Ministers clashed over the declining size of the British Armed Forces today amid growing concerns of the UK’s position as a top military power.
Cabinet Minister Penny Mordaunt warned that the Royal Navy must ‘keep pace’ with its rivals in a stark intervention in a row over the size of the fleet.
It came as Defence Secretary Grant Shapps was unable to say when the UK might hit its target of spending 2.5 per cent of GDP on defence, amid warnings about the shrinking size of the British Army.
Yesterday General Lord Dannatt hit out at the shrinking size of the army, which he said has fallen from 102,000 in 2006 to 74,000 today ‘and falling fast’.
Writing in The Times, the former Army commander drew parallels with the 1930s when the ‘woeful’ state of the UK’s armed forces failed to deter Hitler.
In a tweet today Ms Mordaunt, the Commons leader and MP for Portsmouth North, who is also a Navy reservist, linked to a Sunday Times article about the shrinking size of the Royal Navy. ‘The Royal Navy and its partners must keep pace with the growing capabilities of other nations. If not Britain’s interests cannot be secured,’ she wrote.
Speaking on the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg, Mr Shapps clapped back, saying: ‘I’m in a post where there are a lot of people with opinions and a lot of people who’ve been in the military and armed forces will often express them.’
He pointed to the Navy’s modernisation programme and new weapons systems.
The Defence Secretary was challenged over why he could not give people a commitment on when the 2.5 per cent target will be reached at a time when he has warned about rising global threats.
He told the BBC: ‘There is a trajectory upwards. ‘I can’t give you the exact date because we’ve always said it’s as the economic conditions allow. But the point is we’re working to a plan.’
Earlier, on ky’s Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips, he defended Jeremy Hunt’s focus on tax cuts rather than upping defence spending, saying ‘the Chancellor has been incredibly generous’ with a nearly 10 per cent pay rise for the Armed Forces.
‘We are committed to spending more when conditions allow. But I also think that it is true to say that people do want to see more of the money that they earn kept.’
Under Government proposals, the size of the regular army will be cut from a commitment of 82,000 troops to 73,000 by 2025.
But analysis by The Times suggested numbers could drop below that as soon as next year and continue on a steep downward trajectory.
If the army continues to shed troops at the current rate, the number of regular soldiers will fall below 70,000 by 2026, according to the figures compiled by the newspaper.
The army has faced growing recruitment challenges, but is focused on bolstering hiring and improving retention – and last summer laid out pay increases for personnel.
Lord Dannatt said pay and conditions should be ‘urgently reviewed’ and ‘a pay rise to attract recruits and to retain current trained personnel should be a priority, as should addressing the appalling quality of some armed forces accommodation’.
Noting a lack of investment in equipment and infrastructure, The Times quoted an unnamed former senior US general as saying the UK was seen as ‘having diminished capabilities over the past couple of decades’.
‘Hence, while being the most important ally across the board, it is decidedly not what it used to be, regrettably.’
Mr Shapps today pledged the size of the British Army will not dip below 73,000 under the Conservatives.
He added: ‘It isn’t a question of how many men and women you have on the ground only, it’s about how lethal your armed forces are.’
The size of the overall armed forces is around 188,000, Mr Shapps said.