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Starmer Promises UK Defense Spending Roadmap Amid NATO Doubts

Prime Minister Keir Starmer speaks during a news conference following his first cabinet meeting, at Downing Street in London, UK, on Saturday, July 6, 2024. (Chris J. Ratcliffe/Photographer: Chris J. Ratcliffe)

(Bloomberg) -- Keir Starmer said he would publish a roadmap showing how the UK would spend 2.5% of its gross domestic product on defence, as the prime minister faced calls from the British military and allies abroad to clarify his policy ahead of this week’s NATO summit in Washington.

“There is no more important duty for me as prime minister than keeping the people of our country safe,” Starmer said in remarks emailed by his office as he traveled to the US late Tuesday. The government will launch a strategic review next week to “determine the future defence posture” of the UK and the capabilities it needs, his office said. It didn’t put a timeline on when the review would be completed or when the spending goal would be reached.

Questions about the new administration’s defense spending plans provide the subtext to Starmer’s first meetings with world leaders since his Labour Party won a UK election landslide last week, ousting Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives.

The new premier arrives in Washington for his first international summit with arguably the strongest domestic backdrop in the room, in contrast to US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and other progressive leaders struggling to counter a populist surge in America and Europe.

But diplomats have quietly let it be known that the lack of clarity over Labour’s plans for defense spending have caused uncertainty. The new prime minister’s team was made aware in transition talks with government officials that he is likely to face questions from allies on his plans.

Starmer has previously committed to achieving the 2.5% spending goal “as soon as the public finances allow,” without giving any more specifics on timings or how the pledge would be funded. Former premier Sunak this year set a deadline of 2030 — though the commitment also came with doubts about funding.

Starmer doesn’t plan to change his position any time soon, people familiar with his thinking said, although he will still try to portray himself as hawkish on the issue and look to prioritize military spending.

The UK is one of NATO’s biggest spenders and has been a key supplier of arms to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion, though the British military has still suffered from years of underfunding, with former Defense Secretary Ben Wallace saying the army was “hollowed out” by successive administrations.

Patrick Sanders, the former head of the army, told the Times newspaper that the UK military was in such a poor state that it would be only able to fight a small war for no more than a month.

The government’s strategic defense review will assess the military readiness, how to deepen defense ties with NATO allies, develop a new industrial strategy and propose procurement reform, the premier’s office said.

“My message is very, very clear that this NATO summit is an opportunity for allies to stand together to strengthen their resolve,” Starmer told reporters. “We will stand against Russian aggression wherever it is in the world.”

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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