Armed Forces — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:56 pm on 7th April 2014.

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Photo of Lord Dannatt Lord Dannatt Crossbench 7:56 pm, 7th April 2014

My Lords, in opening this evening’s short debate, perhaps I may first thank those noble Lords who are taking part, albeit somewhat later than we had anticipated, and other noble Lords who have indicated their interest in this question but who are not able to be in their places. To me this level of participation underlines the importance of the matters we are considering.

I am also aware that this short debate comes hard on the heels of the Defence Reform Bill, which has now passed all its stages in your Lordships’ House, and that the question of manning the Army Reserve was the subject of some discussion. Indeed, I spoke on the subject during the Committee stage and was minded to table an amendment at the Report stage. However, I make no apology for returning to this key topic, and I do so in the context of both regular and reserve manning, not just for the Army but for the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and the Royal Air Force, too.

I believe that this subject can be properly addressed only if it is done so in its full context. It seems to me that, when the coalition Government took their decisions on the size and shape of the Armed Forces at the time of their strategic defence and security review in 2010, they did so against the background of the way the world looked then and in the midst of the economic crisis; we were in the early days of the current age of austerity. In headline terms, a decision was taken to prioritise defence equipment over manpower—a not altogether unreasonable decision given the long lead times in defence procurement and the need to preserve British jobs in the defence industries. However, in order to balance the books, manpower reductions of 30,000 personnel across the three armed services were required, which inevitably would fall most heavily on the Army, but they also fell with considerable impact on the other services, in particular on our ability to man the fleet both now and in the future, especially when the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers and the new offshore patrol vessels come into service.

As regards the Army, the mitigation of the risks inherent in a 20,000 cut in Regular Army manpower would be the recruitment and training of an Army Reserve of 30,000, giving an overall integrated Army manpower strength of 112,000. Put like that, this looks to be a reasonable outcome, but doubt has remained as to whether the Regular Army component of just 82,000 of that overall total is sufficient for the nation’s needs, and whether the target of 30,000 trained reservists to round out Army 2020 is even achievable.

When this policy was announced, it was originally stated that the major draw-down of regular manpower would not occur until the strength of the reserves had risen to or near their projected target. However, after a reworking of the finances within the MoD, this policy was changed, and in the case of the Army the draw-down to 82,000 regulars has now been very nearly completed with little upward shift in reserve manning. Noble Lords have observed previously in this House that this shift of policy carries an acknowledged level of risk. Is the Minister confident that this risk is being managed and mitigated, both for now and in the foreseeable future?

I raise this question at this time because, with the planned culmination of our operations in Afghanistan—linked to a general feeling of war weariness and war wariness given our recent experiences in both Iraq and Afghanistan—it could be argued that concerns about the size of the Army today are theoretical rather than immediate. However, that view overlooks the current strategic landscape. While there is neither a logic nor an appetite for intervention in Syria, nor a treaty obligation requiring military intervention in Ukraine, both situations stand as stark examples of how the strategic landscape can change. Predicting the future is notoriously hard, and strategic shocks happen: the invasion of the Falkland Islands, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and 9/11 were all unpredicted events that had major consequences for our defence and security policies and capabilities. It is often said about predicting the future that the trick is not to be so far wrong that, when the future reveals itself, you cannot adapt quickly to the new circumstances. Circumstances have changed since 2010, and are changing at the present time. They are plain to see, provided that there is a willingness to look.

I believe that these strategic changes change our previous risk calculations. The Russian takeover of Crimea may not have been to President Putin’s timing, but it certainly suits his agenda and aspirations. Whether his ambition reaches into eastern Ukraine or elsewhere only he knows, but with a Russia resurgent both in confidence and military capability in many observers’ judgment this is a poor moment for the US-led West to be weak in both resolve and muscle. Diplomacy and economic sanctions may for now be the right response to President Putin over Ukraine, but he will look through those things to see from where the real check on his actions might come. Russia has long been the ally of Syria. Mr Putin will have seen the UN and the EU virtually powerless to impose their will on President Assad, and he will be further encouraged. Parallels with earlier periods of history might or might not be useful, but it can be argued that uncomfortable shadows of the 1930s are starting to become visible.

Meanwhile, with economies still struggling to recover from the epic downturn in 2008, there is a lurking temptation to curb public expenditure further, as trailed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his recent Budget speech. However, to remove further resources from defence would be sending exactly the wrong message at this time. On the contrary, there is a growing argument that the international landscape is more challenging than in 2010 and that we should consider making a statement that greater military capability must underpin our diplomacy and the other instruments of our foreign and security policy. The projected 1% uplift in defence equipment procurement spending from 2015, though welcome, will do nothing to improve regular defence manning levels, which, without a further uplift in spending, will in all probability face further contraction. Such a conclusion is mathematically almost inevitable.

Furthermore, there is genuine concern as to whether we can in fact recruit and train 30,000 members of the Army Reserve. Although we are only some six months into a five-year programme of recruitment, I am not alone in believing that current circumstances bring forward the need to alter the regular reserve balance within our Army and increase the size of the Regular Army, and probably the regular component of the Royal Navy as well. There is an increasingly strong case for increasing the manning of our regular Armed Forces by some 5,000 posts. Not only would that be a useful increase in capability in itself, but it would send a clear signal that the UK Government take their defence responsibilities seriously, not only on behalf of their own citizens but on behalf of our EU partners and NATO allies too.

Noble Lords will have read this morning’s comments by the Secretary-General of NATO calling for an increase in defence spending. Although our Government will argue that the United Kingdom still has the fourth—or is it now the fifth?—largest defence budget, it is proportionately down in terms of GDP from even five years ago, and represents a funding level that provides a lesser degree of defence capability than five years ago. Will the Minister confirm that, whereas in 2008 our land forces were able to deploy 10 combat brigades, going around two five-brigade cycles, conducting difficult operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously, that capability is no longer available and will not be under the plans for Army 2020? If the Minister does confirm this, will he further confirm that this is not because of equipment shortages but due to the lack of manpower, be it regular or reserve?

What is to be done? Much as I would like to see the 5,000 uplift in regular manpower across the three armed services that I am calling for, I am aware of the political calculation that there are no votes in defence, so I do not see this uplift happening before the next general election. However, talking widely with many people—within your Lordships’ House and without—that one meets, I wonder whether that calculation is correct. Are there no votes in defence? Indeed, are there no votes in providing adequately for our national security? I am not so sure.

At the very least, would the Minister use his good offices with the government Chief Whip to programme a full debate on defence and security issues in this House in the next Session of Parliament? Surely such a debate would be a major contribution to the strategic defence and security review that will follow the next election. Surely the people of this country deserve to hear the arguments set out clearly before them. At the end of the day, it is the votes of the people of this country that will determine the next Government, and it is the first duty of that Government to provide fully for the defence of the realm and the safety of our citizens, not forgetting the well-being of the members of the Armed Forces and their families, who provide that defence and our safety. The case for re-examining our previous assumptions on military manning and the levels of risk that we are taking is strong, and, if anything, getting stronger.