LONDON - Britain has announced a $21.8 billion increase in military spending over the next four years, its largest such investment since the end of the Cold War. The government said it was needed to counter the multitude of threats the country faces.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is self-isolating after meeting an MP who later tested positive for the coronavirus, told Parliament by video link Thursday that there was a danger that successive cuts to the military budget in recent years were jeopardizing the security of the British people.
“The international situation is now more perilous and intensely competitive than at any time since the Cold War,” he told MPs. “Everything we do in this country — every job, every business, even how we shop and what we eat — depends on a basic minimum of global security, a web of feed pipes, of oxygen pipes, that must be kept open: shipping lanes, a functioning internet, safe air corridors, reliable undersea cables and tranquility in distant straits.”
Exceeding NATO pledge
Johnson said there would be an additional $21.8 billion in military spending over the next four years above existing plans, “raising it as a share of GDP to at least 2.2%, exceeding our NATO pledge and investing 190 billion pounds [$252 billion] over the next four years, more than any other European country and more than any other NATO ally except the United States.”
Some economists say the prime minister’s figures are misleading because they do not properly include inflation. On Twitter, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) wrote, "Today’s announcement means that the defense budget will grow by 4.2% per year above inflation, and by 2024-25 will be 7 billion pounds [$9.2 billion] higher in real terms than it is today, or 10 billion pounds [$13.3 billion] higher in cash terms."
IFS Director Paul Johnson added, "Why cumulate nominal increases over four years and call it 16 billion pounds [$21 billion] — an almost meaningless number? This helps nobody."
The prime minister pledged $2 billion for military research, including the development of autonomous vehicles, drones and sixth-generation fighter jets.
Britain will also create an agency dedicated to developing artificial intelligence, a National Cyber Force and a Space Command, which will aim to defend the country’s satellite network.
Professor Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute, a policy analysis group, told VOA there has been a realization in government that strategic rivals are developing new weapons systems at an alarming rate.
“The new kit that’s going to come online as a result of this increase in defense spending may not actually be fully deployed for another 10 years. But it’s geared to what our experts think the Russians and the Chinese and indeed others might have in a decade’s time,” Chalmers told VOA.
“We’ve seen just now recently in Libya and in Nagorno-Karabakh the way in which even relatively small or medium powers can deploy some quite sophisticated technologies which make older military systems obsolete pretty quickly," he said. "Those Armenian tanks that were taken out in large numbers by Azerbaijani drones were a pretty salutary lesson. And that’s only the beginning of what’s likely to be a revolution in military affairs over the next decade, and the U.K. needs to step up to keep pace with that.”
The government contends the military investment will give meaning to its vision of a "Global Britain" following its departure from the European Union. Chalmers said the election result in the United States has also changed London’s calculation.
“We have a new American president coming in next year, Joe Biden, who’s been a long-standing skeptic of Brexit and is concerned particularly on the impact of Brexit on the U.K.’s role in the world," he said. "So, I think that’s had an impact in terms of showing that the U.K. will continue to be a strong defense player.”
The rise in military spending surprised some in Westminster, with Britain’s public finances in a precarious state amid the coronavirus pandemic. The government has yet to outline how the spending increase will be funded.