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FactCheck: defence spending

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 23 November 2007

Has defence spending gone up every year for the past decade?

The claim

"We have had an increase - a real terms increase in our budget - every year for the last 10 years."
Bob Ainsworth, Armed Forces Minister, Channel 4 News at Noon, 23 November 2007

The background

"Blood on the floor" of the Ministry of defence, as the "system slashes the defence programme to meet the desperate funding situation". That was how Admiral Lord Boyce put it.

A troop of retired top brass laid into the government today, attacking Gordon Brown for underfunding a military machine which is heavily committed around the world.

But the government insists it has continued to fund the armed forces well during its period in office.

So has defence spending really gone up over the past 10 years, as the government claims?

The analysis

It's actually very difficult to find a reliable way of measuring defence spending. Looking through defence spending in the annual budget documents, you see a surprising picture.

The figure for 'resource spending', which includes most defence spending that doesn't have civilian uses such as housing for the troops, went up slowly until 2000-1, before seeing two large annual increases in 2002-3 and 2003-4 as the level of activity in Iraq peaked.

The following year, it falls back - so there's a fall, not an increase, of £5.1bn between 2003-4 and 2004-5. Of course, these numbers will be affected by a number of things, including a switch in accounting methods between 2000 and 2001.

Resource spending by year

YearResource spending on defence,

Source: Treasury website budget documents, FactCheck analysis

The Swedish research institute, SIPRI, publishes a separate series of data, based on numbers reported to NATO. It also sees a big increase between 2002 and 2003, presumably linked to the build-up in the Gulf and Afghanistan.

But it sees a drop (in real terms) between 2005 and 2006. Maybe this is what the generals are upset about.

How about the treasury's own series of figures on defence spending? Well, that also picks a ramp-up in spending in the early 2000s, but some years show a fall. Definitely not the consistent real-terms increase Bob Ainsworth talks about.

And if you look at figures for defence spending compared to national income, it's actually fallen since 1998.

Clear as mud? Well, that's perhaps the story here. There doesn't seem to be a single, coherent way to account for how much the nation spends on warfare.

This isn't necessarily that surprising. When do you count for the money you spend on a cruise missile? When you buy it? One tenth every year of its 10-year life-span? Or when it actually goes bang?

And all this time, the cost of military hardware and the sophistication of kit available to the government carries on growing - meaning that even an increasing budget may not go as far as it once did.

The verdict

Defence has to compete for government cash with other departments like health and education. Government coffers are running low, and those crucial frontline services have been feeling the squeeze.

But in the latest round of government spending decisions, defence has been funded at the same levels as previous years, while health and education have been squeezed.

"It wasn't an ungenerous settlement for defence," says Carl Emmerson, deputy director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank.

All the same, we can't see much evidence that there has been an uninterrupted rise in defence spending over the past 10 years. Each of the data sets we looked at has at least one fall.

FactCheck rating: 3.5

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Every time a FactCheck article is published we'll give it a rating from zero to five.

The lower end of the scale indicates that the claim in question largerly checks out, while the upper end of the scale suggests misrepresentation, exaggeration, a massaging of statistics and/or language.

In the unlikely event that we award a 5 out of 5, our factcheckers have concluded that the claim under examination has absolutely no basis in fact.

The sources

Public Expenditure Annual Outturns, the treasury

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