Britain must rearm to strengthen NATO and meet threats beyond Russia and terrorism

As NATO celebrates its 75th anniversary, the UK must overcome its capability gaps to boost the alliance’s deterrence power and account for threats like China.

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In January 2024 the head of the British Army, General Sir Patrick Sanders, queried whether the world is at a 1938 moment

He is not alone in making such linkages to the past or raising questions about the state of Britain’s armed forces today. Grant Shapps, Britain’s Defence Secretary, echoed his sentiments in a speech shortly afterwards. A month later, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, Chief of the Defence Staff, appeared to play down the issue.

Both Sanders and Shapps called for a significant increase in defence spending. Others have called on the British government to bring forward its commitment to increase defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP immediately.

In continental Europe there have been similar calls for an increase in defence spending following Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Many European states have responded, and some have even reinstituted some form of conscription.

The official British government policy, set out in the 2023 Integrated Review Refresh, remains contradictory. It argues that the world is becoming increasingly dangerous, emphasizing the immediate threat posed both by the likes of Russia and international terrorism whilst adopting a more hostile view of China, viewing it as a medium-term threat.

However, it also procrastinates, pledging to increase defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP only when the economy and government finances are in a better position.

NATO’s 75th anniversary is a moment the UK should use to recognize the deficiencies in its military capability, and how they hinder its contribution to the alliance. 

If this is a 1938 moment, it has a clear responsibility to rearm in a way that complements its allies’ strengths, and accounts for threats beyond the short term.

Britain has rearmed in tougher financial times

Sanders’ reference to 1938 acknowledges that Britain has previously faced significant threats at inopportune times. Behind the late 1930s British policy of appeasement was a parallel policy of significant rearmament. 

As a result, the armed forces were, if not ready for war in 1939, in a significantly better position than just a few years earlier. The defence industrial base had also been significantly restored and made ready for the subsequent world war.

UK armed forces are currently confronted with significant capability gaps. 

Similarly, the Labour Government embarked on a major rearmament programme in 1950, following the fall of China to the communists, the North Korean invasion of South Korea and the Berlin blockade. Defence spending spiked at over 10 per cent of gross national product.

In both cases Britain’s financial position was far worse than it is today. Deciding whether to increase defence spending or not is a policy choice and one which appears to have been deferred to the next government. 

Capability gaps and rearmament priorities

UK armed forces are currently confronted with significant capability gaps. According to evidence given to the Public Accounts Committee by defence officials the current equipment programme is only affordable if defence spending rises to 2.5 per cent of GDP. This does not account for any significant expansion in defence capabilities and only a limited increase in munitions production. 

Officials also confirmed that Britain’s existing commitments put an excessive strain on its equipment, creating a maintenance backlog. Moreover, supply chain problems following Covid delayed some new equipment entering service, leading to older equipment being kept in service, raising maintenance costs still further. 

Already a number of defence commentators have argued for a larger army and the acquisition of additional tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery. Such advocacy, while understandable, is strategically illiterate. Rearmament needs to be focused on capabilities that meet the threats to the UK. 

UK plans need to complement wider alliance rearmament, delivering what NATO needs most. 

If the assumptions of the 2023 Integrated Review Refresh are right, that means addressing not only short-term threats posed by the likes of Russia, but also the medium-term challenge of China. 

This needs to be undertaken within the context of Britain’s partners and allies and a thorough understanding of the UK’s supply chain vulnerabilities and requirements for critical raw materials. 

As NATO celebrates its 75th anniversary, it rightly remains at the heart of British defence and security policy. UK plans need to complement wider alliance rearmament, delivering what NATO needs most. With a potential second Trump presidency looming, this would suggest focusing on the ability of the Europeans to deter Russia without the US. 

Deterrence without the US

How this is undertaken across the conflict spectrum will require careful thinking and politically difficult decisions. For example, should Britain move away from gradual nuclear disarmament in favour of expanding its nuclear arsenal to replace the lost US capability? Such a step might help preserve NATO’s Article V guarantee, and arguably deter Russia, but it could have other unintended consequences.  

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Geography would also suggest that Britain looks to support the defence of Scandinavia, leaving the central and southern parts of NATO’s border with Russia to others. 

This would suggest a greater role for its navy and air force, rather than land forces – and create a force more adaptable to deploy to deter China.

Rearmament needs to be planned and carried out over the longer term. Industry is not going to build new facilities, recruit more staff and scale up production in the short-term, as it would make little financial sense. In the 1930s the state had to provide significant financial support to help build new factories. 

Today government needs to reconsider which capabilities need to be built in the UK, and what partners and the wider market can provide. These problems are not new today, they are just more complex.

If the UK is in a 1938 moment, then acting now to prevent a future war in Europe has got to be the priority, rather than waiting for a rosier financial outlook. 

It also means focusing on an integrated European response within NATO, strengthening the world’s most impressive military alliance so that it endures and deters successfully for another 75 years – whatever may happen in the US.