LONDON — Britain may be in economic turmoil right now but that hasn’t stopped Defense Secretary Ben Wallace emphasizing the new government’s pledge to effectively double spending on the military by 2030.
In his first interview since the Conservative government, led by new Prime Minister Liz Truss, took office earlier this month Wallace said defense spending by the end of the decade would see a massive increase, doubling annually to £100 billion ($107 billion) compared with £48 billion ($51 billion) now.
The interview has raised questions among some analysts who wonder whether the plan is affordable and are skeptical over exactly how the British are going to digest such a massive budgetary increase in such a short time.
Wallace told the Sunday Telegraph Sept. 26 that Truss had been adamant about defense being a priority, pledging to increase spending to “2.5 percent [of GDP] by 2026 and 3 percent by 2030.”
The defense secretary, one of the few senior ministers to stay in post when the Truss government was formed, declined to give any details of when, where and even how the money might be spent.
Heavy artillery, reversing planned cuts to the British Army, and increased investments in intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities all got a mention as potential beneficiaries, though.
“It’s highly likely we will grow the Army, but it might not be in the places the armchair generals want you to, because what we desperately need is to, for example, invest in our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability,” Wallace said.
Much depends on the lessons learned from the Russian invasion of the Ukraine.
During a trip to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly last week Truss confirmed that a new look at the government’s integrated defense and security review, published in 2021, was underway as a result of the attack.
The pledge of what would be a huge rise in defense spending comes as the Ministry of Defence and the country in general brace for tough economic times. Rising inflation, a slump in the value of the Pound against the dollar and sky high fuel costs are battering defense department finances.
With the Pound approaching parity with the dollar it’s not just a problem for the government.
Industry will suffer, too, said John Louth, an independent analyst here. “A lot of companies haven’t sufficiently hedged the exchange costs in their supply chains; it is going to be an absolute nightmare,” he said.
The economic difficulties have driven some analysts here to question whether a £100 billion-a-year defense budget is affordable let alone whether the MoD could rapidly digest such huge spending increases.
Malcolm Chalmers, the deputy director general of the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London, made clear the scale of the effort required to spend such a huge budget increase.
A 3% rise would be equivalent to about £157 billion ($168 billion) in additional spending over the next eight years compared with current plans, he wrote in a paper published recently.
According to Louth, spending so much additional money sensibly would be a struggle.
“They are grappling with how do they effectively double spending in six years,” he said. “I don’t think they understand what their priorities are yet, or how they can programmatize such an effort.”
Louth added: “We are in an era of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ economics in the U.K., so answers to those kind of questions likely won’t matter anyway.”
Howard Wheelden, a consultant at Wheeldon Strategic Advisory in London reckons there is little chance the budget numbers touted by Wallace and Truss will actually be met
With little more than two years before the next general election, Wheeldon said rebuilding the economy in that time will be little short of a miracle. “Bringing voters on-side to believe that doubling spending on defense by 2030 … is hard to comprehend,” he said.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.