UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will announce on Thursday (18 November) the biggest increase in British defence spending since the end of the Cold War, EURACTIV has learned.
The announcement comes in the same week that the UK moves closer to a crunch decision on its future relations with the EU and member states scramble to consolidate European defence initiatives.
In a speech to the House of Commons on Thursday, Johnson will announce a £16.5 billion increase in defence spending over the next four years. The step will make the UK the largest defence spender in Europe and the second-largest in NATO, after the United States.
“The international situation is more perilous and more intensely competitive than at any time since the Cold War and Britain must be true to our history and stand alongside our allies,” Johnson said in comments to reporters, adding that “to achieve this we need to upgrade our capabilities across the board.”
Cyberspace and aerospace
According to the UK Ministry of Defence, a stronger focus will be laid on developing cyber defence capabilities, with the announcement of a new agency dedicated to Artificial Intelligence, the creation of a National Cyber Force and a new ‘Space Command’, capable of launching our first rocket in 2022.
“Our enemies are also operating in increasingly sophisticated ways, including in cyberspace, to further their own interests (…). To protect our citizens, UK Defence, therefore, needs to operate at all times with leading, cutting-edge technology,” the MoD said in a statement.
A record investment of at least £1.5 billion extra and £5.8 billion total is set to be spent on military research and development and a commitment to invest further in the Future Combat Air System.
The announcement comes at a time when the European defence market is looking towards two sixth-generation aircraft programmes – the Franco-German-Spanish Future Combat Aircraft System (FCAS) and the British-led Tempest fighter project, in which Sweden and Italy joined in, while the Dutch have also expressed considerable interest.
While pressure is mounting on EU member states to pick sides, the question of whether both projects can ultimately coexist remains.
In October, EU member states agreed on conditions to allow countries outside the bloc to participate in joint defence projects under the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) framework.
Third countries will only be able to take part in joint projects if they provide “substantial added value” to the military project and share “the values on which the EU is founded”, the agreement, brokered by the German EU presidency, stated.
Besides the US and Norway, such a policy would also make it possible to include post-Brexit Britain into the bloc’s military projects, if London expresses the wish to do so.
The proposed defence spending hike will be part of a wider government spending review announced next week by Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
But while the military is one clear winner from the review, development aid looks set to be cut, with Sunak understood to be pushing to cut the UK’s budget commitment on aid spending from 0.7% per year of economic output to 0.5%, despite the fact that the 0.7% pledge, in line with the UN aid target, is currently enshrined in UK law.
UK aid spending in 2019 totalled £15.8 billion, and cutting it to 0.5% per year would save £5 billion per year.
Increase despite pandemic
According to projections by the UK defence ministry, the projects are expected to create up to 10,000 jobs per year
“This settlement secures UK jobs and livelihoods, allows us to invest in our fantastic shipyards and aerospace industry, spreading prosperity to every corner of the UK,” Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, said in comments to reporters.
“Next year represents a huge opportunity for this country, and Defence will be at the forefront of creating the jobs and business opportunities that will help us build back from the pandemic,” he added.
The UK is likely to be the hardest hit by the COVID-19 economic fallout among major economies, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has warned, and is likely to record a budget deficit of around 15% this year as a result of massive emergency support programmes for businesses and wage subsidies for millions of workers.
As a result, Johnson’s government is under pressure to increase taxes to boost revenue and minimise public spending rises.
“I have taken this decision in the teeth of the pandemic because the defence of the realm must come first,” Johnson said, stressing that over the course of the health crisis in the UK over 20,000 personnel have been made available to deliver PPE, run testing sites and ensure those in the most remote areas can receive the medical care they need.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]