My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Howe, for introducing this debate and the many noble Lords who have participated in it. It has been wide-ranging, and it is therefore inevitable I will repeat some points.
I am honoured to take part in today’s debate on the 70th anniversary of the founding of NATO. Over the past 500 years, the average lifespan of a collective defence alliance has been 15 years. That is why NATO’s anniversary is so impressive, and why it has been described as one of the most successful defence treaties in history. Against the backdrop of the ongoing Brexit chaos, the alliance remains the cornerstone of the UK’s defence policy and our collective security, and will become even more important as we leave the European Union and face new threats in the years to come.
For the Labour Party, NATO’s 70th anniversary is an extra special celebration. It was the leadership of Clement Attlee, and his Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, that was so instrumental in setting up the alliance in 1949. When Bevin moved the Motion in the other place to approve the North Atlantic Treaty which established NATO, he called it,
“one of the greatest steps for peace”.
He went on:
“In co-operation with like-minded peoples, we shall act as custodians of peace and as determined opponents of aggression, and shall combine our great resources and great scientific and organisational ability, and use them to raise the standard of life for the masses of the people all over the world”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/5/1949; col. 2022.]
Bevin stressed that the purpose of this pact was to act as a deterrent. It sent a message to potential adversaries that NATO’s members were not,
“a number of weak, divided nations”,—[
“shall be considered an attack against them all”.
Today, the original 12 NATO members have grown to 29. Along with its central role of ensuring the security of the North Atlantic area, NATO also supports global security by working with partners across the world. In non-combat missions in Afghanistan it provides advice and training to security forces, while Operation Active Endeavour seeks to deter terrorist activity in the Mediterranean. More than 800 members of the UK Armed Forces are also stationed in the Baltic states as part of a NATO mission to reassure allies and deter aggressors.
NATO allies are committed to spending a minimum of 2% of their GDP on defence, and it is right that we encourage all allies to meet the NATO guidelines, as the 2014 Wales summit communiqué made clear. However, the UK is barely scraping over the line when it comes to its own level of defence spending. In recent years, the UK’s defence expenditure to NATO has included several items that had not been included previously, such as the addition of pensions to the 2% target; Labour did not include them when we were in government.
We must recognise that years of government cuts have severely affected the UK’s military capability. Recruitment across the board is in free fall, with some front-line British Army battalions down by one-third. The 1st Battalion Scots Guards is 34% below its workforce requirement, while the 2nd Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment is 31% below its target strength. This is unsurprising since the National Audit Office found in December that Capita, which has managed recruitment for the Armed Forces since 2012, has consistently missed Army targets, with a shortfall ranging from 21% to 45% each year. The Government’s decision to outsource recruitment to the company has been a total failure. Morale across the Armed Forces has also declined during the past decade, dropping from 66% to 51% for Royal Marines officers, and the Ministry of Defence has said that its equipment plan faces an affordability gap of between £7 billion and £15 billion.
It is impossible to suggest that this lack of investment and care for our forces, as well as uncertainty about spending commitments, does not undermine the UK’s role in NATO. How can the UK be a key player in the alliance if questions about the long-term commitment to defence spending remain? If recruitment and morale are failing, and if the Ministry of Defence simply cannot afford the equipment it needs, I urge the Government to address these issues immediately.
As we look forward to the next 70 years for NATO, it is clear that it will need to adapt to new resurgent threats. Despite, at times, the isolationist and unpredictable actions of the US, the relationship between America and Europe remains incredibly important. It constitutes £3 billion a day in trade, and our countries share deep interests and values—especially a fundamental belief in democracy. This relationship provided vital protection for citizens in the face of the actions of the Soviet Union. It will continue to be important in the face of resurgent threats from Russia. In the last few years, Russia’s aggressive stance has repeatedly attacked our rule-based international system with abhorrent disregard and self-interest. This was shown through its disgraceful and illegal annexation of Crimea and Donbass in 2014, and in the reckless poisonings in Salisbury last year. These actions have led to a renewed focus on the immediate security of the alliance and the need to secure NATO’s eastern border.
In government, Labour would engage with NATO to see how it could maximise security and dialogue inside and outside the alliance area, as well as using membership to promote democracy and human rights. We would also want to examine how NATO and the UN could interact and operate together more effectively on conflict prevention and peace operations.
Technology is also opening up whole new dimensions for warfare. Cyber remains a huge task for the alliance, but it has taken some welcome steps. At the Brussels summit in 2018 the allies agreed to set up a new cyberspace operations centre, and cyberattack can now trigger an Article 5 response. As NATO also strengthens its co-operation with the EU on cyberdefence, it represents a key area where the UK must continue to co-ordinate action with our European partners after Brexit. We must not allow the UK leaving the EU to limit our security and defence co-operation with important allies, especially when it is in our interest.
AI will also be at the heart of most future cutting-edge technologies, in both the military and civilian worlds. Machine learning will enable new modes of warfare, including various forms of autonomous and semi-autonomous weaponry. The country that invests earliest and most aggressively may end up in a position of military supremacy. Camille Grand, NATO’s assistant secretary-general for defence investment, said that he viewed artificial intelligence in the broad context of new and disruptive technologies, adding:
“Nobody has fully assessed how much it’s going to change the way we do military operations. Is AI going to be a tool to assist in decisions, or is AI going to allow for more autonomous systems to operate?”
To answer these questions we must explore how NATO and the UN can work together to develop an international governance framework to provide oversight of the use of AI by the military, especially the ethical and moral implications of autonomous weapons. The stronger the position we take now, the more likely that AI will be used as a global public good.
On its 70th anniversary, NATO’s success is undisputed. Having seen it secure seven decades of peace and stability, Labour will ensure that it remains the cornerstone of the UK’s defence policy in the years to come, as it adapts to maximise security, pursue dialogue and promote human rights as warfare changes far beyond Attlee and Bevin’s comprehension.