NATO - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:25 pm on 2nd April 2019.

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Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour 4:25 pm, 2nd April 2019

My Lords, I thank the Minister for tabling this debate. I fear that issues of defence seem to have little traction in this place, in the body politic as a whole or, indeed, in the nation at large. This debate was tabled at very short notice, as my noble friend Lord Robertson has said. That is unfortunate because I think a number of people who would have liked to have spoken have been unable to because of prior commitments.

Sadly, it tends to take a war to change the political and national interest in defence. There is no doubt that insufficient investment, both in intellectual understanding of the world in which we live—its relationship to our national grand strategy—and necessary defence funding, make war more likely. A splendid example of this is that 37 years ago today, the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands. The fact that there was tension down there was well above the radar horizon, but we were not focused on it. We withdrew HMS “Endurance” for a saving of £16 million, in what in those days were called the long-term costings. What did that cost our nation in terms of getting defence wrong? It cost us £3.5 billion, and 300 men killed, so debates such as this are crucial.

I have to say that it is rather refreshing to have a debate not directly linked to Brexit, but as is the case with so many things, there are significant issues involving the EU and NATO, and thus the dreaded B word does raise its head. The Minister and my noble friend Lord Robertson have explained that membership of NATO is fundamental to the defence of our nation, and they are right. It is also crucial to the defence of Europe, and be in no doubt—a secure, safe Europe is critical to the safety of our island home. What has been a concern for many years, as stated, is that the continental nations of Europe in NATO have for decades been getting defence on the cheap. Most have not invested sufficiently in their armed forces, and have relied on the USA and to a lesser extent—until recently—the United Kingdom to foot the bill. Even worse, when spending money, they have spent on lavish headquarters and extra, often undeployable people, rather than fighting equipment and fully deployable forces.

This situation, as has been mentioned, is slowly improving with the NATO commitment for countries to spend 2% of GDP on defence and enhancing the amount spent on new equipment and procurement. Most of them are not there yet, I am afraid, but there are moves in the right direction. Sadly, I feel the pressures for an EU army and the European Defence Union are pulling in another direction. The establishment of more headquarters and command structures, often replicating those that NATO already has in a suboptimal way, is dangerous posturing. One cannot help wondering if the PESCO arrangements are primarily aimed at spending more on EU defence firms and excluding other nations, such as the UK, rather than getting the best and most equipment for the limited funds available.

What is clear is that, whatever the outcome of Brexit, NATO is our nation’s most important defence alliance, and although the security of Europe is critical to the security of these islands, the United States is our most important defence ally. Having said that, we must continue to work closely with our European neighbours, as we have done for decades. The military links between us and France, for example—a country that does bear its proper burden of defence spending— are closer than any time since World War II. It is pointless having a grand military alliance if there are no threats. As has been said, 73 years ago this month in Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill clearly articulated the geographical division of Europe:

“From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent”.

NATO was established on 4 April 1949 to counter the very real possibility of a Soviet invasion of Europe. We know, having seen all its documents following the collapse of the Soviet Union, that there was a very real intention to invade Europe and to take over the whole of that continent. Of course, NATO’s Article 5 was the solution that stopped the Iron Curtain moving westwards. We have had quotes from General Hastings Ismay; the one I rather like was when he said that the whole reason for NATO is,

“to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down”.

Much has changed since then, I hasten to add.

With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact in February 1991 and the Soviet Union disintegrating in December 1991, what was NATO for? I was made very aware of the problem when at the end of 1991, while serving as head of naval intelligence, I was tasked with going to NATO headquarters and leading the revision of MC 161, which is the NATO intelligence bible. That is extremely difficult when your enemy has suddenly disappeared but the world was full of risks and threats, which have increased over the last quarter of a century. The foundational concepts of the post-World War II belief in democracy and capitalism are challenged as never before, and the geographic dominance of—for want of better words—the West and its underlying precepts of justice, rule of law and human rights are at risk. Like-minded nations which believed in the world order established after World War II need to hold together. New and returning actors in Russia and the East do not accept the status quo; some wish the system to collapse and are demanding a rearrangement of the participants at the tables of power.

NATO has found itself involved in central Asia. As the Minister mentioned, its involvement in Afghanistan was a direct result of the only time in NATO’s history that Article 5 has been enacted. NATO was also involved in the Balkans, the Levant, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the north African littoral. However, now we are confronted by a re-emergent Russia that has expansionist ambitions. Indeed, it seems intent on disregarding the world order and destabilising nations around the world.

I mentioned earlier that for the past 70 years, the continental NATO nations have relied on the USA—and, to a lesser extent, the UK—to foot the bill for their security and defence. I added the proviso “until recently” because since 2010, that has no longer been the case. The UK has reduced its military capability to a level that is insufficient to ensure its own security, let alone that of other nations. Indeed, I doubt that we are any longer capable of meeting fully all of our commitments to NATO.

To take just one fighting environment, that of the maritime, at the end of the Cold War we were seen as the bedrock of NATO’s naval power in the eastern Atlantic. Our submarines—some 21 of them—were capable of countering forays by Soviet nuclear submarines trying to penetrate south of the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap. Hence they were able to protect US and UK ballistic missile submarines. They were also capable of penetrating the Soviet ballistic missile submarine bastions up in the Arctic, north of the Kola peninsula. They were supported by Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft—we had over 30 at that stage—that were probably the best in the world at that time. In addition, we had about 50 destroyers and frigates, a number of which were specialist anti-submarine platforms with towed array sonar.

The US striking fleet completely depended on us for anti-submarine warfare support. The UK ASW striking force consisted of an “Invincible” class carrier with ASW dunking sonar and sonar-buoy capable large helicopters, along with a mix of the assets I have talked about. We deployed Royal Marines annually: a full brigade was earmarked for war to north Norway to exercise with our allies and deter the Soviets from invasion. Holding north Norway would enable the US striking fleet to reach launch positions to decimate the Soviet military complexes in the Kola, which so threatened us.

What is the significance of the fact that we had that capability? Surely the Cold War is over. But the broad North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans are no longer safe and secure, and it is the Atlantic that links Europe to its most important ally. Russia has modernised her SSN fleet and is again deploying attack submarines south of the GIUK gap on a scale not seen since the end of the Cold War. Why? She is building a new class of submarine-launched ballistic missiles—not just a new class of submarines for them. She has used specialist submarines and surface ships to identify and interfere with the undersea cables that are so crucial to the global financial system. Why? Russia is making unsubstantiated claims of ownership to vast areas of the Arctic seabed. Norway feels herself under threat; her gas fields are crucial to our energy supply and economy.

NATO is, to an extent, waking up, seeing the need for a North Atlantic command. The UK has signed a memorandum of understanding with Iceland designed to enhance our capability for looking north. We have rejuvenated winter deployments to north Norway, although we now have only a commando group available for that. We have started looking north again, after focusing on south-west Asia for a very long time.

The United Kingdom is the most important maritime power in NATO Europe, but cuts to our Navy since 2010 mean that we can no longer ensure the security of the waters in which we live. Just in numerical terms, in comparison with the end of the Cold War we now have six versus 14 nuclear attack submarines, 19 versus 50 escorts, no MPA at all, 25 versus 77 heavy helicopters, and a commando group versus a commando brigade. Quality is important but numbers also matter.

It is right to celebrate NATO’s 70th birthday. It has been an amazing alliance—probably the most successful in history, and it has ensured our safety throughout its existence. We owe it to NATO, to Europe and to ourselves to reinvest in defence.