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The United Kingdom, first defense budget in Europe? True or false

(B2) Could the United Kingdom, which has for many years been the country spending the most on its defense in Europe, be on the verge of losing its first place…

Changing of the Royal Guard Grenadiers (credit: MOD Uk)

A very symbolic question but also very political. The entire British argument in fact, particularly during Brexit, was to give the leading role in European security to the United Kingdom... With a resounding argument: the British defense budget is the first in European class. A statement that is no longer accurate.

Over the exchange rate

In fact, it all depends on the Pound Sterling/Euro exchange rate. Thus with a rate of 1,15 (like last week), the United Kingdom remains in first place in the European ranking of defense budgets, whether we take the budgets planned for 2018/20 19 (37,8 billion) or for 2019/2020 (£38,8 billion).

At a rate of 1,12 - as at the start of this week with the fall of the pound and the errors of local politics on Brexit - the British budget falls behind the German budget. Germany should indeed significantly increase its defense budget for 2019 (the fruits of growth require) and increase to 43,2 billion euros, according to the latest version of the finance bill passed by the Bundestag (1).

If the exchange rate goes up, the British budget will come back ahead. But this time at the top of the class is counted.

A gradual catch-up

Whatever the exchange rate or annual developments, there is in fact an underlying trend. Germany is on the verge of catching up, at least in budgetary terms, with its defense effort. The German budget has already moved to second place, relegating France to third place (35,8 billion for 2019). In 2020 or 2021, i.e. in a short period of time at the strategic level - the German budget should move to first place, relegating the United Kingdom to second place... This for certain years.

A very short-term strategic development

In terms of growth, good German budgetary health, and the commitments of its political leaders, we can predict that the increase in the German budget will continue. This is a notable strategic change… at least in financial terms, equipment capabilities, industries or research (2). On Brexit day, March 29, even if the two events are not linked, it will be a certain 'slap' for the United Kingdom to what is (rightly) a matter of national pride.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

  1. The very specific British budget period runs from April to March, unlike the current annual budget periods on the continent. Which complicates rankings. To be able to fairly compare the two budgets, we used a small rule of three, with equalization smoothing the British budget over an annual period. Which gives £38,55 billion for 2019.
  2. The effectiveness of armies obeys data other than those of mathematics. And German historical and constitutional constraints will always mean that the army will not be Germany's primary political instrument, unlike what happens in France and Great Britain. The French and British armies will therefore remain in the lead in terms of operational and expeditionary dynamics.

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

One thought on “The United Kingdom, first defense budget in Europe? True or false"

  • The amount of the budget makes it possible to summarily classify European defenses but not necessarily to make precise comparisons. With a lower budget for years, France has demonstrated a much superior military power, whether through the spectrum and volume of its capabilities, its global presence or its results in operations. It is today, without question, the leading military power in Europe.

    The superiority of the British defense budget only proves one thing: that the United Kingdom has the most expensive defense in Europe.

    At purchasing power parity (the economies of the two countries are very comparable) we can find several explanations for this paradoxical performance gap in the respective defense budgets:
    – the United Kingdom has not finished re-capitalizing its defense after the exhaustion suffered in the past decade (Afghanistan, Iraq): wear and tear on equipment, loss of human capital, overinvestment in operational emergencies at the expense of the preparation of the medium and long term future;
    – the salaries of British soldiers are significantly higher than those of their French counterparts (about double for officers);
    – the British apply a doctrine (not to say a dogma) of industrial subcontracting, which is more comfortable in the short term because it limits the investment peaks required for heritage acquisitions but increases the costs in the long term, where the French people have a more conservative approach to this economic model and are more willing to assess its advisability on a case-by-case basis. The respective MRTT programs are eloquent in this respect: for the same A330 aircraft, the United Kingdom inflicted on itself a ruinous PPP (Phenix) for decades, while France launched itself with fanfare for a good decade;
    – better control of costs in armament programs in France, particularly visible on combat aircraft (Rafale against Eurofighter and F-35) or MRTT tankers (British PPP for 14 A330 Voyagers, at the cost of an hour of ruinous flight in order to remunerate the private investors involved, against 15 A330 Phénix acquired by France as heritage), with the consequence of structural differences on the mass of acquisition and implementation costs (lower performance in the conduct of programs can itself be explained by a loss of technical skills and a greater dependence on its manufacturers, to whom the British State has subcontracted the expertise).

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