Maligned by some, ignored by others, I do not apologise for having long placed importance of the views on defence and other matters expressed by members of the House of Lords. I have in the past been able to address various groups of House of Lords members in respect of defence issues and I have long respected the wisdom and often unhindered views that members of House of Lords express, particularly if they are none party aligned former senior members of the UK military or past Secretaries of State for Defence. Put another way, I have no-doubts whatsoever that their lordships, be they Conservative, Labour, Liberal-Democrat or Crossbencher, really do understand the serious issues that we must address in respect of UK defence.
Having returned from RAF Marham on Friday afternoon, I found myself listening to a repeat on BBC Parliament of the long and very interesting defence debate that had been held in the House of Lords the previous afternoon. Those speaking either had significant experience in defence, having for instance been past members of the military such as the highly respected crossbencher, Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup and Lord Craig of Radley, both of whom had been former Air Staff Chiefs and Chief of the Defence Staff, former First Sea Lord Admiral Lord West or former Secretary of State for Defence such as Lord King of Bridgewater, Lord Reid of Cardowan, Lord Hutton of Furness and the much respected Lord Robertson of Port Ellen and who, being also a former Secretary General of NATO, had opened the debate. Below, intertwined with my own comments, are just some of the views expressed by their lordships and one’s that I fully concur.
Unusually and because many views expressed in this interesting debate are I know already shared by many of us and whilst apologising for the length of today’s commentary, I have chosen to edit some of the speeches made by those taking part in the Defence Debate held in the House of Lords last Thursday and to put this out as UK Defence (266). I have excluded some only on the basis of space, available space and relevance in my view. Most speakers in the debate were either Cross-Benchers, Labour or Lib-Dems and I have attempted to be both unbiased and properly balanced in my choosing of contributions made in the debate. I would suggest that you print this off to retain as these are issues that in my view are likely to continue to plague all of us involved in defence until the message has finally sunk in. Comments and responses are as always, very welcome and copies in ‘Word’ can as always be sent on request.
In his opening of the debate Lord Robertson of Port Ellen (Lab) talked of what he considered to be the greatest threats and challenges to UK security including migration flows, the spread of religious experience extremism and jihadi violence, a restive and resurgent Russia; a rising China and the disruption by North Korea. Add to that, he said, the “fragile and failed states spreading mayhem across borders, international conflicts, climate change, cyber warfare and the global proliferation of lethal technology, weapons” and on “top of all that, there is the rise and dominance of organised crime, population growth, pandemics and financial instability.
Interestingly, Lord Robertson’s answer to the question posed above of what was the greatest threat, he said this was “ourselves, we” he said “are our own worst enemies. We are short-sighted, penny-pinching, naively optimistic, complacent and ostrich-like to the way in which the world has become interconnected and more fragile, unpredictable and incendiary. We are grossly unprepared and under-resourced to meet the challenges of the coming years. These threats are potent and deadly, and some of them are very urgent.
I have long had great respect for Lord Robertson and while I accept that with SDSR 2015 there has been a very small upward turn in Government attitude to defence and security I, as most of you who read my commentaries also do, recognise that the small increase in defence spending, is far from enough.
Lord Robertson went on to remind that at the end of the Cold War he had made a speech at Chatham House in which he coined the now much-quoted phrase that there had been a “bonfire of the certainties”. “The fall of the Berlin Wall” he said “had unleashed a flood of optimism that had made Kremlinologists redundant overnight and robbed us of the albeit, dangerous manageability of the Soviet/West confrontation. Some were even rash enough to say that it was the “end of history”. “All of us” he said “took a substantial peace dividend and defence budgets were cut radically over the next five years” And then he said that “I believe that we are now seeing another bonfire, this time, one of the post-Cold War certainties. In doing so, we have left ourselves vulnerable and, in many ways, unready. If we look at the way in which we have responded to this new world of regional conflicts, violent civil wars and other violent manifestations of the turmoil that I have already listed, we see that it hardly measures up to the scale of what faces us.
Later during his opening of the debate Lord Robertson reminded that [this week] we will have President Donald Trump [installed in the White House] as the leader of the western world. This was, he said, the “same Donald, with his Mexican wall, with new protectionism and isolationism combined with his serious questioning of NATO solidarity [combined with other beliefs] and Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn as his key security adviser. “Perhaps” Lord Robertson said “we do not actually need more enemies in the world today”.
“In our crazy complacency” he said “we seem quite oblivious to the fact that the relative peacefulness of the world today, as we look over a new precipice, has been achieved by our nuclear deterrent and by our institutions and processes, which require diplomacy, intelligence, involvement and crucially, when it is required and at the end of the line, decisive interventions. Where will the space be left for all that as we paddle through the treacle of dismantling 40 years of integration?”
Lord Robertson went on to say that “what confirms again that we are our own worst enemy is the attitude to spending on defence and security. Yes” he said “I agree with and welcome the fact that we are spending the NATO target of 2% and that we are right in many ways to crow that we are among the few who do. That is good so far as it goes” he said “but we should wait for a moment, after all, have we [not] stretched the definition of 2% to get there? Are we not confusing percentages with capabilities? Who can doubt, as well, that the Brexit devaluation of the pound will now have a serious effect on the defence budget? I hope that the noble Earl the Minister (Earl Howe] will tell us how much it is estimated that blow will cost his department.
He went on to say that “in 1997-98, as Secretary of State for Defence, I led the strategic defence review with, among others, my noble friend Lord Reid. It radically remodelled and modernised our post-Cold War forces. In the preface to the review, I said that post-Cold War problems pose a real threat to our security, whether in the Balkans, the Middle East or in some trouble spot yet to ignite. If we are to discharge our international responsibilities in such areas, we must retain the power to act. Our Armed Forces are Britain’s insurance against a huge variety of risks”. That he said, “Is as true today as it was when I wrote it. The question is whether we in this country have properly retained that power to act. Some doubt will be cast on that by the distinguished speakers who will speak after me in this debate.
“The Minister (Earl Howe] he said “will undoubtedly tell us at the end of the debate that there is formidable hardware in the pipeline, from Trident to the carriers that were the centrepiece of my 1998 review. The question remains, though: is it enough to meet the challenges we are facing when so many of them are urgent and so potent?
My worry is that we are sleepwalking into a potential calamity. My depressing catalogue of threats “does not even take account of what I said in 1998 of trouble spots yet to ignite”. As I wrote those words he said “we could not have foreseen the conflict the very next year in Kosovo, the attacks of 9/11, the implosion of Syria, and the whole of the Arab spring and, indeed, the rise of Daesh/ISIS/ISIL. We have today a crisis of optimism—hoping for the best and failing to prepare for the worst.
So what Lord Robertson asked “should [we] be doing”? First, he said “we must retain and protect our own defence industrial base. That alone gives us some real control in the UK. At the same time, we must encourage and participate in joint projects with our European NATO allies. European contributions to NATO are not just limited by financial shortcomings but by wasteful duplication, and we must continue to press our NATO allies to boost spending and capabilities. If they—and we—did that, we might help expand the growth in our economies.
Secondly, we must continue to promote our values and principles on the world stage. We must defend NATO as the cornerstone of our national and collective defence and tell the people of this country, and indeed the wider world, how essential the alliance remains. Article 5, where an attack on one is an attack on all, is not a choice; it is a solemn obligation. Anybody who questions it questions the whole basis of collective security. Our communication policy on this whole issue is, frankly, pathetic.
Thirdly, we must be aware of and act on the dangers inherent in the present confrontation between Russia and the West. Without the tripwires and warning arrangements of the Cold War, we are in grave danger of making a mistake or a miscalculation with potentially catastrophic results.
Our much-reduced military is still among the very best in the world. Our diplomats have few peers internationally. Our intelligence services are relied on by most of the free world. It is now time for our Government to recognise the dangers to Britain and to live up to their high standards. Never in my lifetime was bold and courageous leadership more necessary and more urgent.
Lord King of Bridgwater (Con) opened by reminding that the House of Commons Defence Committee in a report had said “The world today is at its most dangerous and unstable since the end of the Cold War”. Tellingly he said that as a result of a pretty unbalanced procurementprogramme “we have some impressive capabilities coming forward and that, as long as nobody attacks us before 2025 or 2030, we will be in good shape to meet them. I would not, he said, want to be too cynical about this, but there is a real imbalance in the resources and the capabilities we have at present.
Lord King reminded that Julian Lewis, chair of the House of Commons Defence Committee, has [recently] said that the last time we faced a combination of a threatening Russia and a growing terrorist threat was in the 1980s. Back then, he said, the proportion of GDP we spent on defence was about 5%. He reminded he had been much criticised when he conducted “Options for Change” [in 1997] for daring to reduce the Armed Forces to 350,000 men in uniform adding that “as I look at the 144,000 [numbers] that are now indicated as our present strength, you will understand that I have great concerns”.
In finishing, Lord King agreed with Lord Robertson that key to our defence is NATO. He went on to say that “while we were concerned about certain comments from President-elect Trump, that he was encouraged by the further remarks that [Donald Trump] has made in his conversations with British Prime Minister, Theresa May adding also that he hoped “that the appointment of General Mattis [as US Secretary of Defense] may reinforce support for NATO.
Lord West of Spithead (Lab) talked of rising Russian investment in military capability, Russian actions in Crimea and Ukraine, threats to the Baltic States, cyber-attacks in Estonia, France, Turkey, Ukraine and the USA, aggressive intrusion into NATO air space and near misses plus Russian nuclear submarines are threatening our SSBN [Submarines]. Vladimir Putin, he said, is a revisionist, [he] believes in spheres of influence and understands hard power. His loose talk of the use of nuclear weapons is a particular concern. We must strain every sinew to understand him and keep open a dialogue.
Lord West went on to talk about instability in the Middle East and that it was difficult to identify a country that is not in turmoil—Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya plus countries such as Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, [all of which he said] are under severe strain. The flexing of muscles by Iran and Turkey, as regional powers; the Sunni/Shia divide; Russia’s recent success as a key power broker and he asked the question “where will this all go?”
Lord Craig of Radley (Crossbencher) talked of the Royal Air Force that he had had the privilege to lead in the mid-1980s was [then] close to 100,000 personnel with more than 30 combat squadrons. Today’s Chief of the Air Staff, he said, “has a force of less than a third of that in personnel, and a quarter in squadrons. Yes, airframes and perhaps even people are more capable than their predecessors but small numbers today means that they lack a key fighting quality, that of resilience in combat against other than a very poorly equipped or incapable foe.
Lord Reid of Cardowan (Lab) mentioned that [in terms of extending presence] a good start was made by the recent visit of Royal Air Force Typhoon aircraft to Malaysia, Japan and South Korea, and by the successful Red Arrows displays in the Middle East and China. . But he also reminded that the Royal Navy surface fleet has halved, even in the period since both he and Lord Robertson had been at the Ministry of Defence. A very unfair comparison is sometimes made in the form of the old cliché that we have more admirals than we have ships. It is unfair because the service produced by our admirals goes well beyond the number of our surface fleets, but it illustrates where we are now. We have, he said, only “19 [destroyers and frigates] in our surface fleet, possibly 11 at any given time in operational terms. Similarly, he said, the Royal Air Force has “between n five and seven operational squadrons, compared to 30 to 35 only 20 to 30 years ago”.
Lord Reid went on to say that “leave aside even the £700 million cost of the fall in the value of the pound, the truth is that our [defence] spending, including our contribution to NATO, has been subject to “creative accountancy” as we are now “including in the 2% [of GDP spent
In talking about suggested views for the EU about forming a separate EU defence command structure to NATO, Lord Walker of Aldringham (Cross Bencher) added that in 2008 the EU as a whole spent more than €200 billion on defence. By 2013 the sum had dwindled to €170 billion and that analysts reckoned that it will soon shrink to about €150 billion. “In the face of such declining resources” he said, “creating yet another major EU structure simply does not make sense. To imagine that European nations would be more prepared to increase their defence expenditure for a European military capability when they have shown a collective reluctance to meet the 2% target for their NATO capabilities seems wildly optimistic. But, of course, unless they did so there is no way that that the Union could be taken more seriously as an international force”.
Lord Jopling (Con) said that “we are all concerned at the continued aggressive attitude of Russia [and] which threatens the NATO powers. Following the outrageous behaviour in Georgia, the Crimea and Ukraine, it has relentlessly threatened the eastern border of NATO. He said that Vladimir Putin “will no doubt use his usual posturing to claim that the NATO four-nation battle groups are threatening Russia and that he is, as we know, a master of disinformation. But”, he said “I cannot understand how he [Putin] might argue that this purely defensive move—which it is—can be construed as threatening Russia. Certainly 1,000 troops in each of the Baltic countries and Poland could hardly be suggested to be an invasion force. What the four battle groups will be is a warning trigger that any incursions by the Russian military will trigger the Article 5 arrangements and all the consequences of that”. “I believe” he suggested “that Mr Putin must realise that any repetition of his Ukraine adventures in the territories of NATO members will lead to an immediate, full-hearted response”.
Lord Burnett (Lib-Dem) mentioned he was surprised to read in the Times of 6 January 2017 an article by Deborah Haynes with the headline, “Navy battling to save £500 million after bungled deal for ships”. I would describe the article as authoritative because it included much detail and quoted a former First Sea Lord. There was speculation that one option was to cut the size of the Royal Marines. The noble Earl, along with the Secretary of State, are political members of the Defence Board. Both of them know that recruiting and retention for the Royal Marines, despite the high standards required, is excellent. They know that the Royal Marines need core manpower strength to fulfil many of the specialist roles with which they are tasked. They also know the uniquely high proportion of badged members of UK Special Forces that is drawn from the Royal Marines and the uniquely high proportion of marines who pass the arduous selection process.
My noble friend Lord Slim, a great man, who knows more than most about these things, has often reminded the House that if you require Special Forces troops you need a sufficient pool of talent to recruit them from. The same is true of the other specialist troops drawn from the corps, not least the mountain and arctic warfare specialists. As the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell of Coatdyke would be interested to know, we also have our own cyber force, drawn from highly intelligent members of our corps.
There is insufficient time to list the other vital tasks performed by the Royal Marines, other than the main one: manning the 3rd Commando Brigade. I very much hope that the noble Earl, and the Secretary of State, will not permit any cuts to the corps. It would be deeply destructive to punish success and destabilise the morale of one of the few fully-manned formations of the highest quality in UK defence—and, for that matter, elsewhere.
I have little time left but I ask the noble Earl to confirm that if there are barracks closures—and that is likely—new state-of-the-art barracks will be built in suitable locations with all the necessary communications, computer, fitness and other important facilities, and with proximity to challenging training areas. Will there be wide consultation with the chain of command before any final decisions are taken?
Finally, I understand that the new aircraft carriers will be able to take a commando unit with all attached ranks, weapons and helicopters. I understand that they will have all the necessary command communications and control systems that are crucial for amphibious operations. Is there currently a plan to replace the landing craft capability of the assault ships—the landing platform docks? That role is currently provided by HMS “Bulwark” and HMS “Albion”. If we as a country desire expeditionary capability, we must have the specialist and best troops to do the job
Lord Ramsbotham (Cross-Bencher) who, when an Adjutant-General, was responsible for implementing the reduction in the size of the Army by a third over three years, from 156,000 to 104,000, said that our key worries about implementing the requirement at the time can be encapsulated in two words—uncertainty and sustainability. Uncertainty coloured our thinking about force structure, in the context of the lessons of the first Gulf War, which included the inadequate size of infantry battalions, not having been assimilated, and the emerging requirement to provide contingencies to peacekeeping operations and post-conflict reconstruction.
Sustainability coloured our thinking about the ratio between cuts to teeth or tail. Noble Lords will therefore appreciate that we wondered whether we were being required to make a jump too far, in isolation of consideration of the current international situation. To jump to today, plans to cut the Army yet further, to 82,000, were made before 23 June, and I submit that that needs to be rethought in the light of the changed international situation.
Lord Hutton of Furness (Lab) mentioned the importance of attrition suggesting that as far as he could see no allowance (within SDSR 2105) has been made for attrition of key weapons and platforms. In times of peace, he said, that “may be fantastic, but at times of war it is not such a clever strategy—particularly if, heaven forbid, we found ourselves pitted against a technologically equivalent power; that is not an impossibility”.
His main concern was the Royal Navy which, he said, “is under the greatest pressure of all the three services and has been cut disastrously to below a sustainable level, both in platforms and in people” adding that “I do not dispute for a second that the Type 45 destroyers and the Type 26 frigates will be much more capable platforms, delivering much more kinetic power, but they can only be in one place at a time”. “We simply do not have enough platforms, particularly if we have to prepare for the possibility of the carrier battle groups. The Queen Elizabeth class ships would have to be defended entirely by Royal Navy assets”. I think, he said, that “we are going to struggle to do that, and it is critical that the Government address that point”.
Finally, Lord Hutton said that “the Royal Air Force is already operating flat-out on its existing missions. The air police work in the Baltics, in Syria and in Iraq, and providing quick-reaction aircraft in the Falklands (not to mention Quick Reaction Alert capability for the UK itself and a number of other very important missions around the world) adding that I do not see any spare capacity there at all.
Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde (Lab) suggested our armed forces personnel and their families see the 2% (of our GDP being spent on defence) as smoke and mirrors. They do not understand why pensions should be included in defence spending. An accountant may be able to argue that but you will never convince our people, or many of us in the Chamber today, that that is spending on defence equipment and personnel. They saw last year the announcement by the Government that from 2016 [for the next four years] the maximum pay award they will get year on year will be 1%. Our Armed Forces people are not slow off the mark; they know what is going on and in evidence to the review body they asked why that should be imposed on them when the very people who are imposing it—MPs—are getting more than 1%. Yet we expect our Armed Forces to continue to give the commitment that they have given.
She mentioned that the [Armed Forces Pay Review Body] is independent, that “it has been respected by Governments across the piece and yet, in 2010 and again last year, the Treasury quite arbitrarily, without reference to the review body, cut the commitment bonuses—the commitment to go and do the job. It is in the report [and] it makes worrying reading indeed [that] just 14% of our Armed Forces think that morale is high, just 36% were satisfied with their lifestyle and remuneration package.
In a very interesting and, in my experience, rare intervention on defence from a member of the church, the Lord Bishop of Portsmouth said that “this debate requires us to consider critically whether we have the capacity to determine our own strategic path in the realm of defence and security. The extent of our global reach must reflect our economic and strategic interests as well as our security and military concerns in these changing times, which now make these considerations, as one analyst has put it, “supercharged”.
My anxiety, he said “was that there is a gap, if not sometimes a gulf, between rhetoric about our concerns and ambitions on the one hand and our constrained capability on the other. For example, he said, “not long ago the Foreign Secretary declared that we are “back east of Suez”. It is true that the Gulf and Asia are regions of growing global importance, and this country has new defence centres in Dubai and Singapore. We have some Army presence in Oman and joint training with Singapore after 70 years of this co-operation with only the US”. A naval support facility has opened in Bahrain and the new aircraft carriers will have what is called “a presence” in the Pacific “but our capacity to sustain and resource effective presence and capacity remains limited. Our only garrison in Asia, in Brunei, is funded by the Sultan. We have small quantities of advanced, expensive equipment, of which the new carriers are the most obvious example, but sparse support capacity”.
The Bishop went on to say that In a Royal Navy of 19 just surface vessels [Destroyers and Frigates] an effective carrier group needs most of the deployable capacity adding that “my spellchecker has substituted “deplorable capacity” for my intended words “deployable capacity”.
Viscount Hanworth (Lab) mentioned that NATO is committed to defending the sovereignty of the Baltic States. Britain has contributed 500 combat troops to the region, to which it has also consigned four Typhoon jets for periods of four months in the year. At any one time, only two of these jets are operational. This provision, together with the lesser contributions of our NATO allies, does not constitute a realistic deterrent and that if the US were to disengage from NATO, as Donald Trump proposes that it should, then Britain would be expected to become a natural leader of the alliance. We are ill-equipped for such a role.
Lord Bilimoria (Cross-Bencher) reminded that thankfully, not one member of the UK Armed Forces was killed in operations in 2016 and that this was “was the first time since 1968 that no one had died, although sadly there had been deaths on exercises”. He reminded what Lord Robertson had said earlier with crystal clarity in his brilliant opening speech that “the challenges that we face globally are, in his words, a “bonfire of certainties”.
He reminded too that the head of the Defence Select Committee, Julian Lewis MP had [previously] said that the last time this country faced a threatening Russia as well as a major terrorist campaign, the UK was investing between 4.3% and 5.1% of GDP in defence. It is, he suggested “a measure of just how low our expectations have fallen that here we are celebrating the minimum of 2%, and [that] there are debates about how this 2% is measured. He suggested that 3% would be a much better level of spending.
Lord Bilimoria reminded that General Sir Richard Barrons, the retired head of the UK’s Joint Forces Command, had [recently] said that we are “dangerously squeezed” in manpower and he asked “can the Minister [Lord Howe] confirm that there is a shortfall of 22% in our Maritime Reserves and 12% in the Army Reserves? Importantly, he reminded that “as far as the Defence Medical Services are concerned, we no longer have military hospitals and what exists now is within the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, these being attached to the University of Birmingham Medical School where I am proud to be Chancellor of the University of Birmingham”. He suggested that “there is a shortage of medical doctors being recruited, retained and motivated. Such under-manning” he said “has led to a reliance on Reserve Forces which are also under-recruited and that Sir Richard Barrons [had] also said in 2016 that the UK and its NATO allies had “no effective plan for defending Europe from a Russian attack because of splits in the alliance”.
“We are”, Lord Bilimoria said, “the fifth largest economy in the world” but that because of the uncertainty the world sees before we leave the EU and the devaluation of the pound, we are no longer fifth. “India” he said “has overtaken the UK as the fifth largest economy in the world and will soon overtake the UK as the fifth largest defence spender as well.
Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab) brought the subject of 2% of GDP up and having reminded that the UK is one of only five NATO members to spend 2% of GDP on defence that this includes £820 million on war pensions, £400 million on our United Nations peacekeeping missions and £200 million for pensions for retired Ministry of Defence civilian staff. For the very first time, it includes spending on the single intelligence account and on one-off items that cannot be counted towards the 2% in years to come (he could also have mentioned the plan to spend an additional £1 billion plus on Cyber Security). He suggested that “the 2% figure should not be a target: it should be a minimum”.
Lord Stirrup (Cross Bencher) spoke towards the end of the debate and what he called “a long list of wise and knowledgeable contributors”. Importantly, the highly respected former Chief of the Defence Staff reminded that “throughout the history of warfare, surprise has been one of the most critical factors in achieving success”. This he said “may seem a statement of the obvious but we should bear in mind that our opponents and potential enemies also recognise the importance of this dictum and, not unnaturally, they will usually seek to surprise us.” He suggested that they “will also” if they are sensible, “try to attack us where we are weakest. We should therefore not expect to be able to predict the location, timing or nature of any future conflict”.
Lord Stirrup went on to say that “most past wars have surprised us to some degree and we have found ourselves inadequately prepared for the demands that they make on us. This is not, or at least not entirely, because of a lack of planning or foresight. The future is to a degree not only unknown but unknowable, and no amount of horizon scanning or scenario planning can make up for that. I am not suggesting that such activities are unnecessary; there are after all many facets of future conflict that can and should be subjected to careful analysis and for which we should prepare. One such example is the increasing importance of the cyber domain, to which several speakers have already referred, and on which I will merely say I entirely agree with them.
However, we run the risk of persuading ourselves that because we have new challenges we can forget about old ones. Just because the cyber domain is such a promising field for our enemies does not mean that we will never again face a violent attack in the physical world. It does not mean that our use of airspace above the battlefield will never again be contested or that antisubmarine warfare is a thing of the past. None of these, or similar, propositions is safe. We must prepare for the future as best we can, but we must also prepare to be surprised.
There is, however, an answer to this conundrum. The most important capabilities that we will need in our Armed Forces in the years ahead are the ones that have served us so well in the past: agility and adaptability. In this context, agility is our ability to use existing systems in new and innovative ways, and adaptability refers to the process of altering those systems quickly in order to meet the unexpected and unforeseen.
“The design and production lead times for weapon platforms are long, and we have to do our best to match them with future needs. At the same time, we must recognise that something will come along that will surprise us, and make allowances for this. We therefore need a broad spectrum of capabilities that can be adapted rapidly to meet new challenges as they arise and as they are recognised, and the agility of mind, of doctrine and of training to employ our capabilities as the situation demands, not just as we have done in the past”.
“Finally” he said and as has been said frequently during this debate “all of this requires investment—in equipment, in research and development, in industries on which we rely for our adaptability, and in our people. We are currently doing a little better in this regard, but still not well enough; there are danger signs on the horizon. The noble Earl [Howe] the Minister, will in his response] no doubt point rightly to the quality of our forces. Quality is indeed more important than quantity, provided that we have lots of it. In this uncertain and dangerous world there can be no greater priority for the Government than matching our defence investment to the high level of risk that we face.
Baroness Jolly (Lib-Dem) suggested that unconventional terrorist threats continue, requiring international co-operation. In addition, climate change and mass migration are growing issues, which may effectively be tackled only multilaterally. Within this context she said, “UK Armed Forces do not currently have the capability to address the range of threats. Spending is down across NATO and the UK conventional Armed Forces are the smallest in the P5—and, of course, there is the Brexit factor to consider, which reduces our buying power.
Technologically and in terms of equipment, we do not necessarily hold an advantage. To ensure that the UK is able to insure itself in an unstable world, while promoting stability, trade and liberal values overseas, we must do everything possible to preserve and build our alliances and international institutions, while re-evaluating current defence policy in light of fast-changing global circumstances. New strategies should be developed to stay ahead of adversaries, not a commitment to fighting yesterday’s war.
The rise of hybrid warfare, cyberattacks on western interests and large-scale online assaults on allied nations’ systems mean that cyberspace should be considered an additional, non-kinetic strategic space. Informational systems and institutions must develop resilience against cyberattacks and the effects of anti-satellite warfare. Lawfare—the strategy of using law rather than traditional means to achieve an operational objective—is likely to be used more prominently.
On a more specific level, the UK must retain the ability to respond to any Russian attempt to test NATO’s commitment to Article 5 defence of the Baltics and other allied countries and interests in a resolute but proportionate way. To preserve the domestic and global economy, the UK must have the ability to ensure safe and open trading routes across the global commons, especially in the South China Sea and the Arabian Gulf.
Baroness Jolly said that in 2015, our defence spending was equivalent to about £46.5 billion, or 2.05% of GDP. In 2015-16, 56,860 UK Armed Forces members were deployed around the world and that in April 2016, the number of regulars was 151,000, with 84,000 reserves—the smallest force of the UNSC P5. She went on to remind that “General Sir Richard Barrons had produced a private memorandum for the Secretary of State for Defence criticising the state of UK defence policy and that some of the key criticisms were that the MoD was working to “preserve the shop window” while critical technical and logistical capabilities had been “iteratively stripped out” and that Sir Richard had said that there was no military plan to defend the UK in a conventional conflict. In his words “Counter-terrorism is the limit of up-to-date plans and preparations to secure UK airspace, waters and territory … There is no top to bottom command and control mechanism, preparation or training in place for the UK armed forces”,
In concluding Baroness Jolly said that “when the 2020 SDSR team sits down to start its planning it will need to look at our defence policy in the light of possible future conflicts and not only in the light of counterterror operations. She suggested more investment in research and development and that we need to increase our work in conjunction with both universities and the private sector”. The defence industry she said “should become a sizeable part of the soon-to-be-published industrial strategy”. She also suggested that “we were top of the soft power league both in 2010 and 2015. This position was deserved and in our current situation is no bad thing, but we need to use our diplomatic and soft power wisely to ensure that our allies take defence seriously. Collective self-defence is cheaper and more secure than all the alternatives.
Lord Touhig (Lab) reminded that, as Lord Reid had previously pointed out, “we now have an Army smaller than the one we put in the field against Napoleon, that the Royal Navy has just 19 escorts, six of which have propulsion problems, that we have no [commissioned] aircraft carriers and will have none until early 2020s, that there are currently only seven RAF fighter squadrons and that two of those exist only by extending the life of the Typhoon until 2040”. He reminded that the Government had revealed that “one third of our Typhoon and Tornado aircraft are in long-term maintenance and unable to fly, that [as yet] we have no Maritime Patrol Aircraft [capability] while the Russians increase their submarine activity around our seas, that there is an overdependence on recruiting reservists and that, despite millions being spent on recruitment, that targets for all three services have been missed. He suggested that morale [in the Armed Forces] was poor, that 54% of service personnel are dissatisfied with service life and that, according to a recent National Audit Office report on military accommodation, that “poor housing was affecting morale, recruitment and retention”. These failings he said were “not the responsibility of our Armed Forces but rather, the consequences of the Government’s policy of cuts, mismanagement and poor forecasting”.
One thing he said that we can all agree “is that the service men and women in our Armed Forces are committed professionals and the best in the world. They are the best trained, the most highly motivated and very effective at what they do. But we have to make sure they remain so. That means that we have to make sure that our Armed Forces are adequately funded”.
He called for “better management of our resources” mentioning that the [amphibious capability support ship] HMS Ocean had a £65 million refit completed in 2014 only for the Government to announce one year later that she would be decommissioned in 2018. We will, he said. “now spend £60 million adapting one of our new carriers to perform its tasks” He went on to talk about the [Royal Fleet Auxiliary] vessel RFA Diligence which is the UK’s only at-sea repair ship and that between 2007 and 2015 the Government had spent £44 million on refits only to put the vessel up for sale last year. This he said “was an appalling waste of scarce defence resources”. He reminded also that Lord Murphy had referred to comments made recently by Nia Griffith (MP for Llanelli) reminding that the present 2% spending of GDP on defence includes £825 million of war pensions, £400 million on UN peacekeeping and an estimated £200 million on pensions paid to retired civil servants and that she had said “Pensions are very important but they in no way contribute to defence capabilities”. Lord Touhig added “faced with a potential aggressor, how will the Government use pensions to defend Britain? Perhaps, like some latter-day Ethelred the Unready, they could use the pensions to buy off the threat.
He also reminded of an article written by Edward Lucas in the Times on December 22nd last year in which the author wrote “Putin is decisive; we are not. He is willing to accept economic pain; we are not. He is willing to break the rules; we are not. He is willing to use force; we are not”. Lord Touhig added that he “shared Lucas’s concern that we may not be able to rely on the United States to help defend us in the future. President-elect Trump unsettles many of us—as he reassures some who are not our friends—with his pronouncements about Russia, NATO and the defence of Europe”.
In his response the Minister of State, Lord Howe (Con) said that it is undoubtedly true that the world is a more dangerous and uncertain place today than it has been for many years. Despite encouraging advances, the threat from Daesh remains substantial. Russia, as noble Lords have said, continues to show its force through both conventional and novel means. New theatres of conflict, most notably cyber, demand new and complex capability. And the transition to a new US Administration has been seen by some as an opportunity to question, perhaps even attempt to undermine, the role of the rules-based international order.
He reminded that in the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, we wrote “the world is changing rapidly and fundamentally”. He went on to say that we cannot claim to have foreseen the seismic political events of the past 12 months, but we recognised the uncertainty and volatility characterising our current era and we conducted our analysis and reached our conclusions accordingly. I align myself with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, in this area: no Government can predict the future, but we can prepare for the unpredictable. The SDSR presents a clear plan for doing precisely that.
He said that “I remind the House of the four most pressing challenges to UK defence and security, as identified in 2015: first, the increasing threat posed by terrorism, extremism and instability; secondly, the resurgence of state-based threats and intensifying wider state competition; thirdly, the impact of technology, especially cyber threats; and finally, the erosion of the rules-based international order, making it harder to build consensus and tackle global threats. The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, rightly warned us against complacency. We cannot be complacent about recent developments in our strategic context, but I am confident that this list of challenges is as accurate today as it was just over a year ago, and that the plan we have constructed to respond to them stands up to scrutiny and that in the context of enduring change and uncertainty, two principles must be central to our response. First, we must plan to be adaptable: the threats we face are varied and diffuse, and we must be ready to respond rapidly and effectively however and wherever they become manifest. Secondly, we must strengthen and deepen our international partnerships and alliances: now more than ever we must place an international approach at the heart of all of our defence and security plans. I will address both of these in turn”.
He suggested that at the heart of Joint Force 2025 is the ability “to deploy a highly capable expeditionary force of around 50,000. That is a step change in our ambition from the “best effort” deployment of 30,000 planned for in the 2010 SDSR. It will fully prepare us for the most substantial challenges to our national security, including a call to war fighting under NATO Article 5.” And that “increased agility and versatility increases our security. It sends a powerful message of deterrence to our adversaries, and lets our allies and partners know that we are willing and able to tackle our shared problems side by side. This point cannot be over-emphasised in the wake of last year’s referendum”.
Moving on to talk about a second strategic imperative in SDSR 2015 he reminded of the “need to strengthen and deepen our international partnerships and alliances. In the SDSR, we wrote that our defence policy and plans will be “international by design”. Our interests are inextricably linked to global security and prosperity, and we will continue to play a leading role in protecting global stability. We cannot, and do not, hope to do this alone. It is not just a policy choice but a necessity that we become more deliberate in our international approach across all defence activity. We will build an international dimension into defence planning from the outset. In practice”. In practice, he said “that means [having] strong strategic bilateral and multilateral relationships.
He talked of interoperability being developed and that NATO remains the key vehicle for maintaining an integrated and interoperable military force. We will, he said “work with alliance members to train and exercise together, and to share doctrine, tactics and procedures. We will also continue to develop collaborative capabilities with our key allies wherever there is an opportunity to share expertise and cost in the development of new defence technology. Taken together, and supported by the Government’s global defence and diplomatic network, this will allow us to build coalitions throughout the world in the pursuit of shared interests and in support of the rules-based international order.
Summing up, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen said that “it is difficult to mount any form of attack on the noble Earl who is so gentle and so apparently reasonable that we are all disarmed at the end. But there is a long-standing belief that no plan survives the first engagement with the enemy. Since the SDSR was published last year, we have had the Brexit referendum, with profound implications for the direction of British defence policy.
Secondly, he said, “Donald Trump has been elected as President of the United States of America, with all the statements that he has made about NATO undermining, in many ways, a lot of the solidarity that is there. So there is a genuine reason for looking at SDSR 2015, if only to look at the activities of President Putin now that he is a major player in the Middle East”.
(The above are edited speeches taken from the official Hansard record of the House of Lords debate)
CHW (London – 16th January 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785