A post-Brexit world is slowly starting to become clearer to visualize, for the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. As a part of this process, the country is defining the geopolitical role it wants to play with regards to other big powers. One of the most noticeable signals has been the recent announcement of a £16.5 billion increase in the defense budget, coupled with a promise of substantial modernization. While the Integrated Review meant to detail the UK’s foreign policy and defense strategy will not be published until next year, Malcolm Chalmers, Deputy Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies helps us understand what this significant defense budget increase entails for the country.
How do you interpret the recent announcement of a £16.5 billion rise in defense spending over the next four years? Why now, amidst Brexit and the Covid-19 crises?
This reflects a substantial increase in resources for defense, and the largest sustained increase in core spending (that is, excluding operational costs) since the early 1980s, amounting to some 9.3% in real terms between 2019-2020 and 2024-2025. As a percentage of GDP, the UK is spending 2.43% this year (heightened because of the GDP slump) and will still be spending 2.2% in 2024-2025.
The increase is more than I had expected, and the explanation lies in several factors. First, a determination to emphasize that the UK remains an indispensable defense ally, both to the new Biden administration and to our European allies. Second, an awareness of growing concerns over major power competition, both in relation to Russia and China, and the need to keep pace with new threats as they emerge in the next decades. Third, in parallel, the government has announced a significant cut in overseas aid spending, abandoning the 0.7% target and taking £4 billion out of the annual budget next year. This is roughly equivalent to the extra resources devoted to defense, and seems to presage a more permanent shift in international priorities from aid to defense.