LONDON — Britain will need to find an extra £6 billion (US $9 billion) a year by the end of the decade to keep its defense budget in line with the NATO mandated spending level of 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), a former defense minister said.
"The Royal United Services Institute [RUSI] work accords very much with my recollection of the figures when I left the MoD over two years ago. ... By the end of the [next] Parliament, with no more defense cuts at all, the gap between the defense budget and what is likely to be 2 percent of the GDP by 2019 will be getting toward £6 billion," Harvey said.
"This is why neither George Osborne [the chancellor of the Exchequer] or anybody else has been in any great hurry to commit firmly to the 2 percent because of the sums of money which will have to be found to achieve that," he told reporters during a briefing March 11.
None of the leading political parties have so far committed to maintaining NATO spending levels beyond the next financial year.
Ahead of a general election scheduled for May 7, a major row has broken out here over potentially significant defense spending cuts as part of an expected new round of austerity measures.
"We know a lot more needs to be done to tackle the deficit and as yet nobody [in government] has come forward and suggested defense can be protected from that, and therefore some very painful decisions look likely to be facing whoever the ministers are," Harvey said. "If you think we faced some pretty unpalatable choices in the 2010 strategic defense and security review, and we certainly did, then I can see it is going to be every bit as difficult this time around."
A government spokesperson declined to address the possible £6 billion shortfall but said, "Decisions on spending after the financial year 2015-16 will be determined in the next spending review."
The question of whether Britain will continue to meet or beat the NATO spending target has become a central issue in the row that has involved politicians, retired senior officers and others. Even US President Barrack Obama and US Army Chief Gen. Ray Odierno have voiced their concerns.
The Liberal Democrats are the junior partner in the Conservative-led government and could play a role in the formation of the next administration. The opinion polls here are showing a coalition or a minority government could emerge after May 7.
RUSI said that in the "context of the wider austerity in public spending, such an increase [which the think tank estimated marginally lower at £5.9 billion, rather than Harvey's £6 billion figure] is not plausible."
Rather than an increase, RUSI said it was likely there would be cuts and mapped out two scenarios citing possible spending reductions of between 8.7 percent and 17.5 percent against a baseline figure for 2016-17 of £34.3 billion.
The US, Greece, Estonia and Britain are the only NATO nations that currently meet the required spending level.