Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has thrown the nation into crisis. With both the major political parties in turmoil and uncertainty ravaging the British economy, what comes next is uncertain.
What is certain is that Brexit will put significant pressure on the British military that is already reeling from budget cuts. With it’s currency depreciating, it’s economy set to slow down and debt rating slashed British finances do not look good. One study estimated that Brexit will slow British GDP by six percent in real terms over the next four years, resulting in economic stagnation .
This means is that even though Britain has promised to raise military spending to two percent of GDP, the gain in real terms will likely be minimal or non-existent, depending on exactly how well the economy copes with with Britain’s exit. The weakened Pound will eat up some of the increase, while weakened economic growth will devour the rest.
This could not have come at a worse time. With over the same four years Britain will need to go through several expensive acquisitions, including two new Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft carriers and a fleet of 138 F-35 fighters. To top it all off, they also need to begin funding a replacement for the Vanguard class nuclear submarines.
In addition to these acquisitions, Britain also has NATO obligations to fulfill; obligations that will only increase with Russia’s new aggression. The UK has already pledged a battalion to support NATO operations in the Baltics, along with five warships. It will need to participate in the build up of NATO’s rapid reaction force and begin retraining it’s soldiers for conventional war.
The expectation was that the United Kingdom’s economic growth would provide the necessary revenue for these programs. With resources expected to be stagnant over the next four years, Britain will now be left a with a set of unpleasant options:
- The first option is to simply attempt to outrun the economic stagnation by increasing defense spending beyond the two percent threshold. The problems with this are multi-fold. Politically, it may not sit well will left-wing voters already enraged over Brexit. The increase will need to come at the expense of other government entities like the National Health Service and other social programs. It will also eat into funds at a time when British economy will likely need fiscal stimulus and reform.
- The second option is to let the military stagnate in favor of stabilizing the political and economic situation. While this option may appease Labour voters, it will surely annoy the pro-Brexit crowd who dreamed of a resurgent Great Britain and greatly damage Britain’s ability to fulfill it’s obligations.
The second option option could take many forms. Britain could follow the German model and simply allow readiness to go by the wayside. More defense reform is also an option, which would take the form of cuts and downsizing to certain parts of the defense establishment to meet priorities. Scaling back commitments is also an option. But such actions could endanger Britain’s already tenuous grip on it’s great power status.
The issue of course the timing. The British Armed forces are at the point where they have already suffered from years of cuts. Certain capabilities are at their absolute minimum. Britain’s nuclear deterrent, for example, only has a single ballistic missile submarine at sea at any given time. Britain also needs to acquire the F-35Bs because it sold it’s Harriers to the U.S, leaving the F-35 as it’s only option for carrier based aircraft.
Britain has essentially backed itself into a fiscal military corner and Brexit has put the British defense establishment in an untenable position. Facing fiscal restraints on one side and Russia on the other, the next four years look tough for the Ministry of Defense.