Prime minister Rishi Sunak has set himself on a collision course with defence hawks in his own Conservative Party by refusing to commit to increasing spending on the military to 3 per cent of GDP in this week’s autumn statement.
Mr Sunak dismissed warnings that stepping back from his predecessor Liz Truss’s target would be seen as a sign of weakness by Russian president Vladimir Putin at a time when the West is supporting Ukraine’s resistance to his invasion.
The PM announced the award of a new £4.2bn contract to BAE Systems to build five more warships for the Royal Navy, in a move he said would bolster the UK’s ability to counter Russian aggression.
In one of his final acts as prime minister, Boris Johnson pledged to increase defence spending from the current 2.1 per cent of GDP to 2.5 by the end of the decade, and Ms Truss ramped this up to 3 per cent during her brief stint in office.
Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, had hinted he might treat any backsliding on the pledge as a resigning matter but last week indicated he was not seeking a fight on the issue, saying he would take it “Budget by Budget”.
A hike to 3 per cent would cost £20bn-£25bn in real terms, at a time when chancellor Jeremy Hunt is trying to find savings and tax rises totalling up to £60bn in Thursday’s statement.
But Julian Lewis, the chair of parliament’s intelligence and security committee, last week said it was “the worst possible time to be rowing back on defence commitments”, warning that ditching the 3 per cent target would send “a very weak signal” to Moscow.
Speaking during a visit to the G20 summit in Indonesia, where he was due to rebuke Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov over the invasion, Mr Sunak repeatedly decline to commit himself to 3 per cent.
Asked whether he would confirm Ms Truss’s target, or even commit to increasing defence spending in line with inflation, he replied: “You talk about my predecessor’s target. My predecessor before that’s target was an aspiration to get to 2.5 per cent. That was Boris’s target when he was at the Nato summit, I think. And the Nato target itself is 2 per cent.”
Mr Sunak said that the UK had for a long time been one of only three or four Nato countries to meet the 2 per cent target and remained the alliance’s second-largest military spender, after the US.
“No one can say that we do not have a very strong position on defence,” he said.
“We’ve got not just a current but a historic track record of being strong investors in defence and prioritising Nato. That’s what I did as chancellor, with a significant uplift in defence spending.”
Mr Sunak said his “unequivocal condemnation” of Russia at the G20 summit was backed up by “tangible action”.
The UK had provided “significant financial and military assistance” to Kyiv, including 1,000 air defence missiles announced last week and training for Ukrainian troops in the UK, he said.
And he pointed to the new BAE contract to build five new Type 26 frigates to add to the three already under construction.
An advanced warship with the primary purpose of anti-submarine warfare, the Type 26 vessels will be deployed to protect the UK’s continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent and Carrier Strike Group.
“I don’t think Putin or anyone else can look at that and say in any way that we’re weak, we’re being incredibly strong in standing up to him and giving the Ukrainians all the support they need and that will continue with me as PM,” said Mr Sunak.
“There can be no normalisation of Putin’s behaviour, which has no place in the international community.
“Russia’s actions put all of us at risk. As we give the Ukrainian people the support they need, we are also harnessing the breadth and depth of UK expertise to protect ourselves and our allies. This includes building the next generation of British warships.
“Putin and his proxies will never have a legitimate seat at the table until they end their illegal war in Ukraine. At the G20, the Putin regime – which has stifled domestic dissent and fabricated a veneer of validity only through violence – will hear the chorus of global opposition to its actions.”