The war in Ukraine has exposed the vulnerability of Europe’s defences in the face of an aggressor, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace warned.
Mr Wallace said forces across the continent were paying the price for years of “hollowing out” that has seen ammunition stocks depleted, readiness levels reduced and essential maintenance neglected.
He said that at a time that the world was becoming “much more dangerous and unstable” it underlined the need for a long-term increase in the defence budget.
Mr Wallace, who is in Brussels for a meeting of Nato defence ministers, said the problems facing the UK were not unique to Britain.
“Ukraine has exposed across Europe – including in France and in Germany and other nations – our own vulnerabilities,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Our ammo stocks, our readiness levels, our ability to meet Russia or any other enemy that chooses to play or attack us at what we call ‘below threshold’, before formal armed conflict.
“It has been well known for decades that where the armed forces have had to save money on things like its readiness or its infrastructure, the places that got unfunded were the unsexy parts of defence.
“Maintenance, ship lifts, all sorts of things that you and I don’t think are that exciting but are nevertheless really, really important.”
His comments come amid a reported row with the Treasury ahead of Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Budget next month, with Mr Wallace reportedly pressing for a £10 billion uplift in defence spending.
“It’s always an uphill battle with the Treasury, no matter what department you’re in,” he told Sky News.
“But this is not about resigning or anything else: it’s about delivering defence to meet the threat.”
The Defence Secretary said the war in Ukraine had left the Russian army in a “dire state” with its combat effectiveness depleted by 40%.
However he warned that President Vladimir Putin still posed a potential threat to European security that Nato had to be prepared to counter.
“Yes, Putin’s land forces are in a dire state. It will leave him the options of what he does with his air force and his navy – which are not as remotely as badly affected,” he told the Today programme.
“A vindictive President Putin could use those in a different way to threaten our (undersea) cables or something else.”
However he played down media reports that Russian aircraft have been massing within striking distance of Ukraine amid concerns that they are preparing to support its latest land offensive.
“It is the case that Russia massed at the beginning of this huge amounts of its air force but it has been unable to use them properly because of western-supplied anti-aircraft missiles.”
Despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s powerful plea last week for western fighter aircraft, Mr Wallace confirmed that it could be years before Britain was ready to supply them.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast, he said: “I don’t think it’s going to be in the next few months or even years that we are going to necessarily hand over fighter jets.
“These are aircraft that come with not only huge sort of capability challenges – you just can’t learn to fly in a week or two, it will take a long time – but also they come with effectively a pit crew, like a Formula One team.
“They come with hundreds of engineers and pilots and that’s not something you can just generate in a few months. We’re not going to deploy 200 RAF personnel into Ukraine in the time of a war.”
Meanwhile in Brussels, Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg urged members of the alliance to commit to spending at least 2% of national income on defence, a target which the UK hits.
“There is a full-fledged war going on in Ukraine, in Europe, and then we see the persistent threat of terrorism, and we see also the challenges that China is forcing to our security. So, it is obvious that we need to spend more,” he said.
The defence ministers at the summit announced the first multimillion-pound package from the International Fund for Ukraine (IFU) to include tank spares, uncrewed air systems, electronic warfare and air defence.
Mr Wallace said: “This equipment package will provide a significant capability boost for the armed forces of Ukraine and will support their ability to defend their country.”