The British army is no longer regarded as a top-level fighting force, a senior US general reportedly told defence secretary Ben Wallace amid fresh concerns over the UK’s military spending.
Senior Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, chair of the defence select committee, said the army was in “dire state” and called on Rishi Sunak’s government to reverse cuts to the army because we are at “war in Europe”.
It follows a warning by defence sources that budget cuts have seen the army decline in the eyes of world leaders. “You haven’t got a tier one – it’s barely tier two,” the US general told Mr Wallace, according to Sky News.
The defence budget would need to be increased by £3bn a year to address the US concerns, sources told the broadcaster – with one warning that the armed forces were “unable to protect the UK and our allies for a decade”.
Raising the US general’s reported remarks in the Commons, Mr Ellwood said they tallied with his own committee’s findings that the Ukraine war had “exposed serious shortfalls in the war-fighting capability of the British army”.
Admitting to budget concerns, defence minister James Heappey said Mr Sunak and chancellor Jeremy Hunt both understand that the army was in “urgent need” of greater spending.
Mr Heappey said “serial under-investment in the army over decades has led to the point where the army is in urgent need of recapitalisation. The chancellor and the prime minister get that, and there is a budget coming.”
Mr Wallace – who has previously pushed No 10 and the Treasury for more money – repeated his frank assessment that the military had been “hollowed out and underfunded” when challenged by Labour over cuts.
John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, told the Commons: “When Labour left government in 2010, the British army stood at over 100,000 full-time troops and we were spending 2.5 per cent of GDP on defence.”
Responding, Mr Wallace: “I’m happy to say that we have hollowed out and underfunded. Will he do the same? Or will he hide behind petty party politics?”
After the unnamed US general’s assessment to Mr Wallace, defence sources called on the government to additionally ease rules restricting the UK’s ability to buy weapons and ammunition.
Defence sources called on Mr Sunak to not fail in his role as “wartime prime minister” by going through with plans to shrink the size of the army further.
The army is currently 76,000 strong but would shrink to 73,000 if downsizing plans go ahead. Among other concerns, the majority of armoured vehicles were built 30 to 60 years ago and are not due to be renewed for several years, while 30 per cent of troops on “high readiness” are reservists.
However, some defence officials said the UK is on track to develop its capability. “It’s now in a better cycle with a lot of new investment over the next 10 years”, one source told Sky News. “As long as they don’t screw up the procurement, they’re on track to be a modern army.”
No 10 also insisted the UK remains an elite military power. Asked if Mr Sunak still believes the UK is a “top-tier” fighting force, his spokesman said: “Yes”, adding that the PM believes the British military personnel have “the equipment and capability to meet the threats they face”.
Mr Sunak was the first world leader to send tanks to Ukraine, with the US and Germany following suit. Speaking at a Q&A event in County Durham on Monday, the PM said Britain should be “really proud” of the action it has taken in standing up to Russian aggression in Ukraine.
“We were the first major country to [send tanks]. What that has led to is other countries, like America and like Germany, saying they will do the same thing,” he said.
Mr Sunak added: “That is really important because it will provide the support that Ukraine needs to, hopefully, make more progress against Russia over the early part of this year.”
A government spokesperson said the UK “has the largest defence budget in Europe and we made the biggest investment in the UK defence industry since the Cold War in 2020”.
They added: “We are ensuring our armed forces have the equipment and capability they need to meet the threats of tomorrow, including through a fully funded £242bn 10-year equipment plan.”
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has said Boris Johnson told “a lie” when the former prime minister said that Russian president Vladimir Putin appeared to threaten him with a missile strike.
The Russian government spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, asked about Mr Johnson’s comments to a new three-part series for BBC Two, said that the British politician’s account was untrue. “Or, more precisely, it was a lie.”