“More ships, more planes, more troops in readiness and much better equipment for our special forces.”
That was Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s upbeat take on today’s Strategic Defence and Security Review, which tells us how much the government plans to spend on the armed forces over this parliament and beyond.
The last SDSR cut UK military manpower to levels not seen since the middle of the nineteenth century. It also left Britain without an aircraft carrier and scrapped the Nimrod planes that were supposed to sniff out enemy submarines and protect the Trident nuclear fleet.
The government is trying to put a positive spin on today’s announcements, but with new threats from Russian aggression and the rise of terror groups like the self-proclaimed Islamic State, experts are still concerned about the long-term health of the British military.
What’s new today?
A lot of today’s announcements had been heavily trailed in the press, but there was some good news for sections of the armed forces and bad news for others.
Losers: as the debate over the future of Trident intensifies, the MoD admits the deterrent will cost £31bn over 20 years instead of £25bn; the MoD’s civilian workforce will be cut by 30 per cent over five years.
Winners: special forces see their equipment budget increase by £2bn; the overall equipment budget rises by £12bn; the RAF will get a fleet of Boeing P8 patrol planes to replace the Nimrods, twice as many drones, and three times as many F35 Joint Strike Fighter available than expected; the Navy and RAF will get an extra 700 personnel between them.
Does this reverse earlier defence cuts?
No. The last SDSR envisaged the Army falling to 82,000 regular personnel, the Navy to 30,000 and the Air Force to 33,000 by 2020. The target for the army stays the same but the other two services will get 700 more people.
To put that in historic terms, Britain’s total regular strength will still be less than half what it was at the time of Falklands War in 1982:
The strength of the reserve forces is supposed to be growing to offset the effects of cuts to the regular forces, but the latest statistics suggest progress has been slow.
In terms of equipment, the new commitment to have two aircraft carriers in service means Britain will have one more than Russia or China or France and the same number as India, Italy and Japan. Only the United States will have more carriers.
And if the government replaces the Trident fleet, there will be four nuclear-armed submarines on patrol, meaning Britain maintains its membership of the group of nine nuclear-armed countries. Sipri estimates that Britain has the third biggest atomic arsenal in the world.
But even factoring in some of today’s announcements, it’s clear that other areas of strength will still be at a historic low point by 2025.
The Navy will have 19 destroyers and frigates, for example, compared to around 60 at the time of the Falklands conflict.
How much does Britain spend on defence compared to others?
It depends who you ask. There is no internationally accepted definition so analysts have to develop their own methodology on what constitutes defence spending.
Britain has the fifth biggest defence budget in the world, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies:
Another think-tank, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), says Britain has slipped to the sixth biggest spender in the world.
Britain is cutting at a time when other countries have ramped up their budgets. This is the percentage real-terms change in spending for selected countries between 2004 and 2014, according to Sipri figures:
The MoD’s budget is set to rise by 0.5 per cent above inflation every year from 2016-17 to 2020-21, and there will be an additional £1.5 billion a year available for the military and intelligence agencies to bid for.
It remains to be seen whether other big military powers will match this level of spending or overtake it.