UK sets out major pivot to defence R&D

25 Apr 2024 | News

New plans to allocate at least 7% of a growing defence budget to R&D and military-related science would see spending rise significantly – but at the expense of civilian research

The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak met British soldiers stationed at the Polish military base on April 23rd, 2024, in Warsaw, Poland. Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

The UK will spend at least 7% of a growing defence budget on R&D and military-related science and technology, in a move that could close to double spending by 2030.  

On 23 April during a visit to Poland, prime minister Rishi Sunak set out plans to nudge UK defence spending up to 2.5% of GDP by the end of the decade – the equivalent of £75 billion extra over the period - to help counter an “axis of autocratic states like Russia, Iran and China”.

The funding boost comes with a promise to spend at least 5% of the country’s Ministry of Defence budget on R&D from next year, and another 2% to “support the exploitation of promising science and technology in military capability”.

“Today’s £75bn will give our armed forces a strategic advantage against any aggressor, by ensuring 5% of the defence budget goes to R&D to harness new tech from lasers to AI,” said defence secretary Grant Shapps on X earlier this week.

Currently, the country’s Ministry of Defence spends around 3.9% of its overall budget on R&D, amounting to £2.05 billion a year.

In addition, the government promised to launch a Defence Innovation Agency in early 2025 to consolidate a “fragmented defence innovation landscape”.

“It will focus on the adoption of emerging technologies, placing medium scale contracts and investing in SMEs on commercial terms through long-term ‘patient capital’,” according to an explanatory document.

Yesterday, Sunak continued his European trip with a visit to Berlin, where he outlined a series of joint defence initiatives with Germany, including the joint procurement of a remote controlled artillery system.

“There is a palpable 'securitisation' of science policy and funding visible and ongoing in [the] UK system,” said James Wilsdon, a professor of research policy at University College London. “But we're not unique in this of course — in [the] EU and elsewhere we see the same pressures manifesting”.

The UK’s plan is “quite reminiscent of [US president Joe] Biden throwing Chips and Science [funding] at universities and firms doing defence R&D,” said Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, referring to a huge science and technology-focused stimulus package passed in 2022.

The European Commission is currently consulting on plans to allow dual use research in the successor to Horizon Europe from 2028. But it’s unclear to what extent the UK, which as of this year is associated to Horizon Europe, would be allowed to join sensitive defence-focused calls, given that it is not an EU member state.

The German government is also trying to break down walls between its civilian and military R&D sector.

Civilian cuts

However, the UK’s announcement could come at the expense of civilian research. There are no public details on how it will be funded, but a government source said that £1.6 billion of a £2 billion boost to R&D spending expected next year will be channelled towards defence.

This doesn’t necessarily mean cuts for universities and funding agencies, said Wilsdon, but instead the money could come out of the budget for governmental department R&D.

“I expect all that's happening is the Ministry of Defence clawing an even bigger share of this government R&D,” he said.

The other caveat to today’s announcement is that the ruling Conversative party is expected to be ousted in an election this year by the opposition Labour party, which has been noncommittal about Sunak’s defence spending plans.  

Westwood described the announcement as “largely fictional” given that it will be subject to a major spending review after the next election.

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