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Over the past week, the issue of whether the UK should aspire to be a ‘Tier One’ military power has generated significant interest. The prime minister is alleged to have questioned whether the UK should remain a Tier One power. Labour’s shadow defence minister, Nia Griffith, by contrast, used her speech at RUSI to argue that Tier One status was ‘absolutely a category that we want to be in’.
The reference to tiers suggests that the concept is a relative one. Yet, if the defence budget and the ability to deploy warfighting forces anywhere in the world are the yardstick, it is hard to sustain the argument that the UK is in the same tier as the US, which spends twelve times as much on defence. As a result, there are some key capabilities – such as strategic bombers and long-range ballistic missiles – which the UK simply does not possess. And all its forces – air, naval and land – are a fraction of the size of those of its most important ally.
Nor can the UK reasonably claim to have the military clout of China – with the world’s second largest defence budget and an impressive modernisation programme, even if its forces are still largely regionally focused – or Russia – with its superpower-sized nuclear arsenal and strong independent intervention forces, even if its defence budget has recently plateaued. Both China and Russia could be considered ‘Tier Two’ powers.
The UK does have a strong case to be considered as a ‘Tier Three’ power, below the top three, but grouped alongside – or slightly above – countries such as France, India and Japan, all of which have roughly comparable levels of defence spending, all of whom are generally considered to remain major powers, and all of whom are either already a member or on the shortlist of candidates for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. As long as the UK continues to spend 2% of its GDP on defence, and is reasonably sensible in how it spends this money, it should be able to maintain this status over the next decade and beyond.
Aspiring to remain a Tier Three power is not going to win many votes. Nor should it. The best yardstick for the size and shape of defence provision should be how far it is needed to protect the UK’s security and international influence during the difficult period through which we are now living. It is on these grounds that the Ministry of Defence must make its case to the prime minister during the months ahead.
Malcolm Chalmers is Deputy Director-General of RUSI.
BANNER IMAGE: The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth underway during exercise Saxon Warrior 2017 on 5 August 2017. Courtesy of Wikimedia
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.