U.S. commander worried by falling UK defense spending

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A top U.S. commander voiced concern on Tuesday that Britain’s military spending could fall below a NATO target and said the country’s army did not have enough money for its needs.

The comments by Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe, reflect U.S. concern over the declining military capabilities of Britain, one of America’s staunchest allies, at a time when Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and a pro-Russian rebellion in eastern Ukraine have caused Europe’s worst crisis since the Cold War.

Hodges said almost all of the United States European partners failed to meet NATO’s target of spending at least two percent of their economic output on defense.

Only four of the 28 NATO allies spent two percent or more of GDP on defense in 2013 - Britain, the United States, Estonia and Greece.

“The UK, I am worried, if its plans continue, will drop below the two percent,” Hodges told Reuters in a telephone interview from Wiesbaden in Germany.

Britain, led by army chief Gen. Nick Carter, had done an exceptional job in “making the best use of available resources to provide a land force that the UK needs, both on its own, as well as part of the alliance or to conduct coalition operations, but there is not enough resources for what they need,” he said.

Britain has cut defense spending by around 8 percent in real terms over the last four years to help reduce a record budget deficit, shrinking the size of the armed forces by around one sixth and axing Harrier jets and Nimrod reconnaissance planes.

British finance minister George Osborne has promised further spending reductions if the Conservatives win an election next May. Analysts say that could mean further defense cuts.

In London, a British Ministry of Defence spokesman declined to comment specifically on Hodges’ remarks, but said: “On current plans, defense spending will be above two percent both this year and next.”

NATO leaders agreed at a summit in Wales in September to aim to move toward the two percent of GDP target within a decade. Allies that currently met the goal would aim to continue to do so, the leaders said.

Additional reporting by William James