During 2015 Prime Minister Cameron found himself under intense domestic and international pressure over his apparent reluctance to maintain United Kingdom defence spending at the NATO target level of 2 per cent of GDP.
Most commentators attributed this reluctance to the inevitability of defence cuts if the government wished to meet its deﬁcit reduction tar-gets. However, the aftermath of the general election saw a sudden decision to maintain UK defence spending at the NATO target level. This u-turn is one of the more curious episodes in recent British defence policy.
In this article we explore the reasons why, at a time of continuing cuts and austerity measures and against all the political signals, a decision was made to meet the 2 per cent target, and what this means for the UK’s defence policy.
In doing so, we analyse why most commentators assumed that defence cuts were inevitable, the domestic and international factors that explain the government’s apparent u-turn and what this revised defence budget settlement meant for the new 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review.
FOR THOSE interested in British defence and security policy, 2015 witnessed a quite remarkable government u-turn. From the government’s election in May 2015 until early July, all the signals coming from Number 10 and Number 11 Downing Street were that defence, along with much of the remaining non-protected areas of government spending, would be subject to cuts of somewhere between 25 and 40 per cent.
In the debate on the Queen’s Speech in June, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced a further £500m in-year cut in the defence budget, leaving it hovering just above the NATO defence spending target of 2 per cent of GDP.
The Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, subsequently made a less-than-subtle grab for the UK’s foreign aid budget in an attempt to add to the defence budget. The manoeuvre, however, failed, despite the support of a number of Conservative backbenchers. Not surprisingly, the signals of cuts were met with various calls for the government to, at the very least, meet the NATO defence spending target of 2 per cent of GDP.
In the run-up to the May 2015 General Election, the traditional defence lobby groups of retired senior ofﬁcers, defence companies and Conservative backbench MPs became increasingly vocal. The cacophony of voices steadily increased and letters were written to The Times and The Telegraph all calling for the next government to peg British defence spending at the NATO target level.
More surprisingly, they were joined after the election by a series of public interventions from Washington, including the outgoing US Army Chief, General Odierno, incoming Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter, and ﬁnally President Obama during the G7 summit in Germany.
Then, in his budget statement of 8 July, George Osborne announced that the government was now fully committed to maintaining defence spending at 2 per cent of GDP until 2020.
Those within the defence community breathed a sigh of relief. The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) would no longer need to be as brutal as its 2010 predecessor. The narrative changed. Instead of talk of what would be cut, ofﬁcials now started to talk about ‘up arrows’ and the potential to help offset some of the more signiﬁcant capability gaps created by the 2010 SDSR. But this was not the end of the story.
On 23 November the government published its new National Security Strategy (NSS) and SDSR.
In his statement to the House on the same day, Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of an extra £12 billion to be spent on defence equipment and support over the coming decade.
Britain ’s new aircraft carriers will have aircraft, the army will create two new ‘strike brigades’ to confront the likes of so-called Islamic State (IS), the air force will gain three more fast jet squadrons, buy nine new maritime patrol aircraft, acquire at least twenty new advanced drones and much more. (end of excerpt)
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