Armed Forces — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:34 pm on 7th April 2014.

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Photo of Lord Bilimoria Lord Bilimoria Crossbench 8:34 pm, 7th April 2014

My Lords, in his 2007 book The Black Swan Taleb was at pains to point out that the trick in dealing with black swans was not predicting them—as outliers, they frankly defy prediction of any sort—but rather with ensuring that you can cope with them and have the resilience to do so. Last year, would anyone really have assumed that we would have been looking at the invasion of a large eastern European country by a resurgent Russia? The answer is almost certainly not.

As the outgoing secretary-general of NATO has said,

“every ally needs to invest the necessary resources in the right capabilities … In the long run, a lack of security would be more costly than investing now and we owe it to our forces, and to broader society”.

The noble Lord, Lord Lee, referred to General Sir Richard Shirreff, who said:

“I wouldn’t want to let anybody think that I think that Army 2020 is good news, it’s not … The sort of defence cuts we have seen … have really hollowed out the British armed forces and I think that people need to sit up and recognise that”.

The number of troops is going down. The Army’s strength was 102,000 and by 2020 it will be 82,000, so we will not even be able to fill Wembley stadium. As Professor Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute, said:

“With 82,000 we’ve got a ‘one-shot’ Army. If we don’t get it right the first time, there probably won’t be a second chance”.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, for initiating this debate. He himself has said:

“When the Coalition took its decisions on the size and shape of the Armed Forces at the time of its Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010, it did so in the midst of an economic crisis … but doubt has remained as to whether a regular Army of just 82,000 is sufficient for our needs, and whether the target of 30,000 trained reservists is achievable”.

The Armed Forces are undergoing a huge reduction. There will be a reduction by 33,000, or 19%, by 2020: 5,500 from the Royal Navy, 8,000 from the Royal Air Force and 19,500 from the Army. In a scathing assessment, General Sir Richard Shirreff has also said that Britain is now the only NATO state not to commit any of its naval forces to maritime operations. What I find shocking—the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, referred to this—is that when asked yesterday about Sir Richard’s comments, Mr Hammond said:

“Much of what I’m hearing is nonsense”.

This is our great military expert—our Defence Secretary. He dismissed calls from the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, the former head of the Army, to halt the withdrawal of British troops from Germany in order to send a military statement to Putin, saying that tank regiments are more effective based in Britain. That was the great general, Secretary of State Hammond.

The head of the defence committee, James Arbuthnot, said that he thought Ministers should rethink the cuts to the Army’s permanent staff in the light of Crimea. He said:

“The sheer number of the armed forces are much lower now than they should be in order to protect our interests”.

The Financial Times said that:

“A leaked report from the Ministry of Defence last year suggested the plans to restructure the army were in ‘chaos’ because potential reservists were being put off by a sense of gloom surrounding the armed forces”.

Can the Minister confirm this? It also said that Robert Gates, the former US Defence Secretary, has warned Britain that it would not have,

“‘the ability to be a full partner’ after the cuts because it would lack the full spectrum of military capabilities”,

and that:

“The defence committee report also criticised a lack of clarity from ministers in how to deal with cyber attacks, warning that ‘emphasis needs to be placed on ensuring that critical systems are resilient to attack and contingency plans for recovery are in place’”.

Can the Minister also confirm this?

The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, mentioned clearly that when the cuts were announced, it was in a time of economic crisis. He has said that the international landscape is much more challenging now than in 2010 and referred to making a statement that greater military capability must underpin our diplomatic forces. The current Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Houghton, warned last year that Britain’s military could become a “hollow force”, with state-of-the-art equipment but no one to operate it. Even the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Peter Wall, has added:

“Ultimately history tells us that in some circumstances committed land forces may be the only way to achieve decisive outcomes in support of our strategic objectives”.

Will the Minister confirm that the cuts have all been about means before ends? We will have the smallest Army in 200 years. In 2010, the SDSR got rid of our Harriers, our carriers and our Nimrods. We have been fighting in Afghanistan and we have had one black swan after another: the Arab spring, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Crimea. What next? Can the Minister confirm that the morale of our Armed Forces is in a very sorry state and needs to be addressed? What about the esprit de corps? Could he confirm the state of esprit de corps, which is the essence of our armed forces? We are at the top table of the world. We have tremendous soft power, but we need the hard power and we need the critical mass. To conclude, as General Sir Richard Shirreff said:

“We all support the efforts to get the deficit down, but it is all about priorities. What really matters? Well, the first duty of government is to protect the nation … And the electorate need to understand there is no point in having hospitals and schools and welfare unless the country is safe”.