Prime Minister David Cameron refused to rule out further cuts to the British military if his Conservative Party wins power in 2015.
He said he stands by his commitment to increase spending on defense equipment by 1 percent a year more than the inflation rate, leaving open the possibility of further reductions to troop numbers when Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announces post-2015 departmental spending plans by June.
“We have the fourth-largest defense budget in the world and that isn’t going to change,” Cameron told BBC News today in Tripoli, Libya. “We have protected the defense-equipment budget post, up to and after 2015.”
Cameron made the pledge to protect equipment programs in 2010, when the government announced that defense spending would fall by 8 percent over the following five years to help tackle a record budget deficit. The Treasury estimated at the time that the deficit would be eliminated by 2015. With the economy proving weaker than forecast, it now says government spending cuts will have to continue until 2018.
Cameron’s office was earlier forced to clarify the government position after an official briefed reporters last night that defense spending overall would rise from 2015. Equipment programs account for half of the total defense budget. The opposition Labour Party called the confusion a “shambles.”
Cameron is under pressure to show he is not overstretching Britain’s military after announcing plans to cut the regular army to 82,000 personnel from 102,000 by 2020.
“What matters most of all is that we make sure the budget is being spent on the things that our military need,” Cameron told the BBC. “Intelligence assets, transport assets, making sure we have special forces that are the best equipped in the world.”
The jousting over the defense budget stems from the open conflict in 2010 among the defense ministry, the military and Osborne’s Treasury and may continue ahead of the next spending round. Separately, the government spending watchdog warned today against cost overruns.
The National Audit Office said there is “systemic over-optimism” around the “costing of risk and uncertainty” that risks “capability gaps” in defense programs in future years.
Defense Secretary Philip Hammond today published a detailed equipment plan for the next decade. It includes 35.8 billion pounds for a new generation of nuclear-powered submarines, 18.5 billion pounds for combat aircraft for the Royal Air Force and 17.4 billion pounds for Royal Navy warships, including the Queen Elizabeth class of aircraft carriers.
U.K. special forces may train the Algerian army in counter-terrorism as part of a security partnership between Cameron and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Cameron yesterday became the first U.K. premier to visit Algeria since it gained independence in 1962. He is looking to deepen ties with the north African nation in the wake of the hostage crisis there this month and an escalating battle against Islamists in neighboring Mali.