Theresa May has praised the armed forces as the “guarantors of British life” in her final military speech as Prime Minister.
The outgoing leader reassured service personnel that she expects her successor will continue to commit to the Nato spending target.
She met troops and their families at the headquarters of Joint Forces Command in Northwood, north-west London.
“You are not just a part of British life – you are the guarantors of British life. The foundation of our freedom. The protectors of our democracy,” Mrs May said.
“And for that, we owe you a debt of gratitude.”
She evoked operations in Iraq, Somalia and Gibraltar, as well as the clean-up in Salisbury where specialists worked “around the clock to decontaminate the city in the aftermath of Russia’s despicable and deadly nerve agent attack”.
And she said among her hardest tasks as PM was “finding the words to write to a young girl who would never know her father, after he was tragically killed in Iraq”.
Mrs May reassured the service personnel at the base that commands all overseas British military operations and houses Nato’s maritime headquarters that she “fully” expects her successor to continue meeting the alliance’s spending target.
She also urged “many more” member states to meet the 2% of GDP level.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has committed to increase spending to 2.5% at the cost of an extra £15 billion in four years’ time, while leadership race frontrunner Boris Johnson is yet to make a defence pledge.
US President Donald Trump’s commitment to the alliance has been called into question, and he has repeatedly challenged the European members to increase their defence budgets.
But Mrs May insisted Nato, in its 70th year, “is as strong and united as it has ever been” and that its principles of unity in the face of a threat “remain every bit as important and relevant today”.
“In an age of increasing polarisation and division on the global stage, the hand-in-glove co-operation of Nato’s militaries provides a model for multinational organisations everywhere,” she added.
Also during the speech, Mrs May committed to extending the presence of UK forces in support of counter-terrorism operations in Mali for six months.
Three Chinook transport helicopters and their crews have been based in the African country since July last year in support of French operations against extremists.