The Army

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:40 pm on 1st July 1991.

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Photo of Bruce George Bruce George , Walsall South 8:40 pm, 1st July 1991

I have been listening almost as a bystander in the debate between Government Back-Benchers and Ministers. It has been almost a case of the poll tax revisited. The Government will have a lot of trouble on their hands dealing with the legitimate aspirations of the supporters of county regiments. I wonder whether it is right to concede the argument automatically that Army numbers should be reduced, and therefore to fight over the bones that are left—"My regiment before that of anyone else."

One of the strongest cases made so far was that advanced by the right hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) who argued conclusively that we will not be able to discharge our military obligations in wartime if the Army is reduced to the level proposed by the Government. I may add that we will be unable to discharge our peacetime obligations with the numbers that the Government envisage. That is the crux of the matter.

One is usually embarrassed about repeating cliches, but that used by the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) deserves to be repeated time and time again. I refer to her remark that the peace dividend is peace itself. Since 1970, whatever Government have been in office, defence expenditure has fallen, by a total of 19·2 per cent., and manpower by 33·4 per cent. One may concede that in 1970 we were overdefended or overcommitted, but one wonders how far one can go before reaching bottom.

Unless the Government are prepared to abandon Britain's commitments, which would be difficult, the Army and the armed forces of the future will be so overstretched that they will be a paper Army, Navy and Air Force. Last July, I asked the Secretary of State how, if the Royal Navy could not discharge its obligations with a force of "about 50 frigates and destroyers, it would do so with about 40" —and we know that the figure will really be 34 or 35. The same applies in respect of the Army.

Over the years, we have made the decision to have one of the smallest armies in NATO. A United States report on allied contributions to common defence published in May 1991 shows that, in terms of active duty, military and civilian manpower, and committed reserves in NATO and Japan, as a percentage of total population, Britain comes twelfth. It is clear to me, as it must be to anyone, that our armed forces, having been at a high level in 1970, have fallen to a level below which it will be difficult to sustain Britain's future military defence.

The threat today is not that which existed two or three years ago, for it has moved much farther east. While I am delighted by the actions of President Gorbachev, I refer the House to a paper by a Soviet general who has not been made redundant by today's abandonment of the Warsaw pact—General Lobov, a senior member of his country's General Staff. He reported that the Soviet military was being disadvantaged by the conventional forces in Europe treaty and suggested several solutions—and I am sure that he was writing not as an isolated member of the Soviet General Staff but on its behalf.

General Lobov's prescription is to improve combat training; effect the transition to a contract system—that is, professionalisation—for manning; maintain headquarters and war time strength in peace time; search for new forms of co-operation on defence issues with the armies of former allies; and improve mobilisation capacity under the new economic conditions.

General Lobov also calls for a rapid reaction force based east of the Urals—that is, outside the CFE treaty area. He cites the United States' rapid deployment force, numbering 444,000, as an example. He also argues for a blue water navy capable of interdicting allied reinforcement. I know General Lobov very well—he does not hide his views—and I suggest that we need to be a little cautious about developments in the Soviet Union.

Perhaps a few years from now, the situation will be beyond doubt. President Gorbachev may have control over the military, and the CFE, START 1, and START 2 treaties, and others, may have been implemented. If so, we will be able to perceive with certainty that our forces need not be kept at their present level—or even at that now envisaged by the Government. However, I suggest that that time has not yet come. When it does, I will acknowledge it—and hope that everyone else will.

It is a pleasure to speak in any defence debate, and particularly so now, because my views roughly correspond with those of my party. Having listened to the robust speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), and in anticipating the future, I speak with a great deal of pleasure about what has been happening. I listened with pleasure, too, when right hon. and hon. Members strongly defended our armed forces —unlike in many previous debates in the House. It is ironic that the Minister of State's criticism of Labour's nuclear policy is that we are considering cancelling Trident SSBN 08. At one time, we were criticised for our intention to cancel SSBN 05, 06, and 07.

It is legitimate to argue, bearing in mind strategic arms reductions, that three submarines will be feasible. I fully acknowledge that four may be desirable, in case a disaster befalls one of them. However, it may be that by the time the flotilla is at sea, there will be greater co-operation with our French allies, and that the need for many submarines from European nuclear powers to be at sea simultaneously will prove unnecessary. We heard this afternoon that the Navy is cancelling only one submarine, and we must be thankful that it is only one.

Although the threat has changed, it has not been eliminated, and the euphoric response that followed developments in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union has been put on ice. Some people fondly imagined—and still imagine—that armed forces have become superfluous. Some argue even now that our security requirements will be encompassed and satisfied by some new world order, the United Nations, the CSCE process, and, more implausibly, the European Community. However, we will not be able to meet our full security requirements unless we maintain a high commitment in the future, as we have in the past, to NATO.

That is not just because that commitment will prevent unilateralism—and I do not use that word in the old sense —or because, if there were any so-called EC alternative, to do otherwise might sever the link between Europe and North America—which would be a catastrophe in every sense of the word. It is because those who aspire to a European defence order now are being somewhat premature, by at least a decade.

The year 1991 has been seen as critical for NATO. How will NATO be able to agree and to implement a new political and military strategy in response to an environment in Europe characterised by both positive and negative phenomena? The way in which NATO has adapted, even before the London declaration, has been quite incredible. It has shown relevance and that it is not prepared to wither away in empathy with the decline of the Warsaw pact NATO is relevant, easy to justify and is not merely wanted by most EC countries; its existence is earnestly desired by many of our former adversaries in eastern Europe, who certainly knew that its existence underpinned their security.

The second critical issue for 1991 will be whether the historic process—building down the east-west military confrontation—continues or whether there will be any major setbacks.

The third major area of concern in 1991 involves what lessons Europe will draw from its mixed experience during the Gulf crisis. In my humble view, that experience would not lead one to the conclusion that NATO will be supplanted by the EC.