LONDON — Britain will not commit to future defense spending levels until it completes a review of a strategy released last year, the government’s top finance official told lawmakers Thursday.
Jeremy Hunt told parliamentarians that he and new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recognize the need to increase spending, but that they first want to complete a review of the 2021 integrated defense and security strategy, introduced by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“Before we make that commitment, it is necessary to revise and update the integrated review, written as it was before the Ukraine invasion,” Hunt said while delivering what is locally known as the Autumn Statement. “I have asked for that vital work to be completed ahead of the next budget [in the spring], and today confirm we will continue to maintain the defense budget at least 2% of GDP to be consistent with our NATO commitment.”
Hunt instead offered Parliament budget plans focused more on health and education. The Conservative government is trying to repair its battered finances with tax rises and spending cuts. Still, the Treasury has said the government remains committed to defense spending not falling below 2% of gross domestic product.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the parliamentary Defence Committee earlier this month that he hoped the review, which has been underway for several months, would be completed by the end of the year. It now appears the government will not meet that timeline as it grapples with matching limited financial resources with military requirements.
Along with most other government departments, the Defence Ministry will not experience a budget cut, but it will have to absorb the impact of an inflation rate now running at 11%.
Commitments made by the two previous prime ministers, Johnson and Liz Truss, to raise defense spending to 3% of GDP by the end of the decade are now termed “aspirational” by ministers like Wallace.
Dan Darling, a European military markets analyst at Forecast International, said the new prime minister appears hesitant to make a larger financial commitment toward defense.
“The 3% of GDP target trotted out by Liz Truss is already as cold in the ground as her premiership. Boris Johnson’s pledge to bring the defense budget up to 2.5% [and then 3%] is but a waning reminder of his last months as prime minister. And a Labour Party victory in 2025 might render any such commitment dead upon arrival,” he told Defense News.
Howard Wheeldon, a defense consultant in the U.K., does not expect the review will lead to specific cuts to military capabilities.
“Wording is everything, and while a real rise in defense spend[ing] has been effectively ruled out for now, given that U.K. GDP is itself likely to fall, there is tacit suggestion in the Autumn Statement that we will not see specific cuts,” Wheeldon said. “I’m not suggesting, though, that we won’t see delays to signing off on projects through pushing back in order to manage defense inflation and minimize cash outlay.”
But, he warned, ”take care not to read too much positivity in the chancellor’s remarks today. Wording is always important, however guarded it may be, but decisive actions in relation to acceptance of the need to raise spending on defense were clearly missing in the statement today.”
“I suspect that the bottom line of all this is that while it could have been worse, there are sadly few reasons for the military or industry to be more than just relieved, short term, but increasingly concerned for the longer term,” he added.
Conventional warfare lives on
Much of the original integrated review was about junking old capabilities for a high-tech military that fights in space and cyberspace while using advanced technology like artificial intelligence.
Darling said that has left the Defence Ministry in a bit of a conundrum.
“The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown that conventional warfare in the European theater is not dead, that peer-on-peer, high-intensity conflict is not fading away, and that firepower and a strong logistics tail remain paramount to achieving victory on the battlefield,” he explained.
Reexamination of the integrated review and the associated MoD command over the next six to eight weeks will pose some difficult questions for the government, said Darling, including:
- Do key programs get pushed back with the risk that they become more expensive in the future?
- Do some programs get stripped down in scope, or scrapped altogether?
- Do program cuts or delays hinder government efforts to reshore and bolster the local defense industry?
Darling expects naval capabilities will likely remain safe given the major orders for Type 26 frigates and fleet solid support ships announced this week. Similarly, he said, air defense, long-range precision strike capabilities, cyber technology and the Skynet 6 satellite program will likely avoid cuts.
“One big piece of the acquisition pie that would seem likely to shrink is the F-35 Lightning II combat aircraft,” he said. “The original British goal of acquiring 138 F-35s is no longer tenable considering the emphasis and financial commitment being placed on the Tempest future combat air system. ... By what scale the procurement should shrink is a fair question, but a total order of 70 to 74 F-35s may be the logical endpoint.”
Wallace told the parliamentary Defence Committee that the MoD has 48 F-35 fighters on order and expects to have a fleet of 74 by the end of the decade.
“On the Army side, the requirements for standing up and equipping a Ranger regiment, acquiring improved long-range precision fires, new air defenses, tactical surveillance drones, and new electronic warfare and cyber capabilities should all remain in place, as the price tag for these goals pales in comparison to capitalization projects for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy,” he prognosticated.
The Army is in the midst of a 10-year, £23 billion (U.S. $27 billion) modernization effort, which has run into trouble amid attempts to field the Ajax armored reconnaissance vehicle family.
“One obvious problematic program that would appear a possibility for the chopping block is the Ajax armored reconnaissance vehicle and its complement of variants. But that would still leave a key capability requirement to be filled in the future,” Darling said.
Wallace and his generals have been reluctant to throw in the towel on the delayed Ajax program. For its part, contractor General Dynamics UK has recently made progress in solving vibration and noise issues with the platform.
Wallace told the committee the Ajax delivery “is really important,” noting that the Army is as much as 15 years behind its peer group in several areas.
“It is disturbing that our land [force] is so far behind,” he said.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.