The British Empire was the dominant military and political power on earth for centuries. Its influence reached far and wide and its economy was one of the strongest in history. However, since the end of World War Two, Britain has seen a gradual decline in its influence and military capabilities. The most damning piece of evidence for this decline has been the recent comments made by American defense officials.
In a private conversation with the United Kingdom’s defense secretary Ben Wallace, a senior United States general warned that the United Kingdom is no longer considered a top-tier fighting force, and in fact, is considered a third-world fighting force. According to Sky News, which broke the story, the United Kingdom’s armed forces would be unable to deploy with the proper speed set by NATO standards in the event of an attack, would run out of ammunition within days, and could not defend its skies from attacks similar to the ones we have seen in Ukraine. Furthermore, much of the United Kingdom’s equipment is outdated by nearly 30-60 years, and it would take almost 10 years to field a fighting force of 25,000-30,000 troops.
The US was of course right to point out these serious deficiencies within the UK military. Our long-standing friendship with the British does provide us with the ability to be frank, which will be important in the coming decades. While the UK may never see the peak it had during its empire, it does need to show its allies, primarily the United States, that it takes the possibility of upcoming conflicts seriously. While Rishi Sunak has spoken about his preference for diplomacy over force, he seems to take the Americans’ warning seriously.
During Boris Johnson’s tenure as prime minister, he envisioned a major restructuring of his nation’s military into a force capable of rapid deployment. However, his plan was undercut by the economic impact of COVID-19, but also in large part due to the decades of cuts made to the U.K. defense budget. Shadow Defense Secretary John Healey told the Evening Standard that over the last decade, the conservative-led government has cut the defense budget by nearly £8 billion with subsequent full-time personnel cuts of 45,000 troops.
While COVID-19 surely affected the U.K. economy, the true source of its military decline is due to decades of defense spending cuts. But why have these cuts been made? Surely a nation’s most important job above all others is to maintain a capable military to defend its territory. Ben Zaranko, a senior research economist, explains:
The UK currently spends slightly over 2% of GDP on defense each year, amounting to some £45 billion in 2021, or about £660 per person. This has fallen substantially over time. In the mid-1950s, the UK spent almost 8% of its GDP on defense. That fell to about 4% in 1980, 3% in 1990, and around 2% today. At the same time, spending on health services has grown from around 3% of GDP in the mid-1950s to more than 7% on the eve of the pandemic.
Zaranko remarked that the United Kingdom’s “peace dividend,” decades of cuts in the defense budget, has helped to pay for the country’s growing welfare state. To pay for their National Health Service, successive administrations have resorted to raiding the defense budget or increasing taxes, and sometimes both. Spending cuts have not been the only area of major concern regarding the health of the United Kingdom’s armed forces. A December report showed that the U.K.’s armed forces personnel saw their total strength drop by 3.3% from October 1, 2021, and October 1, 2022. Recruitment numbers have also shown to be depleted as well with those joining the regular forces being down by 29.8%.
To turn the ship around the UK must make serious re-evaluations as to what is more important in the long run. U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has recently announced that his government will see an increase in the defense budget by nearly $6 billion over the next two years. Sunak also announced his plans to increase the defense budget to increase by nearly 2.5% of GDP but has not set any official date as to when the increase will begin to take place. This is a step in the right direction considering his top military advisors have said that an increase to 3% is to be desired, but with Sunak’s plans, it would help push the UK over the 4.5% GDP of military spending.
In a time of massive geopolitical unrest, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine reaching its first anniversary, Iran steadily closing in on its goal of reaching nuclear status, and China looking for opportunities to invade Taiwan, it begs the question: Why is Britain asleep? Prime Minister Sunak may have pledged to increase defense spending to make up for decades of cuts but he will need to decide whether he will pay for these increases with tax hikes or budget cuts.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.