By Elizabeth Piper
LONDON (Reuters) -Britain must bolster defence investment to tackle threats not only from Russia but from China and other countries, its defence minister said on Tuesday after the new head of the nation’s army warned the country was facing its “1937 moment”.
Setting out a stark view of the risks facing Britain, defence minister Ben Wallace called for more funding, a plea that was amplified by army chief Patrick Sanders with his warning that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia would probably prove an even greater threat after the war in Ukraine.
“We’re not at war, but we must act rapidly so that we aren’t drawn into one through a failure to contain territorial expansion,” Sanders said, as he compared Britain’s situation to the build up to World War Two.
Britain has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24 and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is facing criticism at home on a range of issues, has travelled twice to Kyiv to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
“I’ve always said that as the threat changes, so must the funding,” Wallace told a conference organised by the Royal United Services Institute, a defence and security think-tank.
“Russia is not the only problem: an assertive China ready to challenge the rules-based system and democracy, terrorism on the march right across Africa, Iranian nuclear ambitions to date still unresolved, the threat is growing … and investment needs to continue to grow,” in an unusually direct appeal for money.
Wallace has urged Johnson to increase Britain’s defence budget to 2.5% of gross domestic product by 2028, Talk TV reported, but the prime minister, keenly aware of a cost-of-living crisis, told reporters it had already been increased.
“When it comes to UK defence spending, clearly, we have to respond to the way the threats continue to change, but don’t forget … we’ve now got a defence budget that’s 24 billion pounds bigger,” Johnson said, referring to previous spending increases.
His spokesman said Britain had already announced the “largest increase in defence spending since the Cold War”.
NATO estimates that Britain will spend 2.12% of GDP in 2022, down from an estimated 2.26 in 2021 though still above the 2% threshold the Atlantic alliance asks its members to meet.
Sanders, who became chief of the general staff this month, told the same conference the army must be ready to fight to “avert conflict”, in what appeared to be an appeal for modernisation and possibly further defence spending.
“While Russia’s conventional capability will be much reduced for a time at least, Putin’s declared intent recently to restore the lands of historic Russia makes any respite temporary and the threat will become even more acute,” Sanders said.
“We don’t know how the war in Ukraine will end. But in most scenarios Russia will be an even greater threat to European security after Ukraine than it was before.”
He said the army should focus on boosting its ability to deploy troops quickly and on urban combat and rebuilding stockpiles.
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper, William James, Kylie MacLellan and Andrew MacAskill; Writing by Muvija M and Elizabeth Piper; Editing by William James, Gareth Jones and Alison Williams)