Britain pledged to end the “era of retreat” by announcing a major increase in military spending, despite the coronavirus crisis pummelling the economy, as it seeks to define its post-Brexit role on the world stage.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the extra spending reflected the need to upgrade military capabilities, with plans for a new space command and artificial intelligence agency.
In a speech to parliament on Thursday outlining first conclusions from a big review of foreign policy and defence, Johnson will announce an extra 16.5 billion pounds ($22 billion) for the military over the next four years. The defence budget is now just under 42 billion pounds a year.
The government did not set out where the money would come from at a time when the finance ministry has spent billions on trying to protect jobs during the COVID pandemic.
“I have taken this decision in the teeth of the pandemic because the defence of the realm must come first,” Johnson said in a statement.
“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.”
NEW GLOBAL ROLE
Britain was the main battlefield ally of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, and alongside France the principal military power in the EU. But its 2016 vote to leave the European Union has made its global role uncertain at a time when China is rising and President Donald Trump has cast doubt on U.S. support for traditional allies.
The military spending announcement comes just a week after Johnson promised U.S. President-elect Joe Biden that Britain was determined to remain a valuable military ally.
Christopher Miller, acting U.S. defense secretary in Trump’s outgoing administration, welcomed the extra spending.
“The UK is our most stalwart and capable ally, and this increase in spending is indicative of their commitment to NATO and our shared security,” he said. “With this increase, the UK military will continue to be one of the finest fighting forces in the world.”
The government said the increase will cement Britain’s position as the largest defence spender in Europe and second largest in NATO.
Britain’s main opposition Labour’s Party said the increase was long overdue after the ruling Conservative government had cut the size of the armed forces by a quarter in the last decade.
Media reports said billions of pounds could be cut from Britain’s foreign aid budget. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the defence spending would not come at the expense of aid.
“It doesn’t mean to say we are abandoning the battlefield of international aid, we’re still one of the most generous givers of international aid,” Wallace told Sky News.