The UK Is No Longer A 'Tier One' Military Power


British Prime Minister Theresa May this week asked Britain's defense secretary to justify the UK's role as a "tier one" military power, causing dismay in the Ministry of Defense. Underlying the statement is a realization that the UK can no longer economically compete with top powers, defense experts told Business Insider.

"It's a reflection of our economic status — times are tough," said Tim Ripley, a defense analyst, adding: "It's all about money... if you don't have money you can't spend it."

The Prime Minister questioned defense secretary Gavin Williamson on whether money for the military should be reallocated to areas like cyber, and if Britain needed to maintain a Navy, Army, Air Force and nuclear deterrent all at once.

Ripley called it a retreat from "grand ambitions."

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"No matter how we dress it up, this newfangled cyber stuff is just an excuse for running away from funding hard power," Ripley said. "If you don't pony up the money and the hard power you don't get a seat at the top table. No matter how flashy your cyber warfare is, people take notice of ships, tanks, and planes."

There is a strong correlation between military power and economic status. The major powers including the U.S., China, and Russia all demonstrate their strength through military posturing, and countries that don't have enough resources for defense often pool with others.

Dr. Jan Honig, a senior lecturer in war studies at King's College London, said that shared defense can be disrupted in times of nationalism, and called it "highly ironic" that Brexit could mean the UK can longer fund its military.

"You can't really do it by yourself even if you spent a lot more on defense which is not going to happen in this country with this measly economic growth and the uncertainty about international trade details," Honig said.

The Royal Navy's new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth arrives in Gibraltar for her first overseas port visit. The 65,000 tonne future flagship was conducting a routine logistics stop having left her home in Portsmouth a week earlier for helicopter trials.Dave Jenkins/InfoGibralter/Wikimedia Commons

The Prime Minister's comments, which were first reported by the Financial Times, come in the context of her recent pledge of a fresh £20 billion for the National Health Service (NHS) and debate about where the money will come from.

Governments need to ensure that their policies have support from the people, and pouring money into the military is harder to sell then spending on the NHS and social welfare which are immediate issues, said Honig, adding that populations are also now more switched on to the horrors of war.

But Julian Lewis, Chair of the UK's defense committee told Business Insider that he's now concerned about whether May will be able to properly fund the military after the NHS pledge.

"I am not won over … by this jargon of calling it a 'tier one' military power… What I'm much more concerned about is whether Theresa May will be able to give defense the money it needs," he said, citing a "whole" of over £4.9 billion in the defense budget.

May's comments will not lead to definitive action to pare down the military, but are a clear sign of the direction of travel, said Ripley.

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