Late on Wednesday, 18 November 18, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a new £16.5 billion funding package for the Ministry of Defence. The move comes at a time when real-terms cuts were thought imminent. The money is to be distributed over the next four years, thus acting as a de facto 10% boost to the current £41.5 billion budget and would thus solidify the UK as the second largest defense-spender in NATO. Justifying his initiative, the prime minister stated that:
“The international situation is more perilous and more intensely competitive than at any time since the Cold War and Britain must be true to our history and stand alongside our allies. To achieve this we need to upgrade our capabilities across the board.”
A large focus is to expected to be placed on space, cyber and artificial intelligence capabilities. On Thursday, 19th November, Johnson announced a new military space command whose first goal will be to develop the capability to launch satellite rockets by 2022. A military AI Agency had also been announced. The exact role of this organization is less clear but likely approaches America’s DARPA in concept. Beyond the military, a new inter-agency “National Cyber Force” will expand the UK’s ability to maintain its security interests in the cyber domain.
This is not to say that conventional capabilities are a secondary concern for Johnson’s cabinet. Earlier this November, a report to the Parliament’s Defence Select Committee warned that unless significant changes are made, by 2025 a Russian tank brigade would outgun a British army division and that the British army wouldn’t be able to field a more capable division until the 2030s. Naval capability also featured as an important defense priority with Boris Johnson vowing to “restore Britain’s position as the foremost naval power in Europe”.
It is unclear when the upcoming Integrated Defense Review will be published and what impact its findings will have on the decisions made for the allocation of the budget increase. The spending boost comes amid significant political setbacks at home due to Johnson’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Johnson, however, justified this saying:
“Our national security in 20 years’ time will depend on decisions we take today […] I have done this [the spending boost] in the teeth of the pandemic, amid every other demand on our resources, because the defense of the realm, and the safety of the British people, must come first.”