For a government to ensure that spending on aid or defence represents a particular percentage of GDP is not in itself useful. Spending a minimum of 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid, or two per cent of GDP on defence, does not guarantee that the poorer people abroad are being helped effectively, or that the Ministry of Defence is buying the right equipment or that the armed forces will have enough manpower.
This is worth bearing in mind as the shadow-boxing begins over the coming spending settlement during the run-up to the Budget. Today’s Times (£) reports that the Ministry of Defence has been asked to find £1 billion of savings before the Budget. It goes on to cite claims that the delivery of the A400M transport plane and the F-35 fighter jet may be delayed.
This search for economies “raises the chances [my italics] of Britain missing a crucial Nato target for defence spending.” Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute says that they “could lead [my italics again] to spending falling below 2 per cent of GDP”.
In other words, it is impossible to know at this stage what will happen, and in any event the Treasury request for £1 billion is simply an “opening bid”. Chalmers calculates that Britain “might still be able to get to 1.951 per cent”, which could be rounded up to two per cent if growth slows.
The reforms put in place by Liam Fox and then seen through by Phillip Hammond seem to have improved the Department’s legendarily wayward procurement performance. But George Osborne is none the less right to continue to want it to be improved further and seek value for money. The Treasury insists that defence equipment budget will increase in real terms during this Parliament.
In short, there is no good reason for the Government to aim to keep hitting the NATO target save one – and it is persuasive. The objective of defence spending is not only to fund our armed forces properly but, no less importantly, to ensure that the lives of its members and those of others aren’t lost in the first place. In other words, it aims to deter.
Vladimir Putin may or may not take the NATO target seriously. But since we can’t be sure, we must be prudent, given our commitments to the Baltic States. This means assuming that he does, and therefore hitting the target. This is the essence of the case made near the end of the last Parliament by four former defence ministers. It is one which ConservativeHome agrees with.