Labour to pledge rapid action on replenishing UK weapon stocks

<span>Photograph: UK MOD Crown copyright/PA</span>
Photograph: UK MOD Crown copyright/PA

Labour will seek to shift defence procurement to an “urgent operational footing” to help buy fresh arms for Ukraine and replenish stockpiles depleted by previous gifts of military aid if it wins the next election.

The opposition party believes it has taken too long for the Ministry of Defence to buy fresh munitions, citing a near year-long wait to agree a contract to replace the 4,000-plus Nlaw anti-tank bazookas sent to Kyiv before and in the early stages of the war.

In a speech on Tuesday, John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, will argue that Britain’s defence purchasing is wasteful and in need of an urgent overhaul to support Ukraine in its war with Russia.

“We need to shift parts of our defence industry and MoD procurement on to an urgent operational footing, both to support Ukraine for the long-term and to replenish UK stocks for any future conflict,” the Labour frontbencher will say to an audience at the Rusi thinktank.

Labour’s call for a retooling of the defence industry is part of the party’s wider’s efforts to emphasise its national security credentials, and distance itself from the period in which it was led by Jeremy Corbyn, who was frequently critical of western militarism.

“The next government will inherit the Ukraine conflict and Russia’s wider aggression. With a general election, there may be a change to Labour but there will be no change to Britain’s resolve in confronting Russia’s threats, pursuing Putin’s crimes and standing with Ukraine,” Healey is expected to say.

The shadow minister’s statements appear to imply there will be an increase in defence spending under Labour, although a trail of Healey’s remarks contains no firm spending commitments. Instead, Labour has committed to complete a defence and security review a year after the election, if it wins.

Planned cuts in the army should be halted, Healey will add, and Britain should also aim to become “Nato’s leading European nation”, ensuring it can meet existing commitments to defend allies against Russian aggression, although it was not spelled out how that promise should be met.

The British army is due to gradually drop to 72,500 by 2025, its smallest size since 1714, as part of a programme of real-terms cuts in day-to-day defence spending introduced by the Conservatives as part of the 2021 integrated review of defence and foreign policy.

Defence sources warned last week that the British army was losing its military edge, briefing that it had only a few days’ worth of ammunition if called upon to engage in a conflict – and that about 30% of forces promised to Nato in an emergency were in fact reservists and so would not be immediately available.

Healey will argue that the Ministry of Defence should pursue a “stockpiles strategy” as part of broader long-term plan of military, economic and humanitarian support for Ukraine. Experts believe the war is likely to last throughout 2023 at least, and it is likely to be the top foreign policy issue for years to come.

Britain’s military has been plagued by procurement delays and overspends under governments of all colours. An initial contract for the new Ajax armoured vehicle was awarded in 2010, but after spending of at least £3.2bn, it still has no in service date amid a string of technical problems.

Ministers are due to publish a defence mini-review in early March, refreshing the integrated review in the light of the Russian attack on Ukraine. Last year British military aid to Ukraine was worth £2.3bn.

Responding, a Conservative party spokesperson accused Labour of making vague commitments, and warned that reversing the army cuts amounted to new spending without the funds to back it up. “Rather making a decision on defence, Labour have more reviews than policy,” the spokesperson added.