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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 July 2018

UK urged to boost defence spending to stay global power

US defence secretary issues ultimatum in face of new world threats

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reviews a Chinese honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the Bayi Building in Beijing, Wednesday, June 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, Pool)
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reviews a Chinese honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the Bayi Building in Beijing, Wednesday, June 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, Pool)

Britain’s role as a global military power suffered two blows on Monday after a leaked letter from the US defence secretary warned that the country’s role as a "global actor" was in doubt and the headquarters of a major Gulf of Aden naval operation were to move to mainland Europe following Brexit negotiations.

In a stark ultimatum, Jim Mattis said he was “concerned” that Britain’s military capabilities were at “risk of erosion” if current outlay levels continued.

Mr Mattis told his British counterpart, Gavin Williamson, that increase in military spending was necessary to combat threats in a “world awash with change”. The warning came at a time when UK’s military prowess has been increasingly called into question.

“A global nation like the UK, with interests and commitments around the world, will require a level of defence spending beyond what we would expect from allies with only regional interests. Absent a vibrant military arm, world peace and stability would be at further risk," Mr Mattis said in his letter.

“I am concerned that your ability to continue to provide this critical military foundation for diplomatic success is at risk of erosion.”

Mr Williamson is in a bitter dispute with Prime Minister Theresa May over defence cuts and has pleaded with her to boost spending to fill a £20 billion (Dh96.5bn) black hole. It was reported over the weekend that he was considering asking the royal family to put pressure on Mrs May over the issue.

In the letter leaked to The Sun and sent two weeks ago, Mr Mattis appeared to suggest the US could increasingly turn to France over military matters if the UK did not put more money into defence. “As global actors, France and the US have concluded that now is the time to significantly increase our investment in defence. Other allies are following suit,” he wrote.

“It is in the best interest of both our nations for the UK to remain the US partner of choice. In that spirit, the UK will need to invest and maintain robust military capability.”

While the UK does spend the Nato minimum of 2 per cent of GDP on defence, British military figures want Mrs May to boost it to 2.5 per cent. This would still pale in comparison to the American outlay of 3.6 per cent. Mr Mattis said he hoped to have a response by the time of the Nato summit on July 11 and 12. Over the weekend US President Donald Trump also called on Germany and Spain to increase defence spending.

It has also emerged that, in the continuing fallout from Brexit negotiations, the headquarters of a major anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden are to move to mainland Europe after the UK leaves the European Union.

French news reports said the Maritime Security Centre – Horn of Africa would likely be based in Brest, France. The centre works in coordination with the EU mission to update merchant boats on piracy activities of the Gulf of Aden.

Military sources underlined that nothing could be confirmed until post-Brexit EU-UK security agreements had been reached and the European Council extended the mandate of anti-piracy operations near Somalia. However, the sources said it was very likely that Operation Atalanta, the EU’s mission in the Gulf of Aden would simultaneously be moved to Rota in southern Spain, near a large Nato base.

The sources insisted the UK would have an important role to play in post-Brexit naval operations. They said a frigate had already been sent to Bahrain to aid in the 32-country counter-piracy mission off Somalia, commonly known as CTF 151.