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Falkland Islands Defence Review

Volume 594: debated on Tuesday 24 March 2015

With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Falkland Islands defence review.

Safeguarding our citizens and their way of life remains the most important responsibility of Government and of the Ministry of Defence. In March 2013, the Falkland Islands referendum reaffirmed the islanders’ overwhelming wish to remain British. Of the 92% who voted, 99.8% voted in favour of maintaining their political status as an overseas territory of the United Kingdom. We will always defend the right of the Falkland islanders to determine their own political future.

The Ministry of Defence retains responsibility for the external defence and security of British interests in the south Atlantic, and, to that end, undertakes regular assessments to ensure that we have in place the appropriate defensive capability. In autumn 2013, my predecessor asked officials to undertake a thorough review of the forces we hold on the Falkland Islands and our contingency plans for their defence. The objective was to ensure that our enduring commitment to the defence of the islands is sustained effectively. That review has now been completed.

The review’s conclusions remain operationally sensitive in the light of potential threats, and I hope the House will understand that I cannot disclose much of the detail. However, I can tell the House that we have updated our assessment of any threat to the islands. This includes a consideration of the changes that may arise from the islanders’ plans to develop their economy, including the potential for development of an oil and gas industry. We continue to discuss these issues with the Falkland Islands Government.

I have endorsed the assessment of the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Commander of Joint Forces Command that the current military presence is broadly proportionate to the threats and risks that we face. Our forces in the south Atlantic are entirely defensive, and are at the level required to ensure the defence of the Falkland Islands against any potential threat. However, I have also agreed a number of measures designed to ensure our resilience for the short, medium and longer term. Those measures will include the return of military support helicopters, which were removed in 2006 to support operations in Afghanistan. On current plans, this will involve the deployment of two Chinooks, which will be operational by the middle of next year. This is a significant capability that will provide reactive, 24/7 tactical mobility in order to allow a swift and decisive response to any emerging incidents. The helicopters will also bring a heavy-lift capability and enhance the training opportunities available to the resident infantry company.

We also have plans in place to deliver enhanced operational communications for the headquarters at Mount Pleasant to better enable the sharing of real-time operational data. I can confirm that we will be renewing the ground-based air defence system when Rapier comes out of service at around the end of the decade. We will maintain our commitment to provide a Falkland Islands patrol vessel, currently HMS Clyde. In addition, we intend to carry out a number of projects to replace some of the ageing infrastructure—for example, the refurbishment of Mare harbour and the replacement of the existing power generation systems at Mount Pleasant airfield. A major modernisation of the fuels infrastructure is under way and now nearing completion. In total, we expect to invest up to £180 million in improving and modernising our infrastructure on the islands over the next 10 years.

In addition to the operational improvements I have mentioned, we are taking action to improve the quality of life of those who serve in the Falklands, including planned improvements to accommodation and a new primary school. Although there will be some changes in personnel numbers as the Sea King helicopters are withdrawn and the Chinook force stands up, I have decided that for the foreseeable future we will keep our numbers at around their current levels of about 1,200 personnel, military and civilian. I know the House will want to join me in taking this opportunity to pay tribute to our brave men and women, military and civilian, who leave behind their families and friends for months or years at a time in order to ensure the right of the Falkland islanders to remain British. We will always remember the bravery of the 255 British servicemen who gave their lives for that cause.

I am aware of the close interest that the Defence Committee takes in the Falkland Islands, and of the Committee’s most recent visit there earlier this year. I am grateful for its insights, some of which echo the findings of the review. I wrote earlier today to the Chairman of the Committee.

The review we have undertaken confirms our commitment to the Falkland Islands. We will continue to defend the right of the Falkland islanders to determine their future and maintain their way of life against whatever threats may arise. The review ensures that we will continue to have the right mix of people, equipment and infrastructure to deliver that commitment in the years ahead. The Government are not complacent and we will continue to remain vigilant. However, on the basis of the review and the follow-on measures that I have established, I am satisfied that the Government can be confident in their continued ability to defend the south Atlantic islands. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Defence Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it.

Let me state at the outset that it is right, on occasions such as this, once again to remember and pay tribute to the courage of the men and women of the armed forces in retaking the Falklands in 1982—in particular, the 255 Britons who made the ultimate sacrifice, and the hundreds of service personnel who were injured, and their families.

We should also remember, as the Secretary of State said, that the views of the Falkland islanders are firmly on the record. Does he agree that the recent referendum was a democratic process overseen by international observers that has again made it clear that the islanders wish to remain British? Our position is clear: the only people to determine the future of the Falkland Islands are the Falkland islanders themselves.

The Government are therefore right in their vow to remain vigilant and committed to the protection of the Falkland islanders at all times. We support the current deployment of assets—Typhoon combat aircraft, Rapier surface-to-air missiles, and about 1,200 troops permanently stationed on the Falklands, supported by visiting Royal Navy warships and attack submarines—as a realistic deterrent to any potential threat to the islands. However, is it not the case that that position should be continuously reviewed and that the Government should remain constantly vigilant for any emerging threats?

For some years, Argentina has been trying to replace its antiquated and increasingly unserviceable fighter fleets with a newer and more capable air frame. Will the Secretary of State therefore say a little more about Russia’s involvement and what conversations he has had with our allies about its role in the region? Will he share his assessment of the actual threat facing the Falklands at the moment and whether it has increased in recent months?

How will the measures that the Secretary of State has announced today be funded? In the context of the spending plan set out in last year’s spending review, it became clear that the Ministry of Defence budget would come under severe pressure and the Chancellor’s Budget did nothing to dispel those concerns, so how will this ongoing commitment be met?

Will the Secretary of State say more about why it was that certain parts of the media were this morning reporting a greater number of troops, yet he has made it clear in his statement that the number will remain at about its current level?

How soon will the missile system be upgraded? Can the Secretary of State guarantee that there will not be any capability gaps between the end of the Rapier and the commencement of the new system? Can he also reassure the House that we have the appropriate number of Typhoons deployed in the Falklands? Is he satisfied that there is an appropriate level of intelligence sharing to ensure that we are able to deploy all our assets effectively? Will the Secretary of State say more about the time scale for modernising the infrastructure of the Falklands, including the harbour?

The involvement of Russia is clearly a worry, and the deterrent of enhanced military capabilities is to be welcomed, but surely we can all agree that the best way forward is diplomacy. What diplomatic activity is taking place, and what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Foreign Secretary?

Finally, is this not the clearest indication that we need an open debate about the defence and security challenges facing the UK and that the next strategic defence and security review needs to be strategically driven, equipping our armed forces for the challenges of an increasingly unstable and dangerous world, as the Defence Committee has said today?

The will of the people of the Falkland Islands—their right to self-determination, expressed in the recent referendum—must be respected, and Argentina’s transition to democracy should give us some confidence that that will be the case. However, we believe it is prudent to take the measures outlined by the Secretary of State as a proportionate response to the current threat. We believe that these measures should command the support of Members on both sides of the House.

I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for his comments and for his broad welcome for the review’s conclusions. I agree with him about the importance of the referendum and its verification and the overwhelming result showing that the islanders want to remain British.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of specific questions, including about how often we conduct such a review. The last review was conducted in 2008 and this review was set in train in 2013, which is about right as an interval: we should look at the issue every four or five years.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the potential involvement of Russia and press speculation. I am not responsible for speculation in the newspapers about either Russia or, indeed, troop numbers. So far as the threat is concerned, I re-emphasise that the principal threat to the islands remains the unjustified claim of Argentina to ownership of them.

On the budget, I made it clear that the expenditure is a 10-year programme: there will be expenditure of £180 million over the next 10 years. On Rapier, we expect it to go out of service in about 2019 or 2020, and there will be no gap before we introduce its replacement.

The hon. Gentleman asked about diplomatic discussions with Argentina. He will have noticed the presence on the Front Bench of my colleagues from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who are always ready to talk to Argentina. However, if the discussions are to be about the future of the Falkland Islands, it is very important that representatives of the Falklands Islands Government are present in the room when they take place.

On behalf of the Defence Committee, I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement on the Falkland Islands. May I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), who led the Committee’s trip to the Falkland Islands, and thank the Secretary of State for taking on board their recommendations?

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Defence Committee and I am particularly grateful to those two members of his Committee for undertaking that particular journey. It is not especially easy to visit the Falkland Islands at any time and it obviously involves a commitment of a number of days. We have, of course, reflected on the recommendations my hon. Friend set out in his letter to me.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and his comments about the right to self-determination for the Falkland islanders. It is very important that we emphasise that. On the £180 million that will be spent, when will the refurbishment of the harbour start and finish?

The hon. Gentleman plays a key role on the all-party group on the Falkland Islands and I appreciate the welcome he has given to our findings. The overall programme of modernisation and improvements, which, as I have said, will cost £180 million, will take place over 10 years, but I will get back to the hon. Gentleman with the specific dates of the Mare harbour modernisation.

May I welcome the statement and endorse the Government’s emphasis on prevention rather than cure, which is surely the right approach? The Secretary of State will be aware of a great deal of speculation about a renewed aerial threat from Argentina in the light of Russian involvement, as referred to by the shadow Defence Secretary. Is he confident that we have enough air defence assets, so that if that did begin to materialise as a tangible threat we would be able to sustain a higher level of air defence over the longer term?

I hope I can reassure my hon. Friend, who has served in the Ministry of Defence. Unlike the situation in 1982, we have the airfield, modern Typhoons are deployed there, anti-aircraft systems are in place and we are able, through the airfield, to deploy other aircraft relatively quickly, if necessary.

This is the first opportunity for us all to put on record our condolences to everybody who has been caught up in the terrible plane crash in France. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House would like our thoughts to be sent to the families of the many people who have died today.

I agree with the Secretary of State about the importance of the right to self-determination and I join him in paying tribute to all those who served in the Falkland Islands, including my colleague Keith Brown, the Scottish veterans Minister, who fought in the Falklands war as a Royal Marine. The UK is the only maritime power without maritime patrol aircraft, which is relevant for territorial home defence and for overseas territories such as the Falklands. Does the Secretary of State agree that MPA should be procured as quickly as possible and enter service as a priority?

I am sure the whole House will echo the sympathy the hon. Gentleman has offered to those tragically involved in this morning’s Airbus crash.

On self-determination, as I have said, 99% of the islanders voted yes in the referendum, which is a slightly higher proportion than those who voted yes in the more recent referendum in Scotland. It is probably worth bearing that in mind. On maritime patrol capability, MPA is not the only way of securing some of the necessary surveillance. The previous Government were not able to bring that capability to fruition with the development of the Nimrod aircraft. In fact, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the plane has never actually flown and it was massively over budget and years over time. We will have an opportunity to return to the issue in the SDSR, which will be carried out after the election.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, which I hope will leave the Argentine Government in absolutely no doubt whatsoever of the determination of the United Kingdom, represented by Members throughout this House, to defend the Falkland Islands from any aggression from Argentina or anywhere else. Does my right hon. Friend agree that his statement illustrates a wide range of military commitments to which the United Kingdom is party, and that those commitments need to be properly resourced, which means that we need to spend at least—possibly more than—2% of GDP on our defence budget?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course, such a degree of commitment and deployment of troops and aircraft would not be necessary if we did not have this continuing intimidation from Argentina. If the Argentine Government were able to accept the democratic wishes of the islanders to remain British, none of this would be necessary.

So far as resources generally are concerned, I know my hon. Friend understands that we are able to commit our troops, planes and ships around the globe within the budget we have at the moment. I note what he says about the 2%, and I know that he will join me in being pleased that we are meeting the NATO target this year and that we will go on meeting it next year.

The Secretary of State said that the principal threat to the Falkland Islands remains from Argentina. Will he say a little more about the role that Russia seems to be playing? If the stories about the leasing of long-range bombers in exchange for beef are true, surely that must feed into a strategic review of the defence of the Falklands more prominently than it seems to be doing at the moment.

I have read the same reports as the hon. Lady. I do not think it would be right for me to speculate further on the nature of any particular arrangement between the Governments of Russia and the Argentine. Our job is to make sure that the islands are properly defended and to continue to respect the right of the islanders to determine their own future, and that is what we will do.

If an Argentine Government were foolish enough to give instructions to a military officer to invade the Falklands—they had better get the message that that would be very foolish— Mount Pleasant airfield and Mare harbour would be vital ground. May I suggest—I am not asking a question, but making a statement with which I hope the Defence Secretary will agree—that the Falkland Islands Government and the Governor are also vital ground, and should be protected as well?

I sense that my hon. Friend is inviting me to agree with him, and I do agree with him. The Governor and the Falkland Islands Government are a key part of the democracy that is the Falkland Islands, and a key part of the Falkland islanders’ ability to determine their own future, as they have just done.

I warmly welcome the strength of the Secretary of State’s commitment, including in answering many of the points made by the Select Committee. Incidentally, may we in passing pay tribute to our Clerk, Mr Ian Thomson, who was badly injured during the trip to Argentina?

Has the Secretary of State given any thought to a gap in our capability that is coming up, namely the withdrawal of the Royal Mail steamer St Helena next year? It currently supplies an essential link between the Falklands and St Helena, as well as to Ascension Island. What thought has he given to replacing that important capability?

We would certainly like more air links to the Falklands. I shall obviously continue to discuss with my hon. Friends at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office what other opportunities or potential there is for different services to other territories to be jointly linked up.

The Secretary of State referred in a previous answer to the international context. Will he tell us what discussions the Government have recently had with Latin American countries and the United States about these issues, given the unwillingness of the US to support Britain with diplomacy in the past?

I am sure that Governments across the region have noted the results of the recent referendum in the Falkland Islands, and that they would respect the right of the Falkland islanders to determine their future. We do have discussions with other Governments in southern and Latin America. I very recently met the Foreign Minister of Brazil, and I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that this subject did not come up.

The size of the Royal Navy has greatly diminished since 1982. Does the Secretary of State agree that countries such as Russia and Argentina tend to respond to the signals we send them? Would it not send a terrible signal to the Argentine Government if we failed to give a commitment to continue to spend at least the NATO-recommended minimum of 2% of GDP on defence throughout the lifetime of the next Parliament?

I hope the signal that will go out from the House today—from both sides of the House—will be the signal to the islanders themselves that this Government are determined to ensure their defence for the short, medium and long term, and will always protect their right to determine their future.

My right hon. Friend drew attention to the smaller number of ships. He will of course be aware that the ships we have today are much more powerful than some of the earlier platforms. He will know that we are constructing two new aircraft carriers and building altogether seven new hunter-killer submarines, and that the Prime Minister has recently announced the next phase of the construction of the Type 26 frigate fleet on the Clyde.

Does the Defence Secretary not think it a bit odd that he said nothing in his statement about diplomatic initiatives or relations with other countries, and that only in response to questions from Opposition Members has he even conceded that there have been discussions? Will he be more specific: what political, diplomatic and defence discussions has he had with Brazil, Uruguay or Argentina to reduce tensions and stress in the area, rather than proposing to spend £180 million?

As I have told the House, we have close and warm relations with other countries in the region. As I said, I have recently met the Foreign Minister from Brazil, and I and my colleagues continue to meet Ministers from other Governments. There is a standing invitation from the Falkland Islands Government to other Governments in the region to visit the islands for themselves and to understand the islanders’ wish to remain British.

Typhoon aircraft, which have been mentioned, are built in Warton in my constituency. Will the Secretary of State make sure that, if required, we can send more Typhoons to keep the skies above the Falkland Islands safe?

The very direct answer to my hon. Friend is yes. There are more Typhoons available. If more are needed for the defence of the islands, we are ready to send them, and we have Mount Pleasant airfield to receive them there.

In his statement, the Secretary of State said that our military presence is broadly proportionate to the threats and risks we face. What flexibility is there in our defence preparations for any potential hardening of attitude by Argentina, either unilaterally or with others?

We have a number of contingency plans, which we continue to refresh, to deal with any increase in the threat level. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I am not able to spell them out to the House in public session, but I assure him that those contingency plans exist. We take them out every so often to ensure that they are appropriate to the existing level of threat.

As has been mentioned, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and I visited the Falklands at the end of January, and our report was sent by the Defence Committee to the Ministry of Defence. For security reasons, I cannot comment on most of our recommendations, but I draw the House’s attention to the £10 million saved by the Royal Engineers with the new accommodation for personnel that they are building at a radar head we visited. May I urge the Secretary of State to use £1 million or so of that saving to prevent false economy savings and ensure that Mare harbour is fit for purpose and compliant with international maritime regulations?

I referred specifically to the refurbishment of Mare harbour. I am able to tell my hon. Friend, and the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who also asked about this issue, that the programme to develop Mare harbour is expected to be complete by the end of 2017.

The Secretary of State has given assurances that there will be no capability gap between the end of Rapier and the commencement of the new system. What measures are in place to ensure that that is the case?

We have started to place the first contracts for the replacement of the Rapier missile to ensure that there is no gap. The hon. Lady raises an important point. There must be no gap between taking one system out of service and introducing the next. There will be no gap.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the more far-reaching geopolitical issue of the possible involvement of Russia shows why this country must maintain its strong defence force and maintain and renew Trident to ensure that there is a strong deterrent for any world power that may be thinking of getting involved in these things?

I agree with my hon. Friend. We are committed to renewing our independent nuclear deterrent. He will recall that this House voted by a majority of 329 as recently as January in favour of renewing our independent nuclear deterrent, with only a handful of Members opposing it. We are committed to that and to maintaining strong defences.

The Secretary of State for Defence knows that I am concerned about the run-down of the UK’s defence forces. However, we are a mature parliamentary democracy, so I hope that the whiff of gunpowder and the sound of sabre-rattling that we have had this morning—[Hon. Members: “Shame!”] I am sorry, but I was in Argentina recently and the people of Argentina are a very fine people. I do not believe that they are looking for conflict. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) mentioned, we should be talking to the Government of Argentina at the most senior diplomatic level, rather than rushing to make precipitous decisions.

Let me say as gently as I can to the hon. Gentleman that we have absolutely no quarrel with the people of Argentina—of course not. As he knows, we had to cope in 1982 with the decision of the junta in Argentina to invade the islands. He talks of our responsibility as a mature democracy. It is surely our responsibility to reflect the democratic wishes of the islanders. It is their right to determine their own future and to remain British. Of course, we also want to continue to talk to the Argentine Government about many other matters that lie between us, including developing a stronger commercial relationship.

Gosport is the proud home of the Falklands Veterans Foundation. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is right to reassure those proud, brave men, some of whom still bear the scars of the conflict, that we will always fight to defend their legacy, which is the sovereignty of the islands?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend is right to remind us that the sacrifice of those who died to fight for the freedom of the Falkland islanders and their right to determine their own future should never be forgotten by the British people or by this House.

May I return to the point about troop numbers? Will the Secretary of State explain why the media felt able to report this morning that there would be a greater number of troops, when in his statement he made it clear that they would remain at around their current level?

I am not responsible for speculation in the media. As the hon. Lady correctly said, I have decided that the current level of around 1,200 military and civilian personnel is about right. The announcement that I have made this afternoon is about the return of the helicopters and a programme of improvements, including the replacement of the Rapier air defence system, of around £180 million over the next 10 years. I hope that sends a signal of reassurance to the islanders.

I was surprised to receive a book from the ambassador of Argentina explaining that the Falkland islanders should not have the right to self-determination. The Secretary of State can be assured that he will have the support of Conservative Members for 2% of GDP for defence spending or for whatever it takes to ensure that those people do have the right to self-determination.

I give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance. Of course, the islanders were present on the islands before Argentina was formed. Their history goes a lot further back. It might be worth his reminding the ambassador of that point when he replies to her to thank her for the book.

I thank the Defence Secretary for his statement. I reiterate that the Opposition also support the self-determination of the Falkland islanders. Whoever forms the Government after the general election, it is incumbent on them to uphold the basic democratic rights of the people who live on the islands. May I press him further on a point that was made by my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State? Does he feel that there is the appropriate level of intelligence gathering to enable him appropriately to deploy the assets as best he can?

I am sorry that I am not able to discuss intelligence gathering. That is an important part of our assessment of the threat to the islands and an important part of the islands’ defence, but I am not able to discuss in detail the arrangements for gathering intelligence about the threat. On the hon. Gentleman’s earlier point, it is important that the message goes out from all parts of the House to the islanders—I thank the shadow Secretary of State again for this—that we respect their right to determine their future and that, their having made that decision in the referendum, we will continue to defend the islands.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the aim of a deterrent is to have sufficient force to meet any threat? Nothing better exemplifies that point than the Falklands war itself, when the decision to save £16 million by withdrawing HMS Endurance led to a war costing billions of pounds and 255 British personnel.

As my hon. Friend may know, there was an inquiry into the causes of the war, which was led by Lord Franks. There has been much discussion since of the precise series of events that led up to the war. That is history. Our job is to ensure that the islands are properly defended. I am confident that, following this review, we have the right deployment of troops and the right maritime and air assets in place, ready to be deployed in their defence.

I commend my right hon. Friend for his steadfast assurance of the right of the Falkland islanders to self-determination. Will he confirm, in response to other questions that have been raised in this House, that that need not prevent us from continuing to try to improve our diplomatic relationships with all countries in the region?

Absolutely; it need not. I know that my hon. Friend has a connection with the Patagonian region of the Argentine. We want to have a warmer and closer relationship with the people of the Argentine and their Government. Nothing in what I have announced today should make that any more difficult. As I have made clear again and again, we have to respect the right of the islanders to determine their own future. They determined it in the referendum, and it is our duty to defend the islands.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the economy of the Falkland Islands would benefit from foreign investment, and that foreign investment will be forthcoming only if we deliver a safe and secure long-term state?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The islands welcome and are receiving foreign investment, and I hope that the future of the islands is clear beyond doubt, as well as the ability and commitment of our Government to defend them from any threat that might materialise. That is the basis, I hope, for a more stable future for the islands in which a more diversified economy can flourish, including the development of the oil and gas sector.

The assurances that the Secretary of State has given today to continue to defend the Falkland Islands will be welcomed by everyone on the islands, and they reflect the resolute determination shown by our former Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher, when she stood at the Dispatch Box 33 years ago to give that same commitment. Does he agree that the threat from Argentina is still very real, and that we must never take down our guard and must always stand up for the freedom of those loyal British subjects of the Falkland Islands?

I completely agree that we should not drop our guard, and we are not doing that—if anything, we are reinforcing our guard and the defence of our islands. We have the right to defend the islands, and to defend the right of the islanders to determine their future. This is a defensive arrangement; it is not threatening anybody else.

Mr Speaker, you and the House may be interested to know that I have a plaque on my wall, signed by my great uncle when he was Speaker, commemorating the gift of a silver ashtray from the peoples and Government of the Falklands on the rebuilding of this Chamber after it had been bombed during the war. Does that not demonstrate the deep and enduring friendship between our two peoples, and does not my right hon. Friend’s statement this morning demonstrate to the Russians, Argentines and anyone else that if our interests are threatened throughout the world, we will respond?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the terms in which he put that declaration, and I hope there is no doubt about our determination to stand up to any kind of intimidation or threat to our territory or the rights of those who want to remain British. I hope the message that will go out from across the House today is that we respect the right of the islanders in the decision they have taken to remain British.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to the defence of the self-determination of British overseas territories such as the Falkland Islands. Does that prove that Her Majesty’s Government were right to develop the new airport on Saint Helena as an important air bridge to the south Atlantic?

My hon. Friend is right: it was important to take that decision and to reinforce the links between Saint Helena and the United Kingdom. The commitment of expenditure on the Mount Pleasant airfield enables us to reinforce the islands remarkably quickly should any threat materialise.