Britain’s armed forces would “last about five days” if there was a war, a senior Conservative MP has claimed, as pressure increases on the chancellor to boost defence spending in next month’s Budget.
Tobias Ellwood, Tory chair of the Commons defence committee, told the Financial Times that high inflation and the cost of replacing equipment sent to Ukraine had created “a really grim picture” and left military supplies seriously depleted.
Jeremy Hunt has vowed to consider the case for more military spending in his Budget in response to an update of the government’s 2021 foreign and defence policy, expected in the coming weeks.
The revamping of the so-called “Integrated Review” by John Bew, a historian and member of the Number 10 policy unit, will take account of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The original document was billed as a “tilt to the Indo-Pacific”.
In the meantime the lobbying for more military spending is increasing, with defence officials privately discussing a range of eye-catching measures to save money.
One person briefed on the discussions told the FT these could include the mothballing of HMS Prince of Wales, one of the Royal Navy’s two aircraft carriers, fewer RAF flights and the possible cutting of special forces operations.
Treasury insiders were scornful of such “doomsday scenarios”, often described in One Horse Guards Road as “shroud waving”.
The state of the British army has become a domestic political issue. Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, who has lobbied for extra funding over the past year, told parliament last week that the UK had “hollowed out and underfunded” its forces.
It was an admission that John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, leapt on as “a frank admission of failure over 13 years of Conservative government”.
Ellwood claimed the army was seriously short of surface-to-air and anti-tank missiles, which are among the weaponry supplied to Ukraine.
“I’m very concerned that the message coming out of the Treasury is indicating that we must brace ourselves for further real terms cuts because inflation is rising,” he said.
The Ministry of Defence said: “These are speculative rumours, which always circulate before a Budget and even more so in the run-up to the integrated review. We don’t comment on speculation.”
There is frustration in the Treasury and Number 10 about the campaign for more military spending. Hunt’s team points out that £242bn has been earmarked for a 10-year equipment procurement plan.
Rishi Sunak, as chancellor under Boris Johnson’s government, in 2020 promised an extra £16bn for defence across four years, hailed as the biggest boost to defence spending since the cold war.
Hunt said in his Autumn Statement last year: “The prime minister and I both recognise the need to increase defence spending. But before we make that commitment, it is necessary to revise and update the Integrated Review, written as it was before the Ukraine invasion.”
During last year’s Tory leadership contests, Sunak refused to match promises by rivals to increase defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP by 2030, up from just over 2 per cent now.
But a spokesman for Sunak said the prime minister’s commitment to defence was clear, given he had increased the military budget and had sent considerable shipments of arms to Ukraine.
Britain has so far provided more than £2.3bn of military aid to Ukraine, and the government has also allocated £560mn to the MoD to replenish depleted UK weapons stockpiles.