Gavin Williamson, left,is greeted by Stephen Lovegrove, defence permanent secretary, on his first day at the Whitehall department © AFP
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Gavin Williamson takes over from Michael Fallon as UK defence secretary at a critical time for Britain’s armed forces.

Confronted with an increasingly aggressive Russia, a rise in Islamist extremist attacks at home and the nuclear stand-off between US president Donald Trump and North Korea, Mr Williamson will not need long to grasp the fragility of the world order.

But it is the outcome of a UK strategic defence review, due to be finalised in the next few weeks, that is causing alarm among British military chiefs.

“Gavin Williamson arrives at a moment when the armed forces are on the verge of institutional failure,” said General Sir Richard Barrons, former commander of the UK’s joint forces command.

The problem for Mr Williamson, who has no military experience, is that the Ministry of Defence, the fifth-biggest department in Whitehall in terms of spending, is facing a funding shortfall of between £20bn and £30bn over the next decade.

The black hole is the result of David Cameron decision in 2015 to invest in a handful of high-cost programmes, including the £31bn renewal of the UK’s Trident nuclear submarines, a fleet of new warships and a batch of US-made F35 fighter jets.

Mark Sedwill, the UK’s national security adviser, has been conducting a review of the country’s defence strategy since the summer, and has asked military chiefs to recommend other areas of defence that can be slashed in favour of big-ticket projects.

The MoD insists no final decisions have been taken since the review began this year. Just last week, Mr Fallon told MPs the defence budget has already increased by more than 1 per cent, to £36bn, in the last year and is expected to rise to £40bn by 2021.

But analysts and military chiefs insist the funding shortfall cannot be met by a new round of savings.

“This gap cannot be closed by going on longer holidays and turning down the heating,” said Sir Richard. “The new minister’s first decision with his cabinet colleagues will be whether to put a further £2bn a year into defence for the next four years. If they don’t do that they will tip defence over the edge.”

Sir Michael was appointed defence secretary by Mr Cameron in 2014. In recent months, as the extent of the MoD’s budgetary squeeze became clear, he had earned respect and support from military chiefs who thought he would fight their corner.

Michael Clarke, an analyst from RUSI, the defence think-tank, said: “[Sir Michael] clearly liked the job and it looked like he was on the verge of championing the armed forces against the rest of the cabinet.”

Mr Williamson, in turn, will have to balance the concerns of the military at a time when the public finances remain under serious strain.

But the former chief whip will have little time to find his feet. Next week he will travel to Brussels for a meeting of Nato defence ministers, before hosting Jim Mattis, the US defence secretary, in London next Friday.

He is likely to face questions in his meeting with Mr Mattis over what any cuts might mean for the UK’s commitment to Nato.

General Ben Hodges, commander of the US Army in Europe, said he was worried that the UK’s forces were already stretched.

“British forces have global commitments right now,” he said. “Any reduction in capability means you cannot sustain those commitments. That creates a gap.

“I don’t know what the magic number is, but I do know that we need the capability that the British army provides, and any reduction in that causes a problem for the alliance as well as for the United States.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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