Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has told Sky News that the British Army has “fallen behind its peer group” and “needs investment”.
It comes after Sky News yesterday revealed a US general privately told Mr Wallace that the UK’s armed forces are no longer regarded as a top-level fighting force.
Defence sources revealed the US general said this decline in war-fighting capability needed to be reversed faster than planned in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
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They told Sky News’ defence and security editor Deborah Haynes this should include increasing the defence budget by at least £3bn a year and halting a plan to shrink the size of the army further.
Mr Wallace agreed on the need for “urgent recapitalisation”, but said the government was already investing £34bn into the army’s equipment plan between now and 2033.
“The criticism of ‘it needs to happen now’ is these things don’t ‘happen now’,” he said. “There’s no magic wand, there’s no factories whirring away like car factories where you just press buttons and they come.
“There are only about two countries on the earth that can sustain almost constant production lines – that’s China and the United States. Of course we can seek to buy from abroad, but then there won’t be a UK defence and aerospace industry and we won’t be able to necessarily give our troops the exact equipment they want, so we always have to make that balance.”
Mr Wallace also said countries across Europe were facing “challenges” with their supply chains, adding: “That is what that new money is going towards and that’s why it is important to send a signal to industry to say we are investing – that’s what we did with the defence command paper in 2020 and we will continue to do so.”
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Speaking in the Commons earlier, his defence minister James Heappey said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt understand the army is “in urgent need of recapitalisation” and “there is a budget coming”.
Downing Street said the PM still believes the British Army is a “top-level fighting force” despite the US general’s warning.
Asked about the US general’s private comments on Monday, the prime minister’s official spokesman said “yes” to Mr Sunak believing that the British Army is a top-level fighting force.
He said the government is “ensuring our armed forces have the equipment and capability they need to meet the threats of tomorrow including through a fully funded £242bn 10-year equipment plan”.
Former secretary general of NATO, Lord Robertson, also disagreed with the US general’s view.
He said: “The fact is that the British armed forces might have been weakened recently but they are still a formidable fighting force – and I think our country can be proud of them.”
Sky News also asked the Pentagon where it places the British army and whether it is becoming too weak to perform its role as a NATO member.
Defense Spokesman, Brigadier-General Patrick Ryder said: “The United Kingdom is an exceptionally capable and committed ally in NATO and has been second only to the United States in providing military aid to Ukraine.
“The unparalleled defence and security alliance between the US and the UK continues to promote stability and prosperity worldwide.”
Earlier today, Conservative defence committee chairman Tobias Ellwood said people should be “very concerned” about the armed forces’ current capabilities.
The senior Tory called on the government to reverse “swathing cuts” to the army because its equipment has become “obsolete”.
Mr Ellwood said there had been “huge investments” into the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force in recent years, but added: “The army is in a dire state.”
He continued: “Our army is simply too small, we have cut down by 10,000 troops.”
European powers like France and Germany have announced plans to boost defence spending significantly following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.
Mr Sunak has yet to make any meaningful pledge to expand his defence coffers, instead pursuing a “refresh” of a review of defence policy that is due to be published on 7 March ahead of a spring budget that will signal whether there is any new money for the military.
The crisis in defence has been a generation in the making following repeated reductions in the size of the three armed services since the end of the Cold War by successive Conservative, coalition and Labour governments to save money for peacetime priorities.
In 2020, Boris Johnson, as prime minister, increased defence spending by £16bn – the biggest uplift since the Cold War, but not enough to plug the gaps.
Mr Sunak has so far resisted calls to follow his predecessor, Liz Truss, to lift defence spending to 3% of GDP by 2030 up from just over 2% at present.