out at 4 per cent. This may seem an impossibly high figure but it was around the UK's spending level at the end of the Cold War. Nor, with so much spare capacity in European economies should spending on expense be seen simply as a cost without a wider positive impact on jobs and incomes.

There may be 'no votes in defence' as Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told Tory MPs before the election. But the truth is economic security and well-being depends on being able to defend national interests. The threat to Europe from Russia and from extremism is now much greater than for a generation. Politicians in the UK and across Europe will be forced to respond, no matter how much they - and their electorates - might wish there was an alternative.