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Britain announces its largest military investment since the Cold War


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the weekly question-time debate at the House of Commons in London, Nov. 11, 2020. (U.K. Parliament/Jessica Taylor/REUTERS)
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the weekly question-time debate at the House of Commons in London, Nov. 11, 2020. (U.K. Parliament/Jessica Taylor/REUTERS)

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Thursday the biggest boost in spending on Britain’s armed forces since the end of the Cold War, vowing to end an “era of retreat” and to “stand alongside our allies.”

Over the next four years, the British armed forces will receive an extra 16.5 billion pounds ($21 billion), helping it to develop cyber and space capabilities, modernize weapons and create an artificial intelligence agency.

The government said it was the largest military spending increase in 30 years. It represents about a 10 percent rise from previous spending plans.

Johnson told Parliament on Thursday that he made the decision “in the teeth of the pandemic” because “the defense of the realm and safety of the British people must come first.”

Johnson, who is self-quarantining at his Downing Street residence after coming into contact with a lawmaker who has the coronavirus, spoke to Parliament via video link.

“Reviving our armed forces” is a way to safeguard British values, he said, by “strengthening our global influence and reinforcing our ability to join the United States and our other allies to defend free and open societies.” He added, “The international situation is more perilous and more intensely competitive than at any time since the Cold War.”

It is time, Johnson said, to “end the era of retreat.”

“Britain must be true to our history, to stand alongside our allies, sharing the burden and bringing our expertise to bear on the world’s toughest problems,” he said. “To achieve this, we need to upgrade our capabilities across the board.”

Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, welcomed extra spending but questioned where the money will come from. In particular, he said he was concerned that the government would break its pledge to spend 0.7 percent of gross national income on foreign aid.

“How will this announcement be paid for? Such is the government’s handling of the pandemic, the U.K. has the sharpest economic downturn of any [Group of Seven] country,” Starmer said.

Andrew Mitchell, a former international development secretary, told Johnson he should “bear in mind the wise words of General [Jim] Mattis, the former American defense secretary, who told Donald Trump, and I quote, ‘The more you cut aid, the more I have to spend on ammunition.’”

Johnson responded by saying that the United Kingdom will “continue to lead the world” on international aid.

The government said in a statement Wednesday evening that the military funding will “cement the U.K.’s position as the largest defence spender in Europe and the second largest in NATO.”

Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told Sky News that previously, “our funding never matched our ambition — and that goes for most of the reviews for the last 40 years.” He added: “This means we can have a proper discussion about what are our global ambitions and how are we going to fund it.”

The announcement was welcomed by Washington.

U.S. acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller said the United States “applauds the announcement,” which he said would allow the British military to “continue to be one of the finest fighting forces in the world.”

“Their commitment to increased defense funding should be a message to all free nations that the most capable among us can — and must — do more to counter emerging threats to our shared freedoms and security,” he said.