Britain is in denial about military spending
The Government won't acknowledge the new economic reality
Discussions are taking place at Downing Street about the country’s military budget. The military want more money. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, is trying to ensure the country doesn’t tip into bankruptcy. What emerges in terms of military spending in the coming months and years could define Britain’s military posture as we enter an emerging multipolar world.
The first thing that stands out about Britain’s military spending is how inefficient it appears to be. Britain fields a total army of around 217,100 personnel, comparable to Germany’s army of 233,550. But, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Britain spent $68.4bn in 2021 on its military while Germany spent $56bn. Britain spent 22% more than Germany on an army 7% smaller.
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This is widely appreciated in British military circles. Military consultant Francis Tusa told the Financial Times that “we are demonstrably spending more and getting less . . . France, Italy, Germany and Spain do things better, quicker and cheaper”. This probably didn’t matter when times were good but now — with the country facing a deep recession, high inflation and a bloated government budget — policymakers will have to start asking tough questions.
What makes these questions so interesting is that the economic distress is being caused by geopolitical turmoil. The war in Ukraine and the related sanctions policies are driving much of the inflation which, in turn, is forcing central banks to raise interest rates and creating a recession. This underlines the trade-offs that we are currently seeing between geopolitical goals and economic goals.
Yet the two are inherently connected. To put it bluntly: it is only possible to field a serious military if it can be afforded — and there is much evidence mounting that Britain is getting a lot poorer. At the same time, Britain’s geopolitical ambitions seem to be expanding. The Financial Times reports that defence chiefs are looking for more spending “so the UK can confront the rising threats from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran that were identified last year in Britain’s high-level defence strategy, the Integrated Review (IR)”. Ambitious.
If the Integrated Review is correct and conflict with what amounts to a large portion of the world economy continues, can we really expect the financial picture in Britain to improve? It seems unlikely. Last week, the Times reported that policymakers were discussing how Britain is not prepared for any economic warfare with China. Frankly, if Britain is pulled into an economic war with China, it will leave a huge dent in the public purse.
What Britain’s leaders need to understand is that they cannot have their cake and eat it. Decades of globalisation have rendered the country extremely reliant on open trade with the rest of the world. If this trade collapses due to geopolitical conflict, the basis of the national economy will no longer exist. 2023 may be the year we find that out.
“…Decades of globalisation have rendered the country extremely reliant on open trade with the rest of the world. If this trade collapses due to geopolitical conflict, the basis of the national economy will no longer exist…”
The author accuses the UK of being in denial on military spending but I think this article itself is in denial about the global environment going forward which is now pretty much set in stone for the next several years.
It is crystal clear that the conditions that drive open trade are all becoming curtailed all at once. Energy transport especially, is well on the way to being completely stuffed – impacting Germany hugely (the UK significantly less as an aside). In addition supply chains across the globe are all cracking because of, Covid in China, all the argi-related products that Russia and Ukraine between them used to supply the bulk of to the world going away, large scale boomer retirement across the developed world, etc.
What is also becoming clearer and clearer, is that the US in no longer willing to underwrite European security for free or patrol the seas so open trade can flow globally. This means *all* European countries are going to need to spend much more on doing some of their own patrolling to ensure security for open trade the best they can. As nations become more isolationist in the brewing global climate many will become more predatory, because each has the remit of ensuring their nation can survive. In that situation the idea that any European nation will not be *forced* to spend significantly more militarily to ensure they don’t become victims, no matter at what military cost, is itself delusional.
Well said, Prashant. It’s also inappropriate to judge total spending against the size of the force — Britain is investing in new, modern technology to allow it to do more with fewer people. Germany has failed to live up to its security obligations for decades, scaling back its military to a minimum and shifting costs to the US and other countries (UK included) more alert to the treacherous world in which we live.
A bit of German bashing never goes astray on UNHerd.
Ever since the NATO Cardiff conference in 2014 committing NATO members to a minimum of 2% GDP on defence, Germany has been a defence freeloader. The Germans profess ” give me virtue, but not yet”. Trump was right to criticise this, whether you like Trump or not. Germany trumpets its EU credentials. They need to put their money where their mouth is. Russia won’t be deterred by empty words but by solid military capabilities and the determination to use them if push comes to shove. Hiding behind Germany’s Nazi past as an excuse for not honouring its commitments shouldn’t be acceptable.
This isn’t “German bashing”. It’s calling out hypocrisy.
But the size of armed forces actually matters! It seems that even pacific Germany has a larger Army than Britain. Why don’t you guys stick to the subject, which is the inadequacy of Britain’s armed forces, over which we perhaps have more influence than those of a foreign country. Britain has global military pretensions, Germany does not, rightly or wrongly.
The Germans have done enough bashing of their own over the years, so the odd typically good-natured dig is the least they can put up with.
Frankly, this is a bit of a silly ‘nah, nah, nah we are better than the Germans argument. Germany doesn’t have Britain’s global pretensions; we might condemn it for that but it is more consistent than Britain whose politicians endlessly talk tough on foreign policy and about punching above our weight etc, but then reduces the size of its army and naval forces and, as the article well argues, wastes loads of money on ineffective prestige projects, which might even extend to a supposedly independent nuclear force which isn’t. The Chinese certainly don’t take our Indo Pacific pretensions seriously.
You seem to be implying that European countries will be fighting each other. Or something. But the piece talked about how the British military want to scale up to fight “ threats from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran that were identified last year in Britain’s high-level defence strategy”. Two of these are on the other side of the world, one is the other side of Europe, the other Iran is thousands of miles away. Only Russia is a threat, and then only to Eastern Europe. It’s barely gotten anywhere in Ukraine.
No doubt Europe needs to spend more money on a European army, but Britain won’t join that. The list of enemies there is the list of countries that threaten US supremacy, which isn’t the same as threatening the US nation, or of course Britain. British forces should defend Britain.
“…You seem to be implying that European countries will be fighting each other…”
Not quite but I think a breakup of the EU because individual nations come under huge economic pressure over the coming years is definitely on the cards. Either that, or a move towards effective single nationhood for countries in the union. The logic of the Euro pretty much demands that – either a full fiscal union or the separate nationalities start peeling off leaving a Benelux type core. What was possible to fudge over the last couple of decades by kicking the can down the road will no longer be possible in a much harsher global economic climate.
Nations must spend money on Defence – simply in order to defend themselves.
But only against direct threats – they won’t have the money to counter indirect or potential threats.
Geopolitics is too expensive a game to play any more.
As is playing the role of knight in shining armour.
Not sure comparison to Germany is at all valid. We have larger navy (expensive ships) and larger airforce while army is cheaper per person.
On top of that we have been hearing a lot recently about how German armed forces are… ‘stuffed’.
And in addition, we have nuclear weapons, whereas Germany does not.
Yeah it’s a really weird comparison given that the German military has famously turned up to NATO exercises with broomsticks instead of weapons. How many of those soldiers are actually properly equipped and effective?
Well at least the Germans could clean up after 😉
I agree. For many, many years now we have read that Germany, rich as it is, has not been making its fair contribution to NATO defence spending. It is essentially a free (or at least reduced-fare) rider on the spending of other NATO countries, above all the USA.
So, lower expenditure on its armed forces may be less a matter of efficiency, and more a matter of just … lower expenditure.
Yes. 1.2% of GDP isn’t 2%.
Germany should pay UK the balance for its defence. Perhaps a smidgen to France – but mainly UK.
“and there is much evidence mounting that Britain is getting a lot poorer”.
What is this evidence ? How much is “a lot” ? 5% ? 10% ? 20% ? I assume less than 10% is not “a lot”.
Why do these articles persist in posting unsubstantiated opinions like this as if they are facts ?
In the very short term, Britain will become slightly poorer. In the medium/long term, I strongly doubt it. And absolutely not if we’re talking total GDP – though I’d much prefer to measure GDP per head and made sure this is increasing.
The fact that the MoD is inefficient is not news ! Operationally inefficient. Overstaffed relative to the armed forces it purports to serve. Sitting on huge land and property assets that could be more productively used. I’m talking about the MoD/admin/organisation side of things here – not the military (though there are obviously way too many senior officers in the army, navy and air force – the admirals:ships ratio is well over 1.0).
Britain society is famously broken. And it really is, with our society becoming more dysfunctional by the month.
Given that, it’s sheer fantasy to imagine that Britain can continue to have a prosperous economy.
Even if the global situation was serene, which it isn’t.
Maybe it would help if the government stopped fire hosing British tax payers money at the corrupt state of Ukraine.
Would you like to tell the raped, tortured, and murdered Ukrainians of Bucha, Mariupol and countless other places, or their next of kin, that they are corrupt oligarchs? You are peddling moral equivalence rubbish.
I am not sure why the author believes that the number of troops equates to military powerm one would think the Ukraine conflict might have collapsed that idea. A well trained British soldier armed with modern equipment is worth two German soldiers who have struggled with low military spending since the Cold War ended.
Of course, Britain is getting a lot poorer, not least, because the economy is shrinking, not growing.
The single most important factor that undermines the proper functioning of MoD’s defence procurement process is the pernicious effect of the “revolving door”, that is to say, migration of people in the pay of the State to the private sector to pursue a second career with defence contractors – the very organisations they happen to have dealt with, on behalf of MoD, before leaving the bosom of the State.
Yet the mainstream media are shying away from discussing this issue, because to do so would upset the same people who supply them with a steady stream of titbits about goings on at MoD, which form the basis of their published pieces!
In the meantime, the government has shown no interest whatsoever in discovering where its former employees are headed, after completing their full term in public service. When one considers that these people had just about every aspect of their career actively managed whilst in the pay of the State, this lack of curiosity on the part of senior leaders can only be seen as fishy.
The real reason why the government is disinclined to undertake a survey and collect data on where its people have ended up may lie in the terrible truth that they are freely engaging in market distorting activity the moment they arrive on contractors’ premises, which has the effect of destroying the level playing field that is at the heart of its competition policy on defence procurement.*
It is believed that several thousand people join defence contractors each year, but the government does not want to own up to this reality and inform Parliament.
It is hard to understand why the governing elite would want to take the flak for the inconsiderate actions of those who are no longer on the public payroll.
* See this paper for the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Inquiry into Propriety of governance in light of Greensill, published 8 June 2021, p.2. https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/35317/pdf/
Yep agree – I made the same point BTL about the “revolving door” from a different angle a few days ago in an article by Chris Clarke on UnHerd.
From an administrative POV, the military is just another branch of the civil service. Unfortunately that means it’s chronically wasteful & inefficient – why wouldn’t it be?
The 2 biggest dangers to the western world (Russia & China) have a long lasting grudge against the U.K., so I’d really like to see the military enhanced.
When talking about “the military,” there is a difference between the uniformed forces and the MoD. When I was in the Army, we used to reflect on the fact that for every uniformed member of the forces, there was an “obedient servant” in MoDUK, Whitehall warriors.
I’d like a team of retainers to bring me my daily shopping.
But I haven’t got the money.
Neither has Britain for enhancing its military.
The Government’s silence on the scandal over the ” new” light tank , involving ex Generals who set the whole scam up and sold the unwanted US tanks to the MoD was abhorrent: it should be investigated publicly as a fraud.
MoD equipment and kit purchase was a scandal in my day down to the stores selling combat suits to people in turn selling them on market stalls in Aldershot, when regiments were told there was a shortage is just one example… of many. Firing off GPMG belts of ammunition at the end of live firing excercises was another.
And the SA 80 rifle? The prototype Lee Enfield 7.62 version was trialled and rejected in favour of the FN/ SLR 7.62 in the early ’60s.
Why was it reborn after SLR? It was not fit for purpose, yet the MoD commissioned Heckler and Koch to ” redesign” the weapon, at a cost of not only more than the original cost of the 5.56 version, but more than Mod buying the actual H and K .223 /5.56 mm version or the current US version of AR15/18?
and so it goes on, and no Government does anything about it: there is clearly corruption going on.
Yet MoD find old warehouses full of Brigade of Guards regimental shoulder flashes, over ordered for National Service… and re issue them?! Ditto for WW2 ” Combined Operations” shoulder flashes!!!
The comparison between the German armed forces and our own is somewhat simplistic. Only with the shock of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has the German government, with a new leader, decided to up its military spending to the NATO minimum share of GDP. The consequence of low German defence spending is an armed force hardly to field any force.
The German military are a joke.. and not a funny one
Is that the same German army that had to practice drilling with broom handles due to inadequate spending ?
A strange little outburst – when did having more soldiers than the other side matter? It has not helped Russia against Ukraine.
The ‘plucky Brits’ have always punched above their weight when it matters
Me thinks he reads too much of the FT 🙂
There are ever fewer plucky Brits.
I suppose if the German army trains with broom sticks then they are bound to be cheaper
Witch unit was that?!!!!
As soon as you read Britain has an army of 217,000 you know you can stop. The UK combined armed services is 138,000 (even the ISS source quoted by the author states that. Why read any further.
Britain has hi-tech weapons and nuclear weapons. Germany has broom handles. The wonder is that Germany’s spends so much for so little
Actually, I used to practice sword drill with a broom handle, especially saluting, presenting arms, saluting at the slow march, drawing and replacing swords.. very helpful.
The comparison – if I may say so – is completely nieave Thankfully our Army does not (yet) have to practice with broomsticks as guns and how many carriers does Germany have?
Allowing Germany to militarise to its full extend is exactly what happened in the last Century. There is a phrase often used “lest we forget”. Germany should pay 1% of their GDP to UK for our contribution to their defence!
Also I dont believe for half a second France – Italy – Spain do things better and quicker.
Very poorly researched article in my view
‘Political turmoil is driving inflation’. So why did the inflation begin BEFORE the political turmoil? Perhaps the author forgot about the trillions printed because of the covid response?
Trillions may have been printed. But what was the alternative? Not to print it? Where would that have left The World?
How so? How would not pumping the billions back into economies taken out by lockdowns – have made those businesses with staff wages/rents and no income and home owners (with mortgages and no income?) have made people solvent?
I am keen to understand how the £400bn (In the UK’s case) of economic activity paused by HMG -( but everyones costs continuing) would have actually worked in the real World – without that sum being put back in. Doing the maths its anything but solvent.
Britain’s defence outcomes for its budget are a scandal. Look at Ajax, the £5 billion fiasco, to name but one project. Something is very badly wrong with our procurement. Having been an interpreter with the MoD UK procurement executive many moons ago, I could see the UK did things very differently to, say, France, which has a career branch of Armaments Engineers (Ingénieurs de l’Armement, who appear to provide a more stable, specialised corps of militarily literate defence engineer experts. UK military officers spend short periods of time with MoD PE, and I suspect this results in a lack of focus, continuity, and expertise in articulating the military customer’s needs.
But whatever the overall analysis, British “bang for buck” is unacceptable. Spending “enough” is important in a troubled world. But “waste” doesn’t count as spend. It’s waste.
If you don’t understand defence, Philip, best not to write about it.
“so the UK can confront the rising threats from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran that were identified last year in Britain’s high-level defence strategy, the Integrated Review (IR)”. Our military leaders are totally out of touch with what this country now is. We cannot continue with such global military ambitions and if we do we will end up bankrupt. It is yet another example of our elites (not just military but including many in government) wanting to hang on to our Empire days of international presence and leadership. This was typified by Johnson’s rush to pour funds into Ukraine, and continued by Sunak and his Minister of Defence Ben Wallace. The fact that the latter is top of the tory popularity list may suggest that the party membership generally hasn’t caught up with these truths.
The UK barely spends 3% of GDP on defence.
Defence spending will not bankrupt
What will bankrupt the country is the
welfare bill and the unreformed NHS.
The government should not be funding yet more foreign wars.
If I understand the logic here, we are being bankrupted by the NHS and social welfare (agreed). The defence spend is insignificant; certainly compared with the growing risk and aggressiveness of our opponents (agreed).
Does that not logically suggest we should spend more on defence? (And our opponents opponents are indeed our friends and may help us if trouble comes.)
After all, if the fight begins we can stop social and medical expenditure overnight; we can’t build weaponry overnight.
Stopping social and medical expenditure would be mass-murder.
No one will bother to defend the brutal, Darwinian Britain you are yearning for.
Read my comment again. What you say I said is not so, the opposite in fact. I am saying that increases in military spending cost very little but may save us from a world in which the invader is at the door. If that does happen, then the social medical spend would stop anyway
Current UK defence spending is ca 2.4% of GDP. And compared with the 1980s, this now includes the intelligence services and military pensions used to inflate UK defence spending to say we’d met the 2%, minimum, target.
Lets be honest. The Intelligence Services can be described as Defence. Overall we need to be 3.5/4% with the bulk of the increase coming to UK from Germany and The EU.
He’s back! And he’s managed to shoehorn in his usual fanciful guesses about future American demographics into a story about UK military spending!
Edit: He’s hidden the comment again, no doubt it will be posted again further down the chain
Why not cut spending 10% across the board except for the military? That way the UK can continue to punch above its weight and everybody shares the pain. Or is that too easy? The Blob would be upset, but that wouldn’t be the end of the world.
There is an obvious case to fundamentally review how we spend our defence budget, particularly in light of the Ukrainian conflict. As well as alot of MoD waste and poor procurement there are some v intelligent informed people who no doubt are already giving this considerable thought, as happens during and after every major conflict where you can assess what’s happened, and what’s worked. One has to wonder if we’ll ever build aircraft carriers again for example, or perhaps how much we might need to spend on training pilots in future?
The dilemma of what is the nature of the threat to come, how best to respond, and what role do we want/need to play to protect the form of world we want to live within remain constants, and not easily answered questions.
Everyone knows the famous Dean Acherson statement about GB losing an empire but not yet found a role. As true today as when he said this in 62? With the ‘Global Britain’ vision of the Brexiteers just the latest convulsion. Yet having a role in protecting the rules based order is important so grappling with these questions is vital.
Britain needs to start printing money like the USA – especially to feed the newest European war. Our monkey is churning out billions to ‘protect Europe and the World’. So far what USA taxpayers have contributed is equivalent to giving EACH ONE of our 435 Congressional districts $200,000,000 dollars. OUCH. So don’t criticize our lack of social services- we’re doing this for YOU. C’mon UK – get your monkey on, get your monkey working too. LOL.
Well yes, but the problem is that printing money only works for a short time. Then you find you have no money to buy gas and the Russian gorilla comes and sets about your monkey
Tell that to our esteemed our politicians; (1) Pelosi – notice how she’s on her way out as she approves the debt (2) Schumer – who just cares that NY keeps just getting funds which are misspent year after year (the city is a bottomless pit of need) (3) and McCarthy, a sell-out RINO who’s barely hanging onto his political life in trying to become Speaker….
This comments thread is full of armchair heroes with brutally right-wing opinions.
They’re the last people on Earth who will fight for Britain, despite all their mock-heroic chin-jutting.
Is this the same German army that has used broomsticks for rifles in training exercises?
Philip Pilkington wrote, “Military consultant Francis Tusa told the Financial Times that ‘we [Britons] are demonstrably spending more and getting less . . . France, Italy, Germany and Spain do things better, quicker and cheaper’.”
Outside of the European Union, the British cannot receive its financial support and will be forced to elevate the efficiency of the British economy up to the level of the German economy.
Also, the British must not outsource its military defense to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or any other organization lead by the United States.
By 2040, the United States will cease being a Western nation, due to open borders. By 2040, most Americans will reject Western culture (as the American population is swelled by anti-Western migrants from primarily Latin America and secondarily South Asia), and Hispanic culture will dominate. In California, 40% of the residents are currently Hispanic. Most residents of the state already reject Western culture, and Hispanic culture dominates.
In other words, by 2040, the non-Western United States will cease being an ally of Western nations like the United Kingdom (UK). The non-Western American government will implement policies that harm the interests of the British.
The Japanese understand this fact, and the British must understand it as well. The Japanese are collaborating with the British and the Italians on military research and development and have initiated the development of a major weapon system without American involvement.
Get more info about this issue.
I enjoyed reading your contribution – but I presume you are not British – since if you were you would know The Brits received NO FUNDS from the EU and was the second largest contributor for decades (Germany being the other one)
UK paid billions and billions into The EU which was largely squandered on vanity projects in “poor” European countries to bring them up to the median level.
I called EU contributions “overseas aid” as thats what it amounted to. Now our former EU general subscriptions – a portion of out VAT tax take and 75% of UK import duties (and we import a hec of a lot) have been diverted to other home based needs – such as £1bn a week (approx 10bn dollars a week in USA terms) – yes thats £1 billion a week extra going into NHS compared to 2016 (£132bn)the referendum year – and 2022 £189bn – but still “NHS is on its knees” but thats a different story
Nope Sir The UK never got funds from The EU without those funds first coming from The UK tax payer. Its true we got a tiny rebate each year – but had we stayed in that was being scrapped anyway.
I hope that helped.
In 2040 the international date line is being shifted into the middle of the Atlantic, thus making America a far east nation and not a western one
3rd attempt I see! You’re persistent I’ll give you that
Why do you never reply to people’s criticism of this post that you tag onto multiple articles?
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