US defence secretary warns over military spending

Ministry of Defence undated handout of a computer generated image  showing Royal Air Force Chinook helicopters on the flight deck of the Royal Navy's largest ever aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth
Ministry of Defence undated handout of a computer generated image showing Royal Air Force Chinook helicopters on the flight deck of the Royal Navy's largest ever aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth

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Further cuts to defence spending in the UK would be a ‘great loss to the world’, US defence secretary Ashton Carter has warned.

Mr Carter told the BBC the UK had always ‘punched above its weight’ militarily and it would be ‘a great loss to the world’ if it cut defence spending in a way that suggested it was ‘disengaged’.

Defence secretary Michael Fallon said the UK was meeting the 2 per-cent target in the current financial year and insisted he was ‘confident’ the government would continue to provide the armed forces with the resources they need.

But he refused to pledge that the government would continue to hit the target after March 2016, insisting that he would not pre-empt the decisions of chancellor George Osborne in this autumn’s Spending Review, which will set out departmental budgets for the coming three years.

Mr Osborne is seeking savings totalling £13bn from Whitehall departments – with the exception of health, aid and schools, which are protected by a ‘ring-fence’ – and Mr Fallon said defence was ‘no different to any other department’ when it came to the need to reduce Britain’s national deficit.

The armed forces are also anticipating the results of this year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review.

What the next SDSR means for the Royal Navy in Portsmouth remains unclear, but prime minister David Cameron has repeatedly claimed both of the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, currently under construction in Rosyth, will enter service.

Speaking to BBC World News, Mr Carter said: ‘My message to my colleagues in London - like to all the other capitals of the Nato countries - is to stick to the pledge they all made, which was, if they were below 2 per-cent, to achieve 2 per-cent.’

He added: ‘Britain has always had an independent ability to express itself and basically punch above its weight’.

‘I’d hate to see that go away because I think it’s a great loss to the world when a country of that much history, and standing for so much to so many people around the world, takes actions which seem to indicate disengagement.’

Mr Fallon told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: ‘He is right to recognise that Britain has always punched above its weight. The United States regards Britain as an indispensable partner in operations right around the world.’

‘We’ve made it very clear when the target was published last year that we met it then, and we’ve made it very clear we are going to go on meeting it in this financial year.”

Asked if he could commit to the 2 per-cent target being met next year, Mr Fallon said: ‘That prejudges the outcome of the spending review. Any strategy that you have for your defence and security has to be affordable.’

‘All colleagues round the cabinet table recognise the scale of the fiscal challenge we still face in reducing the deficit. We are no different to any other department in that.’

Unprotected departments have been asked to look for efficiency savings, said the defence secretary, adding: ‘We will always go on looking for ways to make defence more efficient, to ensure that more of the money is spent on the front line, just as we’ve done over each of the last five years.’

Mr Fallon said the five-yearly Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) being conducted over the summer will identify the threats facing the UK, the military capabilities needed to deal with them and the funding required to provide those capabilities.

Alongside the spending review, this would allow ministers ‘to look at the future and see that we can be sure that the armed forces have what they need, and I’m confident they will’, he said.

‘The Americans have always wanted the European members of Nato to take a greater share of the burden and there are a large number - seven of the 28 members of Nato - who don’t even spend 1 per-cent. Twenty of the 28 members of Nato don’t even spend 1.5 per-cent.’

‘We are one of only four countries that does spend 2 per-cent. We spent that last year, we are going to go on spending it this year, and when we do the spending review and complete the Strategic Defence Review this autumn, you’ll see what the figure is going to be for the following three years.’

But conservative MP Julian Lewis said that Mr Carter’s comments were ‘a sign of how serious (the Americans) believe the situation has become’.

Dr Lewis told World at One: ‘What we’ve got to remember is that the 2 per-cent is not a target, it’s a minimum. The idea that we would fall below the minimum of 2 per-cent when in the Cold War we spent between 4-5 per-cent of GDP on defence is frankly staggering.’

‘I believe that the government should say that it is out of the question that we would ever fall below the Nato recommended minimum of 2 per-cent, bearing in mind that they’ve been quite happy to box themselves in by ring-fencing other departments, whose work is frankly less important than defending our country.’