What recent assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of NATO in safeguarding the freedom and security of its members by political and military means.
NATO remains the cornerstone of the UK’s defence and security. All allies stand steadfast to defend and deter threats to the Euro-Atlantic, underlined by our unwavering collective commitment to article 5 of the Washington treaty.
You will not be surprised, Mr Speaker, to know that I think there are a number of excellent candidates to be the next NATO Secretary General, and I absolutely agree that those who have been to the fore during the response to Ukraine and who have skin in the game, as my hon. Friend says, should be leading contenders.
Let me ask the Minister this, and I want a straight answer: if we are going to be an effective member of NATO, when are we going to stop this crazy policy of diminishing the size of the armed forces? Seven years ago, I asked a former Defence Secretary, “What if Mr Putin’s people just arrived in the English channel?”, as we went below 100,000 service personnel. The plan today now is to go down to 72,000. Is that credible as a major armed force in NATO?
In the context of a question about NATO, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. NATO massively outnumbers Russia as an adversary. The UK commits more than our minimum requirement to NATO. Moreover, allies around NATO are clear that contributing in the traditional domains of land, sea and air is no longer sufficient and that NATO needs capabilities in space and cyber-space, on which, through the integrated review, the UK has invested and is to the fore.
I am going to follow up that question, I am afraid. NATO does outnumber Russia, it is true, but we have to have the weight, muscle and mass, to a certain extent, to react in the event, God forbid, of some form of confrontation with Russia. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to reverse the very bad decision to reduce the Army by 10,000.
The Secretary of State has been clear throughout the integrated review process that we are a threat-led Department. As things stand, and as I have said at the Dispatch Box a number of times—I know that my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has said likewise—a lot of what is in the IR is proving to be vindicated by the realities of the conflict in Ukraine. As we move towards Madrid, and NATO is increasingly clear about what it wants as an alliance as capabilities across all five domains, the UK continues to lead thinking, rather than being behind it.
NATO meets in two weeks to agree its masterplan for the next 10 years, yet there are growing concerns about the UK meeting even its core NATO commitments. Is it true that the Defence Secretary warned the Chancellor that Britain risks missing its 2% spending commitment? What is the Defence Secretary doing about Ajax, given that the Public Accounts Committee’s new report states that the MoD
“is failing to deliver the…capability that the Army needs to…meet its NATO commitments”?
Why has the Defence Secretary failed to set out a vision to ensure that Britain continues to be NATO’s leading European nation?
The Defence Secretary is a passionate advocate for our nation’s armed forces and for defence within the Government, but his correspondence with other Ministers in the Cabinet necessarily should remain private. The reality is, as I said in answer to the question earlier from Mr Sheerman, that the UK exceeds its NATO minimum requirement, and as NATO moves into its new strategic concept and looks at how it will operate across all five domains, it is the UK’s decisions from the IR that are informing what others will now contribute to NATO, rather than vice versa. John Healey finished with a question about the Secretary of State setting out a vision for NATO. I cannot think of anybody within NATO who has set out a more compelling vision for the alliance and the UK’s role within it.
The concept has not been signed off yet. At Defence Minister meetings this week, the Secretary of State will be looking at it further before it goes to the NATO summit in Madrid. As the hon. Lady would expect, Ministers from the MOD and the Secretary of State most obviously are travelling around the Euro-Atlantic all the time in order to have these discussions, and people from other NATO capitals are visiting the MOD, so that we can build a shared consensus before we reach the moment of decision, and the UK has been instrumental in shaping those thoughts.
A couple of weeks ago, Members from all parts of the House went to Romania with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, where we saw the work being done by the RAF as part of NATO’s air policing role. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking 140 Expeditionary Air Wing for all it is doing to keep our skies safe? Does he agree that that work is an excellent example of the role of NATO in safeguarding our freedom and security?
I was in Bucharest on Thursday evening and Friday morning, having the exact conversations that Margaret Ferrier was checking we were having. I had the honour when I was there of meeting members of the RAF who are involved in Operation Biloxi and air policing. I indeed pay tribute to 140 Expeditionary Air Wing and all other members of the RAF who have been involved in air policing in Romania, Lithuania and elsewhere.
Before I get into my question, as this will be our last Defence questions before Armed Forces Day, may I thank those in the armed forces for all their service, particularly over the past couple of years during the pandemic? I also offer the support of those on these Benches to the Government in getting home the two UK nationals currently held by a Russian puppet court in eastern Ukraine.
On the strategic concept, there are three areas that we believe the Government must push for NATO to strengthen: the state levers of conventional defence power; societal resilience across the alliance, particularly in conjunction with the European Union’s strategic compass; and the international rules-based system that keeps us safe, including among alliance members themselves. Can the Minister outline, as he tries to garner that consensus, what he thinks a successful strategic concept looks like?
It is one of those wonderful moments when we are in vigorous agreement. We would share the view that the state levers of hard power and the societal levers of resilience are hugely important, that NATO must stand for something and that its members must subscribe to a rules-based international system. Those discussions are not hard to have because just about everybody else in NATO would passionately agree with that position.
I am grateful for that answer, but as other hon. Members have said, including on the Conservative Benches, a successful strategic concept surely does not include the UK Government cutting the armed forces by 10,000 and reducing the Army to its size in the war of the Spanish succession in 1701. Will the Minister, along with his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, revisit the arbitrary cutting in size of the Army by 10,000? Would that not show NATO allies that he was serious about conventional defence forces in the UK and send the right message ahead of Armed Forces Day later this month?
Opposition spokespeople are in the habit of starting the clock on pledges for defence spending increases the day after the UK makes an enormous increase in defence spending. The UK led the alliance in deciding to increase spending in the face of increased insecurity in the Euro-Atlantic. NATO’s strategic concept does not specify exactly what each nation must have; the strategic concept is what NATO as an alliance wants to do. The key to that, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said at the start, is having interoperable levers of hard power that are shared across the alliance with the countries that do them best; having real homeland resilience so that, across all domains, on the eastern front and in-depth, there is real resilience within NATO members; and having a set of values that NATO unites around, stands up for and sells around the world.