LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's two main political parties must commit to protecting defence spending after May's national election or the country may not be able to defend itself against a growing number of threats, lawmakers said on Thursday.
Despite rising tensions with Russia and the spread of Islamic State militants, pledges on defence spending have been conspicuously absent from campaigning ahead of the election, a fact that has left international allies voicing their concerns over Britain's future role.
"The threats are real, the world is genuinely getting more dangerous. Britain cannot be a freeloader," said Conservative lawmaker Rory Stewart, head of parliament's Defence Committee.
Since taking office in 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron's coalition government has cut defence spending by around 8 percent in real terms to help reduce a record budget deficit, shrinking the size of the armed forces by around one sixth.
The government has committed to meeting NATO's target of spending 2 percent of Gross Domestic Product on defence in both this financial year and the next, but has said decisions beyond that are for a post-election defence review.
In a three-and-a-half-hour debate in parliament, lawmakers mainly from Cameron's Conservatives lined up to warn of the risks of dipping below that target. In a non-binding vote, they supported by 37 to 3 a motion that Britain should commit to spending a minimum of 2 percent.
According to NATO, only the United States, Britain and Greece met the 2 percent target last year, and at a NATO summit it hosted last year, Cameron called on other alliance members to raise their spending.
"Having implored fellow NATO members to reach this level ... falling below this level ourselves would be a grave mistake as well as a national embarrassment," said Conservative lawmaker John Baron.
"It would be a dangerous message to send to the Kremlin."
The centre-left Labour party, running neck and neck with the Conservatives in opinion polls, have also said they would hold a defence review if they win the election. They have not committed to maintaining the 2 percent level but have said they will have more leeway on defence spending than the Conservatives as they plan a lower overall level of cuts to government spending.
Analysis of the major parties' spending plans including pledges to protect health and education, published by think tank RUSI earlier this week, indicated defence would undergo a 10 percent real-terms cut over the next four years.
Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in Brussels; Editing by Mark Heinrich