What has been revealed in the UK’s ‘refresh’ of military strategy and how does it compare with civilian public spending? asks Dr. Stuart Parkinson

The updated strategy says that the new £2.5bn will be spent on “munitions and stockpiles”, as they need “replenishing” and “augmenting” following Britain’s supply of weapons to Ukraine in its war against Russia2 This extra money is to be spent “through the coming decade”, and therefore amounts to £250 million a year for 10 years – a rather lower spending rate than may be assumed from the headline figure. However, the funding comes “on top of the increased investments committed at the Autumn Statement and Spring Budget.” This is especially significant because, in the Spring Budget, one of the spending commitments made by the government was an extra £5bn over two years for “bolstering our conventional stockpiles” and for various nuclear projects3 – but with no indication of the split between the two categories. The updated strategy now reveals this split – £3bn will go on nuclear projects4 and the remaining £2bn will go on replenishing conventional weapon stocks. Hence, the extra annual spending now committed to replenishing weapons stocks will be £1.25bn from 2023 to 2025, and £0.25bn a year for the following eight years. Table 1 summarises the main spending commitments revealed as part of the military strategy update.

Table 1 – Main spending commitments announced as part of the refresh of UK military strategy, July 2023 (£ million)

£m 2023-24 2024-25 2025 onwards Totals
New spending announced in July*
Munitions and stockpiles 250 250 250 per year (2025-2033) 2,500
New spending announced in March**
Munitions and stockpiles 1,000 1,000 2,000
Nuclear programmes*** 1,500 1,500 2,000 per year (2025-2028) 9,000
New allocation of spending announced before March
Military accommodation 200 200 400
* As part of the ‘refresh’ of UK military strategy
** As part of the Spring Budget, but clarified as part of the refresh
*** Including nuclear-armed and conventionally-armed submarines

More Detail on Military Nuclear Spending Revealed

In addition to revealing more detail on nuclear spending up until 2025, the strategy update also shed more light on how the new funding announced in the Spring Budget would be allocated to nuclear projects after that date. Specifically, it said:

In recognition of the centrality of our nuclear deterrent, Defence has received an additional £3 billion over the next two years, and a further £6 billion over the subsequent three years, which will be invested across the defence nuclear enterprise. This is in addition to our current levels of investment.”5

MOD (2023a). Defence’s response to a more contested and volatile world. (p56) 18 July

This clarifies that all the post-2025 funding announced in the Spring Budget is intended for nuclear programmes. The ‘defence nuclear enterprise’ comprises Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system (nuclear-powered submarines, ballistic missiles, and nuclear warheads), the conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines (Trafalgar, Astute, and AUKUS) and all the support infrastructure. The “current levels of investment” for the defence nuclear enterprise were given in the most recent Defence Equipment Plan, published in December 2022, and amount to £67.7bn over 10 years, i.e. an average of £6.77bn per year.6 So we now know that the extra money announced in the Spring Budget has caused the annual spending on nuclear programmes to rise by over 20% during the years, 2023-25, and nearly 30% during the years, 2025-28. The strategy update does not give details about the breakdown of the extra funding between the various elements of the nuclear programme, but it is likely that it will be dominated by the ongoing construction of the new nuclear-armed Dreadnought submarines, the new warhead programme, the completion of the remaining two Astute submarines, and early work on the recently announced AUKUS submarines.

These spending increases therefore further emphasise the role of nuclear weapons in UK military strategy – already boosted by the 2021 announcement that warhead stockpiles would be increased by 44%. 7 This is particularly disturbing against the background of the war in Ukraine.

…and On Other Military Spending

The strategy update contains two other notable comments on military spending. The first – which is prominently mentioned in the Ministry of Defence (MOD) press release – is that an extra £400m will now be spent on modernising service families’ accommodation, with the money re-allocated from within existing budgets.8 The second is that “significantly more” than the previously announced £6.6bn budget is planned to be spent on military R&D.9 No more numerical detail is given, but the strategy update continues the MOD theme of strongly emphasising military roles for emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robotics, synthetic biology, and quantum computing. The way this is likely to fuel international arms races – including in autonomous weapons systems – is especially concerning.

UK Military Budget Increases Since 2020

The revelation that, of the £2.5bn in new spending announced as part of the strategy update, only £500m is to be spent this parliament, is attracting criticism from those who think Britain’s military spending should rise further in the wake of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Even with the increased detail concerning the Spring Budget increases – as Table 1 shows – the replenishment of stockpiles is only being funded by £1.25bn a year compared to current levels of military aid to Ukraine totalling £2.3bn a year. 10 However, those criticisms ignore the other huge increases in UK military spending that have happened over the previous three years.

Let’s start with the £24bn spending increase announced by then-Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in late 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.11 This extra funding was spread over four years, from 2021 to 2025 – and the Royal United Service Institute (a think-tank with close links to the MOD) pointed out at the time that this would lead to the largest short-term increase in UK military spending for 70 years. 12 Further analysis by GCOMS-UK13 showed that this money was roughly equal to the massive cuts in overseas aid over the same period – the latter being justified by the government on the grounds that it could no longer afford the spending due to the economic problems caused by the pandemic – a rather callous attitude given the much greater impact of the disease in developing countries.

Then came Russia’s 2022 invasion and the subsequent economic impacts, which led to high levels of inflation eroding the military spend (and all other aspects of government and consumer spending, both in the UK and across the world). But – in the Autumn Statement 2022 and the Spring Budget 2023 – the military budget was given inflation-busting increases. GCOMS-UK calculated14 that the increase in 2022-23 over the previous year was nearly 16% – far greater than consumer inflation – and took the total over £50bn for the first time. In particular, the Spring Budget included extra spending of £5.6bn over the two years to 2025, and a further £6bn over the subsequent three years, should the Conservatives win the next general election.15 Furthermore, the government is aiming to increase military spending even more in the longer-term to reach 2.5% GDP when “the fiscal and economic circumstances allow.” 16 This would be well above the NATO target of 2% GDP. According to the most recent international comparison – for 2022 17 – Britain’s military spending increased faster than other major European nations, such as Germany, France, and Italy.

At the same time, civilian areas of government spending have faced a much more difficult time. Striking workers across the public sector – including in health, education, and public transport – have been refused pay increases anything close to inflation. As a further indicator of the problem, the ratio between military spending and spending in civilian sectors has worsened across the board. For example, the MOD’s budget in 2022-23 was 5.5 times higher than that of the Foreign, Development and Commonwealth Office – up from 4.3 times – and it was 8.7 times the budget for the Dept of Energy Security and Net Zero, which includes spending to help tackle the climate crisis.18

Concluding Comments

While the new funding announced as part of the UK military strategy update is modest, this should be seen in the context of huge spending increases over the past three years – to the detriment of civilian areas, especially overseas aid. Furthermore, the strategy update has given more clarity on increases in spending on nuclear weapons and nuclear submarines – which are becoming even more prominent in UK military strategy, despite the huge risks they pose to international security.

Source: GCOMS UK

03 Aug 2023 by Stuart Parkinson

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