NATO is the cornerstone of UK and Euro-Atlantic defence. As set out in the recent integrated review of international policy, the UK will remain the leading European ally within NATO, bolstering the alliance by tackling threats jointly and committing our resources to collective security in the Euro-Atlantic region. The UK contribution is substantial and comprehensive, spanning forces and headquarters, money, capabilities and people.
With cross-party members of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I recently visited NATO air command at Ramstein for briefings from the excellent RAF officers based there. Given Russia’s frequent incursions into NATO airspace, its aggression and its threats, does my right hon. Friend agree that the RAF’s involvement is a crucial aspect of NATO’s commitment to constant vigilance and the protection of each and every member of the alliance?
My hon. Friend is right that the RAF is a key component of NATO’s deterrence and defence posture. The RAF preserves the security of alliance airspace through its contribution to enhanced air policing and its commitment of forces to the NATO response force. The RAF also provides high-quality staff officers to NATO headquarters, and it provides air transport, air-to-air refuelling and intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance support to NATO exercises and operations.
The Minister knows very well what is happening between Russia and Belarus. He knows how many people are hostage on these borders, and how many children are in danger of dying of cold and starvation. What is NATO actually doing to show Russia that we mean business when it has devious and disgraceful policies such as this?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that what is going on in Belarus—and then into Poland, Estonia and these other countries—is a tragedy and a disgrace, in the way it has treated vulnerable people and clearly brought them over from other parts of the world. I am visiting Poland this week to discuss matters with my Polish counterparts. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the UK has a considerable number of forces in both Estonia and Poland, under the enhanced presence, and I have sent a recce party of Royal Engineers to see what else we can do to help. At the same time, on the diplomatic channels, we must also make sure that we are very clear that this is unacceptable behaviour. It is a hybrid, destabilising method deployed by too many countries, with human beings being the traffic. We should also press on the European Union, which is responsible for the civilian border policing of its Union; that is a very important step for it to take, as it should also be able to step up and complement NATO’s efforts.
Given the extremely concerning situations in not only Bosnia, but Ukraine, will my right hon. Friend please advise as to whether he plans to uplift our military presence to peacekeeping operations in both countries? Will a defence Minister attend the Bosnian Armed Forces Day at the start of December to show our continued support for peace in the region?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about another part of eastern Europe and the Balkans that is currently experiencing destabilising actions, activities and messaging that do no one any good. As she will know, it is a EUFOR deployment in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but there is also a NATO deployment, and I am open to exploring what more we could do in that area. Baroness Goldie will be attending the conference my hon. Friend asks about.
May I offer our very best wishes to David Perry, whose heroic actions in Liverpool yesterday may have prevented a despicable and devastating attack on the city’s remembrance ceremony?
I say to the Defence Secretary that we share his grave concerns about deteriorating security and destabilisation, both in Bosnia and on the Ukraine border. We fully back the diplomatic efforts he mentions to de-escalate tensions, but, as the Chief of the Defence Staff said yesterday, we also
“have to be on our guard and make sure deterrence prevails”.
So may I ask the Defence Secretary to confirm that a war-fighting division is still the bedrock of the British Army and the defence capability Britain offers NATO? When will this division be fully capable for combat operations?
The right hon. Gentleman is correct to identify that a war-fighting division is the bedrock. Obviously, as we reform and invest in new capabilities, the scale and availability of that division will fluctuate, as we re-equip and re-posture. However, that does not prevent our already having a very, very high-readiness battle group available in Estonia, with a matter of hours to move, as one of the best parts of deterrence is readiness, as opposed to simply having just scale on its own. We can have scale, but if we cannot get to the battlefront, we are not necessarily deterring anyone. That is why we are investing in those new capabilities, but he is correct to say that a war-fighting division is obviously part of our cornerstone commitment to NATO.
The Army told the Select Committee on Defence last year that it will not be until the “early 2030s” before it can field a fully equipped war-fighting division, including a new strike brigade. There are serious questions about capacity—or, as the Defence Secretary says, scale—as well as about military capability. Britain’s previous contribution to the UN peacekeeping in Bosnia was about 2,400 troops, and that was when the Army was still 145,000 strong. His current cuts will leave the Army at exactly half that size. So if, in the worst circumstances, our forces are called on in both eastern Europe and the Balkans at the same time, how confident is he that Britain could meet NATO requirements?
I am very confident of that: we have just completed another round of forces allocation within NATO to make sure that we are all able to meet our commitments. We have a new scheme in NATO whereby we can trade different capabilities. For example, we have traded some capabilities for more maritime contribution, so that we can keep our abilities strong and present in the sea as much as we can on land—it will not have escaped the right hon. Gentleman that Russia, for example, is capable of using all the domains to threaten our security.
On the division the right hon. Gentleman talked about, the Chief of the Defence Staff’s comments to the Select Committee represented the situation at the end of the transition, but all the way through that transition the UK’s premier armoured division, 3 Division, will have battle-winning capabilities and the ability to take on Russia as part of a NATO commitment. Only recently, I visited the division on Salisbury plain—it is the single biggest brigade or battle group we have had on Salisbury plain for decades—and saw more than 270 vehicles go through their paces, planning and making sure that they are up to date with the latest equipment.