[Relevant Documents: Third Report from the Defence Committee, Towards the next Defence and Security Review: Part Two–NATO, HC 358, and the Government response, HC 755.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with
(1) the resources authorised for use for current purposes be reduced by £618,573,000 as set out in HC 1019, and
(2) further resources, not exceeding £426,760,000 be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £426,834,000 be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Mel Stride.)
I should like to begin by talking about the House of Commons Defence Committee’s report. The key element in the report, and in what I hope will be my relatively brief remarks, is that Russia poses a significant and substantial threat to Europe. That argument has been made in great detail by the Defence Committee and, in the months since the report was published, it has become increasingly evident that it is correct.
I remind the House that, while we were working on the report, we had a statement from the Foreign Secretary that he had been assured by Lavrov that Russia would not invade Crimea. Four days later, Russia invaded Crimea. We then heard a number of specialists and analysts say that Russia would not go into eastern Ukraine, but it then did so. We also heard people say, after the Malaysian airliner was shot down, that that would be the moment at which Russia would back off because it was embarrassed by what it had done. Russia did not back off. People then made it clear that Russia would not extend its activities to Mariupol or Odessa, but as we can now see, separatists with Russian support are moving towards those two cities.
What does this mean for the United Kingdom, the Ministry of Defence, NATO and defence spending? The House of Commons Defence Committee’s report focuses on two things: the conventional threat posed by Russia, and the threat that we describe as next generation warfare, ambiguous warfare or the asymmetric threat posed by Russia. Although those two things are related, it is worth analysing them separately.
On the conventional threat posed by Russia, the report argues that, through its Zapad exercise in 2013, Russia showed its ability to deploy almost 70,000 troops at 72 hours’ notice. The current estimate is that it would take NATO almost six months to deploy that number of troops. Russia has also displayed its ability to fly nuclear bombers to Venezuela and to exercise for a full amphibious assault on a Baltic state. It has upgraded its nuclear arsenal and it is committed to spending $100 billion a year on defence. All of that is taking place in the context of a decline in NATO defence spending.
I thank the Chairman of the Committee for giving way so early in his speech. One of the reasons that he has had to consider only two aspects—namely, conventional and unconventional warfare—is that our strategic nuclear deterrent is still in place, and if either the Opposition or the Conservative party has anything to do with it, that will remain the case. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be madness to think about disposing of our deterrent and ending our continuous at-sea deterrence? Is it not strange that there is not a single Member present who represents the party that proposes that we should abandon that continuous at-sea deterrence—namely, the Liberal Democrat party?
Oh, Sir Bob Russell has just appeared. I hope that he disagrees with his party on that matter.
That is an invitation to go into exactly this theme: in terms of responses to the Russian conventional threat, we have planned, for 20 years, for fighting enemies in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. We have planned on the basis of such expeditionary warfare. The planning assumptions at the base of Future Force 2020 or the strategic defence and security review were about being able to put 6,600 people—or 10,000, in the past—into the field and maintain them there for enduring stability operations. We have not really thought about taking on an enemy such as Russia. In the national security strategy, the threat of what we have seen done by Russia was marked down as a tier 3 or bottom-level probability.
That means a lot of things: it has implications, of course, for nuclear weapons; it has implications for many capacities that we have got rid of in Britain over the past 20 years, such as our ability to exercise at scale —in the mid-1980s we used to be able to exercise with 130,000 or 140,000 people, whereas last year we were exercising with about 6,600 people, at a time when Russia was exercising with about 70,000; it has meant that we got rid of our significant capacity in wide-water crossing—that is engineering; it has meant a reduction in armour, because we did not expect to be fighting tank battles; and, more relevantly to the question posed by my hon. Friend Dr Lewis, it has also meant that we need to think much more seriously about ballistic missile defence, and about chemical, biological and radiological and nuclear.
That is a very good question, which I hope to be able to deal with towards the end of my speech. The assumption of spending 2% of GDP on defence, which is essential because we organised an entire NATO summit around the idea of doing that, is of course the hope that as the economy grows, defence spending will grow and we can make the necessary five-year planning, which will return confidence to the armed forces and allow us to make some of these investments. The question is a good one, because we would still face significant constraints in relation to Trident and to operating our aircraft carrier. If we wanted to make significant investments in restoring armour capacity, even 2% of GDP would be pushing it.
I apologise for coming in late. About 30 years ago, when Denis Healey, as Defence Secretary, looked down the road at the defence needs, he said that modern warfare for the future would rely more on conventional weapons than nuclear weapons and that sort of thing. On the hon. Gentleman’s other point, although we may not have planned for any war with Russia, I imagine the United States has, because it plays “war games”, for want of a better term, and examines various scenarios. What does he think about that? Does he know anything about that?
The hon. Gentleman rightly says that we have not been focused on Russia, and the United States certainly has more capacity, but it is striking that even the US significantly reduced its capacity to deal with an adversary such as Russia. There has been a lot of criticism within the entire Pentagon administration about the focus on counter-insurgency warfare, and a man called Colonel Gentile ran a huge campaign to try to get the US to focus more on conventional threats. Britain has got rid of a lot of our Russian analysis capacity. One thing my Committee’s report pointed out is that we got rid of the Advanced Research and Assessment Group, which did the basic Russian analysis, we sacked our Ukraine desk officer and the defence intelligence service reduced its Russian analysis. The same has been happening in the United States, although it is now building this capacity up rapidly, but when we go to Supreme Allied Commander Europe and look at the American capacity, we see that that Russian capacity is being built up from a very low base again, which is troubling.
I do not wish to speak for too long, because I know many Members wish to contribute, so let me return to the basic framework of my argument: conventional; unconventional; and what we should be doing. I have set out the conventional, so what should Britain be doing? The Committee believes we should be looking to exercise at a larger level, so we should begin to return to some of the kinds of exercises we did in previous eras, which involve exercising at least at a divisional level. Encouragingly, NATO is beginning to look at an exercise at a level of 35,000 people—we would like to see more of that, and we would like politicians and policy makers to be involved in that. We would like to see all-armed exercises. We are going to be looking closely at Norway 2018, which seems to be a big opportunity to do this.
We have to look carefully at this very high readiness taskforce. One thing the Committee recommended was the setting up of a deployable force under SACEUR like the allied rapid reaction corps, which could go out and respond rapidly within 72 hours to a Russian threat. It was a very good sign at the Wales summit that that commitment was made, but the details need to be improved dramatically. The framework nations are struggling to provide 5,000 people and they need to produce one brigade standing up, one currently in exercise and one standing down. We have not yet seen what is happening with the enablers. We need to see whether they will be able to move forward with ISTAR––intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—and whether they are going to have the cyber-capacity connected. Here is another question, perhaps for the Minister: France has committed as a framework nation, but are we certain that it is committing its troops uniquely to
SACEUR or are we in danger of a situation in which people are double-hatting? In other words, are the French retaining the ability to deploy their brigade to Africa when it suits them, so that this very high readiness taskforce will then be a second-order call?
But it is on asymmetric warfare that we need to focus most of all, because although Russian tanks crossing the border into Estonia would be a high-impact event, we estimate at the moment that it is a low-probability event. It is not one we should ignore, because of course were Putin to do it, we really would not know what to do. Were Putin to roll tanks across and take over even a mile or two of Estonia, NATO would be in a very serious problem. As the Swedish general Neretnieks has pointed out, it would be very difficult—it would require very considerable political will—to get Russia out of that situation. But the most likely move is asymmetric warfare first.
On that point about capacity, it is interesting to note that in 1989 there were 5,000 US battle tanks stationed in Europe, whereas now there are 29. The capacity is not there, even if we look just at what the Americans are providing, never mind our failure to provide.
That is a significant point. It is true that, ultimately, the theoretical NATO capacity dwarfs that of Russia, but a lot of this stuff is extremely difficult to deploy; many nations are very reluctant to pay the money required to exercise; a lot of this money is absorbed in pension schemes; and our problem is that we are defending an enormous, multi-thousand-mile border, where Russia could, should it wish, cause trouble all the way from the Baltic to the Caucasus. We have to deal with that entire area, which may be very difficult to do, even with the 3.3 million troops we currently have in NATO.
The hon. Gentleman referred to Estonia. Clearly, under article 5 of the NATO treaty all the other 27 member states would have an obligation to respond to an armed attack on Estonia, but there is a level of ambiguity, given the hybrid warfare that the Russians are engaged in and have been engaged in—cyber-attacks and others. Given that Putin does not necessarily wish to invoke a major military conflict, how does NATO deal with those hybrid attacks?
The hybrid attacks are exactly what I was getting on to: the asymmetric and next-generation warfare attacks. As the Labour former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee has just pointed out, the conventional attack is a low-probability, high-impact event. Much more probable is this asymmetric, hybrid warfare. In other words, we are more likely to find cyber-attacks of the kind we saw in Estonia in 2007, and separatists popping up claiming that they are being abused or that minority rights are being abused in places such as Narva, in eastern Estonia. As we saw, 45% of the Russian population of Latvia supported the Russian occupation of Crimea in a survey at that time. So what are we supposed to do? The answer is: it is really difficult and we absolutely need to raise our game in three areas. As has been indicated, those are cyber, information warfare and special forces operations.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. The Defence Committee, which completed its report on deterrence just before he assumed the Chair, made it clear that in the event of a cyber attack we should be prepared to say to a potential adversary such as Russia, “We will not necessarily wait for 100% proof before we enact counter-measures.” We should do that despite the fact that it might have tried to create some uncertainty and ambiguity over the exact emanation of such an attack.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise that point about cyber-attacks. Crucially, very few of us in this House—I certainly include myself in this—understand cyber in detail. We are taking it on faith that we are developing a significant cyber-capacity. It is extremely difficult for us to be confident about what we are doing in this regard. I have two questions on cyber that I would like to put to the Minister. One is to do with NATO’s cyber-capacity. The members of the Committee visited the cyber-centre in Estonia and discovered that there were only two UK personnel posted to that site. It was very difficult to be confident about what deterrent effect that kind of cyber would involve.
My second question is to do with doctrine. Are we prepared to threaten a cyber response as a way of deterring a Russian cyber-attack? In other words, if Russia were to mount a cyber-attack against a NATO member state, would we respond with a cyber-attack in kind?
I agree with everything my hon. Friend has said, particularly with regard to the importance of cyber. He will remember that in the SDSR 2010 one of the Secretary of State’s “up arrows”—areas in which we need to invest—was cyber-security, where we set aside £650 million over four years. Part of that was cyber-attack.
That is very important. The thing about cyber-defence that is difficult for us as a Committee to deal with—given that when we look at cyber we are often told that much of it is the job of the Intelligence and Security Committee—is just how good it is. Clearly, the Government have committed a lot of money to it, but at the same time, many Members come to us having spoken to the Ministry of Defence which is concerned about our cyber-capacity, and are not confident that we have really got to where we want to be or that we fully understand what the technology is.
The second issue is around information operations. It is very clear that the basic problem for Russian minorities in the Baltic states is the fact that they watch Moscow television. We need to ensure that we have the ability to project television into the Baltic states in the Russian language that is entertaining and engaging, that the minorities in those areas are prepared to watch, and that counters propaganda not with propaganda but with the truth. Such broadcasts must provide an objective, truthful and honest conversation about what is going on in the world and, above all, that is able to draw attention to the things that Putin is doing. That means that centrally we must invest in the BBC World Service. We spend a lot of time talking about this, about Russian-language television, but the reality is that we have yet to see the evidence from this Government, or from the United States, that the real investment is being made to create a genuinely watchable, attractive Russian language service that could be watched by Russian minorities around the edge of NATO.
The final and most difficult thing is dealing with special forces, insurgents, “little green men” and exactly the kinds of events that we saw in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The reason that that is the most difficult of all is that it is a challenge of understanding not only for us and the Ministry of Defence, but also for the Foreign Office and the intelligence agencies. If Putin does something, the first question will be one of interpretation or understanding. He will operate under the thresholds. As Mike Gapes, who was the Labour Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, pointed out, Putin will not initially do something that crosses the article 5 threshold. Let me provide a couple of examples to illustrate the threats. If, for example, the Polish electricity infrastructure were to go down, there might be an immediate claim that it had been taken down by a Russian cyber-attack. Britain would need very rapidly to be in a position to know whether that was in fact the case and to determine how to respond. In order to do that, we would need to have what we currently do not have—namely, the people on the ground in Poland with the necessary relationship with the Polish electricity Minister to get to the bottom of the matter very quickly and to pass the information through to us. We lack intelligence and information at every level from the strategic political level all the way down to the ISTAR level of watching Russian kit moving around.
My hon. Friend is quite rightly focusing on the clear and present threat of Russia, but when looking at asymmetrical war, we should also be looking at the threats from the middle east and considering how to deal with those challenges. There are also cyber-threats from China and North Korea. We should be cognisant not just of the Russian threat but of other areas of the world that pose a direct threat to the UK.
That provides me with a good way to drive towards a conclusion. As my hon. Friend has just pointed out, the kind of threats that Russia or Putin can bring will be very unpredictable. I will be humiliated by what Putin does over the next five to 10 years. It is very difficult to guess what he will do next. What is clear about Putin is that he has been thinking very hard, since at least 2008, about how to unsettle or unbalance NATO. He will be pulling levers and pushing buttons that we cannot yet anticipate.
I imagine that he will be tempted to do things in relation to Iran—perhaps in relation to the Iranian nuclear negotiations. We have already seen Putin’s very direct contribution to the civil war in Syria through the protection of Bashar al-Assad. We can see his control over the gas supplies in Bulgaria. It is not very difficult for us to imagine how he could cause trouble in Narva, or how he could put a few Spetsnaz troops in a forest in Latvia, just sit them there and wait to see what we do. If we are dealing with threats along that arc, we need to change the way we think in the Ministry of Defence. We cannot rest in the comfortable world we have been in for the past 20 years—imagining that we will have a neat deployment of 6,600 soldiers on an expeditionary warfare campaign, that they will stay there for five to 10 years doing stabilisation operations and then come home. We will have to respond to very nuanced, ambiguous and unpredictable attacks all the way along an arc between the Baltic and, potentially, Iran. In order to do that, we need to invest very heavily in Russian language expertise, defence engagement, and defence attachés in all those countries. The United States currently has three defence attachés in each Baltic state; we have one defence attaché covering three Baltic states. That is not enough.
The Ministry of Defence would not be able tell us whether the defences in Mariupol were adequate to deal with a Russian advance because the defence attaché currently in Kiev is not permitted to travel up to the front line. We need to invest in defence intelligence staff in the Foreign Office. To do that—this is what I will conclude on—we must make this investment of 2% of GDP in defence. We need to do that for many, many reasons.
I do not want the Chair of the Select Committee to ignore one part of the world. With regard to all the countries that he has mentioned we can act as part of the NATO family, but what about the Falklands? He will be aware that Argentina has not given up its ambitions, but who will support us down in the South Atlantic?
That is a very significant question. It is definitely worth thinking about in the next SDSR. As the hon. Gentleman points out, many of our assumptions are based on the fact that we will operate with the US coalition, but in relation to the Falklands we cannot be so confident that that will happen.
The figure of 2% is just a number that has been dragged out of the air, but it happens to be the level of our defence expenditure—about 2.07% of GDP. The conclusions of the summit in Wales seemed remarkably similar to the British posture of what NATO’s targets should be. The fact is that Russia has taken a disappointing divergence from the path that we had hoped it was on after the end of the Soviet Union. That is now beyond contradiction, and we are back to where we were in 1977. Regrettably, we should now be preparing for conflict, and 2% does not cut it.
So am I, if I may say so. My hon. Friend is giving an excellent analysis of the situation. At the NATO summit, Britain was at the forefront of demanding that all NATO countries use 2% of GDP for defence spending. I absolutely support the Prime Minister on this. We want to spend 2% of GDP. Personally, I would rather go further and spend more.
To come to a conclusion, I am giving the four reasons why we need to spend 2%. The first, which has just been pointed out by the former Defence Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr Robathan, is UK credibility. The UK led the push for 2% at the Wales summit only six months ago. We stood alongside the United States and went around every other country at the summit saying,
“If you’re going be serious, you have to commit 2%.” We emphasised again and again that we were spending 2% of our GDP on defence and that they should spend 2% of their GDP on defence. That was very important in getting a range of countries to commit to spending 2% of GDP on defence over the next five to 10 years. The first reason why we must do it is simply out of a sense of shame. The honour and credibility of the United Kingdom are bound up in this.
The Chairman of the Select Committee is giving a fantastic analysis of the situation. May I add my concern that 2% simply is not enough for the commitments that we will inevitably have? Our forebears fought and died for freedom and democracy. What concerns me even more is that some people do not seem to appreciate that it takes years to get ships and aircraft carriers, and to get groups and battalions reformed and retrained. Once they are gone, if we are called to action we simply will not have the manpower to deal with it.
That is the second point that I was coming to. The second reason why we have to spend 2% of GDP or more on defence is that we have concrete tasks that we need to perform. There are some real requirements if we are to deal with the new threat. The problem with the threat assessments since the end of the cold war is that they have been done in a vacuum. Now that we can see a threat in the form of Putin, we realise that there are considerable capacities that we need to rebuild. Those capacities cost money, so we need to invest in them.
The third reason is that deterrence is about psychology. Deterrence is about will-power and confidence; it is not just about kit. The 2% is about what Putin thinks of us; it is about whether he thinks that we are serious. Often, we think that the way to deal with a Russian conventional threat is with a conventional response, and that the way to deal with a Russian unconventional threat is with an unconventional response. Of course, the Russians, particularly Gerasimov, the chief of staff, use the phrase “asymmetric warfare”, which means that they understand very well that often one should deal with a conventional threat with an unconventional response and vice versa. One of the best ways of deterring Putin from mucking around either conventionally or unconventionally is to let him see the confidence of that NATO commitment towards 2% of GDP. As he begins to see the exercises, the spending and the increasing confidence of our armed forces, that will act as the deterrent.
That brings me to my last argument for why spending 2% of GDP on defence is central: it will provide a fantastic framework of planning for our armed forces for the next five years. The fundamental problem in defence and foreign affairs is, of course, that the electoral cycles and financial cuts of modern democracies simply do not operate in sync with the realities of the world and its crises.
Is it not also the case that the rigour of the SDSR process needs to do justice to the nature of the threats we face? It should not be an argument about 2% or bust; it should be about correctly assessing the world as it exists today and as it will exist and ensuring that we have the capabilities to meet the threats that will exist over the next 10 years.
The process will be led—must be led—by the SDSR. The entire problem that we face starts with the fact that the SDSR put the Russian threat down at tier 3. It will be impossible in the system to argue for more defence spending unless the Foreign Office and the agencies agree with our assessment that Putin represents a significant threat. We must make that absolutely central to the entire debate in the House today to establish that we really believe in this threat and that it is not a joke threat; that this is not special pleading by the Ministry of Defence, nor an attempt to sneak resources in by the back door, but that what Putin has done since the moment he entered Crimea—in fact, probably since the moment he entered Georgia—is to demonstrate the reality that to hold the order of Europe, to maintain NATO and to deter future Russian expansion, we must have the credibility, the capacity and the confidence.
To come back to the final point, the 2% will allow us to step away from the political debates and say to the armed services, “Your budget is protected. You can plan over the next five years on the assumption that your budget will rise in real terms. If the economy rises by 3%, your budget will increase by £1 billion a year. You will be able to use that money to make the investments we need, whether in cyber, in ballistic missile defence, in CBRN or—as I have been trying to argue—“in the massive panoply of intelligence, defence engagement and assessment, which allows us to work out what is happening in the world.” It is that which will draw a new generation of soldiers and officers into the armed forces, because they will see that confidence. Above all, it is Russia and our adversaries who will see that confidence and who will see that, at a time when the world is becoming increasingly dangerous and unstable, our commitment to collective security is generous, clear and long term.
Perhaps I should start by looking at the Order Paper. We are being asked tonight to approve for the current year a reduction of defence expenditure—or, I should say, a further reduction of defence expenditure—of £618 million. I hope that, in his response, the Minister will say on which capabilities the Ministry of Defence was planning to spend at the start of the year have now been dropped. Looking at the second and third paragraphs of the motion, I hope he will also say what additional expenditure there has been this year for capital purposes, for which there is a considerable increase, and operations. How will those additional resources be spent?
The Defence Committee produced a good report before the NATO summit and any sane person would agree with many of the points that the Government made in their response. However, there was a lack of clear commitment and candour in the response on defence spending, which the Chairman of the Select Committee has just talked about.
It has become clear over the past year, if not longer, that we face new and challenging security threats from Russia, which the Chairman of the Select Committee also spoke about. There is not just the annexation of Crimea and the intervention in eastern Ukraine, but a new Russian foreign policy doctrine that reserves to Russia the right to intervene in other states where there are Russian-speaking minorities when the Kremlin believes it is in their interests to do so. There has been a continuity of policy going back to Georgia and, indeed, Transnistria. There are still Russian troops in northern Moldova. We have also, in the past year or so, seen new and complex threats in the middle east from ISIS or Daesh.
In the face of new and growing security threats, we clearly need new capabilities and strategies to deter our enemies and defend ourselves. We need as soon as possible a new NATO very high readiness joint taskforce and we need to be able to deploy it quickly. That will mean that this House must consider how political authority will be given for use of the first very high readiness brigade and the reinforcement brigades.
We need to discuss with our allies how other Parliaments, especially those that have a constitutional requirement for a vote in Parliament before forces are deployed, will ensure that a very high readiness force, to be deployed within 48 hours, can be deployed within that timescale if needed even though their Parliaments cannot meet within that timescale. We will need either some pre-authorisations, as we had in the old days of the cold war, under which SACEUR—Supreme Allied Commander Europe—could mobilise his assets, or acceptance that parts of NATO will move within 48 hours, even if some allies will take longer to make decisions.
I would always like greater attention to be given to the Parliamentary Assembly’s work, but there is a good crossover of membership between our UK delegation to the Assembly and the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Select Committee on Defence and the Select Committee on International Development. As a result, there is a cross-fertilisation of ideas and I know that colleagues on the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees who are alerted to particular information through the NATO Parliamentary Assembly meetings have been able to take that information to their Select Committees. There is, of course, movement of information in the other direction, which is a thoroughly good thing.
We need to consider not just how we deliver a very high readiness joint taskforce but how to improve our strategy for dealing with cyber-threats, our response to the propaganda war when it is waged against us and our response to the use of irregular personnel, whether that means little green men or jihadists in the middle east. We must be clear that if we and our allies are going to develop new capabilities and strategies, that will cost money. If we want to improve our defence, we must will the means to do so.
Before the NATO summit last September, the Prime Minister quite rightly called on the majority of our NATO allies who do not spend 2% of their GDP on defence to do so. At the summit, as one can read on page 10 of the Government’s response to the report:
“All Allies agreed to halt any decline in Defence spending, aim to increase it in real terms as GDP grows and to move towards 2% within a decade.”
Some of our allies have responded to that declaration since the summit. Poland agreed on
We should also look closely at UK defence spending. According to the public expenditure statistical analysis produced by the Government in 2014, at table 4.2, in the year I entered the House, 1992-93, defence spending was £23.8 billion or 3.5% of our GDP. By 1997-98, when there was a change of Government, of course, defence spending had fallen in cash terms to £21.7 billion, and by more in real terms. At that point, it was down to 2.5% of GDP. Throughout the period of the previous Labour Government, defence spending remained at 2.5%. The Ministry of Defence’s statistical analysis shows an increase, but if we remove the increased spending on operations it remained at 2.5%.
In his last few words, the hon. Gentleman said something that contradicted my memory of events. The point I wanted to make to him was it was often said, particularly by Tony Blair on leaving, that under the previous Labour Government spending had remained roughly constant at 2.5%, if the costs of Afghanistan and Iraq were included. In opposition, we used to criticise that, as we said that it was sleight of hand, so the hon. Gentleman can imagine my embarrassment now that we are in government to find that there is no sign of our sticking to the pledge when we criticised the Labour party in government for massaging the figures.
I have had an interesting conversation with the statisticians in the House of Commons Library this afternoon. They provided figures for me in April of last year that showed spending as a proportion of GDP increasing from 2.48% in 1997-98 to 2.81% in 2009-10. Those are the Defence Analytical Services and Advice, or DASA, figures produced by the Minister of Defence. More recently—[Interruption.] I shall come to the point made by Dr Lewis in a moment. More recently, the Library has given me the PESA, or public expenditure statistical analysis, figures, which show defence spending at 2.5% at the start of the Labour Government and 2.5% at the end of the Labour Government. I think the difference in the figures is covered by precisely the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. If we include the costs of Afghanistan and Iraq, there is an increase in real terms. If we discount them, there is no change in real terms.
In 2013-14, according to the Government’s figures, spending was at 2.1%. That is counterintuitive. I do not think that many members of the public would recognise that the Major Conservative Government substantially reduced defence expenditure in real terms, that the Labour Government maintained it and that this Government have substantially reduced it, but that is what the Government’s own PESA figures show us.
I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman’s powerful endorsement of the Prime Minister’s commitment to 2% at the NATO summit last September. Has he spoken to his own Front Benchers about whether an incoming Labour Government, if there were to be such a thing, would or would not maintain defence spending at 2%?
Order. I am going to have to put a time limit on speeches, because we are drifting, and it was suggested earlier that Members should speak for up to 10 minutes. Sir Hugh, I assume that you will soon be coming to the end of your speech.
I will crack on quickly, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I have put my name to the early-day motion drafted by Sir Peter Luff, which calls for the 2% commitment to be maintained. However, like Richard Drax, I do not believe that that is enough. I believe that we should be increasing our defence spending as a proportion of GNP. I have of course raised that with Opposition Front Benchers. I seek a commitment tonight from the Minister and the shadow Minister that the strategic defence and security reviews that they would respectively commission, depending on who wins the general election, will be led by concerns about security and will not be cost-driven, which was a criticism that many people made of the 2010 SDSR.
It is five years since NATO adopted its new strategic concept. It was intended to last for 10 years, but the security threats we face are clearly changing, so it needs to be reviewed. Therefore, another question that I wish to put to both the Minister and my hon. Friend Mr Jones is: would their respective strategic defence and security reviews consider whether NATO’s strategic concept needs to be reviewed?
May I start by warmly congratulating the Chair of the Defence Committee, my hon. Friend Rory Stewart, on what I thought was a masterly speech, both in detail and in content, and with which I agree entirely?
I think I can leave out the stuff about how we all agree that defence and security is the most important responsibility of any Government, because we all know that is the case and, by and large, we all agree on it, but the character of conflict has changed profoundly and new threats have arisen. As we look to the future and prepare for it over the next several years, we really must prepare ourselves to meet some very different challenges.
As in any other area of our public obligation, if we have a strong economy—and we do—that will enable us to build strong armed forces and obtain the structure we need. There is absolutely no point pretending that it would be sensible, wise, prudent or in the national interest not to commit to spending the 2% target. Indeed, I would go further and say that failing to do so would be a terrible slur on Britain’s honour.
The question of the threat is quite clear. Threat consists of capability and intent. So what threatens us, our way of life and our prosperity? The world wars and the cold war of the 20th century were waged between states or by sponsored surrogates. They defined our capabilities. The emerging challenges of the 21st century that threaten us, our way of life and our prosperity are not so much Médecins sans Frontières, but Menace sans Frontières. They are transnational forces such as fascist theocracies, little green men, organised crime and cyber-anarchism, and they are not defining our defence capabilities; they are merely defining our attention—and a short attention span it is, too—while our political and public intent is watered down and neutered, since today, alas, perception is reality.
The world is increasingly connected—iPads, iPhones, the internet and social media—but it is not at all well informed. The power of propaganda, mischief and misinformation allows faceless entities to shape the debate and, alas, our will. Our current narrative, I regret to say, is clumsy, outdated and thoroughly outmatched.
This last century we sought capability dominance that would overmatch our enemies, and in the round we achieved it. This century has already demonstrated possible enemies who have successfully achieved capability avoidance and are moving our best defences rapidly towards capability irrelevance. For example, strategic deterrence kept the world from war for 40 years because it deterred. Today the threat of use in North Korea and even the threat of ownership in Iran allows small nations to gain great leverage with tactical capabilities, whether real or perceived. Frankly, neither country is seriously deterred by our strategic forces, and the future holds every possibility of small-scale tactical nuclear use.
The operating environment has shifted from one of near certainty, in the cold war, to a period of uncertainty, in the war on terror, and it will move further left towards the unknown. In that space, investment in people and technology, with genuine blue-sky thinking and leading-edge research and development, will be absolutely essential while maximizing our existing equipment and capabilities through innovative integration. Colossus and Ultra shortened the second world war by two years. Who foresaw and invested in those as war weapons in 1939? Our universities and science laboratories provided the knowledge and advancement that allowed us rapidly to blend national expertise to defeat Germany. I recommend that anyone who has not yet seen the “Churchill’s Scientists” exhibition at the Science museum to do so. Today, robotics, advanced computer studies, telematics, teleonomics and bioscience offer the same, but they are not seen or really much supported by defence.
We must express the new defence challenge in terms that people can understand. There is of course a need to have contingent forces capable of operating to the old threat of war or proxy war, but that should not be the main effort. The present challenges require us to prepare for how we anticipate them to evolve, using current capabilities adapted and integrated for best use in the near term.
The future threats to our country are truly wicked, and they continue to evolve and challenge us. Investment in people and advanced science, in close collaboration with our closest and most reliable ally in this field—the United States—should determine the course that defence must now take.
It is a pleasure to follow such esteemed Members on both sides of the House, particularly the Chair of the Defence Committee, of which I am a member. I wholeheartedly endorse what he said about the threat from Russia. He talked about the arc of unpredictable threats that we could face from Putin, but he also put his finger on the overall problem that, whatever those threats are, a common feature of our response and posture is that we are signalling to Russia and to President Putin that we are simply not up for the fight. The longer that goes on, the longer we will give a sense that we will do almost anything to avoid confrontation.
I do not know whether the Minister for the Armed Forces is going to get to his feet later and repeat what his boss the Defence Secretary said last week, which was that there is only a diplomatic solution to the crisis. President Putin does not think that. As my hon. Friend Sir Hugh Bayley rightly pointed out, President Putin is increasing his defence investment and capability enormously, and he is doing so precisely so that he can potentially bring about a military confrontation. The longer we maintain this stance of cowering in the face of that threat, the more likely it is that we will face a military confrontation. The longer we delay, the worse it will be. I hope that the Government will get the message that we cannot go on like this, with the scale of cuts in defence expenditure. Frankly, it is a disgrace that we have a Prime Minister who so recently was trying to convince all our NATO allies to maintain the 2% commitment but who will not make it clear, when asked repeatedly, that a Government led by him would maintain spending at 2% over the next five years.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; he is extremely kind. We on the Government Benches entirely agree with him—we must hold our Prime Minister’s feet to the fire and insist that he live up to the 2% target. The more important question is whether the hon. Gentleman has had any indication from the Labour Front Bench that in the event of a Labour Government, Labour will go for 2%.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s honesty when he says that that is the more important question. Of course this Government are on their last legs and will soon be replaced. Suffice it to say that when a Labour Government take office, I shall be as vociferous in calling for the defence uplift as I am at present.
In debates on the strategic deterrent, people who have long wished the UK to scrap its nuclear weapons came up with a line that had a certain ring to it a little while ago—the cold war is over; who are we supposed to be protecting ourselves against? The rise of Putin has proved what folly that policy would have been, had the Labour Government followed it and not done as they did, which was to set in train the programme of renewal of our deterrent submarines. There is a strong argument that if we are not already in a situation of renewed cold war, a cold war is the most optimistic outcome in the current environment, such is the level of aggression being shown by President Putin. If we do not step up and re-engage with his current activities, the alternative is a full-blown war on Europe’s borders or potentially even within the European Union. We have to wake up to that.
There are clear reports that part of the increase in defence investment in Russia is going into the secret cities which some time ago people reported were at only 50% capacity. They are now running at full capacity to upgrade Russia’s nuclear threat. The idea that we should do anything other than keep to the current programme of renewal of our deterrent submarines would be madness in these circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman knows that he and I are as one on the question of the future of the deterrent. He also knows that if there were a Labour Government pure and simple, or a Conservative Government pure and simple, the future of the nuclear deterrent would be assured. How confident is he that if the Scottish nationalists held the balance of power and offered the keys of No. 10 to the leader of his party, his party would say no rather than abandon the nuclear deterrent?
I am glad the hon. Gentleman asked me that. I am completely confident. It is a shame that not a single MP from the Scottish National party has bothered to turn up to the debate. It gives the lie to the idea that they care about the future of our country’s defences.
I am absolutely confident about that. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we were the ones who took the difficult but necessary decision to start the programme of renewal, we have remained committed to it throughout our time in opposition, and we will finish it if we are elected to government. In the words of the soon-to-return Member, Alex Salmond, it would be unpardonable folly for either side to listen to the minor parties. We will not compromise the future security of our nation. They may ask, but the answer from our side will be no. I know that if the hon. Gentleman has breath left in his body, the answer on his side will be no as well.
The Defence Minister has been worried, I know, and his boss, the Secretary of State, has also been worried about some remarks made by the Leader of the Opposition in a question and answer session, when he said that the
Labour party wanted the cheapest form of deterrent. That seemed to get to the Minister. He thought that “cheapest” meant something different from “minimum” and he has asked repeatedly about this. I want to set his mind at rest if I can.
I have the words of the Leader of the Opposition at a similar question and answer session—he does lots of those. Just in case the Conservatives did not send one of their secret scribblers with their Dictaphones to the event, I want to read out what the leader of my party said on
“Personally, because you asked about nuclear weapons, I want the minimum deterrent that will keep us safe.
We’ve always been a nuclear power. We are recognised as such in the non-proliferation treaty.
From what I’ve seen the best answer to that is the replacement of Trident.
Other people have said that there are other alternatives, but when they have looked at those alternatives actually they haven’t come up with better or more cost effective alternatives.”
There you have it. I can set the Minister’s mind at rest. There is a settled consensus on the issue. We are now down to the detail of the programme.
Admiral Lord West in the other place raised important issues about the potential slowing of the drumbeat of the Astute programme in Barrow shipyard. I hope that when the Minister replies, he can reassure the House that it is not his Government’s plan to stretch out the Astute programme to such an extent that the seventh boat is no longer necessary. We have reduced our nuclear submarine fleet from 14 attack submarines right the way down to six. That seventh submarine is important, particularly in an environment where Russia is increasing its activity and its investment.
The Minister knows, and I hope he will be good enough to confirm, that because of the delay in the programme as a result of the pretty shoddy deal that he did with his coalition partners to delay main gate until 2016 and to slow down the programme of building an enormously complex enterprise—the first new deterrent submarines that this country has had for decades—there is now precious little contingency in that programme. The delay imposed by both coalition partners at the beginning of this Government will not be available this time. Main gate needs to happen in 2016. I hope the Minister can confirm that he recognises that, and that he will stick to the timetable that he set out and not delay it once again.
On the submarine programme and the renewal of the UK’s deterrent, an intervention from the Liberal Democrats, which we thought unhelpful at the time, has turned out to be very helpful. Now that they have explored their own options using taxpayers’ money and found them to be complete nonsense, we have understood that we are faced with a binary choice: we continue with this investment at a time of renewed aggression from our old adversary such as we have not seen for many years, or we abandon it. Labour Members will continue the programme that we started, and I hope that those on the Government Benches will do likewise.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Rory Stewart on introducing the debate with such clarity and depth of knowledge.
This autumn the Prime Minister, whoever he is—no doubt it will be my right hon. Friend—will revisit the strategic defence and security review. He is on record as saying that he thinks it just needs a light touch. With the greatest respect to my right hon. Friend, I think he is wrong for every reason that my hon. Friend and other colleagues here have pointed out. It is a horribly complex situation.
I remember, in the early 1970s, going to seminars on military history, defence and international relations at the Institute of Historical Research, where one sat at the feet of Professors A. J. P. Taylor, Donald Cameron Watt, and Sir—as he is now—Michael Howard. A lot of the talk was about rearmament and appeasement in the 1920s and ’30s, and I used to sit there and think how naive and stupid were the chiefs of staff, the politicians and most of the advisers of that time. In the past 20-odd years, I have gained more sympathy for them, because they were faced with financial collapse and a multiplicity of threats. The armed forces had been reduced in number, most Government expenditure had been reduced, and the armed forces themselves could not agree on priorities. In relation to the Ministry of Defence’s budget, the armed forces—I say this with regret—have been log-rolling for decades, often wasting billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.
In the few minutes that I have, I want to emphasise the fact that we should have a national security policy. That is of the things that the Government should be addressing this autumn. I hope that the discussion will not just be confined to Government Departments and to Parliament but open to wider outside expertise, as happens in the United States of America, Canada, Australia, and most European countries. That is absolutely crucial. Although this debate has—rightly given the nature of the publication—concentrated on the defence aspects and highlighted the threat from Putin, we all know that in fact we face a multiplicity of threats. If anything, the situation is more challenging for a Government now than it was even for the Governments of the late 1930s.
In looking at a national security policy, we must think not only of the threats that our country faces and is going to face, which have been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border and others, but what the market will bear in terms of the money that is going to be allocated. It is a sobering thought that, looking at the national security budgets in the round, one of the poorest Departments is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with £1.72 billion. The Department for Work and Pensions could lose that kind of money in an afternoon, and Government IT budgets have invariably done so. The MOD’s budget is £34.34 billion, and the budget of Department for International Development, which I would include in the national security budget, is £9.89 billion. I will not go into the arguments about whether DFID’s budget should be reduced.
I am using the latest figure provided by the House of Commons Library. There are lies, damn lies, and statistics. The fact is that if we put together the budgets of those three Government Departments, that part of the national security budget is about £45.95 billion.
If we throw in, say, another £5 billion to £10 billion for the intelligence services and GCHQ, we have about £55 billion. That is not a vast sum of money, but it is quite large. We need to consider whether we are spending our national security budgets correctly. They are in separate silos, and it would be much better, in the modern world, to look at them in the round.
In outlining the threat of Putin and all the other threats, we need to think about how we get public opinion alerted to this, and whether public opinion is prepared to see more money spent on national security. The latest polling done this weekend by YouGov shows what the public think about the amount of money spent on defence: 49% think it is too little, 20% about right, and 16% too much. Yet if we drill down into the 49% and tell those people that to get the extra money we must either, in simple terms, put up taxes or cut other areas of public expenditure—some will say “Transfer the money from DFID”—they do not much like either alternative.
Another aspect of the poll—this relates directly to what my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border has been saying—showed that 52% of those asked believed that resources on defence should be focused on dealing with the threats from Islamic terrorism rather than threats from states like Russia: in fact, only 18% thought that we should allocate resources to that. We can play with statistics, and public perception changes. In September 1938, the overwhelming majority of people welcomed the Munich agreement, but by April 1939 they had changed their views completely. Things will always change. The challenge that we all face is in being open in our debate and in getting public opinion to think about this, but also in getting the Government to move away from what can only be seen as cold war thinking in relation to cold war structures of the sort that still exist today.
To be fair to the previous Government, and our own Government, they did, between them, set up the National Security Council. Things are much better co-ordinated than ever before, according to everybody I have spoken to, including Opposition Members. The success of the National Security Council depends on the personality, interest and drive of the Prime Minister. Although one might disagree with some of the decisions that the current Prime Minister has made, he has provided that drive by regularly attending the National Security Council. There is nothing set in concrete to say that another Prime Minister would do that. As with Departments, once we remove a Minister who takes real, direct action, we can see things drift.
This has been an important debate. The national security budget and the strategic defence and security review do not need a light touch, but some serious thinking. We should have a debate not just about whether we spend 2% of GDP on defence but about how much we spend in total on national security and whether we can move any of that money around between Departments.
In July 2011, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said:
“Washington will not always take the lead when it comes to power projection. The United States will demand…that Europeans assume their responsibilities in preserving order, especially in Europe’s periphery.”
That is one of our greatest challenges. We have taken peace for granted, we have taken a status quo for granted, and we have taken American support for granted. Increasingly, we are, first, ignoring what is happening in Russia, secondly, cutting back, and thirdly, finding that America turns to the Pacific and has to justify to itself why it should support the Europeans in a pursuit that it regards as our job. That means that the situation becomes very difficult.
A war of information and propaganda is going on that we are singularly losing in the west but Putin is winning on his home ground. If we look at Russian opinion, we can see what Russians think. In 1997, they were asked:
“Are the big Western countries…partners or opponents of Russia?”
Then, about 50% regarded the US, Germany, Japan and Great Britain as partners of Russia. Now, 79% of the Russian population say that they think we are their enemies. If they are then asked whether Russia has the right to annex territories, the answer is interesting: 54% say that generally Russia has the right to annex territories, but the additional 34% who would usually say, “No, not generally”, will say with regard to Crimea, “Yes, of course it can do that.” That statement is as absurd as it would be if Angela Merkel in Berlin suddenly said, “Germany will annex Königsberg because it has traditionally always been German.” We would say that that was a totally, utterly bizarre argument, yet we are accepting it in relation to Crimea. We are also accepting, with a stunning silence, the fact that Putin has single-handedly redrawn international boundaries for the first time since 1945. We are all saying, “Well, he really shouldn’t be doing this, should he?”, but not offering options of any kind.
It is worth looking at what Putinism may actually mean. Strobe Talbott says:
“Putin’s aggression only makes sense against the backdrop of what has been the defining theme of his presidency: turning back the clock…Therein lies the most malignant manifestation of Putinism: it violates international law, nullifies Russia’s past pledges to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors, carries with it the danger of spinning out of control and sparking a wider conflict, and establishes a precedent for other major powers to apply their own version of the Putin Doctrine when convenient”.
This is not just about Putin’s single-handed redrawing of international boundaries, because a number of other countries would be very happy to do the same thing. Once he is allowed to do that, they will feel that they are being given the green light to do so as well.
When we discussed the Greek euro crisis, it was staggering to hear how relatively relaxed people were about Russia offering Greece money. That should have set just about every red light raging, because it represents an extension of influence and, if we do not challenge it, it will simply continue. Putin is not acting out of strength, but out of the fact that he is terribly weak at home and therefore has to make enemies abroad.
Indeed. It is an incredibly malign force, but we are not prepared to describe it as such, not only because of the historic reason that at one stage we thought Russia could become a partner, but because we now feel there is nothing we can do owing to its size and perceived power. Our debate about the 2%, what it means and how we respond has to go much deeper and address the roots of the issue.
In idle moments over the past few weeks I have been reading a biography of George I. Interestingly, it says that when George I took the throne 300 years ago the Great Britain of which he became ruler was one of the great European powers and intimately involved with the continent, and its island position rendered it immune to invasion. It was assertive and knew that it could strike its own bargains in Europe—it did not need anybody else’s permission. There was also a big divide whereby the Tories advocated concentration on seaward expansion to the West Indians, while the Whigs thought that we should go into mainland Europe.
It is so good to have a second Lib Dem here so that we can get some commitment for a nuclear deterrent, although the hon. Gentleman is not going to be here for much longer.
Essentially, we were able, even at that stage, to define what we thought Britain’s role in the world was. We had a strategy that allowed us to say what our foreign expansion and defence should be like.
How will the Great Britain that the next Prime Minister takes over on
What are we doing now? The Government sit here complacently and Ministers feel not the slightest bit ashamed that they do not stand at the Dispatch Box and say, “We are still complying with our commitment to 2%, as we said we would in Wales and as we urged other countries to do.”
Americans once referred to Great Britain as “no good, crummy allies.” It is absolutely right that the arbitrary figure of 2% not only says to the rest of the world, Putin and any other putative Putin that we are serious, but tells our allies, “We are reliable. We will stick to what we have said we will do and we expect exactly the same from you.” We cannot go on criticising the United States of America and telling them, “You guys just keep trotting around the world being its policeman,” but then, when they are no longer there, say, “Where are they?” If we want to be the grown-up country we have been for a very long time—a country that sits with a veto at the P5 and a nuclear power—we have to be absolutely clear about the role we wish to play in the world.
When the Prime Minister elected on
It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate, not because I am a member of the Defence Committee or a former Defence Minister, but because I represent an area, Gosport, with such a proud military heritage. As far back as the Crimean war and beyond, my constituency supplied the Navy with explosives, fuel, food, equipment and people. Indeed, sailors injured in Crimea were attended to at the Haslar hospital, while others returning to Gosport from the campaign formed the naval lads brigade, which is today known as the sea cadets, to help orphans created by the conflict. Now, 160 years later, my constituents and our neighbours in Portsmouth harbour are still proudly serving our armed forces and once again find themselves concerned by events in Crimea.
As the excellent Defence Committee report sets out, the Russian invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine has created the need for a fundamental shift in calculations about European security. I fully support the recommendations regarding improvements to NATO’s rapid reaction force and the need to undertake large-scale military exercises, and I of course welcome the recommendations regarding preparations to defend the Baltic states from what they refer to as ambiguous warfare.
It will come as no surprise that I want to focus on the Prime Minister’s NATO commitment to spend 2% of our GDP on defence. Why does it matter? Quite simply, it matters because failing to hit the 2% target would degrade our armed forces, damage our standing with our allies and hit our credibility as a major player in NATO and on the world stage. Above all, it would clearly limit the ability of our armed forces to project and protect our interests around the world. As Professor Michael Clarke of the Royal United Services Institute says, it would have an obvious and overwhelming impact on the kind of military we can afford.
We already do not have enough combat aircraft, and yet, given existing spending commitments and the necessary replacement of Trident, there would probably be a fall in the overall number of combat aircraft for the RAF and the Navy. The Navy now has just 18 major warships and it may struggle to order the 12 or 13 new Type 26 frigates it had planned. The Minister will say that our naval ships are now better equipped and more advanced than ever before, but they still have not mastered the objective of being in more than one place at the same time.
The proud military heritage of my area on the south coast has sadly already suffered job losses as a result of BAE’s decision to terminate ship building at Portsmouth, and further jobs are now threatened by the early withdrawal of the Lynx helicopters, because Vector Aerospace, which maintains and repairs them, is the largest employer in my constituency. Further cuts to the armed forces could have a devastating impact on communities on the south cost.
The impact of failing to meet the 2% target goes far beyond the denuding effect it would have on our armed forces and the communities that support them. As the Government acknowledge in their response to the Committee’s report,
“the proportion of GDP devoted to defence is an important indicator of how seriously members view collective security.”
The 2% is not just about the additional troops, tanks, fighters and frigates that it will secure; it is a symbol, both to our allies and to our enemies.
My constituency, like that of my hon. Friend, has a strong military history. Does she agree that one of the great insights in the report is that this is not only about the percentage of defence spending, but about the allocation of spending in a world where high technology and asymmetric techniques are used in modern warfare?
As the Chairman of the Defence Committee, my hon. Friend Rory Stewart, has already pointed out, we face a more uncertain world than ever. The 2% level not only secures the right equipment, but is a sign of our willingness to back up our words with action. If we fail to meet the target, our credibility as a major player on the international stage is in question.
Teddy Roosevelt famously described his foreign policy by saying:
“Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
At the summit in Wales, we explicitly encouraged other nations to aim to spend 2% of their GDP on defence. If we fail to meet the 2% target, having stated our intention to do so and encouraged our allies to follow suit, we run the risk of shouting our heads off very loudly while brandishing a very unimpressive stick. There would be other repercussions. We are the lead military power in NATO Europe, so if we fail to meet the 2% target, other European NATO countries will follow our lead and cut back their own defences. Why should they invest when we are cutting back? It would also damage our reputation with one of the few other countries currently hitting the 2% target, the USA. As we have heard today, the head of the US army has said he is “very concerned” about the potential failure to meet the 2% target. Further cuts to our armed forces will undermine our credibility as an effective partner and ally.
Such a move would not go unnoticed elsewhere. All the strategies to protect the Baltic states will be meaningless —crucially, they will be seen to be meaningless by potential adversaries—if they are not properly financed. Russia’s defence spending has increased by an average of 10% a year since the invasion of Georgia in 2008. When we need to show strength to deter aggression, we cannot afford to cut back our military capability.
It is important to have both clarity and candour in this debate. There are those who believe that we no longer have a significant role to play in the world, and consequently that spending on defence is not a priority. I think that the nature of the threats we face from an aggressive Russian dictator who rips up the international rulebook, as well as those from ISIS and other terrorist organisations, means that now would be the worst possible time to cut defence.
There is at least a flawed logic to arguing that if we do not want to be a major player on the world stage, we do not need strong armed forces. What we absolutely must not do is kid ourselves that we can deprive our armed forces of the resources they need, but still hope to retain the same level of influence and security. We need an open and honest debate about what we want the armed forces to deliver and what we want their future to be. If our ambitions are smaller, then we need to come clean and say how many thousands of troops we are prepared to lose, how many frigates we are ready to scrap and how many job losses we will take. The worst thing we could possibly do would be to end up with armed forces that are shrunken and deprived of the resources they need but which that still expected to operate at exactly the same level.
I do not believe that we should retreat from the world. We are the fastest growing economy in the developed world, with a seat on the UN Security Council, one of the most extensive diplomatic networks and the best trained armed forces on the planet. We have consistently stood up for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and the world would be worse off were we to shrink from that role. More importantly, I do not believe that we can retreat from the world. We cannot opt out of the threats posed by Russia, ISIS and others. Putin wants to take Europe back to the 19th century and the days of spheres of influence, and ISIS wants to burn western civilisation in the fires of an Islamist caliphate. Spending 2% of our GDP on defence is not a vanity; in a world that has not felt more unstable in my lifetime, it is the best way to preserve the peace and stability that our fathers and grandfathers fought so hard and sacrificed so much to achieve.
It is a pleasure to follow Caroline Dinenage. I agree very much with what she has just said. There is broad cross-party agreement in the House about the importance of the NATO alliance, defence spending and Britain’s role in the world. There are of course a few Members—sadly, they are not in the Chamber for me to provoke—who would disagree. Some of them might be happy to appear, through Freeview, as a modern-day Lord Haw Haw on Russia Today or on other channels putting out Putin’s propaganda into everybody’s front room.
The Chairman of the Defence Committee, Rory Stewart, referred to the BBC World Service. I absolutely agree that it is of fundamental importance, but there is a serious long-term threat to its future on the horizon. In the past few days, we have started to discuss possible changes to BBC funding arrangements. On
The issue was flagged up in Foreign Affairs Committee reports last year and again recently, and it should be part of the discussion of the defence and security review. There has to be a fundamental foreign policy and soft-power aspect to that review. Mr Simpson—sadly, he is not in his place at the moment—made that point very well. We need joined-up Government and a joined-up approach to this matter. As with the review carried out after the 1997 election, in which Lord Robertson played an important role, I hope that we will have a serious, in-depth review after the coming general election, not one pushed through quickly by the Treasury for some other agenda. We need to look at Britain’s role in the world, our alliances, our involvement, our role on the Security Council of the UN, our partnership with others in Europe and so on.
In the time available, I want to concentrate on a few points. The first is that Putin has not suddenly come to behave very badly. If we look back at reports published by the Foreign Affairs Committee in 2007, we will recall that the British Ambassador in Moscow, Tony Brenton, was harassed and threatened by a group called Nashi, young supporters of Putin, and there was the murder with polonium of Alexander Litvinenko in London. Actually, there was a series of murders from 2002 onwards. A report today says that probably 12 people—some of whom have been prominent internationally, such as Sergei Magnitsky and Anna Politkovskaya—have died in mysterious circumstances, several of them having been shot in the street close to the Kremlin. The Putin regime has operated in that murky world, where the intelligence services have undertaken unattributable actions against the regime’s opponents internally and abroad. We are now seeing how they are behaving in Ukraine.
There is another aspect to the agenda of Putin’s regime: they are not just trying to get useful idiots in the west to pursue their agenda; they are bankrolling people who will undermine the cohesiveness the people they perceive as their opponents. A guy called Alexander Dugin, a far-right ideologue close to Putin, has organised conferences of Nazi, neo-Nazi and far-right groups in Moscow and elsewhere. Putin, via a Czech bank, has been bankrolling the National Front in France, and there is an agenda. People who are against the European Union or collective defence—Putin and those around him perceive such things to be a threat to his project—are supported. Great efforts were made to undermine the association agreement between Armenia and the European Union, and following that, similar efforts got greater opposition in Ukraine. Reference has already been made to attempts to provide financial assistance to countries that might take a different view within the European Union. Greece has been mentioned, but we can also look at loans that were given to Cyprus at a particular time. It is all part of trying to build influence and undermine perceived threats.
It is not just NATO that is seen to be a threat: entirely peaceful commercial relationships that countries might have with the European Union are also seen to be a threat to Putin’s world view, which is to create a Eurasian union and to try somehow to reconstitute elements of what used to exist in the Soviet Union. Why is that? Putin is on record as saying that the collapse and end of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical disaster” of the 20th century. Think about that. It was not the Nazi invasion of Russia, the Holocaust, or the tens of millions of people killed by Stalin. If he wished to criticise other countries he could have mentioned the dropping of nuclear weapons—there could have been all kinds of arguments. However, he said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest disaster of the 20th century, and that is the mindset we are dealing with.
After the drunken Yeltsin regime, we had illusions and thought that at last there was stability in Russia and that somehow there was someone we could do business with. Unfortunately not. The world we are facing today means that we can have no illusions, and I suspect it will be many years—potentially decades—before we can go back to the benign thoughts that we had when Mikhail Gorbachev was there and the Soviet Union was peacefully ended. Let us be clear: we must not recognise the seizure of territory, and just as we stood by the Baltic states and never recognised their seizure by the Soviet Union, so we must not accept the seizure of the territory of Ukraine.
I join other Members in congratulating my hon. Friend Rory Stewart. He has unquestionably set the tone for a seriously instructive and intelligent debate, which I hope receives wider coverage than simply in here. Sir Hugh Bayley took his cue from the massive tome on the estimates, but I will take mine from the Defence Committee’s report that was introduced by my hon. Friend.
The role of NATO has been developing and is hugely important. After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, there was no clarity about whether NATO had any role to play. It is a great tribute to it—particularly to Anders Fogh Rasmussen in recent years and Lord Robertson of Port Ellen before him—that NATO has developed an important role in stabilising other parts of the world, as well as looking after the defence of Europe. NATO did well in the way the international security assistance force operation was conducted, whatever the criticisms of the strategy, and the Secretary-General assembling a team to bring together not just NATO members but non-NATO members in the Libyan operation was a tribute to him.
The key thing that has happened is that a resurgent Russia has changed the outlook dramatically. The annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 was perhaps seen as a one off, but the annexation of Crimea last year has been a wake-up call. Paragraph 2 of the Committee’s report states:
“However, events in Crimea and Ukraine represent a “game changer” for UK defence policy. They have provoked a fundamental re-assessment of both the prioritisation of threats in the National Security Strategy and the military capabilities required by the UK. The UK's Armed Forces will need now also to focus on the defence of Europe against Russia and against asymmetric forms of warfare. This will have significant implications for resources, force structures, equipment and training.”
As others have mentioned, the new Putin doctrine is instructive. Writing in Jane’s Defence Weekly, Dr Mark Galeotti said on
“reflects a developing theme in Russian military art, demonstrated in Ukraine, where a combination of direct military intervention—often covert or at least ambiguous and denied—as well as the operations of proxy forces and intelligence assets have been blended with political leverage, disinformation campaigns, and economic pressure.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most dangerous aspects of all this concerns what President Putin is doing to improve greatly on the way Russian forces acted in Georgia, which was not a great success from their point of view? He is trying a whole lot of new tactics, forces, weapons and structures in a wholly or partially deniable way.
My right hon. Friend is right, and it is significant how Russia has behaved, particularly with the annexation of Crimea. I remind hon. Members that I questioned the Foreign Secretary before Russia invaded to see whether he had heard any indication from Lavrov that it had no intention of using military force, but four days later, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border said, it did.
Recently, a whole raft of people have been drawing attention to what is going on. The Defence Secretary spoke of Russia as a “real and present” threat, and the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Sir Adrian Bradshaw, also warned us and said there was a danger that Vladimir Putin would try to use his armies to invade and seize NATO territory, calculating that the alliance will be too afraid of escalating violence to respond. Sir John Sawers, former head of MI6, has said that Russia poses a state-on-state threat. He also suggested that we must have dialogue with Russia. I find that idea attractive, but I do not see how we can possibly have dialogue with a man who is intent on redrawing the map of Europe.
It is not just in Europe that we face severe challenges. As my hon. Friend Mr Simpson said, we face a multiplicity of threats. We can all see what is happening in the middle east. Syria is on fire and the Arab spring has left turmoil in north Africa. Now ISIL is running rampant in Iraq—thank goodness we have intervened there to check its advance, because if Iraq and all its oil revenues had fallen to it, that would have been hugely damaging to the whole world, not just the middle east.
Iran is still declaring its ambition to achieve nuclear weapons. That matter is still unresolved. We know North Korea’s filthy weapons are available to anybody who wants to pay good money to buy them. China is ramping up its military activities. I do not know how many right hon. and hon. Members have seen what is going on in the South China sea. I refer again to Jane’s Defence Weekly—this is not a particular plug for it—which has been running a hugely instructive series of articles on what China is doing in the South China sea: creating runways and port facilities on a whole raft of disputed uninhabited islands. The most significant land building in the Spratly Islands is on Fiery Cross Reef. It is shaping up to be the site for China’s first airstrip in the Spratly Islands. James Hardy, the Asia Pacific editor, writes that the area
“was previously under water; the only habitable area was a concrete platform built and maintained by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy…The new island”— first seen in November 2014—
“is more than 3,000 metres long and between 200 and 300 metres wide: large enough to construct a runway and apron.”
We can see what China is up to. The United States recognises that. The former US Defence Secretary Hagel said that Beijing is taking
“destabilising, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China sea.”
He warned that the United States would
“not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged”,
although I do not see any evidence that the United States is doing that.
I have referred to the criticisms that have been made at home. Criticisms are now coming from the United States, on which we find ourselves heavily dependent. We heard General Odierno today repeat not so much criticisms but the warnings he gave two years ago about the capacity of the United Kingdom to deploy alongside the United States. We should take these warnings seriously. The President of the United States has written to our own Prime Minister to express concern. This is our closest ally. We stand shoulder to shoulder. We have beliefs that are completely in common. We share intelligence. We understand all these things. We share nuclear deterrents. We believe in all those things, yet our ally is saying, “Hold on, I am concerned.” When I went to Washington in November, the discussions I had there really did rock me. Americans were saying, “Britain is now just regarded as another European country.” That is fundamentally damaging to the United Kingdom. It is not a matter for defence buffs; it is a matter for the whole nation if we are seen to be diminished, which I believe we are.
The state of our armed forces has been mentioned. This is a very serious matter. The Army is going to be cut from 110,000 to 82,000 regulars. I know we are going to have 30,000 reservists, but that is not the same thing. The Navy has been cut by 5,000, and the Royal Air Force cut similarly. We are down to 19 frigates and destroyers, when in 2001 we had 33. In 1990, we had 33 fast jet squadrons. We are now down to seven.
We face a very serious state of affairs. It is true we are committed to deterrent, and that, as far as we can understand, the Opposition are too. We are investing in cyber. My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border is absolutely right about that. As I mentioned to him, cyber attack is an important dimension. We have to advertise, as my right hon. Friend Mr Hammond the former Secretary of State for Defence made clear. We need to carry a big stick, as a number of hon. Members have said. Part of that big stick is our 2% minimum commitment to maintain our credibility with NATO. For if we do not, we will appear to be weak.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for provoking me. I think most people in this place know that I find it extraordinary, as a Conservative, that our party should be committed to enshrining in law that we spend 0.7% of our national income on overseas aid yet refuse to give a commitment to spend at least 2% on defence, which is part of our NATO obligation. As everybody has said, the Prime Minister made that clear to others last September at the NATO summit.
We are in danger of being diminished. We are in danger of sending out the wrong signals that we are not serious about the defence of the realm and our wider interests. The SDSR must be strategic. It cannot be a light touch. We have got to seize this opportunity, which we could not take in 2010 because we had to have a Defence review driven by the Treasury to put the nation’s finances back in order again after they were destroyed by the former Prime Minister.
I will leave the House with this thought. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said in 2009 that a Conservative Government would wish to help to shape the world in which we find ourselves, not simply be shaped by it. If we are to do that, we have got to commit to the defence of the realm.
In a world of rapid change, disorder and insecurity, the men and women of Her Majesty’s armed forces remain our most important asset. Yesterday I visited the Imperial War museum at Duxford, which is also the home of the Royal Anglian Regiment museum. I ask myself: are we, today’s generation, betraying their memory? There are the new threats and the old threats—as well as forgotten threats—among them, as we have heard, Iraq and Syria, and the middle east generally, Russia and Ukraine, Russia and the Baltic states, and how article 5 of NATO’s obligations may impact on the UK. I intervened earlier to say that I had visited the Falklands last month. Argentina still has its sights on those British overseas territories. Something else that we must continue to address is the defence consequences of the continuing danger of Scotland breaking away from the United Kingdom.
This evening’s debate is on the next defence and security review and NATO. Included in the motion is an item that says that
“resources authorised for use for current purposes be reduced” by £618 million. There is a growing concern among senior British defence and security experts over the insistence on cutting defence expenditure. General Sir Peter Wall, the former head of the Army, has called for all parties to commit to the 2% target to help Britain to deal with unforeseen threats. Dr Fox, the former Defence Secretary, is quoted in today’s Daily Telegraph as saying:
“I think people feel that the Government’s first duty is the protection of the United Kingdom. We have to do what we need to, to make that happen, and I think that we have a commitment to Nato as part of our international treaty obligations to spend that 2 per cent.”
The Prime Minister was in my constituency today. I am told that he spoke from a normally empty warehouse belonging to a property marketing company. His big theme was housing—but not, sadly, the housing of our brave military personnel and their families. The Prime Minister is not strong when it comes to defence. On his watch, the size of the British Army will be reduced to what it was 200 years ago, at the time of the battle of Waterloo. It will be cut by a fifth by the end of this decade, to 20% smaller than it was five years ago, from 102,000 regulars in 2010 to 82,000 in 2020. However good the reserves are—and I strongly support the reserves —reducing the size of the regular Army is not in Britain’s national defence interests either at home or overseas.
Although the Prime Minister talked today about building new homes—in a town where the public are aghast at seeing so many green fields being lost to development—he was silent about the housing of families at Colchester garrison, five miles from where he spoke, on an industrial estate on the northern fringe of my constituency. The modernisation of military housing has been stopped across the UK, not just in Colchester. Last week the Deputy Prime Minister was in Colchester to announce financial support for housing for single former military personnel. What a pity the Prime Minister did not today announce the lifting of the halting of the modernisation programme of housing for the families of our brave soldiers, sailors and air force personnel. I have raised this issue in the House before and at meetings of the Select Committee on Defence, on which I serve, but halting the modernisation programme is a scandal, particularly when it is known that when the programme recommences, there will have been further deterioration, with the consequence that the cost to the public purse will be considerably greater. In the meantime, the families of our military live in housing whose condition is not always to the standard to which they are entitled.
In my constituency, I successfully argued that empty houses on the Army estate should be made available to house civilian families. That was done. The Government, via the Department for Communities and Local Government, funded a major modernisation programme of the former MOD houses and new build, for which there should be rejoicing. However, on the other side of the road there are Army houses, lived in by families of our soldiers, many of whom served in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have not been modernised. This is an insult and a disgrace. If the Government can find the money to modernise former military housing, why not the housing of serving military personnel? It is a moral obligation; the Government should do it.
The argument that the Government cannot afford this needs to be addressed head-on. I can identify how it could be funded—from the proceeds of the sale of radio spectrum that the Ministry of Defence no longer requires. Instead of the proceeds going to the Treasury, given that this is the sale of an MOD asset, why not allocate the money to pay for the modernisation of the houses of our military families? I repeat: the men and women of Her Majesty’s armed forces remain our most important asset. They and their families deserve to have decent housing to live in, and it is a disgrace that the Ministry of Defence and this Government have failed so many families.
It is a pleasure, as always, to follow my hon. Friend Sir Bob Russell, who speaks with passion for the military people of Colchester—nobody speaks better of them than him. He added to what has been a wide-ranging, interesting and well-informed debate of various topics, some broadly associated with the report on NATO that the Select Committee produced.
My hon. Friend Rory Stewart, the Chairman of the Defence Committee, ably set the tone of the debate. I stood against him for the chairmanship, but let me say in public that I am extremely glad that I lost that particular election. I am glad that he won it, and I am pleased to stand behind him now and will do so in subsequent Parliaments.
We meet in what can be described only as interesting times. There is a strange coincidence—or is it a conspiracy—of events happening in the world. We have talked extensively, of course, about Russia, Ukraine, Crimea, threats to the Baltic states and the assassination of Nemtsov over the weekend—and who knows what the consequences of that will be, what it means or who did it? We have talked about ISIS, or Daesh as we prefer to call it. An important assault on Tikrit is occurring as we speak, and again, who knows what the consequences will be? We look forward to the much anticipated assault on and retaking of Mosul—potentially later this year, although I sometimes find it hard to imagine that it will actually occur.
We have heard from others, including my hon. Friend Sir Gerald Howarth, about events in the South China sea, and about cyber-warfare and so many other aspects of the world that are extraordinarily worrying and dangerous, but also extremely unknown. We simply do not know what is occurring in most of the world, and we do not know what we are going to do about it. I find it concerning that we in the UK, leaving aside NATO as a wider force, seem to be so unclear about what we are planning to do.
Several Select Committee reports over the last months have touched on this failing. Our report on Daesh, for example, said that our contribution to the opposition to ISIL was lamentably small. We are responsible for something like 6% of the airstrikes, which is of course useful—it is important that we are doing it—but it is none the less an extremely small contribution. We have a tiny number of soldiers in Iraq. I heard the other day that the number of our personnel helping to train in Sulaymaniyah in north-east Iraq, which we visited, is being further reduced rather than increased, despite their ambitions.
We have no real idea why we are doing things in Syria, but not in Iraq—apart from the fact that is what the motion in the House lay down. We have no real plan: we do not quite understand what we are seeking to do against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. We know they are bad people; we know we do not like the atrocities that are being carried out; but we do not really have a grand plan for what we intend to do about them.
The same applies to Putin. We know he is a bad man; we know he should not have redrawn the boundaries of Ukraine; we know that the Baltic states are under threat. When General Sir Richard Shirreff was recently in front of the Select Committee—he was either still serving or had just stepped down as Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe—it was interesting to hear him say so plainly that we should have permanent forces deployed in the Baltic states. He thought our people should be there permanently and at the very least that a large-scale exercise should take place there with equipment delivered to the Baltic states and so forth. That afternoon, my right hon. Friend Mr Hammond, then Secretary of State for Defence, said that Sir Richard was absolutely wrong and that we should have no troops in the Baltic states. We should not worry ourselves about that, he claimed, as the main threat to the UK remained a terrorist threat. He stood by the tier 3 categorisation of state warfare as described in the strategic defence and security review in 2010.
So I was astonished when, very recently, the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the Secretary of State for Defence disagreed in the course of a single day on what our policy should be on the defence of the Baltics. That raises an issue that will be the subject of a forthcoming Select Committee report, namely our distinct lack of understanding of who we are in the world, what our purpose is, what we want to do in the world, how we are to achieve it, and what kind of armed forces we need in order to do that.
The 2010 SDSR is woefully out of date. It downgraded all the threats that we now face, judging them to be potentially insignificant. The national security strategy, which was published on the same day as the SDSR, did not have a clue about what we are doing today. I was disappointed to hear the Prime Minister say recently that he thought that it was worthy of “tweaking” in respect of a few details. I think that he was absolutely wrong. I think that the Arab spring, the Russians, ISIL, events in the South China sea, and so much else that is happening in the world today require a fundamental rewriting of the national security strategy from scratch. We must identify what is wrong in the world, and say what we are going to do about it.
The notion that we could produce a new national security strategy—tweaked, as the Prime Minister had it—a few weeks or months after a general election and produce an SDSR at the same time strikes me as laughable, as does the notion that we should link the two in a strategic spending review, thereby handing all the controlling levers to the Treasury. The idea that we should say to the Treasury, “You tell us how much we can spend” , and the national security strategy will then be tweaked in an attempt to make it fit in with how much we can spend—and, incidentally, we will continue to cut our armed forces for that purpose—seems to me to represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the way in which we should consider how we intend to position ourselves in the world.
Surely it is entirely reasonable, basic and straightforward to ask, “What is our role?”, and we as a nation should be asking that question. Are we to serve as part of the American forces, as the American chief of staff was quoted as suggesting in The Daily Telegraph this morning? Most definitely not. Are we to do as President Obama suggested in his letter to the Prime Minister, and say that we are a second-rate nation that no longer pulls its weight in the world? No; for my money, we are not. But if we are to fight our corner in the world, we must know how we are to do it, and we must do it through an absolutely clear national security strategy which sets out, not vaguely but precisely, what our aims are and how we are to deal with ISIL. Will we deal with ISIL by means of containment, destruction or defeat? We do not know. We need to set out precisely how we view President Putin and what we intend to do about that, precisely what we intend to do in the Baltic states, and precisely what we intend to do about so many other things.
Some time after the publication of the national security strategy, we must have a defence and security review specifying the assets that we need in order to realise the vision in the strategy, and some time after that, the Treasury must come along with a fundamental spending review and say, “Here is the money that you require in order to realise that vision.” I know that that will not happen. I know what will happen after the general election, whether we have a Labour or a Conservative Government: the spending review, the defence review and the national security strategy will be rushed out as they were before, entirely driven by mandarins in the Treasury. However, I think that it is worth our recognising, and worth the Select Committee’s stating, that we think that that is the wrong way of going about the defence of the realm.
We think that Britain is probably in a more dangerous state today than at any time since the second world war. We think that the nation hangs on the edge of a precipice over which it may fall, and that we, the United States and our colleagues in NATO must act urgently to do something about it. Tinkering around with 2% or not 2%, tinkering around with the current sclerotic decision-making processes in the Ministry of Defence, and tinkering around with cutting our armed forces and trying to patch them up here and there is not the right way in which to proceed. We are in an incredibly dangerous place. We as a nation, and we as a House of Commons, must act now and act decisively to put that right.
This has been one of the best debates in which I have taken part during my few years in the House. It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mr Gray, a fellow member of the Defence Committee. As he said in his powerful speech, the tone was set by my hon. Friend Rory Stewart, who produced an outstanding summary of the difficulties that we face. If I could pick just one other speech, it would be that of Ms Stuart, who said things that were so similar to what my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border said to the Conservative dinner in west Berkshire in January that it makes me wonder whether she was there. It was a fantastic speech and I agreed with it.
At the same time as President Putin was exerting his pressure on Crimea, my right hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Soames gave me the speech that his grandfather had made in the Munich debate in 1938. I urge all Members to read that speech and to take out certain place names and individuals’ names and replace them with more contemporary ones. If they do so, they will see how prescient that 1938 speech was, and how it applies to the crescent of instability that faces us.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border spoke about an arc of instability around the eastern borders of Europe, but I would suggest there is a crescent of instability that starts in Nigeria and goes through the Sahel and the Maghreb. It includes parts of the horn of Africa and east Africa, and, of course, Iran.
It then goes through to the tragedy of Syria and Iraq and up to the difficulties we face on Russia’s western border and the threats we have to consider in an article 5 sense in terms of the Baltic states. That is a sobering canvas for us to consider in our debate.
On Ukraine and the Baltic states, in President Putin we have the leader of a powerful nation that has surrendered all pretence of adhering to the concept of rules-based governance. That is profoundly worrying.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the world is in perhaps the most dangerous state it has been in for decades, and it is in that context that we encourage a future Government to look at our defence posture in the years ahead. As my hon. Friend Mr Simpson said, this process cannot, and should not, be driven through the silo of the MOD and how it is funded. It has to be looked at across whole area of government and beyond—not just in terms of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, our intelligence services and the Department for International Development, but in the context of our alliances, certainly with our most important neighbour, the United States, but also with France, our closest neighbour. I am particularly interested in that alliance. I am not as hopeful about that as I would like to be, but I believe we should be looking at that in the context of the Lancaster House agreement. I have learned profoundly to respect France’s defence forces. I have seen them operating in places like Mali. France has its own economic problems, but I feel there is the makings of a good strategy, as it has a footprint in certain parts of Africa and elsewhere which we should be supportive of, and we have a footprint in certain places, such as the Gulf, where we can take a lead, and together we can work in ways that benefit both of us.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border, the Chairman of the Select Committee, mentioned a point to do with languages, and it is something that I go on about. I strongly believe that we should make that a virtue in the armed forces, particularly among those who want to acquire staff rank and beyond: they should be rewarded if they master a language, whether that is French, Arabic, Russian or something that we feel we may have need of in the future. There has been a lamentable lack of language skills in the past; we seem to have forgotten about that. To the credit of the Foreign Office, it is now trying to encourage our diplomats to speak many more languages, and we should do so among our armed forces as well.
My hon. Friend spoke about the two types of warfare that we face. We will not only face asymmetrical conflicts versus the al-Qaeda franchises that exist around the world—to which I would add extortionist campaigns by terrorist based organisations, perhaps in failed states such as Somalia, and the piracy conflict, which will be ongoing—but face what, for want of a better term, I shall call a conventional threat. My hon. Friend described that threat much more eloquently than I ever could. However, I suggest that there could be a third element, which I would describe, almost oxymoronically, as non-kinetic wars.
On the asymmetric counter-insurgency conflicts, there is great thinking—perhaps in the Government, perhaps in our normal institutions, but also in academia—about how we can fight using smarter, shorter and more intelligent interventions. We are unlikely to go in again in the way we did in recent conflicts. We are unlikely to build another Camp Bastion in the desert and remain there for a decade. We shall need less mass in terms of personnel, and that mass could be proxied to the host nation. The deployments will be shorter, but they will require certain skills that we are very good at delivering, including training, equipping, mentoring and carrying out humanitarian work. They will also involve the intelligent use of special forces and of specific equipment such as drones.
On conventional warfare, I entirely agree with the pervading consensus in the Chamber about the need to respond dramatically in regard to thinking, to equipment and to matériel in the context of an article 5 response. If there is one thing that should keep us awake at night, it is the threat from the extraordinary recent developments on Europe’s eastern border.
Non-kinetic warfare involves carrying out defence activities now so that we do not have to fight wars in the future. It is about looking at countries in which instability could emerge, and about engaging with them across a whole spectrum of activities—not only through the use of military personnel but through diplomacy and intelligence and the use of the private sector, non-governmental organisations and our aid budget—to stabilise them so that they do not descend into the kind of instability that would require us to fight an expensive war in the future. It is with pride that I say that the new 77 Brigade, which is based in my constituency, is starting to develop an interesting new style of combating this kind of threat. It is built on the finest traditions of our armed forces: let us remember the work of T. E. Lawrence and Orde Wingate and how we rebuilt parts of France and Germany after the war.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, but must not those forces also have a clear sense of what they are fighting for, what they believe in and what they stand for? The new 77 Brigade, which is a great idea, will not be effective if we in this place do not give it a clear sense of why it is carrying out its activities.
I entirely agree with the hon. Lady.
Non-kinetic warfare also involves thinking about the way in which the great figures of the past behaved. To use modern management-speak, they thought outside the box. Sitting in some techie office in London, there is probably a 20-stone IT expert who knows more about social media than anyone in the armed forces ever will. He will never pass a battle fitness test, but he might be just the person to destroy the kind of social media development that we have seen Daesh operating in parts of the middle east. I really hope that that kind of innovative thinking will be carried forward.
I also hope that we concentrate on the need for intelligence gathering and recognise the lamentable failings of the past 50 years—relating, for example, to the Falklands war, the Arab spring and 9/11. There have been failings in almost every conflict, and it is not just us: let us not forget the Yom Kippur war. None of those attacks was foreseen, and our intelligence forces need to be better equipped and better skilled.
I agree entirely with the figure of 2%, although it is of course a political construct. We could achieve a figure of 2% by having more military bands and spending money in silly ways. Also, 1.9% well spent might be better than 2.1% badly spent. It is a line in the sand, however, and it is one that our friends and our potential enemies will see as vital as we tackle the crescent of instability that surrounds Europe’s southern and eastern borders.
I only hope that the speech I am about to make can begin to get close to the excellent contributions we have heard from hon. Members from all parts of the House—it really has been an excellent debate. I agree with my hon. Friend Richard Benyon that the speech by Ms Stuart was extremely instructive, and I want to take it as my starting point, because it is essential that we identify what our role in the world is. We have avoided doing that ever since the end of the cold war and we have tried to fudge things. We are now living with the price of trying to “punch above our weight”. That may have sounded sensible when Douglas Hurd said it 20 years ago, but 20 years later, after all the conflicts that have happened in between, we have been left with the consequences: the tactical and strategic failure in Basra and in Helmand, where we simply were not prepared to commit sufficiently in order to carry out the military operation and deliver the political objective by the military means we put to it.
The hon. Lady threw down the challenge: what is our role in the world to be? I am an unashamed dove; it is my belief that our continuing aspirations to play some great power role in the world is a conceit, and a misleading and expensive one. So in the terms she put it, I am looking at greater Denmark and a mercantile policy to support British interests around the world. From that base, my conclusions ought to be instructive, although I understand that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends come from a different place.
The world has significantly changed since the end of the cold war. I would be the first to defend the peace dividend referred to by Sir Hugh Bayley, pointing out the drop in defence expenditure after the end of the cold war. Absolutely the right thing to do in the circumstances of the time was to take those savings and reduce the defence budget from 3.5% of GDP when I was a soldier to 2.5% by 1997. But what has happened since then to Russia and what is now happening with ISIS and the rise of Islamic fascism—there is also the open question of China and its role in the world to consider, but this is particularly about the first two things—should give us serious pause for thought.
Churchill said in October 1939:
“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.
Knowing that my historian friend, my hon. Friend Mr Simpson, is with us, we should point out that Churchill went on to make a prediction in that statement, saying:
“I will proclaim tonight my conviction that the second great fact of the first month of the war is that Hitler, and all that Hitler stands for, have been and are being warned off the east and the southeast of Europe.”
That was triumphantly wrong.
What should give us real pause for thought is what is happening in Russia now. If ever there was a wake-up moment, it is not just Crimea and what the Russians are doing in Ukraine; it was the murder of Boris Nemtsov last Friday night and the fact that only a few tens of thousands of people went on to the streets of Moscow. What happened there was the dying gasp of liberal Russia. We have seen the same thing before; it was what Mussolini did to his opponents in fascist Italy. The alarming thing is the popular support that Putin enjoys—the statistics were given again by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston. He is a popular ruler and one in difficulty, which is why he is exploring the execution of power in the way he has been doing. That has taken us away from where we would have hoped Russia would have been, within the family of nations and with the basic agreements of how to conduct international diplomacy.
Alongside Russia, we face the rise of Islamic fascism. That is now on a scale far beyond the consequences of 9/11 and the activities of al-Qaeda; ground is now being occupied. We would do well to remember just how attractive an ideology fascism was, and in its guise as Islamic fascism it is proving attractive to members of our own population and to people from around the region, who are flocking in vast numbers, alarmingly, to put their lives on the line to support it. We underestimate the nationalist popularity of Putin’s strategy and Russia, and ISIS and the images it presents, at our peril. That means we now have to take these threats extremely seriously.
I wish to focus now on what posture we should take. Having said that I do not want the United Kingdom to play a great power role but a more limited role, it is absolutely right that we face up to our responsibilities as a partner in NATO, which is what this debate is about. I understand the politics behind the 2% figure: we need to get NATO expenditure to a level that is at least rising for most of its members. However, 2% is an artificial number and, given the threats that we face now, it is inadequate. Whether we are aspiring to play a great power role or to pursue a mercantile role with no imperial pretensions, our strategic posture as the United Kingdom is woefully insufficient. The moment that we lost the maritime patrol aircraft from the strategic defence and security review at the beginning of this Parliament was the moment that we ceased to have the right suite of powers and intelligence capability to hang together. We have acquired the aircraft carriers and we will eventually acquire the aircraft to go on them, so we will have some status there, but we need to work out how they will form part of our strategy.
I come back now to the decision that we face in 2016, to which John Woodcock referred. He complained about the lack of Astute submarines, but we are committed to programme expenditure worth some £109 billion with the renewal of Trident. I have been very impressed by the new report from CentreForum about retiring Trident and looking for an alternative proposal. It demolishes the case for the Trident alternatives review, saying that it was based on a false premise. We need to look at the idea of going back to a free-fall bomb. [Interruption.] If Alison Seabeck wants to intervene, I will happily give way.
May I say to my hon. and gallant Friend that it is no good contrasting the building of the Successor-class submarines with the Astute-class submarines, because if we do not build the Successor submarines—I am not saying that that is a reason to have a deterrent when we otherwise would not have one—there will be a huge gap between the ending of the Astute hunter-killer programme and the next hunter-killer programme, in which all skill in building submarines will be lost.
That is the point I wish to address. We will invest an enormous amount in one weapon system for one task only. If we choose to invest in a free-fall bomb and 48 strike attack aircraft in order to deliver that bomb, it would at least put doubt in the mind of our opponent because we would have a capability that we can deliver in extremis. Although we would not have the total protection that a submarine launch system would give us, it would be enough. When it comes with the potential to have five additional Astute-class submarines, four additional Type-26 frigates, six airborne warning and control systems and eight long-range maritime patrol aircraft, we should think about the capability that we will not have if we commit to Trident. If we have a deterrent that is suitable for the future role of the United Kingdom, we will ensure that we have some of the conventional capability that will be absolutely necessary.
There was a very good piece in The Times on Saturday by Matthew Parris. His chilling conclusion, with which I agree, is that we must now prepare seriously for war. We have not been in this position or seen the scale of engagement that will be required since the cold war, so 2% does not cut it. Mis-investing our limited resources, as we will be doing if we keep the deterrent in the way that is proposed, does not cut it. If we are going to put our soldiers into action, there has to be certainty that they will be properly equipped, capable of acting and capable of doing so in collaboration with our NATO partners. That is why the recommendations of the Defence Committee about forward basing and looking again at something like the Allied Command Europe mobile force must be looked at by the Government. I am afraid to say that the resources that we are putting towards our strategy are simply not enough.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow my hon. Friend Crispin Blunt, although I disagree with his conclusions about Trident. We need a deterrent of that type. I hope we will never need to use it, but having it will probably ensure that we do not need to use it. That is the key point about the deterrence of Trident. I am firmly of the view that the Government are right in the course of action they have adopted.
I agree with other hon. Members that 2% of GDP should not just be a target, but should eventually be exceeded. The Chairman of the Defence Committee is right to link 2% to growth. Of course, when there is growth, that 2% becomes bigger. The key point to bear in mind is that if we do not get our economy right, we will not have growth. Defence will therefore suffer if our economy plunges again. The actions that we are taking through—dare I say it—the long-term economic plan and in reducing the deficit are part of our security, because they enable us to afford the things that we want and need in terms of defence.
The second important argument for spending 2%, as most people have noted, is that we must provide leadership to our fellow NATO members. Pledging 2% and encouraging others to meet the 2% target is part of our defence strategy and should remain so. We are right to spend 2% for those two reasons and probably a whole lot more.
What we spend the money on is also important. I have been struck in the course of the debate by the number of people who have said, “We did not think that was going to happen,” or, “That came as a surprise to us.” Our defence expenditure therefore has to have flexibility built in. We have to bear it in mind that we might have very different enemies from those we have had in the past in terms of capacity, style and objectives. That certainly applies to Russia, which has various different strategies and ways of challenging and testing us, as has been said. Islamic State presents a completely different challenge that requires a response that is quite out of the ordinary in terms of defence activity. In spending the 2% of GDP, we must bear in mind the importance of flexibility.
That point was well made, in a slightly different way, by my hon. Friend Mr Simpson, who linked defence, international development and the activities of the Foreign Office. That is a big sum of money in total. It is wise and strategically sensible to think about the whole security budget, because each part of that budget relates to a meaningful way of protecting Britain’s interests. With reference to the Foreign Office, it is important that we know what is going on. We therefore need our diplomatic representatives and everybody else connected with our embassies, and we must ensure that our embassies are properly equipped and staffed. Again, the Chairman of the Defence Committee made that point very well when he talked about the Baltic states.
The key question is: what are our strategic interests? I do not think that we have yet settled what they are. As we have already noted, things happen and they are surprising. We need to find a strategic plan that defines where we want to be, the kind of responses we should have and the objectives we want. That can only be done in conjunction with our allies. I am thinking not just about the United States of America, which is, of course, a natural ally, but about our allies in Europe. The threats we are discussing are to Europe as much as to us and we therefore have a responsibility and a duty to engage with our European partners to ensure that their strategy is not dissimilar to ours. Arguments in front of an enemy between allies that are supposed to be dealing with that enemy always end up in confusion and a lack of capacity.
We need to define our geographical area as well as our capacity. By this, I mean that we must think about the middle east, northern Africa and beyond. I have learned over the past few years the value of simply being around and paying attention. That is certainly the case with the Falklands and Antarctica. Britain’s presence there guarantees a powerful role is an important geopolitical area. That is a maxim we should apply elsewhere, but to do so we must understand our strategic objectives. That is why I think it is critical that any review in the not-too-distant future bears in mind that situation.
This is a basic point, but we must always think about the politics when we think about engagement with armed forces—not about the politics here, but about the politics of where we are. We have learned that often in the past. We were very clear about what we wanted to achieve in the Falklands. There was no political dispute; we had to retake the Falklands, period. We had a clear objective with a clear political outcome and it worked. We have been less successful when we have been less clear and sure about our strategic objectives. The obvious example is Iraq. We should not have gone in in the first place and when we got there we started making even more mistakes in the implementation of the strategy for the responsibilities we took once we had removed Saddam Hussein. The difficulty that Iraq and the region still face is that we were not sure enough about what we were doing, we lacked strategic certainty and we therefore left a problem that was either bigger or still big enough, and that has had ramifications ever since.
In short, yes to 2%; yes to a full commitment to NATO; yes to a recognition that we must have a defence force that is flexible, modern and bristling with high-technology and that there is fluid enough military thinking to be able to respond to the challenges that emerge on an irregular and often surprising basis; and yes to defining, understanding and seeing through our political objectives.
It is always the peril for the last ship in the convoy that it is the most likely to be torpedoed. As the last ship in the Back-Bench convoy in this debate, I shall resist the temptation to be diverted from holding on to my strategic aim—even though I am sorely tempted by the contribution of my hon. and gallant Friend Crispin Blunt to use up the entire remaining eight-and-a-half minutes talking about Trident. Instead, as an effort in intellectual discipline I shall keep that subject to last to see whether I can get through the other items on the agenda, which are three: the question of process; the question of resources; and the question of content.
First, on the question of process in relation to the strategic defence and security review that is due in 2015, why should it be in 2015, how long should it take and who should do it? We have two recent examples of strategic defence reviews: one in 1998 and one in 2010. The one in 1998 was strategic but unfunded. The one in 2010 was funded but unstrategic. We do not need another unstrategic review, but that is what we will get if we rush the process. Something that the Labour Government were very right to do when they came into office in 1997 —I am delighted to see my right hon. and gallant Friend Sir Nicholas Soames, a former Defence Minister, agreeing with this point—was to take about 18 months to draw up the strategic defence review, as it was then called; and they did it comprehensively and inclusively. There was nobody with something worth contributing to the process that led to the review who was not given an opportunity to do so, and we should do that next time too.
I am doubly grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking a question that I cannot possibly answer, having been in opposition at the time, because it gives me extra time and allows me to direct him to the shadow Minister, who I am sure will be able to answer it when he sums up.
The next question is who should do the strategic defence and security review? I must say that I disagree with my hon. and very learned Friend Mr Simpson—“learned” in the academic sense of that word—when he paints a picture of how wonderful the process of the National Security Council and the national security strategy is. Frankly, I am not impressed with it. I thought that the strategy document itself was apple pie and motherhood. I did not see much in it other than a ranking of tiered threats, most of which were fairly obvious, and those that were not may well turn out, in relation to state-against-state conflict being ranked in the third tier, to be absolutely wrong.
I am concerned about the decision-making process in defence. I will not go into that too much now because, as the Chairman of the Defence Committee, which I have recently had the privilege of joining, is well aware, we are about to produce a report on that very subject. Yet I would like to flag up something that I hope will appear in his draft in due course, and it is this: when we are trying to work out a sensible, comprehensive, coherent and well-informed strategy, it is useful to have substantive contributions from Ministers and civil servants, but we also need contributions from the military.
We appear to have dismantled the collective giving of military advice on strategy to politicians by the chiefs of staff, along with the healthy tension between them and the politicians that contributed so much to the outcome of successful campaigns in decades gone by. I am not impressed when we find that the whole burden of giving military advice on strategy to the Government falls on the shoulders of the Chief of the Defence Staff and the immediate chain of people below him, when in fact that used to be the collective responsibility of the heads of the armed services. I am not impressed when we find that the civil service has done away with what has been termed “domain competence” at the highest levels. We can find ourselves, as I do on the Defence Committee, facing a permanent Under-Secretary of State, the head of the Ministry of Defence, with next to no background in defence himself, and hearing him tell us with great pride that the new head of the Army is pleased to look on himself as a chief executive officer for his service. We are not going to get sufficient military input from that sort of configuration. We are getting non-specialist civil servants, we are getting the military insufficiently included in the process, and we are getting politicians flying by the seat of their pants. It is not good enough.
In his own excellent speech, my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Mid Sussex did not have time, I am delighted to say, to refer to an article by Max Hastings which appeared in The Guardian on
“strategy in its proper sense—a doctrine for the prevention and prosecution of war—has been allowed to atrophy. Very few people in uniform or out of it, within the Ministry of Defence or beyond it, devote intellect and energy to anything much beyond saving money and getting through today. And those who do so are firmly discouraged from allowing any hint of their ruminations to escape into the public domain, to fuel an intelligent debate.”
Given that the entire strategic role is now devolved on to the shoulders of just the Chief of Defence Staff, it was disturbing to me to read—I do not know whether it is true—that the CDS was instructed by his political masters not to deliver a lecture. If that is true, it is appalling. [Interruption.] I am delighted, again, to have that sedentary endorsement from my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Mid Sussex.
On resources, I am thrilled that there has been such unanimity about recommending us to put forward the NATO minimum contribution of 2% of GDP for defence. Can hon. Members imagine anything worse than signalling to a powerful adversary that we are going to send 75 military personnel as advisers into a non-NATO country which we are not able and not obliged to defend, much as we sympathise with it, but for the first time since the 2% formula was set, we are in danger of not meeting it ourselves?
I am getting slightly tired of Government Members talking up 2% as if it were a great achievement. Five years ago it was 2.5%, so the defence budget has been cut over the past five years by 20%. When Labour came to power it was £22 billion. When we left power, the defence budget in cash terms was £39 billion; now it is £34 billion—a real-terms cut. When are these cuts going to stop?
I entirely agree with the thrust of that intervention, although as I stated in an intervention on the hon. Gentleman, I well remember Tony Blair saying in, I think, 2007 that over the 10-year period that he had been in office, the defence budget had remained fairly constant at 2.5% of GDP, if the cost of the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan was included. The situation is therefore even worse than the hon. Gentleman thinks, because in effect core defence expenditure also declined under his Government. Nevertheless, the thrust of what he says is on the right lines.
I shall quote very briefly from the Government’s response to the report that the Defence Committee produced before I joined it. The Government replied on
“NATO Allies have also collectively agreed to reverse the trend of declining defence budgets and aim to increase defence expenditure in real terms as GDP grows and direct defence budgets to be as efficient and effective as possible. Allies currently meeting the NATO guidelines to spend a minimum of 2% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence will aim to continue to do so. . . Allies whose current proportion of GDP spent on defence is below this level will halt any decline in defence expenditure; aim to increase defence expenditure in real terms as GDP grows; and aim to move towards the 2% guidelines within a decade with a view to meeting their NATO Capability Targets and filling NATO’s capability shortfalls.”
When the Prime Minister came back from that NATO conference in Wales, he made a statement from the Dispatch Box, speaking very much along those lines. So I thought, “I have not always been as immensely helpful to the Prime Minister as I might have been, because he has done some things I really couldn’t stand, such as putting off the decision to sign the Trident main-gate contracts till 2016, when they should have been decided in this Parliament. So I’ll ask him a helpful question.” I asked, “Will the Prime Minister then give an undertaking that, as long as he remains Prime Minister, that 2% target will be met?” To my dismay, I found that that was not a helpful question at all. It was an unhelpful question, so I have been asking it time and again ever since.
I will now be unable to get on to the content of the next strategic defence and security review, which will have to wait for other debates. I will not even be able to rebut in more detail what my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Reigate said about Trident, but I am glad that the House did not agree with him. I simply point out that this 2% issue is not going away. We will have another debate on
This has been a very well-informed debate in which we have had 15 speakers. I congratulate Rory Stewart on his opening remarks, which showed that the House made the right choice in selecting him as Chair of the Defence Committee. He not only put forward his usual well-informed arguments but made a very convincing case for why we are facing certain threats from Russia, in particular.
The main issue has been spending 2% of GDP for our NATO commitments. That was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, by Sir Nicholas Soames, by my hon. Friends the Members for York Central (Sir Hugh Bayley) and for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), by Caroline Dinenage, by my hon. Friend Mike Gapes, by the hon. Members for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) and for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), and by Richard Benyon, who called the 2% figure a line in the sand. Dr Lewis also spoke in favour of it, as did the weaponised dove, Crispin Blunt, who argued for more than 2%, and Neil Carmichael.
I am interested in exploring what Labour would do. In 1977, even when the economy was a disaster, a Labour Government committed to a 3% year-on-year increase in defence expenditure at a time when we were facing a similar threat scenario to that which we face today. Is Labour committed even to a 2% floor?
If the hon. Gentleman lets me get on with my speech, I shall tell him what our position is.
Every Conservative Member has called for 2% or more, but in a few weeks’ time they are going to stand for election on a manifesto that would see a cut in our defence expenditure. I refer to the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s autumn statement, which clearly ring-fenced spending on schools, health, and overseas aid. The hon. Member for Aldershot mentioned overseas aid, which I know is dear to his heart. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, 6% more cuts have got to take place, so if we take the ring-fenced spending out, we see that the rest of the cuts that will have to be made amount to about £86 billion. Of that, it is estimated that £9 billion will have to come from defence—some 36% if we take the figures up to 2020. Some are saying that the figure may be in the region of 8%. The Conservatives have form on 8% margins, because that is the level at which the coalition cut defence expenditure when it came to power.
We have heard it argued that the Prime Minister gave a commitment to, and lectured others about, the 2% NATO target. I understand that today he has been in the constituency of Sir Bob Russell, where he was asked about the commitment to 2%. As we expect from the Prime Minister, he dodged the question. He said that the equivalent budget would be increased by 1%. He also made the remarkable statement that there would be no further cuts in the size of the Army. In that case, the situation for the defence budget is even worse than has been said, because the 9% cut that the Chancellor is arguing for will fall on only 55% of the budget. If the equipment budget has been protected, there are only two ways of keeping the Army intact while cutting 55% of the defence budget by 9%—by taking out of service equipment that is there today or by reducing the number of personnel.
The Prime Minister needs to level with the British people and be honest about what is being proposed. This is a charade. I do not doubt that the Conservative Members who have spoken—I know them all very well and they are very strong defence advocates—genuinely believe that more money should be put into defence or that the 2% NATO commitment should at least be met, but they need to challenge the Prime Minister on the figure. There is no way that the Chancellor’s cuts can be met by 2019-20 without affecting the 2% we currently give to NATO.
I will level with the hon. Gentleman. What I will not do is what the Prime Minister and the then Members of the Opposition did at the last election by promising larger armies, more ships and more expenditure on the armed forces. The first thing they did when they got into power was cut the size of the army. Our position is very clear: we will meet the figure for 2015-16, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Central has said, that is still a reduction of £600 million according to the figures under discussion. Moreover, if we look at what the Defence Secretary has been good at, we will see that some £400 million has been given back to the Treasury over the past five years. That money was not even spent, which begs a question about the commitment.
Our strategic defence review will look at what most people want, as we did in 1997. It will be a proper defence review that looks at the bigger questions that many Members have raised today about our role in the world.
I am grateful to my good friend the shadow Minister for giving way. The reason we are in this pickle is that we inherited a budget deficit of £156 billion. I wonder whether he would accept that putting the public finances back in order was the immediate priority and that we have been successful in doing so.
We now have the fastest growing economy in the western world and that is why we want a 2%-plus increase in defence.
But the hon. Gentleman needs to be honest about the time scale. I thought he was going to refer, as one Member did from a sedentary position, to the mythical £38 billion black hole, which was designed to disguise the Government’s 8% cut. The Defence Committee’s report of November 2011 says:
“We note that the MoD now state the genuine size of the gap is substantially in excess of £38 billion. However, we also note the” former
“Secretary of State’s assertion that the ‘for the first time in a generation, the MoD will have brought its plans and budget broadly into balance, allowing it to plan with confidence for the delivery of the future equipment programme’. Without proper detailed figures neither statement can be verified.”
I have challenged numerous Ministers on that. It is one of those things that was thought up in central office during the election and then kept getting repeated.
Serious points have been made in today’s debate about Britain’s place in the world, including by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston and the Chair of the Committee. We need to ask the question that we asked in 1998: what is our role in the world and is there a wider debate to be had with the British public? I think there is, but this Government are not conducting the latest defence review in a constructive way. In 1998, as the hon. Member for New Forest East has said, we had a broad, inclusive debate. Even in 2010 we produced a Government Green Paper setting out the issues, but as soon as the coalition got in the Treasury-led review was completed in record time. This time the process needs to be thought out.
Things do not bode well, however, because the Ministry of Defence will not even tell my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker what questions it will ask in the review, while the Prime Minister’s view is that all we need is a light tweak. We live in a very changeable world—we have had a very good debate today about Russia and the threats we now face from Islamic terrorism—and the idea that all we need is a light tweak is a huge mistake.
I have made that clear. I will not promise things I cannot deliver, which the hon. Gentleman’s party did at the last election. He will have to stand up in front of his electorate in Stroud in May and say that he disagrees with the Prime Minister and will not sign up to the austerity Budget outlined by the Chancellor in the autumn statement. He needs to be honest with his constituents by saying that, because that is what will happen to the defence budget. He can make all his points about our position, but we have been very clear that we will meet the 2015-16 targets.
Mr Simpson—I will call my fellow war graves commissioner my hon. Friend—made this point about those in the Ministry of Defence. I think he said that they were rolling the logs along the path, and they have in certain ways. What is needed, and this is part of our zero-based budget review, is to look in detail at exactly how our defence budget is spent. There is an argument for efficiencies that can be made, and they will be made.
The defence review must involve the largest possible number of people; otherwise it cannot be done. If the Treasury is just let loose, as it was in 2010, it will have the same result. I will say something that is perhaps out of character, but when he was Defence Secretary Dr Fox did at least try to keep the Treasury dogs from the door, although he unfortunately failed.
Does not the hon. Gentleman, as well as my hon. Friends, accept that we can all caricature the Treasury for obvious reasons, such as in 1998 and 2010, but if we sat in the Treasury and looked at the way in which the Ministry of Defence under successive Governments has been totally incompetent—in handling budgets, the overruns and the way in which individual services have competed with each other—to the detriment of national defence, surely we would agree that decisions should be collective? The Treasury does not necessarily have to have a veto, but it has a point of view and should be listened to.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. When I chaired the value for money group in the MOD during the previous Government, it was certainly my experience that the Treasury can make a contribution. Unfortunately, it sometimes has a very blinkered view of the world, but it has to ensure that every defence pound we spend is actually well spent.
May I turn to the issue of soft power, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South and by the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border? I always think “soft power” is a strange use of words because when we look at what is happening in Russia, we can see that its use has been very effective. Soft power is part of the Russian strategy not only in changing the complete news agenda on the invasion of Crimea, but in continuing to do the same. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South made his point in relation to the World Service, which is again a case of a short-term saving having long-term consequences. We need to address the issue that what might be seen as public relations or news management is clearly part of the Russian armoury for changing the agenda on Ukraine and other parts of the world. We need a similar type of force to make sure that we not only influence the debate, but can react very quickly to events as they happen.
The hon. Member for Colchester raised issues about the Falkland Islands. The Labour party is certainly committed to ensuring that the people of the Falkland Islands determine their own future, but that must be taken into account in the future defence and security review. Given his long-standing interest in housing, I am surprised that he has not thanked the Labour Government for the investment they put into Colchester and Army housing. It was sad that when this Government came to power they stopped the modernisation programme as well as the scheme that allowed members of the armed forces to buy their houses, although I know that has now been resurrected under a different heading.
The threats we face are numerous. Can we predict the future? No we cannot. We must ensure that the armed forces at our disposal are linked not only to our security networks and to MI5 and MI6, but to our homeland defence. That can be achieved only if a proper security and defence review in 2016 covers all those aspects, so that when we need the brave servicemen and women on whom we rely, we can ensure that they have the equipment and training to carry out that role. We must also deter aggressors who are clearly working to affect the way of life that we have all come to respect and take for granted.
I, too, thank the House of Commons Defence Committee for producing this important report and giving us the platform to discuss some of the key defence issues facing the alliance and the United Kingdom today. The Chair of the Committee introduced the debate in characteristically eloquent fashion, on which he was complimented by a number of hon. Members. I will add to those compliments and point out that I think he gave a very forceful opening speech.
The report makes interesting reading. It argues in paragraph 102 that events in Ukraine were a “wake-up call”, and for reasons that I will come on to, I agree. As the Committee acknowledges in paragraph 97, these issues are not just a matter for the Ministry of Defence, but for the whole Government. The pan-governmental national security strategy will need to be updated to take account of changes to the international situation over the last five years. The importance of the NSS was referred to by the Committee Chair, as well as by my hon. Friends the Members for Broadland (Mr Simpson), for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) and for Stroud (Neil Carmichael). Although this debate has understandably focused on the strategic defence and security review, the next SDSR must also take account of any changes to the NSS into which it should dovetail. As the Committee recognises, events in Ukraine have shone a light on different types of conflict that the NSS must take into account as it develops strategies to mitigate the challenges we face.
The last SDSR was written while our forces were heavily engaged in Afghanistan. We have now brought our combat troops home, but as we move to an era where there is a continuing challenge to the rules-based international order, we must examine the full scope of defence to ensure that we are best prepared. Equipment, people and investment are key elements, but mindset is important too.
Arguably, the last 10 years or so have seen us become increasingly proficient at conducting combat operations with a counter-insurgency element, at reach, against a technologically inferior but none the less determined enemy. In that context I pay tribute again to those who served us in Afghanistan. We asked much of them and they did us proud. I was at the last homecoming parade into the Palace of Westminster for the troops of 102 Logistic Brigade and the 20th Armoured Infantry Brigade. It was a humbling experience and I pay particular tribute to the 453 service personnel who lost their lives in that conflict. Across the whole House we will surely agree that they must never be forgotten.
We now need to rebalance and become highly proficient in a range of potential operations across the globe, and against a range of potential threats. We will need to think differently; we may need to react quicker. We will need to look into the future and seek to prepare now. The world does not stand still and events will not give us rest: there is ISIL in the middle east, referred to by several hon. Members; Boko Haram in Africa; and of course our commitment to combat Ebola in Sierra Leone via Operation Gritrock. Having visited our troops just prior to Christmas—the Secretary of State visited more recently—I place on the record my enduring admiration for our armed forces personnel. They have been prepared to take risks in deploying to west Africa to fight this awful disease, not just to defend the Sierra Leoneans but us here at home.
On the defence review itself, there is an old saying about how to get to Dublin. In short, I would rather start an SDSR from where we are now than where we were in 2010. The chaos we inherited from Labour has gone and the budget is now back in balance. Mr Jones—he and I have been sparring partners for some years—refused to commit the Labour party to spending more than 2% on defence beyond 2015-16, if it was elected. In that sense, he does not go beyond us. The giveaway was when he said that Labour would conduct a zero-based review. In essence, that means he cannot commit to anything. That is what a zero-based review means. He told the House on the one hand that he would not promise anything he could not deliver, but on the other hand he said that his party would conduct a zero-based review, in which it cannot really promise anything. It is important that the House understands the distinction between the positions held by the Opposition and the Government.
Our equipment programme—a substantial investment of some £163 billion over 10 years on equipment and support—will ensure that our armed forces retain a formidable range of cutting-edge capabilities and the ability to project power across the globe. This investment is not only securing the best possible military capability, it is also helping to secure UK jobs and growth. The UK defence industry indirectly employs more than 160,000 people, with a turnover of £22 billion.
A zero-based budget looks at efficiencies and how to spend money better. Does the Minister agree with the Chancellor’s figures for 2016 to 2020, when something like £9 billion has been projected to meet the cuts—[Interruption.] The Whip has not been here, so he can stop chuntering from a sedentary position. Does the Minister agree with the Chancellor, yes or no?
What I agree with is that we inherited a chaotic defence budget from the Labour party. That is what it bequeathed to us and that is what we have had to deal with from day one. I will come on to our position on the 2% commitment, which I believe is superior to the hon. Gentleman’s position.
Crucially, we are making full provision for the successor deterrent system. It is a shame that John Woodcock is no longer in his place, as I wanted to tell him two things. I will be visiting Barrow very shortly. We will confirm the date with him in the usual way, but I want to see Barrow for myself. He also asked for a commitment, which I am happy to give him, to the seventh Astute submarine. We are determined that we will complete the seven boats in the Astute programme before transiting to a successor programme based on continuous-at-sea deterrence with four deterrent submarines.
We are also significantly increasing our investment in cyber-security, an issue raised by a number of hon. Members. I can assure the House that this does not relate only to defensive cyber. We need to ensure our armed forces are equipped with cutting-edge capabilities across all environments.
On the NATO summit and events in Ukraine, we have deplored Russian aggression in Ukraine from the outset. We urge all sides to take the necessary steps to implement the second Minsk agreement of
Unity in the alliance is the best response to these challenges. We demonstrated that at the Wales summit, in particular with the readiness action plan, including the development of a very high readiness joint task force. On
The Wales summit also committed NATO allies to reverse the decline in defence spending. The UK is one of the few NATO nations to have consistently spent 2% of GDP on defence. Importantly, we also exceed the target to invest more than 20% of our budget on equipment. We have the second biggest defence budget in NATO and the largest in the European Union. These are important points that we should not forget. In financial year 2015-16, we will maintain that 2% of spending. Following 2015-16, that will be subject to the next spending review, which is due to take place after the election, but it will not be a zero-based review, in the way that Labour argues.
No. The hon. Gentleman has already had his go and I have three minutes left.
The UK has committed to providing additional non-lethal support to the Ukrainian Government to help their forces deal with the pressures they are facing. Such support is not new, with the nature of the UK’s support remaining non-lethal. This forms part of a wider Government effort to support Ukraine and ensure a robust international response to Russia’s aggression. It is imperative that the United Kingdom stands by its NATO allies in delivering a unified message to Russia about its unacceptable behaviour and disregard for the international rules-based system.
Let me conclude by saying that it is important to remember that the Committee’s report was written last July, prior to the summit, but recent events in Ukraine have indeed been a wake-up call. I reiterate that in the light of this we must look at the SDSR and the NSS. We need to update both, and they must be complementary. The Committee recommended changes in the alliance, some of which have already been implemented. The Committee sought improvements on NATO’s rapid reaction force; the VJTF will contribute to this aim. The Committee wanted large-scale military exercises; Exercise Dragon this autumn will be a divisional sized exercise, consisting of 10,000 alliance personnel, 1,000 of whom will be British, who will be supported with a range of armoured vehicles. The Committee recommended that NATO address its vulnerability to asymmetric attack; work is in train that is seeing NATO significantly improve its resilience to hybrid warfare, not least in cyber, as I have already explained. Units such as the 77 Brigade, to which my hon. Friend Richard Benyon referred and which is based in his constituency, will also play an important part in that, ensuring that such threats can be covered off.
The Committee is quite right to draw the House’s attention to what has been happening in Ukraine. It is right that we watch these events closely and take nothing for granted. Defence is, and remains, the first duty of Government, so now is not the time to slacken. We must stay the course, implement the decisions from Wales and demonstrate our commitment to NATO. We must at all times remember the importance of solidarity in the NATO alliance. NATO has formed the bedrock of our security since 1949. It still does. We remain fully committed to our NATO allies, and everyone should understand that. NATO has helped to keep us safe and free. It has been committed to us, and we remain committed to it.
Question deferred until tomorrow at Seven o’clock (