NATO - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:21 pm on 2nd April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Sterling of Plaistow Lord Sterling of Plaistow Conservative 5:21 pm, 2nd April 2019

My Lords, I have been involved with the Ministry of Defence since the Falklands War. Celebrating the 70th anniversary of NATO is more than justified. It has proved resilient because it has the strength and confidence that, as has just been said, are the embodiment of shared interests and values. NATO has worked because Europe and North America are strongly united by far more than what divides them. The UK is stronger and more confident because of our membership of NATO. As has already been stated, most military alliances do not last more than 15 years on average, and we should not agonise about or be surprised by pressure points or the occasional twist and turn.

Our Army and the Royal Air Force are key elements in NATO and unquestionably the Royal Navy is the pre-eminent maritime power. Our geography and capability give us a unique advantage to protect Europe’s maritime flank. Our competence at sea is greater than that of any other European nation and our leadership is accepted. The strength of the Royal Navy is not just our strength but NATO’s strength.

We have a responsibility to maintain that pillar of the alliance. That means that our nuclear deterrent is NATO’s nuclear deterrent and that our strike carriers and Royal Marine commandos will always be available, with the ability to strike from sea to land, together with our world-class mine counter capability. Our leadership is welcomed by most European countries. Indeed, I have always believed that, following our withdrawal from the European Union—not Europe, of course—our military capability will be of great importance, particularly for the smaller European countries, as they know that we will always be prepared to protect them in time of need. Sadly, such visionary leadership has been lacking in the withdrawal negotiations over the last three years.

A separate but key point is that we are the prominent trainer of several NATO navies. Because they do not have similar training facilities, this valuable capability leads to enabling interoperability.

As I said earlier, it is an anniversary to be highly celebrated, but now for the future. I am not sure that we would invent NATO today, and I am truly not sure whether at some time in the future it will cease to exist. Crimea was not enough to stir us into action and the French-German overtones suggest a different view of alliances today. You may well ask about the thinking behind the above observations. Relevance in this space is about real deterrence, and that costs. There will be new areas on which to spend money, but ultimate military force is about being the best on all fronts, especially when your adversary only truly respects such capabilities. Of course, we must recognise that we are no longer an empire, but we do have international responsibilities.

I turn now to geography. The clue is in the title “North Atlantic”, so other worldwide activities need other partners such as the USA, Australia and Japan. Most NATO countries have very little global footprint or outlook and so will not necessarily turn up. What then?

Money is key. In this day and age, real leadership requires serious funding. It is time we started to behave like the USA in this regard. For our present and future enlarged role, 2% of GDP is unquestionably too little, and it is essential that we move towards 3%—as has just been suggested—in the very near future. Our future military role is going to much greater than leading only in the European theatre of NATO. We have a strong moral responsibility to help any Commonwealth country that needs our aid. It is my opinion—shared by many—that at this moment in time we are still heavily hollowed out and certainly lack the necessary firepower to carry out our responsibilities. We should be a key framework nation. That means that others should contribute to the costs.

Many comments have been made about Trump—but I do not agree. In my experience of spending a lot of time with Americans and the American military over the last few months or so, they want this country to be their special ally. They trust us. If anybody truly believes that Trump and the Americans, if there ever was a problem in Europe, would not be there faster than anybody else, they need their brains tested. I will go further: it should be remembered that the Americans consider themselves as being on an island. On one side they have the Pacific and on the other side they have the Atlantic. This has dominated the way in which they have planned over the past couple of hundred years.

On the politics side, NATO is not as joined up and sophisticated as it may appear, as national politics over recent years has had an increasing influence on its decision-making capability. In my personal view—which I think is shared by others—the French seem to wish to undermine NATO to enable them to play a leading role, particularly in Europe and alongside America. Germany, apart from its constitution, is not prepared to increase its financial commitment. For the future, all three services—the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force—have still not recovered from the dire cuts of 2010. It has to be said that transformation and innovation have not been actively pursued until very recently.

Kodak—I am very interested in international businesses—was the greatest photographic company in the world until the early 2000s. It knew that it had an urgent need to lead in technology—in the development of smart phones—and to strongly accelerate both transformation and innovation. Nothing happened; it no longer exists. In my view, which is shared by forward-looking minds in all three armed services, it is vital that we rapidly embrace change or we will truly risk irrelevance. We want the finest of our young people—men and women—to be dedicated to the splendid ethos of our armed services, highly trained and equipped with the finest equipment money can buy.

Our strongest likely adversaries—I agree with my noble friend Lord Cormack that China is the longer-term danger—are arming themselves in all areas of conventional warfare, including, cyber, satellite and the capability of economic hacking. This is of great concern. Can we catch up? With the right leadership and financial firepower, unquestionably yes. I personally believe that the Secretary of State, the Chief of the Defence Staff and the newly appointed chiefs of all of our armed services are demonstrating that transformation and innovation are taking place as we speak, and at a rapid rate of knots.

In this modern world of ours, lethal—I repeat, lethal—military force is the best deterrent to aid political negotiation. We are very fortunate that my noble friend Lord Howe is leading this debate. He is one of the best versed in this subject in the House. I would like to reiterate the comments of my friend the noble Lord, Lord West, and of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, that holding this debate, in this House, is essential in these dangerous times. When I heard of the timing, within five working days, I tried my best to get the debate delayed to a more suitable date, but I did not succeed. But I say to my noble friend the Minister that we should have a full-blooded defence debate at an appropriate time—in government time—in the early autumn. So much will have happened by then that a full debate will be justified, and those who could not be here today will be able to attend.

The Minister knows me well. I will never lose an opportunity to say that, given the unquestionable economic strength of this country, the Government must strongly increase their support for the key role of government: the defence of the realm.