The Sun published a story today claiming that Britain will be spending less than 2 per cent of national wealth on defence by 2017
The story claims that the chancellor, George Osborne, has warned repeatedly that spending will dip below the Nato spending target in confidential letters sent to the prime minister.
The newspaper quotes an unnamed “senior Whitehall figure”. We don’t know who that is, and it doesn’t matter, because according to defence experts, existing spending figures also predict that Britain will fail to meet its Nato spending commitment by 2016/17.
The respected defence think-tank, the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), has been warning for some time that coalition cuts to the defence budget will jeopardise the target of spending more than 2 per cent of GDP on defence.
All members of the military alliance are supposed to spend at least 2 per cent, but few do. Currently only four states out of 28 – the United States, Britain, Greece, and Estonia – are hitting the target.
At the Nato summit in Wales last year all members whose spending fell below the target made an ambiguously-worded commitment to reverse spending cuts, aim to increase defence spending in real terms “as GDP grows” and “aim to move towards the 2 per cent guideline within a decade”.
Equally vaguely, the declaration said countries like Britain who were “currently meeting the Nato guideline… will aim to continue to do so.”
David Cameron made a speech urging under-spending countries to sign up to the pledge. But a few days earlier, Professor Malcolm Chalmers from Rusi had published a briefing suggesting Britain would soon fail to meet the commitment itself.
The projection then, based on GDP and spending forecasts, was that Britain would only be spending 1.88 per cent of GDP by 2015/16.
The numbers have changed slightly since that report was published, and Professor Chalmers told FactCheck he now expects spending to be “on the cusp” of 2 per cent in 2015/16, but he thinks it will definitely fall below the threshold in 2016/17 without a cash injection.
As Britain’s defence spending falls as a share of national wealth, other Nato members like Poland could overtake Britain as worries over Russian foreign policy prompt spending increases.
Mr Cameron has declined to reaffirm the commitment to spend at least 2 per cent of GDP in recent interviews.
Last month he was questioned by the BBC’s Andrew Marr and refused to rule out further defence cuts, saying: “Let’s see how these things develop, that’s going to depend on the decisions we make, on what happens with the economy.”
The bigger picture
According to Nato’s definition of spending, Britain still spent more in cash terms in 2013 that any other member except the United States, whose defence budget is by far the biggest of any of the allies.
In terms of personnel, Nato put Britain’s annual strength at 174,000 service personnel in 2013, making Britain’s armed forces smaller than those of the US, Turkey, France, Germany and Italy.
Britain along with many other Nato countries has slashed military personnel in recent decades. In 1990 Nato’s total strength was 5,776,000 personnel. In 2013 the alliance’s combined armed forces numbered 3,370,000.
Overall defence spending across Nato stood at just over $1tn in 2013. It has fallen in real terms since 2010, while some non-Nato countries like Russia have been boosting their military budgets.
Russia still spends a fraction of what Nato does in cash terms. The US alone spends about seven times more than Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – although Russia spends 4.1 per cent of its GDP.
Professor Chalmers told strategy is a bigger priority than spending figures for Nato right now, as the alliance tries to respond to the perceived threat of Russian aggression without breaking a 1997 agreement forbidding the “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” in eastern Europe.
We don’t need the Sun’s secret sources to predict that British defence spending will slip below 2 per cent of GDP by 2017.
That’s what Rusi has been predicting for some time – and other experts agree.
Of course the chancellor could step in with some extra cash, or GDP could grow less quickly than predicted.
Britain is likely to continue to face international pressure to hit the target. Barack Obama and several former heads of Nato have already urged Mr Cameron not to cut spending.
And the backbench Tory MP Christopher Chope is sponsoring a private member’s bill to try to get the 2 per cent target enshrined in the law.