Richard Reeve

13 May 2015

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This report explores the options for reducing UK military spending in the next parliament as part of a fundamental rethinking of the way the UK conceptualises its own security and thus allocates its resources to the three Ds: defence, diplomacy and development. It forms part of Oxford Research Group’s commitment to moving UK foreign and security policy from a conflict management or containment approach to one of proactive conflict prevention.

Executive Summary

  • The 2015 UK general election returned to power a government with ambitious plans for equipping the British Armed Forces and procuring a replacement nuclear weapons system but no commensurate commitment to maintaining or increasing military spending. Given this imbalance of ambition and austerity, something has to give. The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) provides an opportunity to rethink UK military spending in line with a greater long-term commitment to preventing, rather than suppressing, armed conflicts abroad.

  • As of 2015, the UK spends over £35 billion per year on its military. This is 2.0% of gross domestic product (GDP) or about 5% of total government expenditure. Military spending declined rapidly as a share of GDP under the outgoing Coalition Government from 2.5% of GDP in 2010, reflecting fiscal austerity as well as the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Despite a major increase in development spending, Defence spending still represents 72% of the UK’s internationally oriented spending and puts a particular squeeze on the UK’s now tiny diplomatic budget.

  • Higher military spending means that the UK is an outlier from its peers in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), European Union (EU) and other democracies worldwide. With few exceptions, these 76 or so countries show a remarkable convergence of military spending, with an average spend of about 1.4% of GDP. This is far below the minimum 2.0% spend promoted by NATO, and especially the 3.5% currently spent by the US.

  • The UK has a robust system of alliances that mean that it would never act alone in defence. Even following considerable reductions since 2009, NATO still spends half of the global military budget; four times more than China and ten times more than Russia. Despite their dependence on the US, whose security interests are increasingly oriented elsewhere, European NATO members alone still commit and deploy three times the military resources of Russia.

  • Sustained high military spending commitments by the UK, France and US reflect their atypical histories as maritime imperial and nuclear powers with the ambition to exert military influence almost anywhere in the world. This is quite different to the conceptions of territorial defence that most states follow. Sustained recent evidence (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) suggests that focus on such expeditionary operations may be increasingly unrealistic and ineffective.

  • Drivers of the UK’s still high commitment to military spending include: inflated perceptions of security threats to the UK, its region and overseas territories; the huge capital costs of nuclear weapons, a blue water navy and expeditionary forces; a perception among politicians that UK influence is tied to possession of strategic weapons; and the lobbying power of the world’s second largest military industrial complex.

  • Within the coming SDSR the option to do more with less is tempting but unrealistic. There are significant tensions between the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitments to fiscal austerity and military re-equipment. Aspiring to do less militarily with less money is the most realistic option and may well boost UK and global security. Unlike in 2010, most of the contracts for military procurement over the new term of parliament have not yet been issued.

  • Reducing military spending can only be a part of rethinking the UK’s commitment to protecting national, international and human security. Five recommended steps towards this include:

    • Coordinating UK Government analysis and expenditure towards conflict prevention;

    • Getting serious about defence and deterrence;

    • Recommitting to the UN and multilateral peacekeeping;

    • Rethinking the focus on expeditionary forces and equipment;

    • Transforming military industries to peaceful production.

About the author

Richard Reeve is Director of the Sustainable Security Programme.