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Strategic timing: do calls for more defence spending in the British media increase around budget time?

Executive Summary: This piece investigates the pattern of calls for increased UK defence spending and their alignment with significant political events. It traces a timeline from the early 2000s, noting that after budget cuts in 2009, defence spending began to rise again in 2016, reaching £51.7 billion in 2024/25, an inflation-adjusted increase of approximately £1.1 billion from 2021/22. Despite this, media outlets frequently discuss the need for further increases. This study analyses articles from BBC News, the Guardian, the Telegraph, and the Daily Mail, linking the timing of calls for more funds with political moments such as elections and budget reviews. High-ranking military officials and politicians often initiate these calls, which are then amplified by the media, particularly during times of political transition or when new defence strategies are introduced. The study suggests that these calls are a strategic political activity aimed at influencing civilian decisions. It also notes that the media’s coverage tends to adopt the perspective of political and military elites, with right-leaning outlets especially emphasising existential threats. The paper argues that despite the increase in the defence budget, there is a persistent demand for more funding due to inefficient procurement processes and the diversion of funds to major projects rather than basic needs. The recent rise in tension due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has added credibility to the calls for increased defence spending, with the UK needing to maintain its international standing, especially post-Brexit.
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On the 6th April, 2024, the Independent ran an editorial by Lord Sedwill that ran: “It’s time the UK increased defence spending – to wartime levels.” On the 7th April, Tobias Elwood MP told Sky News that the “UK needs more defence spending to prepare for war”. On the 8th April, the Sun ran the story: “Rishi must crack the whip and increase defence spending to shield Britons from looming threats, ex-army chief says.”  A month before, the BBC had run the headline: “Ministers urge government to increase defence spending to 2.5% of GDP”.

It is clear that there is something afoot.  The drums of war seem to be drumming louder and louder and the clamour for more weapons, more funding, more defence is palatable. 

It would be fair to say that, to your average reader, they must come away with the impression that the UK’s military reside at the bottom of the government’s priorities when it comes to investment.  

UK defence budget, media coverage trends, political events, military spending, calls for funding increase, procurement inefficiency, Russia-Ukraine conflict, international standing, NATO spending targets

Yes, after an increase during the early 2000s to account for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2009 did see cuts brought to the UK defence budget. There were no expensive wars being fought.  But this is no longer the case.

Since 2016, the UK’s defence budget has been steadily increasing year on year to reach a very healthy £51.7 billion in 2024/25. Adjusted for inflation, this is an increase of around £1.1 billion from 2021/22[1]

Despite this, the UK’s media is currently awash with articles discussing the necessity of increased spending and the looming threats if such ambitions are not met. 

But why do these calls exist and are they timed to land at times of political budget decision making?

To answer this, AOAV conducted an examination and a mapping of news articles onto a timeline of major political events including elections and budget reviews. Articles were retrieved from the archival databases of BBC News, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. 

It concludes that there is, indeed, a correlation between calls for increased funding and politically important moments such as budget reviews.

Trends in Media
Calls for budget increases have often followed a particular tone or form, with a substantial number of them coming directly from high-ranking military officials or politicians. These initial calls – often framed in a ‘defence of the nation is at stake’ mode – then precipitate a multitude of articles across various media outlets. These calls tend to come at politically relevant moments including the months just before and after a budget, just before a leadership contest or election and upon the arrival of a new defence official or defence strategy.

It is worth noting, for instance, that the current tranche of calls for more defence funding comes just as the Finance (No. 2) Bill 2023-24 is scheduled to receive its second reading on 17 April, 2024.

This is a relatively new phenomenon, however. Prior to 2010, during years of increased spending there was little overt demand for more funding[2]. Between 2010-2015, though, military officials were becoming vocal, campaigning for a halt to budget cuts as they risked the security of Britain for years to come. In October 2013, for instance, high ranking officials warned against further cuts[3]. This quickly prompted further questions about the government’s personnel reduction measures[4]. In December 2013, just after the Autumn statement in which the defence budget was once again cut, General Sir Nicholas Houghton threw the issue into the spotlight by arguing that the military was being ‘hollowed out’ and left ‘critically deficient’ in several key tactical areas[5].  This seemed to set the stage for things to come.

In February 2014 – one year ahead of a defence review and a month before the Spring budget – Admiral Sir George Zambellas made public calls for the financing of new aircraft carriers and ships, as to fail to do so was to make the Royal Navy ‘un-credible’[6]. In the same month the Military Balance report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) seemed to support Zambellas’ fears, prompting even the Guardian to ask, ‘Can Britain, will Britain, fight another war?’[7]. However, such efforts to repel further cuts proved ineffective, and the military would have to wait until 2015 for an increase in funding to be announced. A tactic, however, seemed to have been established.

Despite the defence spending rise in 2016, there were several calls for further increases which coincided with events like the 2017 election, budget reviews and defence reviews. Such calls appear to be timed and deliberate. They seek to reposition internal funding discussions out into the public sphere, where public perception – especially around something as emotive as the defence of the realm – becomes an influential factor. As Professor Risa Brooks and Peter M. Erickson have argued, there is a long history of the military using the media to contest civilian decisions[8]. Similarly, researchers from King’s College London’s Defence Studies Department, David Morgan-Owen and Alex Gould, characterise these calls as political activity[9].

Indeed, the timeline below documents both politically important events and calls for increased funding between April 2016 and December 2018. Throughout 2018, Theresa May was embroiled in a budget dispute with the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. This timeline suggests the media was used to apply political pressure to secure additional funding from her.

This trend continued well beyond 2018, with the calls for more money given an urgency following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Despite a further funding increase by Boris Johnson’s government, the end of his premiership coincided with another push for more money. 

In May 2022, the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace stated that Russia was ‘mirroring’ Nazi fascism. By June, he was applying political pressure by publicly warning that Russia presented a direct threat which necessitated ‘more cash’ for defence[10]. His assertions were then supported by a July 2022 Commons Defence Select Committee report which again warned that the military was not prepared at a time of ‘rising risks’[11]. The issue was then once again relatively dormant until February 2023 when Wallace reiterated the threat and the need for increased funding in the upcoming budget which he secured[12].

It is also noted that during this time the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office saw its real-world budgets substantially decrease and budget cuts were forced across the board.

Discourse in the media
Press coverage of the defence budget tends to fall into one of three categories: descriptive, pro-increase or anti-increase. Historically, the political leaning of the outlet has led it to favour one of these three.

In 2011 researchers from the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Culture, Justin Lewis and Joanne Hunt, completed a discourse analysis of The Times and The Guardian’s reporting on defence funding between 1987 and 2009. They concluded that ‘press coverage relying on business, political and military elites has played down increases in military spending, creating the misleading impression that the UK military is under-resourced’[13]. Beyond 2009, there does appear to be a reliance on political and military elites to provide insight on the issue. Subsequently, media reporting tends to adopt the perspective of these individuals as well as the discursive justifications which they use. 

Prior to February 2022, high level military officials employed discourses of both existential necessity and international reputation. However, more recently calls for an increased budget have focused almost exclusively on the former. As generals warn of conflict with Russia, many major news outlets have seemingly accepted the likelihood of war. Few have devoted space to questioning whether this is alarmist rhetoric. Right-leaning news outlets like the Daily Mail and Telegraph are perhaps the most overt purveyors of existential risk as their commitment to this narrative pre-dates 2022. Headlines like, ‘Britain is exposed in a dangerous world as military faces £16.9 billion budget gap, ‘very worried’ former defence chiefs warn’[14], ‘Let’s face it – we can no longer afford to police the world. But history tells us we must defend our own shores at all costs’[15], ‘Defence chiefs: UK ‘feeble’ on world stage’’[16], perpetuate a narrative that the UK is always at risk and thus justify increases in the defence budget as ‘all-out war is nearing’[17]. Given this framed threat, these outlets also tend to be critical of investments in – for instance – social welfare over defence and see this as a key contributor to defence’s problems[18].

BBC News, generally offering a more politically neutral reporting style, has also contributed to the heightened sense of threat by failing to discuss the accuracy of claims made by officials. It should also be noted that the media rarely interrogates the nature of security presented by officials. Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) argues against increased defence spending on the basis that the concept of security is too rooted in the notion of state sovereignty and survival. Subsequently, it ignores threats such as the climate crisis[19]. Whilst widely debated and discussed in academic circles, this theoretical challenge rarely features in the mainstream media and thus – in the eyes of CAAT – makes it complicit in militarism.

Only the Guardian has explored this, spending much of the previous decade debating the necessity of defence expenditure in light of climate change, aid and the ultimate goal of peace[20]. However, the invasion of Ukraine has resulted in a more sympathetic attitude towards defence spending and the possibility of conflict[21], though it remains sceptical of the claims of certainty made by officials,[22] and the efficacy of simply throwing money at the problem without addressing fundamental issues within the culture and financial processes of Defence[23].  

But where does the funding go?
Regardless of the threat that may exist, the defence budget has been increasing since 2016. One may thus wonder why calls for an increase persist.

In general, it is widely agreed that Defence’s financial problems arise for two reasons. Firstly, despite the increases, money does not find its way to meeting Defence’s basic needs. Rather, large proportions of additional funding are diverted to major projects and investments[24]. Furthermore, money which is not allocated to capital budgets is often squandered through inefficient procurement processes. This is an issue that has been sporadically reported on since the early 2000s but one which has been made worse by inflation[25]

What is evident is that high level military officials seldom discuss the funding issue as a consequence of poor money management, or simply the unnecessary overstretching of forces. Rather, they focus their comments on discourses of threat or capability which then generally persist in the media’s coverage. 

Given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this has been far easier since there exists a more overt and credible threat to UK soil than in the previous decade. Subsequently, the period leading to the Spring 2024 budget was awash with notions of threat. In January, the Defence Secretary Grant Shapps declared that we are “moving from a post-war to pre-war world”[26]. He argued that it was imperative that defence spending increased. Reporting on Shapp’s words was followed by numerous articles questioning the capabilities of Britain given the supposed likelihood of war with Russia. The assessment was not good. In January and February 2024, the media focused on documenting how the military was ill-prepared both in terms of personnel and equipment. General Sir Patrick Sanders issued a stark warning that cuts to personnel meant that a volunteer ‘citizen army’ may be needed[27]. Additionally, a report by MPs argued that the UK is not prepared for sustained high-intensity warfighting[28]. These concerns were compounded by comments from US officials who called upon Britain to increase its defence spending[29].

An additional motivator is that the invasion of Ukraine prompted increased defence spending from several NATO members. Consequently, the UK is now one of 18 countries predicted to meet or exceed the 2% target in 2024, compared with 3 countries in 2014[30]. This change in the UK’s position relative to other member states is deeply uncomfortable, given its post-Brexit ambitions to both remain the closest ally of the US and a cornerstone of European security. Increased defence spending is thus seen as necessary to retain international standing.

Conclusion
The analysis presented in this article highlights a clear pattern: calls for increased UK defence spending are not random but seem to be strategically timed around key political events, particularly budget announcements and elections. This pattern suggests a concerted effort to sway public opinion and influence government policy towards boosting defence budgets. 

In response to this trend, Dr. Iain Overton, Executive Director of Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), said: “There’s a noticeable cycle where military and political figures push for more defence spending, and the media amplifies these calls, especially around times when budget decisions are made. This isn’t just about reporting news but helping shape the debate on national security priorities. This means the media doesn’t just cover the debate on defence spending but plays a part in steering it, especially at moments when the topic can gain maximum political and public traction” 

In conclusion, the evidence points towards a strategic alignment of advocacy for increased defence spending with political and budgetary cycles. This strategy seems aimed at building support for higher defence budgets, driven by perceived national security needs and the UK’s position on the global stage. AOAV’s findings underline the need for a critical examination of why these calls emerge when they do and what that means for national priorities and resource allocation based on facts, not emotion.


[1] Kirk-Wade, E. (2023) UK defence expenditure, House of Commons Library. Available at: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8175/ (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[2] Lewis, J. and Hunt, J. (2011) ‘Press coverage of the UK military budget: 1987 to 2009’, Media, War & Conflict, 4(2), pp. 162–184. doi:10.1177/1750635211406012 (p.174).

[3] Coughlin, C. (2013) We’re fighting bean counters now, says man who helped beat Nazis, The Telegraph. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/concoughlin/10406617/Were-fighting-bean-counters-now-says-man-who-helped-beat-Nazis.html (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[4] Ex-forces chief in front-line troops cuts warning (2013) BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24690007 (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[5] Top general warns over ‘hollowed-out’ armed forces (2013) BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-25440814 (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[6] Navy needs to be ‘credible’ says admiral sir George Zambellas (2014) BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-26115095 (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[7] Norton-Taylor, R. (2014) Can Britain, Will Britain, fight another war?, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/defence-and-security-blog/2014/feb/06/defence-war-strategy-terror (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[8] Brooks, R. and Erickson, P.M. (2021) ‘The sources of military dissent: Why and how the US military contests civilian decisions about the use of force’, European Journal of International Security, 7(1), pp. 38–57. doi:10.1017/eis.2021.34.

[9] Morgan-Owen, D. and Gould, A. (2022) ‘The politics of future war: Civil-military relations and military doctrine in Britain’, European Journal of International Security, 7(4), pp. 551–571. doi:10.1017/eis.2022.10.

[10] Gregory, J. and Beale, J. (2022) Russian threat means UK army needs more cash, says Ben Wallace, BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-61961675 (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[11] Beale, J. (2022) Cuts leave military at risk amid rising threats, say mps, BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-62327524 (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[12] Nevett, J. (2023) Ben Wallace: We need to invest in defence properly, BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-64648159 (Accessed: 29 February 2024).  

[13] Lewis, J. and Hunt, J. (2011) ‘Press coverage of the UK military budget: 1987 to 2009’, Media, War & Conflict, 4(2), pp. 162–184. doi:10.1177/1750635211406012.

[14] Stone, I. (2023) Britain is exposed in a dangerous world as military faces £16.9billion budget gap, ‘very worried’ former Defence Chiefs warn, Daily Mail Online. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-12838599/Britain-exposed-military-budget-gap.html (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[15] Barnett, C. (2010) Let’s face it – we can no longer afford to police the world. but history tells us we must defend our own shores at all costs, Daily Mail Online. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1316399/We-police-world-defend.html (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[16] Ross, T. and Farmer, B. (2015) Defence chiefs: UK ‘Feeble’ on world stage, The Telegraph. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/11673410/Defence-chiefs-UK-feeble-on-world-stage.html (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[17] Denyer, L. (2024) How the British Army Lost Its Way, The Telegraph. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2024/02/03/how-the-british-army-lost-its-way/ (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[18] Edwards, A. (2013) Britain’s Armed Forces cannot take any further cuts so slash welfare bill instead, Defence secretary tells chancellor, Daily Mail Online. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2286882/Britains-armed-forces-cuts-slash-welfare-instead-Defence-Secretary-tells-Chancellor.html (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[19] Perlo-Freeman, S. (2020) CAAT – fighting the wrong battles, Campaign Against Arms Trade. Available at: https://caat.org.uk/publications/fighting-the-wrong-battles/ (Accessed: 08 April 2024).

[20] Jenkins, S. (2018) It’s delusional to think Britain should be a global military power | Simon Jenkins, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/28/britain-global-military-power-armed-forces-defence-spending (Accessed: 29 February 2024).  

[21] Hinsliff, G. (2024) For Generations Britain has taken peace for granted. but a belligerent Putin could change all that | Gaby Hinsliff, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2024/jan/26/britain-peace-belligerent-putin-russia (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[22] Jenkins, S. (2023) What is the mod taking in its tea? there’s no way Britain will be in a three-front war by 2030 | Simon Jenkins, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/jul/17/minsitry-of-defence-britain-war-2030-ben-wallace-russia (Accessed: 29 February 2024); Dixon, P. (2024) Military elite are rolling out tired old cliches to gain more power and money | letter, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2024/feb/06/military-elite-are-rolling-out-tired-old-cliches-to-gain-more-power-and-money (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[23] Jenkins, S. (2023) Britain’s defence policy is not British, not defensive and not even a policy. it’s a mess | Simon Jenkins, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/mar/03/britains-defence-policy-putin-ben-wallace (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[24] Kirk-Wade, E. (2023) UK defence expenditure, House of Commons Library. Available at: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8175/ (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[25] Taylor, T. (2023) Defence Committee’s Report on UK defence procurement: A missed opportunity, Royal United Services Institute. Available at: https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/defence-committees-report-uk-defence-procurement-missed-opportunity (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[26] UK needs to be ‘prepared’ for war – grant shapps (2024) BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-politics-68047454 (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[27] Beale, J. (2024) Britain must train citizen army, military chief warns, BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-68086188 (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[28] Geiger, C. (2024) UK armed forces not ready for high-Intensity War, mps warn, BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-68181275 (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[29] Sabbagh, D. (2024) UK should consider raising defence spending, says US Navy secretary, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2024/jan/25/uk-should-consider-raising-defence-spending-says-us-navy-secretary (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

[30] Davies, A. (2024) NATO says record number of allies hit Defence Target, BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-68295380#:~:text=A%20record%2018%20member%20countries,31%20members%20a%20year%20ago. (Accessed: 08 April 2024).