UK among top but rest of Europe slacking with NATO military funds

Ukraine ‘will become a member of NATO’ says Jens Stoltenberg

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A year of war on European soil has led to a seismic shift in the way allied governments perceive their militaries. The leadership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) – the mutual defence-bonded alliance formed in the aftermath of World War 2 – has long pushed for its members to spend at least two percent of their economic output on defence. This threshold has never been met by many after decades of cost-cutting, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed how dangerous this trend had become.

Last week marked one year since Vladimir Putin’s forces began their bloody invasion of Ukraine.

The first full-scale conflict on European soil since World War 2 has raised long-overlooked questions of military capability once more.

During the past 12 months, NATO and its allies have committed or delivered £54.6billion in military aid to Volodymyr Zelensky’s resistance effort, according to the Kiel Institute.

Going into this figure are thousands of portable rocket launchers, hundreds of artillery batteries, dozens of tanks and helicopters as well as large numbers of non-lethal equipment.

The West has been generous in its support of Ukraine, but following through on its promises has exposed just how big military expenditure shortfalls have grown.

NATO is an intergovernmental alliance founded in Washington in 1949. It’s core principle is enshrined in Article 5 of the treaty, which states that NATO allies see “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America [as an] attack against them all.”

As of 2023, there are 30 NATO members worldwide. Accession talks with Sweden and Finland – which shares Europe’s longest land border with Russia – got underway last year in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

The alliance’s combined military expenditure amounted to $1.078billion (£901billion) in 2021 – just over half (55 percent) of the global total – according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

In 2006, NATO governments agreed to assign a minimum of two percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) towards defence spending to ensure the group remained battle-ready.

In response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the alliance reaffirmed this commitment, setting 2024 as a deadline to reach this target. As of 2023, just ten members are above the threshold.

The US spends more on its military than any other country by a significant margin. In 2021, their $801billion (£669billion) defence budget made up 38 percent of the world total, and amounted to 3.5 percent of GDP.

The might of the American weapons industry was made clear in 2022 when the country gave $47billion (£39billion) in military aid to Ukraine – two-thirds of all pledges.

Washington has long pushed other members to follow its example. Former president Donald Trump even threatened to pull the US out of the alliance in 2018 if other members didn’t boost their contributions.

As a proportion of GDP, however, Greece comes top among NATO nations with 3.9 percent. The US is next, then followed by Croatia (2.7 percent), Latvia (2.3 percent). The UK is in fifth place (2.2 percent).

The British Ministry of Defence budget was £71.4billion in 2021. The department claims to have met the two percent NATO target every year since its introduction.

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Defence spending around the world has been in decline over the nearly eight decades since World War 2. At 6.3 percent of global GDP in 1960, in 2021 this figure is down to 2.2 percent, according to the World Bank.

The trend is particularly noticeable in the West. Sixty years ago, the UK spent 7.1 percent of GDP on defence – more than triple what it does now. A similar fall took place in the US.

The EU as a whole hasn’t been above NATO’s advised two percent spend since its inception in 1992.

Russia is, however, something of an exception. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early Nineties, the Kremlin’s war chest contribution has fluctuated at around four percent, peaking at 5.4 percent in 2016.

Putin’s invasion laid bare the consequences of this chronic underinvestment. As 2022 wore on and NATO allies poured ever more weapons into Ukraine, reports of equipment shortages at home emerged at a quickening pace.

In a January report, Mark Cancian of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies warned that the US could face years of artillery munitions shortages if current Ukrainian support outflows persist.

In the UK, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace came under fire in February after former top general Sir Richard Barrons claimed the British Armed Forces would run out of ammunition in a day if it fought Russia.

The Ukraine war has shifted attitudes. At a summit in Brussels in March 2021, shortly after the invasion began, NATO members agreed to “accelerate our efforts to fulfil our commitment to the Defence Investment Pledge in its entirety”.

Germany in particular – which has never met the two percent pledge owing to its preference for humanitarian aid – made historic strides in creating a €100 billion (£85 billion) special fund to modernise its military equipment.

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