Britain’s armed forces are expected to receive a multibillion-pound two-year spending boost to urgently modernise an army described as “15 years behind its peer group” by the defence secretary, Ben Wallace.
Wallace told a conference he hoped to secure a longer-term commitment to ensure that “defence will have a greater share” of government spending, although it is unclear what status any promise that would apply after an election would have.
The immediate billions are due to be unveiled ahead of next Wednesday’s budget by the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, at a trilateral summit in San Diego with Joe Biden, the US president, and Anthony Albanese, the Australian prime minister.
The three leaders will unveil the next steps of the Aukus defence pact, including the preferred design of the nuclear -powered submarines that will be made for Canberra using secret British and American nuclear propulsion technologies.
But at the summit Sunak, considered to be sceptical about the need for extra defence funding when he was chancellor, will also prop up the UK defence budget in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, although the final settlement is not yet confirmed.
On Monday the Times reported defence would receive £5bn, less than the £8bn to £11bn Wallace had sought. Defence sources declined to comment on the reports, and Wallace has previously said some of the numbers circulating in the public domain are “not actually very accurate”.
The cabinet minister told the defence conference, organised by the Conservative Home website, that “this budget is effectively a budget within a spending period” that ends in March 2025, and “the real battle for defence” will come at a spending review to be held after the next election.
Previously, Boris Johnson committed to lifting defence spending from the current 2.1% GDP to 2.5% by 2030, in one of his last acts as prime minister at a Nato summit last June. His short-lived successor Liz Truss pledged to lift that to 3%, before Sunak became prime minister, setting both promises aside.
Wallace said he hoped to reopen that debate, asking rhetorically: “Can I also send a strong signal, can the government, that the public and the Treasury and other government departments will just have to get used to the fact that, come 2025-26, for the next spending review envelope, defence will just have a greater share than it’s traditionally done.”
The minister said his primary goal was to speed up modernisation of the British army, which he said was like a fine wine “that had gone over about 15 years ago”. Gaps in capability that had been left open as part of the government’s integrated review in 2021 were now exposed by Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
Wallace said “the negotiations I am now involved with” were about closing up some of those gaps – including increasing the target size of the army, reduced to 73,500 as part of the previous review. “I’m open-minded to some extent about the size of the armed forces,” he said.
Next week Sunak is expected to unveil a refresh to the integrated review, taking into account the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has emphasised the importance of land warfare, when the previous strategy sought to push a navy-led “global Britain” free trade concept.
Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the Commons defence committee, said at the conference that Britain needed to respond because its military was “getting down to rock bottom” and it was time to “make a case” to the electorate for higher military spending. “We are entering a new cold war,” the Conservative MP said.
Other countries are lifting their defence budgets, most notably Poland, which is in the process of increasing its spending to 4% of GDP.