Great Britain’s survival cannot be bought cheap
At a time when rogue powers such as Russia, China and Iran are intensifying their efforts to confront the West, the Chancellor’s pledge to add £11 billion to the defence budget over the next five years must be seen as a welcome move in the right direction – assuming, that is, the extra money ever materialises.
During the 13 years the Conservatives have been in office, the military has been subjected to a series of savage cuts, to the extent that all three Services today struggle to fulfil their commitments. Under pressure from military chiefs, ministers have on several previous occasions made promises to increase funding, most recently when Boris Johnson announced £16.5 billion in extra money for defence in 2020.
Then, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Johnson added to this commitment last year, with a promise to raise spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP by the end of the decade, a move that, if honoured, would have certainly helped to restore Britain’s status as one of the premier European military powers in Nato.
Yet, as has so often been the case when ministers have pledged more cash for the Forces, it is a moot point whether it will actually happen. It must: the nation’s war-fighting strength, as senior military officers readily admit in private, is in desperate need of attention.
The extra £16.5 billion that Johnson promised in 2020 was quickly swallowed up to cover shortfalls in other areas of the defence budget, such as pensions. Indeed, it made little if any difference to the strength of the Army, which is still in the process of being reduced to its smallest level since the 1800s, or in procuring more fast jets to equip the decks of our two extravagantly-priced Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.
Consequently the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, who has fought an heroic battle in his efforts to secure a better settlement from the Treasury, must still harbour doubts that the spoils of his Whitehall triumph will ever reach the military frontline.
Much of the £11 billion boost for defence announced by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt already appears to be spoken for, with £3 billion earmarked for supporting the new Aukus nuclear-submarine building project, and another £2 billion being used to replenish arms stockpiles depleted by our support for Ukraine.
Nor, judging by the decidedly modest conclusions reached by the Government’s “refresh” of its 2021 Integrated Review, are there likely to be any tangible improvements to the numbers of soldiers, tanks, warplanes and warships available to defend our interests.
When Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cannot even make up his mind whether China poses a threat to British interests, opting instead to call it an “epoch-defining challenge”, it is clear that there is no real appetite in the higher reaches of government to give the military the serious upgrade to its war-fighting capabilities that is required.
The Chancellor’s comment, moreover, that Johnson’s commitment to raise defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP will only be achieved “as soon as fiscal and economic circumstances allow” suggests that the Treasury is already searching for ways to renege on the deal before it is even implemented.
With so many new threats looming on the horizon, it would be nothing short of a national disgrace if – despite the promises made in yesterday’s Budget – Britain’s military strength continued to be neglected.
The downing of an American drone over the Black Sea this week should serve as a reminder of the ever-present dangers we face from hostile states like Russia.
Although the Russians have denied responsibility for causing the drone to crash, all the evidence collected by the Pentagon suggests otherwise. It appears that its destruction was caused by the hostile actions of two Russian SU-27s which in their efforts to disrupt its flight path, dumped fuel on the drone before one of the warplanes got too close and hit its rear propeller, which then forced it to crash.
Even though no one was injured in the incident, it is the first time that Russian and American forces have been involved in a direct clash since the Ukraine war began. It highlights the very real dangers of the conflict escalating into a major confrontation between Russia and the West.
The last time the US lost a drone to a hostile power, when Iran shot down a US spy drone over the Gulf in the summer of 2019, Washington responded by launching cyber attacks against Iranian missile sites. The incident later contributed to the Trump administration’s decision to assassinate Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds force, the following year.
While it is unlikely that the Black Sea incident will result in the Americans taking similar retaliatory action, it nonetheless highlights the risks of the Russian military’s reckless approach. The threat Britain faces is greater than it has been for years. We need strong and well-equipped Armed Forces to deter our enemies from indulging in more provocative acts.