LONDON — Britain is to step up chemical warfare detection capabilities, the defense secretary announced in a speech, in which he again pushed for more military spending in the face of growing threats from Russia and others.
The £48 million (U.S. $67 million) investment in a new chemical weapons defense center comes just days after an ex-Russian spy and his daughter were left critically ill after being attacked with a sophisticated nerve agent in Salisbury, western England.
“We have world-class expertise at Defence Science Technology Laboratory, Porton Down, and today I can announce we will be strengthening this capability by investing £48 million in a new chemical weapons defense center to ensure we maintain our cutting edge in chemical analysis and defense,” Gavin Williamson said at a Rolls-Royce facility in Bristol on Thursday.
The chemical threat was not just originating from Russia, he added.
In another move following the chemical attack, British high readiness troops are to be vaccinated against anthrax. The decision will ensure troops are protected and ready to deploy to areas where the risk of an anthrax attack exists.
Britain has blamed the Russian government for the nerve agent attack, sparking an escalating row between the two nations, which has led to the wholesale expulsion of Russian diplomats from London and a threat by the Putin administration to retaliate in kind.
The U.K., together with France, Germany and the U.S., issued a statement earlier Thursday saying there was “no plausible alternative explanation” than Russia being behind the nerve agent attack.
The four nations condemned the “first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War,” saying it was an assault on British sovereignty.
The attack saw British troops in chemical warfare protection suits deployed on British streets seeking to track down traces of the Russian-made nerve agent known as Novichok.
“If we doubted the threat Russia poses to our citizens, we only have to look at the shocking example of their reckless attack in Salisbury,” Williamson said.
Asked whether Britain and Russia were entering a new Cold War, Williamson said: “It is often described as a ‘cool war’ that we are entering into. I would say it’s feeling exceptionally chilly at the moment.”
British defense spending during the Cold War regularly topped 4 percent of gross domestic product, whereas now the figure is a fraction more than 2 percent. Many in Parliament would like to see that figure closer to 3 percent.
The Salisbury attack, which also seriously injured a policeman, may change the dynamics of the defense-spending argument.
Williamson, who only took up the post as defence secretary in November, as well as some of his service chiefs — notably British Army Gen. Nick Carter, the chief of the General Staff — have recently been citing a rising threat from Russia and others, in part to justify spending more money on defense.
The defense secretary controversially warned recently that Russian cyberattacks on Britain’s infrastructure in the future could result in thousands of people dying.
Warning that Britain needed to “prioritize investment in military capabilities” Williamson said Britain had reached a “profound moment in our history; a crossroads where the choice before us is simple — to sit back and let events overtake us, or step forward. ... This is our moment to retain our competitive advantage.”
The Ministry of Defence is deeply embroiled in a debate with the Treasury in an effort to secure an increase in its budget in order to avert a serious reduction in capabilities in order to balance the books.
A recent National Audit Office report on the MoD’s £180 billion defense equipment procurement and support plan for the next 10 years, reckoned the plan could be overcommitted by as much as £21 billion.
The MoD is currently undertaking a defense review, what it calls the Defence Modernisation Programme, which is expected to be completed ahead of the NATO summit in Brussels in mid-July.
Without additional funds and efficiency savings across the military, service chiefs will have to find a range of cuts, with some major programs and capabilities falling victim to the need to balance the books on a defense budget that last year totaled £35 billion.
“Our modernizing defense program will make sure our country can respond to the changing nature of warfare and the new threats we face to British interests. Russia, in particular, is ripping up the rule book — we only have to look at the reckless attack in Salisbury,” Williamson said.
One of the items likely to feature in the review is the issue of chemical, biological, radiation and nuclear, or CBRN, capabilities.
The new chemical warfare defense center could be part of this, but with British attention on the sector generally considered inadequate since the joint CBRN regiment was axed as a result of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, there could be more developments to come.
Since 2011, Britain’s CBRN capability has been the responsibility of the Royal Air Force, although the Royal Tank Regiment formed a dedicated CBRN squadron in 2014. At this point, it’s too early to know whether a joint forces CBRN regiment could be reconstituted.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.