American commentators are beginning to react to a British announcement of a modest increase in defense spending. Any increase is welcome, but there is unfortunately a good deal less to this increase than meets the eye.
Start with the amount of the increase, which has been reported in the U.S. as being 30 billion pounds. The correct figure is actually 3 billion pounds (or about 5 billion dollars). That increase will kick in only after 2015, after the next Spending Review, and will be spread over a five-year period. It amounts to an increase of about 600 million pounds a year, or an extra 1 percent a year on equipment and support.
If inflation is more than expected, or current or future programs run even modestly over cost—and such overruns are more the rule than the exception—that increase could be wiped out entirely.
Moreover, Britain will have an election between now and 2015, and a new government could easily decide to rescind some or all of the increase. Most fundamentally, this increase comes after defense cuts that have taken Britain’s defense spending from 2.9 percent of GDP down to a projected 2 percent in 2014. At this point, the most that a modest increase in spending three years down the road can do is mitigate a bit of the damage that has already been inflicted.
The reasons behind the projected increase have also been misreported. It is sadly not the case that Britain is increasing its spending in order to compensate for U.S. defense cuts. Instead what is happening is that, after imposing its cuts—which eliminated, among other capabilities, Britain’s aircraft carrier and its Harrier jet force—Britain has budgeted a relatively modest amount of money to pay for building out its reduced force over the coming decade. For example, plans now call for a British army with a strength of 120,000 as of 2020. But with 30 percent of this force coming from the reserves, this means a regular army of about 84,000, compared with 100,000 today—a 16 percent reduction. That is nothing to celebrate.
The bottom line is simply this: A big cut followed by a small increase three years in the future is still a big cut. The British government claims that it has addressed the multi-billion-pound shortfall in defense budgeting that it inherited from Labour. It has indeed done this, but it has done it primarily by cutting programs and only very secondarily by some belated and much delayed additional money to fill in a few of the smaller black holes in the budget. On its own terms, this is welcome, but it is not a retreat from earlier cuts. It is rather a confirmation that they, and the plans on which they are based, are going ahead.