Britain is a “first-class player” in defence terms, David Cameron said yesterday as he dismissed claims by a former US defence secretary that spending cuts have left the UK diminished on the world stage as “wrong”.
Robert Gates said the eros-ion in Britain’s capabilities had reduced its ability to be a “full partner” to the United States across the whole range of military operations.
But the Prime Minister insisted that the UK’s defence budget remained the fourth largest globally and more investment was being made to enhance its future capabilities.
Mr Cameron said: “I don’t agree with him. I think he has got it wrong. We are a first-class player in terms of defence and as long as I am Prime Minster that is the way it will stay.”
Mr Gates’ comments come after General Sir Nicholas Houghton, the Chief of the Defence Staff, warned last month that manpower was increasingly seen as an “overhead”, and that Britain was in danger of being left with hollowed-out armed forces, with “exquisite” equipment but without the soldiers, sailors and airmen needed to man it.
Mr Gates said he lamented cuts in defence spending on both sides of the Atlantic. He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “What we have always been able to count on, on this side of the Atlantic, were British forces that had full-spectrum capabilities very much along the lines of our own forces, that they could perform a variety of different missions.
“With the fairly substantial reductions in defence spending in Great Britain, what we are finding is they won’t have full-spectrum capabilities and the ability to be a full partner as they have been in the past.
“Because I lament our own defence cuts, I would say I also lament that reality in terms of Great Britain.”
The decisions in 2010’s Strategic Defence and Security Review left the UK without an operational aircraft carrier until the new Queen Elizabeth enters service in 2020.
Mr Gates said this was the kind of decision that had reduced the UK’s ability to support the US: “They can be a full partner, and probably will because we have a long history of doing this. What I’m saying is the capabilities to do the full spectrum of military operations will be limited with these plans … for the first time since World War One, Great Britain will not have an operational aircraft carrier. Those kinds of things, I think, at the end of the day matter.”
Shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker said: “It should worry David Cameron that Britain’s strongest ally has concerns about his government’s mishandling of defence.”
But former defence secretary Liam Fox told Today: “As Bob Gates was saying, the United States is making substantial cuts of around $500 billion (£305bn) to the Pentagon budget over this decade.
“America is the world’s biggest economy, the world’s biggest defence budget. We are the world’s eighth biggest economy, with the fourth biggest defence budget, so certainly we are pulling our weight on that.”
A MoD spokesman said: “Like the United States, the UK has had to take tough decisions on defence spending, but we still have the best-trained and equipped armed forces outside the US.”