Brexit: Common Security and Defence Policy Missions and Operations (European Union Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:52 pm on 15th May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom Conservative 6:52 pm, 15th May 2019

My Lords, I agree with absolutely every word of what the right reverend Prelate said. He reminds us of what is at stake when we speak of defence, but also of the value of alliances.

I draw attention to my interests declared on the register, particularly the fact that I am chairman of the advisory board of Thales UK and chairman of the Information Assurance Advisory Council, a cybersecurity and resilience not-for-profit organisation.

I thank the committee for this report. It is good to be able to debate it; it is realistic, informative and sober. I am able to say that, not having served on the committee. The report makes important points about, for example, the excellence of some of the UK’s contributions to the CSDP and what it describes as “the particular success” of Operation Atalanta, to which we contributed the headquarters at Northwood. One of the witnesses in front of the committee described that headquarters as,

“Really significant, both intellectually and in terms of military capability”.

However, a thread running through the entire report is that we do not do as much as we could or should, given the importance of the CSDP missions and operations to the UK’s own foreign policy objectives. One of the witnesses described the provision of the HQ at Northwood as an important exception to the UK’s otherwise limited role in military missions and operations. The noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, thought that the other member states “think we are slackers”.

There are various reasons suggested for this. One is that our Armed Forces have been busy elsewhere, which of course is true. Another reason is that they are better suited to high-intensity operations than some of the low-intensity ones which form the bulk of what the CSDP does. I am not sure about that. But the third reason is that the UK has been ambivalent politically about the very existence of the CSDP, ostensibly because it runs the risk of duplicating what NATO does—and in terms of duplicating headquarters, there is a good point made there. The reality, however, is that the issue of duplication was really only an excuse. We can see the Conservative Party, in its current manifestation, becoming more suspicious of everything to do with Europe.

I think this detachment from the CSDP is both a shame and a mistake, for two reasons. The first reason is that we are good at defence and security, and that generates real respect for our country. The more we can operate alongside other countries and put our shoulder to the wheel, the greater the respect for ourselves that we can generate—at a time when, God knows, we could do with it.

The second reason is that we should recognise that the nature of war is changing. In the past, wars tended to be won by those who could put more tanks, aircraft, ships and men into the field and deploy them well with a winning argument that took the moral and physical high ground. Those remain important issues, but nowadays we also have to consider other things. What is the cybersecurity of our Armed Forces? A US Government report by the Government Accountability Office found mission-critical cyber vulnerabilities in nearly all weapons systems tested between 2012 and 2017, including the F-35 and missile systems.

More than that, what is the cybersecurity of our critical national infrastructure? How is general news reaching the people of our country? Is it accurate or is it fake? In the last US presidential election, fake news from only six Russian sources was viewed on Facebook over 250 million times. That must have had an effect. We are more likely, it seems, to share fake news than real news. In other words, while military capability is important to our defence and security—and I would argue that we spend too little of our GDP on that capability, and that the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, was quite right in what he said—so too are other aspects of our society; aspects involving the civilian population and a comprehensive approach for which the CSDP is ideally suited.

What can we learn from the conflict in Ukraine? We can learn that Russia switched off its power grid. Have we in the UK learned that lesson? No, because Russia made sure that the consequences for Ukraine were not as utterly catastrophic as they could have been, and so we paid little attention. Russia has been able to exercise its concepts of war without the West taking the precautions necessary to defend against those concepts.

If we in the UK suffered a prolonged, widespread power outage, what would happen? Our communications would go down: mobile telephones, which need the aerials to have power, would not work. There would be no more money: not only would the ATMs stop working but so would the tills in the shops and the computers in the banks. The water which we take for granted, pumped by electricity, would stop, and so would the sewage removal. The sewage in the pipes would solidify within a week. There would be no more Facebook—you see how serious things would become.

In these circumstances, it is right for the UK to fashion its defence and security based as much around the new threats as around the old, and around mobilising our civilian population as much as our distressingly small military forces. What a pity it is that we seem to be doing our best to diminish our own influence with the decision-making process that is so important to our own policies and our own future. The right reverend Prelate spoke of the risk that we are squandering the moral authority we currently have. He was quite right.