The key outcomes of the recent NATO Defence Ministers’ meeting included allied endorsement of the concept of operations for NATO’s post-2014 “Train, Advise, Assist” mission in Afghanistan; agreement to national capability targets apportioned to allies as part of the NATO defence planning process; and a commitment to conduct follow-on work on how NATO might prevent, respond to and recover from a cyber-attack against systems of critical importance to the alliance.
The UK is one of a small number of alliance members that spend 2% or more of their national income on defence. Was the need to raise defence expenditures by those countries that do not meet the 2% threshold raised at the meeting, and what is the Secretary of State doing to try to ensure that other countries in the alliance share the burden with us?
The adequate resourcing of European NATO members’ defence budgets was raised, but—as I have already said in the House—we must also be realistic about the situation that most European countries are facing in their public finances. The more fruitful vein for the next few years will be to ensure that we get true deliverable military capability with the budgets that countries already spend.
I know my right hon. Friend believes that NATO’s output is more important than the 2% target of defence spending, but does he accept that if we abandon that 2% target, we will reduce the pressure on improving the output from NATO?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and I think both issues are important. It is important to be clear that in the medium to long term we must expect NATO members who want to benefit from the advantages of membership to pay the subscription price, as it were, in the form of adequately resourced defence budgets. In the shorter term, reality dictates that we focus on turning the budgets we already have into real, deliverable military capability. There is enormous headroom between what is delivered now with the £200-odd billion of NATO European defence expenditure, and what could be achieved if it were properly organised.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that northern European NATO allies such as Denmark, Norway and Iceland believe that the challenges of the Arctic and the high north are extremely important? Will he also confirm whether the Ministry of Defence has any plans to take part in air policing for NATO from Reykjavik?
We have no plans at the moment to take part in air policing operations from Reykjavik, but we recognise the importance of the high north, not least because such a large proportion of Britain’s primary energy resources now come from the Norwegian sector of the North sea. The MOD is currently undertaking a review of the strategic significance of the polar regions, both north and south, and that will be part of the evidence that informs the 2015 strategic defence and security review.
One of the lessons from Libya showed that the European members of NATO lack sufficient ISTAR— intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—and air-to-air fuel capability. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what progress European allies are making in bringing forward that capability?
Both areas mentioned by my hon. Friend are identified gaps in European NATO capability. Once again, I made it clear at the NATO ministerial meeting that the UK will have surplus capacity in air-to-air refuelling once our new Voyager fleet is fully delivered, and that we are more than willing to share that capacity with other NATO allies in the spirit of pooling and sharing.
The Government and other NATO members have our support in difficult circumstances in trying to end the bloodshed in Syria. As the UK and some other NATO nations consider arming the rebels, will the Secretary of State say what successful precedent there is for the UK arming an opposition force and using a vetting process to ensure that weapons provided are quarantined so that they do not fall into the possession of those whose aims we do not share?
I think there is a hypothetical hidden premise in the right hon. Gentleman’s question. The UK has made no decision to arm the rebels in Syria and we maintain our focus on achieving a political solution, in particular at the Geneva II peace conference, and that will be a central theme of the discussions going on right now in Lough Erne. We must, of course, leave all options on the table while the terrible attrition of the Syrian population continues at the hands of the Assad regime.