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Ukraine: UK Military Support

Volume 714: debated on Wednesday 11 May 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on UK military support to Ukraine.

The United Kingdom strongly condemns the appalling, unprovoked attack President Putin has launched on the people of Ukraine. We continue to stand with Ukraine and continue to support its right to be a sovereign, independent and democratic nation.

The United Kingdom and our allies and partners are responding decisively to provide military and humanitarian assistance. This includes weapons that help Ukraine’s heroic efforts to defend itself. We have sent more than 6,900 new anti-tank missiles, known as NLAWs—next-generation light anti-tank weapons—a further consignment of Javelin anti-tank missiles, eight air defence systems, including Starstreak anti-air missiles, 1,360 anti-structure munitions and 4.5 tonnes of plastic explosives.

As Ukraine steadies itself for the next attack, the UK is stepping up efforts to help its defence. As we announced on 26 April, we will be sending 300 more missiles, anti-tank systems, innovative loitering munitions, armoured fighting vehicles and anti-ship systems to stop shelling from Russian ships.

The United Kingdom has confirmed £1.3 billion of new funding for military operations and aid to Ukraine. This includes the £300 million the Prime Minister announced on 3 May for electronic warfare equipment, a counter-battery radar system, GPS jamming equipment and thousands of night-vision devices.

The Ministry of Defence retains the humanitarian assistance taskforce at readiness; its headquarters are at 48-hours readiness, and the remainder of the force can move with five days’ notice, should its assistance be requested. The UK has pledged £220 million of humanitarian aid for Ukraine, which includes granting in kind to the Ukraine armed forces more than 64,000 items of medical equipment from the MOD’s own supplies. We are ensuring that the UK and our security interests are secured and supporting our many allies and partners, especially Ukraine.

The Secretary of State promised to keep the House updated on Ukraine; I am grateful for your help, Mr Speaker, in ensuring that he has done so today with this urgent question. It is the 77th day of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The United Kingdom is united in condemnation of Russia and in solidarity with Ukraine. From the outset, the Government have had Labour’s full support for military assistance to Ukraine, and we give it again today. There was no mass mobilisation from President Putin on Monday, but we must now expect this conflict to be long and slow. The UK now needs to shift from crisis management of the conflict to delivering the medium-term military support that Ukraine will need for Putin’s next offensive. This means new NATO weapons, instead of Soviet-era equipment. Can I ask the Minister whether the UK has begun supplying NATO stocks to Ukrainian fighters? Will that include artillery, training to form new brigades, and air defence systems? How many Ukrainians have so far been trained by the UK on new NATO-standard weapons?

More than two weeks ago, the Defence Secretary promised to place in the Library an update of the total number of weapons supplied to Ukraine by the UK and western allies. It is not yet there; when will that be done?

Will the Minister spell out the UK’s and NATO’s objectives in supplying this military assistance to Ukraine? For instance, are the Government considering, with allies, maritime support to help trading in and out of the port of Odesa? Who is leading the Government’s new inquiry into UK components that end up in Russian weaponry? Is it still the case, 11 weeks into the conflict, that contracts have not been signed for new UK supplies of next-generation light anti-tank weapons and Starstreak missiles, which have proved vital in Ukraine?

Finally, this week, the head of the British Army said that the Army is too small, despite Conservatives voting down Labour’s motion in this House a year ago to halt further cuts. Will the Minister accept that there was a defence-shaped hole in the Queen’s Speech, and that the Government must now rewrite the integrated review, review defence spending, reform military procurement and rethink Army cuts?

I am grateful to be here answering the shadow Secretary of State’s questions. He will know that the Secretary of State regrets not being here; he is in the United States, continuing discussions with our closest NATO ally about our collective defence. He looks forward to further opportunities to update the House in person.

I put on record that we continue to appreciate Labour’s support on all issues attendant to Ukraine. The right hon. Gentleman rightly reflects on the fact that the invasion of Ukraine is now moving to a long and slow medium-term phase—to a war of attrition in the east, which still incurs a great cost of human life to Ukrainians and the Russian armed forces. We will continue discussions with our Ukrainian allies on the weapons systems and support provided, but fundamentally and overwhelmingly, it is hugely important to meet the requests that come from the Ukrainians themselves. The provision needs to be made in accordance with what they are asking for.

We will see, over the coming years, the wholesale institutional reinvigoration of the Ukrainian armed forces, and I think the United Kingdom will have a proud role at the centre of that institutional rejuvenation. We have been proud to build on our legacy of training involvement; it started in 2014 with the hugely successful Operation Orbital, which trained some 25,000 Ukrainian armed forces. There is a good legacy of joint working that we will continue to take forward.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about providing an update to the Library. Following this urgent question, I will ensure that that is provided with all due haste. He asked about the objectives on security and trade. I think he was hinting at the requirement that the Ukrainians be able to export their hugely significant grain harvest out of Odesa and other ports. Of course, those trade questions are a matter for the Secretary of State for International Trade, but the economic component of our support and our defensive relationship with Ukraine is not lost. There will be a whole package of support that allows Ukraine to flourish as a sovereign territory. This is about not just the reinvestment in the Ukrainian armed forces but the rejuvenation of the economy and the rebuilding of the physical infrastructure of much of the country, which has been heinously destroyed since the commencement of the war on 24 February.

The right hon. Gentleman then made some comments about the size of the British armed forces, and I am happy to answer them directly. Thanks to the £24-billion uplift in defence spending, we are in good shape and in good size. We have what we need to deliver the effect that we need; we are a threat-led organisation. We are agile and mobile and we are more lethal than ever before.

The integrated review was proved right by the invasion of Ukraine, in the sense that we need a military that can project power around the globe and that can use loitering munitions, drones and other forms of munitions delivery, which are not so much about the close-quarter fight. We have more money than ever before and we are in good shape, but of course we keep all those things under review. I reiterate my expectation that the Secretary of State will be pleased to have an opportunity in the near future to keep the House informed of our discussions with our Ukrainian allies and the US.

Putin’s war has displayed the woeful inadequacy of the Russian military. However, one thing it has that we do not is hypersonic missiles, which it has used against Mykolaiv and now Odesa. Does the Minister regard that as a gap in our defence matériel, and if he does, what measures is he taking to stop that gap, perhaps with reference to the AUKUS—Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom—treaty and the possibility of a joint programme with our two great allies?

My right hon. and gallant Friend makes a very good point: we have seen the woeful inadequacy of the Russian military. I do not know whether he was able to listen to the Defence Secretary’s speech at the National Army Museum earlier this week, but it laid out the operational failings at all levels across the Russian army that have so painfully resulted in such significant casualties. He makes an interesting point about hypersonic missiles. I will not speculate at the Dispatch Box about future capabilities. However, a lot of this sort of work is done in Farnborough in my constituency by the defence industry there, and my right hon. Friend can rest assured that at the very heart of our defence proposition in the integrated review is energetic and significant investment in cutting-edge defensive technologies.

The Minister mentioned 300 additional missiles, but what can he tell us about the capability we are extending to the Ukrainians with anti-ship missiles? He deflected the grain exports issues to his colleague the Secretary of State for International Trade. Of course, we are not talking about treaties or grain prices; we are talking about the safety of ships going in and out of Ukraine. Can he expand on that a little bit more seriously?

On 3 May, the UK Government pledged an additional £300 million in military aid to Ukraine, and the Secretary of State has advised the House that the Government has given £200 million to date. Can the Minister confirm that apparent £500 million figure? It has also emerged that the Secretary of State for Defence has warned the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the UK risks falling short, as soon as 2025, of its NATO commitment to spending 2% of GDP on defence, due to the compound effect of inflation and supplying armaments to Ukraine. Could the Minister respond on that, and on the Ministry’s ambition to control that by redoubling its efforts to minimise waste?

What discussions has the Minister had with our NATO and other international allies about the worry that Putin and his regime will resort to the use of chemical weapons and worse on civilian targets in Ukraine?

The hon. Member asks a series of interesting questions. I have referred to the anti-ship systems; I take the point made on that. It is in a public source that the Brimstone capability has been deployed, and we regard that as a highly potent system. I think that will provide some security. He rightly makes the point that that links to the ability of the Ukrainians to export their not inconsiderable grain supplies. I will engage with the Secretary of State for International Trade, but this matter is firmly within the focus of the matrix of military support that we provide to the Ukrainians.

Yes, I know. This is on the economic element of the issue, and it is, of course, meeting the Ukrainians’ own request. We are not telling the Ukrainians what to do—it is their operation—but the economic side, including grain provision and the security attendant on that, is something on which we are seeking to support them.

The hon. Member mentioned our commitment to the NATO standard of spending 2% on defence, and of course that is being challenged by inflation. We keep that constantly under review. He invites me to comment, or to lobby the Treasury from the Dispatch Box, and I will resist that temptation. However, I think he can be reassured that we have shown an absolute commitment to putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to defence investment, supporting our allies and maintaining our commitment to NATO. We invested that £1.3 billion because of that, and we will keep it under review.

The hon. Member raised the question of whether President Putin might commit atrocities of a chemical nature. I will not speculate on what course of action the Russian President may choose, but the international community’s resolve since the illegal invasion on 24 February shows that he will be held to account, and that there will be no tolerance of any chemical atrocity. We hope that in due course, after this phase of operations and with our support, the Ukrainians will allow the collection of evidence of all Russian atrocities, so that Putin and his cronies can be held to account in the International Criminal Court.

As the Ukrainians retake their territory, there is an urgent need for kit to repair roads and bridges, so that they can get equipment and troops to the frontline. Can we supply any temporary bridges and other hardware to help in this important work?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The rebuilding challenge to be completed by our Ukrainian friends, supported by allies, will be huge. The rebuilding of infrastructure will cost billions of dollars. I think that we will be supporting that effort from the Government side, and I am sure that there will be many private sector opportunities. Bridges will be involved in that infrastructure effort.

Russia has significant cyber-attack and cyber-defence capabilities. Can we provide assistance to the Ukrainians so that they can adequately defend themselves against such attacks?

That is an extremely pertinent question. The answer is yes. Of course, there are other centres of excellence around the world; the Estonians, for example, know a great deal about countering the Russian cyber-threat. We must understand and be aware that the collective western response is not just about positioning large, static forces of men and women in military units; it is also about ensuring that Ukraine and her allies are afforded a robust cyber-defence.

I thank the Minister for his statement and for the work that he is doing. We are fortunate to have excellent Ministers leading the Defence Department. NATO continues to be the bedrock of our collective security, and I welcome the steps to deploy more troops to eastern Europe. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must step up co-operation with our friends in NATO, as well as with other European allies? I note that today the Prime Minister is in Finland and Sweden. Does he agree that, in the face of Russian aggression, it is vital that we support our European allies?

I agree entirely with that analysis. That is why the Defence Secretary is today in the US—our hugely significant NATO ally. We have continued our work with the joint expeditionary force of amphibian, beer drinking nations of northern Europe, and we are delighted about the Prime Minister’s trip.

On the position of Finland and Sweden, they will choose their own path—NATO is an alliance that waits for people to ask to become members; it does not go around proselytising—but the way in which we have worked closely with such nations in the JEF, and their possible interest in NATO, shows the importance and resolve of the NATO alliance. We are much stronger together, because we have many friends. That is why Russia is much weaker: because it has no allies.

Decisions about military support to Ukraine are inevitably taken in the context of the state and the size of our armed forces. I am sure that the Minister is a regular reader of Soldier magazine; has he seen the Chief of the General Staff’s comments expressing concern about the size of the Army? He is right, isn’t he?

We are a threat-led organisation. As a result of the £24 billion uplift in defence spending, we are in good shape, in good size and more lethal, more mobile and more agile than ever before. Of course, we keep the situation under review but, in a nutshell, I think that the invasion of Ukraine has proved the integrated review right.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Minister will know that weapons and military equipment can only be used if troops are trained effectively to use them, so can he outline what avenues he is exploring to continue to provide the military training necessary for Ukrainian troops to counter Russian attacks, as they have been doing so admirably?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Those discussions are ongoing. We will be guided by what the Ukrainians themselves want, but I think we are all encouraged by the legacy of close co-operation born out of Operation Orbital, running since 2014 and training some 25,000 Ukrainian troops. So I foresee a very bright future for very close operational and training working between ourselves and the magnificent and courageous Ukrainian armed forces.

May I associate myself and my party with the strong support for Ukraine that has been expressed by the Minister and the shadow Secretary of State? Last month, I raised with the Secretary of State the issue of the deadly legacy being left by retreating Russian forces in parts of Ukraine, namely, lethal landmines. Can I press the Minister? What equipment has been sent to Ukraine at this stage and will advice be offered along with that equipment?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. Those discussions are ongoing and we will be guided by requests from our Ukrainian friends, but we have a significant body of unique expertise in this country primarily because of our two-decade involvement in operational soldiering in the middle east. Some third sector organisations in this country, such as the HALO Trust and others, have, often born of military experience, conducted hugely impressive de-mining operations in the far east and the middle east. I think that is a significant body of experience that we might be able to offer up to our Ukrainian friends. The mines used by Russian forces demonstrate, if anyone was in any doubt, the casual disregard for civilian life that the Russians are so regrettably and so callously displaying in Ukraine.

I strongly welcome the Minister’s update on the UK’s continued support for Ukraine with the supply of more weapons today. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the type of equipment we provide will evolve as circumstances demand, as the situation is developing, unfortunately, into a war of attrition? Can he further confirm that our commitment will continue for as long as it takes for Putin to fail, as he must?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I can confirm that the provision of equipment will evolve. I regard all the provision we have made as defensive, because this is absolutely a defensive war: it is a sovereign state defending its sovereign territory very courageously. I should also point out that alongside the kit it is about the provision of training and doctrine. Ukrainians are experts in how to fight, but it is the training, the doctrine and the ability to join up operations in all domains—in which the Ukrainians have displayed a remarkable facility—that are important. I foresee a long and significant defence relationship in terms of equipment, but also a very important defence relationship in terms of shared training, doctrine and mobilisation with our Ukrainian friends.

The Minister says there is sufficiency within the armed forces. However, we are in peacekeeping operations and security operations. We are not in combat in Ukraine. Therefore, if there is an escalation of risk, whether in Ukraine or as a result of food shortage elsewhere around the globe, that is seriously going to challenge our capability, is it not?

Our armed forces are more mobile, deployable and agile than ever before. That is what will meet the threats that we face, and that is what the integrated review got right. Our support to Ukraine has been very small in terms of mass, but—on the hon. Lady’s question about our armed forces’ readiness, or capacity, to react to future threats globally—she should be reassured that, thanks to the £24 billion uplift in defence spending, we are in good shape. We do not want large bodies of men and women sitting in barracks; we want them deployable, ready, lethal and agile.

I want to ask the Minister about policy resilience. We heard from him that the level of support to Ukraine will continue, but for how long will it continue, particularly if the conflict goes from months into years and becomes an attritional campaign? Also, is that view and stance shared by all our other allies?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question; he pays close attention to these matters. We have all been clear that our support to Ukraine will, I expect, last many years. We have had a very close defence relationship since 2014. We are moving to a phase of the campaign that is attritional and will be continued at tragic and significant cost to the Russian state. We cannot speculate about how long that might last, but we must be prepared for it to last for a very long time.

We should be reassured by the fact that we and our allies across western Europe have the resolve to see this through, because apart from kit and equipment, resolve is the key ingredient to a successful military campaign. We have all observed how the Russian armed forces are completely absent in terms of the moral element. I would be reassured by the fact that, throughout NATO and our military and diplomatic alliances in western Europe, that resolve is shared, and we are much stronger because we are part of an amazing alliance. Our position is different from that of Russia because it has very few friends.

The humanitarian support that the Minister mentioned includes how we welcome Ukrainian people who want sanctuary. A constituent of mine is sponsoring a family of five. The first visa was approved on 13 April and the fifth visa took until 9 May. Those delays are inexcusable and impossible to understand for those applying or for the public in this country. Will he again raise with his colleagues across Government the importance of getting this right and offering that welcome in a timely and humanitarian way?

I thank the hon. Gentleman’s constituents for showing that compassion. The British public’s response has been absolutely magnificent in this regard. I will raise that issue with the relevant Home Office Minister.

The Minister talks about the agility of the British Army, but do we not also need some agility in the thinking of Defence Ministers? It is clear that the integrated review was written with a very different world in mind. It almost entirely overlooked the threat of war in Europe, and we have seen in our history the danger of being complacent. I worry that the hubris of Ministers in defending that integrated review will prevent them from showing the agility to change, now that the threat has changed. Will he think again about the decision to cut 10,000 more of our troops, which the CGS is concerned about, and the decision on Challenger tanks, and make sure that we can deal with whatever threat faces us?

I contest the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the integrated review. He will know from reading it that Russia as a threat is, first and foremost, contained in the analysis of the integrated review, so it was alive to the threat on the European mainland. We retain agility of thought across the ministerial team. We are a threat-led organisation. We will continue to keep our defence posture under review, but thanks to the £24 billion uplift, we are in good shape.

I commend the Minister for the amount of humanitarian and military aid going to Ukraine, but what assessment has he made of the Ukrainians’ capacity to distribute that humanitarian aid effectively, and of the Ukrainian army’s ability to get that equipment into the theatre effectively, and its skills and capacity to use it effectively?

That is an interesting pair of questions. When it comes to the robustness and the organisational ability of the Ukrainian armed forces and humanitarian forces, we have been reassured and amazed by their resilience and by the extent to which they have maintained their integrity in their operational capability, so we should be confident that all support that we provide, whether it be defensive lethal aid or humanitarian aid, is reaching its required destination.

The UN has said that the Ukrainian death toll is likely to be much higher than the 3,381 so far confirmed. What support is the UK offering to help Ukraine to retrieve and count its dead and ensure that families are informed where possible?

We will, of course, afford all help that we can following requests from Ukraine. We should put it on record that we are expectant that the Ukrainians, with our support if required, will do a very thorough job of gathering all relevant evidence of Russian atrocities—especially against innocent civilians, women and children—in order that Putin and his cronies are held to account very firmly and in good order in front of the International Criminal Court.

From Saturday until yesterday morning, I had the opportunity to be in Poland and see some of the things that the Polish nation is doing for Ukrainian refugees. It is good that, whenever we speak to Foreign Ministers there, they tell us that the people of the United Kingdom and their Government have been exceptionally helpful. I want to put it on the record that that came straight from the ministerial Department.

In the light of the suggestion from US intelligence that Putin is bedding in for the long haul, will the Minister make it clear that our military aid, including anti-tank missiles and supplies from Belfast and my constituency of Strangford, will also be available for the long haul, along with the humanitarian aid that is very important for the victims of Putin’s oppression, aggression and violence?

I can absolutely give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. What I think is unique about the nations supporting Ukraine is their collective resolve and our absolutely firm determination to see this through for the long term, however many years that may be.