My Lords, as NATO has made clear in an official statement, all nations have the right to exercise their armed forces, but it is essential that this is done in a transparent and predictable manner. Vostok fits into a pattern we have seen over some time of a more assertive Russia significantly increasing its military capability and presence, and the UK and our allies will be observing the exercise closely.
My Lords, given the increasing assertiveness of Russia, evidenced by the scale of the exercise, its actions in Ukraine and Syria and submarine probing, and given China’s big increase in defence expenditure and establishment of new military bases, not just in the South China Sea, when will the Government accept the necessity to significantly increase defence spending, as called for by the Defence Select Committee and so many others? The Government cannot keep kicking the can down the road, sheltering behind the Modernising Defence Programme. Money is needed now, even if it means reducing the overseas aid programme and/or increasing taxation.
My Lords, as I made clear earlier this week, the Government take very seriously their obligations to keep this country secure and safe and have an effective and workable defence capability. That, of course, is what the first step of the strategic defence review was all about, and it is certainly what the Modernising Defence Programme is about. That programme, I remind noble Lords, is to make sure that defence is configured to address the intensifying and more complex threats that we and our allies face, and also to put UK defence on an enduringly affordable footing so that our contribution to national security and prosperity is sustainable over the long term.
My Lords, according to press reports the latest Russian tank has a range 500 metres longer than that of Challenger 2. If that report is true, it means that Challenger 2, despite the considerable improvements in its turret that have been made over the years, would be quite useless on the battlefield and would instead be simply a death-trap for its crew. Are those reports true? If they are, what are the Government doing about it?
My Lords, I point out that good progress has been made since we launched the Modernising Defence Programme in January. I described in my earlier response what the two key aims of that programme are. We have reviewed our existing capability plans, we have begun to shape new policy approaches and to identify some investment priorities, and we have developed a blueprint for a major programme of top-down, transformative reform of defence. This is a holistic exercise, and one in which the MoD is carefully engaging to ensure that the vital needs I have already referred to can be met.
In conjunction with our allies, not least our partners in NATO, we regularly review what is happening. As the noble Baroness will be aware, we are an important component in the Baltic presence, and with NATO we regularly review what the challenges are and respond to them as circumstances require.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that with an economy the size of that of Texas, the Russian Federation’s real power does not really lie in these symbolic exercises and what are probably fake figures—I understand that they have been inflated by at least 100%—but much more in the electronic area and in cyber intervention, which can do real, immediate and devastating damage to the economies of the West such as ours?
My noble friend makes a very important and perceptive point: that is a development to which the Government are very sensitive and about which they have been extremely vigilant. It is certainly something under the surveyance of the Modernising Defence Programme.
My Lords, will the Minister make it abundantly clear that, while we all want to see a properly funded Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces, it is no part of the Government’s thinking to accept the advice from the Liberal Democrat spokesman who asked the Question to do so at the expense of the international aid budget?
The noble Lord will be aware that there has been a lot of support across the Chamber for the Government’s approach to the international aid budget. The commitment that we have made of 0.7% of GDP is for the duration of this Parliament, and the Government take that undertaking very seriously. While I cannot commit beyond this Parliament, I am sure that it will remain very much on the radar screen.
My Lords, do the Government recognise that, in the context of the Chinese collaboration in this big Russian exercise, relations between China and Russia will be a crucial component of world stability in the future? The great difference between China and Russia is that China has a considerable entrepreneurial streak, which Russia conspicuously lacks. China is unlikely to have forgotten the way in which Russia left it in the lurch when suddenly, in July 1960, it unilaterally withdrew from China all its experts, on whom China had become rather dependent.
My noble friend makes an interesting point. I am certain that other global powers view history and come to their own conclusions about that history. In relation to China, it has a very significant global presence—not least through its economy, which includes opportunities for this country. I would observe that all nations have the right to exercise their Armed Forces and include their allies and partners in that activity. China has participated in Russian exercises before, so the co-operation on this occasion is not unprecedented.