Eight reasons why UK military spending shouldn’t be increased

The UK government is considering increasing its military budget in the wake of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia. It claims that the range of military threats now faced by Britain are greater than those it identified in a 2021 government review. Dr Stuart Parkinson, SGR, outlines eight reasons why British military spending should not be increased.

Responsible Science blog, 10 March 2023

1. The UK has already boosted military spending recently – and military aid to Ukraine is only a small percentage of the total

The UK government is reportedly considering a rise in military spending of £10 billion. [1]  This would come on top of another major budget increase. In November 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government announced an increase totalling more than £24bn over the following four years. [2]  Analysis indicated that this was the largest increase in UK military spending for 70 years, and would swallow up all the cost savings achieved by cuts to the overseas aid budget (these cuts had been announced in the same month for reasons of ‘affordability’). [3]  The military increase would also ensure the UK comfortably exceeded the NATO spending target of 2% GDP.

In addition, the UK committed £2.3bn to the Ukrainian armed forces during the first year of the war – with a similar amount pledged for the second year. [4]  This is equivalent to just 5% of the UK military budget.

2. NATO’s military spending is already considerably greater than Russia’s or China’s

In 2021, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, NATO countries collectively outspent Russia on their armed forces more than 17 times, and China more than four times. [5]  Indeed, the UK’s military budget alone was greater than Russia’s – and was also the fourth largest in the world (Russia was fifth), comfortably exceeding the NATO spending target of 2% GDP. Since the invasion, many other NATO nations have announced large spending increases – most from a lower base than the UK. Indeed, the announcements from EU nations alone collectively totalled over $200bn, [6] although in-depth figures for total spending in 2022 will not be available until April this year. Russia has also increased its military spending, but it seems likely that the NATO-Russia ratio will remain broadly similar to that in 2021, while the NATO-China ratio will probably increase. Even adjusting for lower labour and material costs in Russia and China than in some Western nations, the ratios still remain very high.

3. NATO already has major force advantage over Russia across all conventional weapons systems

In terms of both numbers and capabilities of conventional weapons platforms, NATO has major force advantage across air, naval, and land domains. Only in terms of nuclear weapons are NATO and Russian forces comparable – and this has been due to a series of nuclear arms control treaties between the USA and Russia which have curbed competition in these weapons.

As examples, let’s compare some pre-2022 numbers of major conventional weapons platforms between NATO and Russia. [7]  In the air domain, NATO deployed five times as many ground-strike/ fighter planes as Russia and five times as many large transport planes. In terms of warships, NATO had more than eight times as many cruisers, destroyers, and frigates, 15 times the number of aircraft carriers, and three times as many attack submarines. On land, NATO possessed nearly three times the number of tanks and five times as much artillery. Capabilities of individual platforms – such as firepower or range – were, and continue to be, generally superior. NATO also had considerable superiority in pre-2022 numbers of active military personnel – with a ratio of over 3.5 to 1. Although much NATO equipment and troops are kept distant from Russia – much of Russia’s military is also widely dispersed – and NATO has far more capable transportation options.

As noted, this was the situation before the Russian invasion of Ukraine – the intense fighting since has further favoured NATO as we will see below.

In addition, NATO has significant force advantage over China across its conventional weapons systems – and considerable superiority over China in nuclear armaments. [8]

4. Russia’s conventional military forces are much weaker now than at any time since the 1990s

After more than a year of intense fighting in Ukraine, the imbalance in military forces is even more favourable to NATO – especially for land equipment. For example, there is evidence that Russia lost nearly 1,800 tanks – more than half its fleet – and over 2,000 infantry fighting vehicles – about one-third of its pre-war total – in the first year of the war. [9]  Figures for military personnel are harder to estimate, but it is likely that over 100,000 Russian troops have been killed or injured. [10]

Furthermore, the considerable failures of the Russian military on the battlefield – when they were widely expected to quickly overwhelm the much smaller and less well-armed Ukrainian military – have demonstrated that their capabilities are considerably weaker than the numbers above imply.

5. NATO’s military spending target is arbitrary – and not directly related to any specific level of military capacity

In 2006, NATO member nations agreed to a voluntary target for military spending of 2% GDP. By 2014, only three nations had reached this target, so the commitment was renewed with the aim for all members to meet it within a decade. There are also discussions on making the target mandatory.

However, even NATO itself has acknowledged the arbitrary nature of the target – and that there “is no guarantee that money will be spent in the most effective and efficient way to acquire and deploy [military] capabilities.” [11] Indeed, given common problems such as poor procurement decisions, major cost overruns, corruption, and lack of adequate government oversight of industrial contracts, the potential for the misuse of public funds in this area is especially high. Add to this the competing demands for government money in areas which could benefit international security in non-military ways – such as development assistance to help tackle poverty, ill-health, and environmental degradation (see later) – and the case for the 2% target looks decidedly weak.

A very recent example of the ways in which the UK military has wasted money is the Ajax programme. At a total cost of £5.5bn, this scheme to manufacture 589 armoured vehicles has been running for over 12 years but has only delivered 26 vehicles so far – and these can only be used for training, not armed deployment. [12]

6. The UK has unnecessarily expanded its military reach recently – and could reverse this

As part of the 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, [13] several decisions were taken which can be seen as especially antagonistic at an international level – and these could be reversed, both saving money and helping to reduce international tensions.

The first of these was the decision [14] to increase the UK’s nuclear weapons stockpile by 44% - ending three decades of phased reductions, and without any explanation of how this would help improve Britain’s security rather than just raise international nuclear tensions.

Another is the ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’, [15] significantly expanding the British military presence far from home as part of new military collaborations. This has the potential to draw the UK into more armed confrontations, especially in Asia.

Related to this is the global deployment of a new Carrier Strike Group, [16] with its first voyage in 2021 to the Indo-Pacific region, especially sailing close to China. Comprised of an (over-sized) Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, frigates, destroyers, a nuclear-powered submarine, support ships, F-35 strike planes, and helicopters, this extravagant display of militarism appears especially hollow as generals at home complain about ammunition shortages.

Underlying these is a new concept of “persistent global engagement” which involves “continuous campaigning” by British military forces across the world. [17]  Such an approach is likely to draw the UK into even more armed conflicts.

These changes have come against a background where the UK’s military was already heavily focused on ‘force projection’ far from the UK, rather than just on territorial defence – and explains why British military spending has been markedly higher than (for example) most other European democracies.

7. UK civilian public services are at breaking point – and urgently need more funding to save lives

The high level of industrial action currently engulfing British public services highlights how far wages in these sectors have failed to keep pace with large increases in the cost of living – especially in areas such as health care, education, social care, and public transport. In particular, the planned increases in the National Health Service budget announced by the government last November only amount to about half the necessary funding – leaving a shortfall of about £3.5bn each year for the next two years. [18]  With hospital waiting lists at exceptionally high levels, it is likely that a failure to make up this shortfall will cost numerous lives across the UK, especially in already deprived areas.

8. Global problems such as poverty and climate change fuel insecurity – and urgently need more funding to save lives

As mentioned earlier, the UK government announced a huge cut to its overseas aid budget in 2020 – amounting to 30% – and used this funding to expand its budget on weapons and other military equipment. The aid cuts meant  that major poverty alleviation programmes – including some vaccination initiatives – were markedly reduced. The Centre for Global Development (CGD) estimated that such reductions could have led to 100,000 extra deaths. [19]

Meanwhile, international progress on meeting the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals have been badly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic – which killed an estimated 15 million people [20] and widened health inequalities across the world – and by the war in Ukraine – which led to a spike in food prices pushing an extra 47 million people into acute food insecurity, especially in the Global South. [21]  Aid budgets have not only been cut in the UK, but also in other nations – and this badly needs to be reversed.

In addition, UK and global efforts to tackle climate change stalled in 2022. The British government’s climate advisors said there is “scant evidence of delivery” against the nation’s ‘Net Zero’ goals. [22]  Furthermore, the government’s military spending was more than seven times its budget for reducing the nation’s carbon emissions. [23]  At a global level, there was no significant improvement in the pledges made to cut carbon emissions at the COP27 climate negotiations. [24]  Indeed, at COP27, the UN Secretary General said “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator” [25] – yet the funding necessary to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement is still far below where it needs to be.

In summary, the justifications for an increase in the UK’s military budget are weak – given the recent huge rises in funding for British armed forces, the lack of convincing military arguments, and the urgent, life-saving potential of alternative spending options in healthcare, overseas aid, and environmental protection.

Dr Stuart Parkinson is Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) and Co-chair of the UK branch of the Global Campaign on Military Spending (GCOMS-UK).

This article is an extended version of a piece published by GCOMS-UK.


[7] This data is from: International Institute for Strategic Studies (2020). https://www.iiss.org/publications/the-military-balance/archive Later pre-2022 data is broadly similar.

[8] IISS (2020) – as note 7.

[14] Cabinet Office (2021), p.76 – as note 13.

[15] MOD (2021), pp.32-33; see also: Cabinet Office (2021), pp.66-68 & pp.73-74 – as note 13.

[16] MOD (2021), p.14 – as note 13.

[17] MOD (2021), p.12 & pp.15-16 – as note 13.

[23] GCOMS-UK (2021) – as note 3.

Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier

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