Rishi Sunak under pressure to increase defence spending after Red Sea strikes

British Prime Minister details Yemen attacks but faces difficult questions from his own MPs over state of armed forces

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak updates MPs over the Red Sea shipping attacks in the House of Commons in London. Monday January 15, 2024. House of Commons / UK Parliament / PA Wire
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Britain’s Prime Minister has come under pressure to boost his defence budget as he detailed the UK’s role in the air strikes on Yemen.

Rishi Sunak was also told by his own MPs not to scrap key naval equipment at a time when global threats were growing.

The comments came as he outlined to parliament details of the attacks by US and UK forces against 14 targets on Friday, arguing that people had to “recognise the risks of inaction”.

RAF Typhoon fighter bombers attacked two targets in north-west Yemen, striking nine buildings at the Bani airfield and a further three buildings at Abbs that included a cruise missile launcher, Mr Sunak said.

The attacks were “limited not escalatory,” he said and a “direct response to Houthi attacks” on Red Sea shipping.

He warned that failing to take action against the barrage of Houthi missile and drone strikes since the Israel-Gaza conflict began would “weaken international security, and the rule of law, further damage freedom of navigation … and set a dangerous precedent, with British vessels fair game”.

But with wars continuing in Gaza and Ukraine and the growing threat of conflict between China and Taiwan, former Coldstream Guards officer Richard Drax, MP, argued it was vital for defence spending to increase beyond its current target of two per cent of GDP.

“We face dangerous times,” he said. “Without doubt defence needs a lot more money. More than 2.5 per cent [of GDP] if our brave men and women are going to fight in a sustained conflict in the years ahead.”

UK conducts air strikes in Yemen - in pictures

Mr Sunak responded that defence had recently received its largest spending boost since the Cold War ended.

“The threats are increasing and it's right that we invest to protect people against those threats,” he replied.

Another veteran Tory MP, Julian Lewis, also indirectly criticised the state of Britain’s armed forces, highlighting that during the 1982 Falklands War Britain had 35 frigates and destroyers while spending 4.5 per cent of GDP on defence. “Both those figures can be cut in half to describe our situation today,” he said.

But he also raised an embarrassing issue for the Ministry of Defence: The fact that it looks likely to decommission the Royal Marines' amphibious assault ships that transport troops around the globe.

“Does he agree with me that we certainly should not be reducing the numbers of frigates and destroyers and we certainly should not be decommissioning our amphibious assault ships?” he asked.

Mr Sunak responded that it was the government’s “intention” to increase defence spending to 2.5 per cent “when circumstances allow” and that it had “a very strong equipment plan”.

The Royal Marines shipping issue was also being examined to ensure they could be “deployed globally”.

Earlier the Defence Secretary stated that the post-Cold War “peace dividend” was finished and that the West needed to prepare for conflicts with Russia, North Korea, Iran and China.

Grant Shapps warned that the world had moved to a “pre-war” phase and called on allies to increase defence spending to match the threats.

“The era of peace dividend is over,” he said in a speech at Lancaster House in London, “In five years’ time, we could be looking at multiple theatres involving Russia, China, Iran, North Korea. “Looking at today’s conflicts across the world, is it more likely that the number grows or reduces? I suspect we all know the answer – it’s likely to grow.”

Updated: January 15, 2024, 7:06 PM