(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak pledged to increase defense spending to 2.5% of GDP by end of the decade, as the prime minister seeks to ease concerns at home and abroad about the level of investment in the British armed forces.  

Sunak announced plans to expand military spending from the current level of 2.3% of economic output during a two-day visit to Europe, where he highlighted the UK’s leading role in supporting Ukraine’s resistance against Russia. Speaking in Poland, the prime minister said the move would amount to an additional £75 billion ($93 billion) of expenditure over six years, describing it as the “biggest strengthening of our national defense for a generation.” 

“In a world that’s the most dangerous it’s been since the end of the Cold War, we cannot – and must not - be complacent,” Sunak said, speaking alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. “We will put the UK’s own defense industry on a war footing.”

While Sunak’s government had previously committed to the 2.5% target “as soon as economic conditions allow,” the prime minister had thus far declined to put a date on that. Still, the pledge is largely aspirational, since Sunak’s Conservative Party will have to overcome a large polling deficit to win a general election expected later this year to have a chance of implementing it. 

The announcement comes after Labour leader Keir Starmer, whose party enjoys a roughly 20-point lead over the Tories, earlier this month committed to spending 2.5% of GDP on defense when conditions allow. Starmer also affirmed Labour’s support for the country’s fleet of nuclear-armed submarines, drawing a contrast with his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. 

Labour’s shadow defense secretary, John Healey, said Tuesday the party would “examine the detail” of the Tory announcement “closely” before deciding whether to match the time-frame. 

The UK is facing pressure from security hawks and overseas allies to ramp up defense spending, as concern grows about the rising risk of a conflict drawing in the West. Earlier this month, former Army chief Richard Dannatt, told GB News that there was a “failure of leadership” in government in responding to Britain’s military needs, and that the defense budget should be increased to 3% of GDP — a proportion also advocated by former Armed Forces Minister James Heappey, who quit his post earlier in the year.

Sunak’s pledge surpasses NATO’s goal for allies to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense over an enduring period, a target firmed up by the alliance’s leaders last year. NATO countries have vowed to spend more on defense following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but some nations — including Canada, Spain and Italy — are struggling to comply.

Fresh criticism by former President Donald Trump, who’s seeking a return to office in November, has renewed efforts by NATO members to highlight their commitment to greater defense spending in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  

“There’s no way to run away from that cost, we have to pay,” Stoltenberg said. “It has a cost to have an aggressive neighbor.”

Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt faced criticism after his latest budget failed to deliver a boost to defense spending. Still, the chancellor, who traveled to Poland with Sunak, will have to explain how he intends to fund both the additional expenditure and his promised tax cuts — including an ambition announced at the last budget to abolish national insurance, a payroll tax. Moreover, public finance data on Tuesday showed the government’s budget shortfall overshot forecasts, highlighting the tightened constraints facing the Treasury.

“We have a clear plan for what we’ll spend, when we’ll spend it, and how we pay for it,” Sunak said, without elaborating. “It will be fully funded with no increase in borrowing or debt.”

Some 59% of Conservative voters indicate they would prefer an increase in defense spending to tax cuts, according to a poll by Savanta published in March. Several Conservative MPs have also called for an increase in defense spending with an eye on Russia and China, with some former defense secretaries and sitting government ministers joining the call. 

Sunak said that in order to encourage private sector investment in defense production, it would count toward environmental, social and governance assessments. 

Parliament’s spending watchdog warned last month that the gap between the defense ministry’s budget and the cost of the UK’s desired military capabilities had risen to £16.9 billion, the largest deficit ever - despite a previously planned uplift of £46.3 billion over the next 10 years.

Under the plan, Sunak’s office said that defense spending would rise immediately by £3 billion in the next financial year. Outlays would reach £87 billion a year in 2030-31, up from £64 billion in 2024-25.

Three areas would be prioritized for new money, Sunak’s office said. An additional £10 billion would be spent over the next decade on munitions production to boost the domestic defense industrial base. At least 5% of the defense budget will be committed to research and development in areas such as drones and artificial intelligence, while Britain will also continue to aid Ukraine in the war against Russia.

(Updates with comment from Sunak, Stoltenberg, starting in third paragraph.)

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