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Army Size

Volume 717: debated on Tuesday 5 July 2022

Barry Sheerman will move the motion, and I will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up as in the last debate, as is the convention.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the size of the British Army.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. The subject of this debate is more relevant this week than many others. After the NATO summit in Madrid, at which the Secretary-General called for a “fundamental shift” in the alliance’s deterrence and defence, there is an increasing realisation that British defence policy needs some urgent updating. When Russia began its bloody and brutal invasion of Ukraine, the world changed. Not only is it the largest armed conflict since world war two, but the rules and norms that govern war are being torn up daily by the Kremlin. Today, all our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those killed and injured in the barbaric attack on the supermarket in Kremenchuk, and with the people of Ukraine as they face even more hostilities.

What should UK defence policy look like in the face of this new geopolitical reality? The answer is an approach that reflects the new world we live in, where alongside our friends in Europe, we take more responsibility for our own defence and that of our allies across the world. There is plenty in the integrated review and the defence Command Paper that I agree with: clearly, the Army must modernise, and the £24 billion that will be spent on emerging technology will help us tackle new types of threats. However, the lesson from Russia’s invasion is that we cannot continue to slim down the size of our Army. We must be clear-headed and steely-eyed when it comes to assessing the threat we face from Vladimir Putin. That means a renewed commitment to our conventional military capability and an end to cuts.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I agree with much of what he has said and, I am sure, what he is about to say. Does he agree that one thing we are going to have to look at much more seriously now is putting more boots on the ground in other NATO countries, particularly those in the eastern parts of Europe that face towards Russia?

I totally agree. I got into some trouble in certain quarters when I said that early on in the conflict; it was not something people wanted to hear at the time.

The Minister will know that I have consistently challenged the Government on this issue—I have form. Over the past 10 years, I have warned against cuts to the size of the Army. In 2013, I said that cuts to capacity would seriously restrict the ability of our country to defend itself. At the time, with the number of armed personnel at around 140,000, I felt as though we were retreating from being a significant player in the western alliance. In 2016, that number went down to 100,000, and there I was in the House, warning the Government that their course of action simply was not the right one. We now face the grim reality of soon having a limited capacity of 72,000 armed personnel. The fact of the matter is that those numbers are nowhere near good enough for a key player in NATO. As the Minister knows, I usually engage in constructive criticism, but it is crystal clear that the Government have their heads in the sand on this issue—or more specifically, the Prime Minister does.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He is absolutely right: as of January 2021, the RAF figures were down by 6%, and the Army and Royal Navy figures by 5%, so we clearly have a problem. We also have increasing demands on our NATO commitments across Europe and elsewhere. We now have Sweden and Finland coming into NATO, which will strengthen it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one way of increasing the numbers might be through the Territorial Army and the reserves? I have always campaigned for extra soldiers to be set aside for Northern Ireland, where recruitment is high, but we have not seen those numbers yet.

My old friend nearly always intervenes on my speeches—on everyone’s speeches—in a very constructive way. I agree with much of what he says, and I will come to that specific point on recruitment in a moment.

The Prime Minister is a great fan of Churchill. In fact, I picked up his book on Churchill for £1 the other day—it was quite a bargain. Then, it was shown on television, and I was asked why I had it on my bookshelf. It is quite an interesting book actually. The Prime Minister is erecting a Churchillian façade, but the truth is that he has found himself at odds with NATO by reneging on his manifesto commitment to keep defence spending at 0.5% above inflation. He has given up on that, which is not acceptable and puts us all at risk.

The Minister knows that I find the Secretary of State to be a breath of fresh air. I like him, I work with him and I think his was a very good appointment. He is in the wrong party—never mind—but we agree on many fundamental issues, such as wanting to see the Prime Minister reform his approach to defence spending. The Secretary of State has rightly been calling for increases in personnel numbers. However, that raises the question: why was the defence Command Paper so quick to make those cuts in the first place?

I congratulate and commend the hon. Gentleman on securing this very important debate. Does he not agree that the very fact that we have been shrinking our armed forces for years has encouraged the likes of Vladimir Putin? Although I welcome the increase in spending to 2.5%, does he, like me, question the 2030 timescale? Is it fast enough? It is a long way off and others might be tempted or encouraged to act in the meantime.

Mr Davies, harmony is breaking out in this debate. I obviously do agree with what the hon. Gentleman says.

The cuts will create gaps that will not be filled for years. New procurement can take decades to come to fruition, which leaves us vulnerable to any future escalation with Russia, China or other parts of the world. I am with our Chief of the General Staff, who reminded us:

“you can’t cyber your way across a river.”

It is crucial that we maintain the equipment that guarantees our ability to defend ourselves and our allies.

I represent Huddersfield, where we had the David Brown engineering company, which for years made the gears for the Challenger tanks and many of our marine craft, so we have been a very proud player in providing the right kind of equipment for our armed forces. Can the Minister please tell us what plans he has to fill the gap when he cuts the Challenger battle tanks and Warrior infantry vehicles, or when troop numbers are reduced to 72,000 in 2025? I hope he can give us an answer.

Throughout my time in Parliament I have been devoted to evidence-based policy. As you will know, Mr Davies, I was here last week I with an air quality monitor on me, and this room is not up to World Health Organisation standards for air quality—I tell everyone that that is the case. However, the evidence from the Defence Committee is clear: we are still years away from being able to field a war-fighting division, which itself would be hopelessly under-equipped. If the British Army were to fight Russia, our men and women would be forced to go into battle in obsolescent armoured vehicles. Those are not my words; they are the combined opinion of the Defence Committee.

The Government are cutting our Army on two fronts: first, by reducing numbers and equipment, and secondly, by completely failing to procure the military apparatus we so desperately need. The latter is one of the most important points. Over the past decade, we have seen a string of procurement disasters. Millions of pounds have been wasted, with an embarrassing lack of results. The Ministry of Defence must learn from its mistakes and implement new processes for procurement, so that not a single penny is wasted.

I want to see increased spending on defence, but the public must be able to trust the Government to extract value for money. I do not deny or step back from this point: if we want to have more defence, someone has to pay for it, whether by taxation or cuts in other Departments or another way. The fact of the matter is, if the public trust us to spend the money wisely, it would be a lot easier to increase taxation.

The Government insist on cutting our current capabilities without procuring replacements. This is a very worrying approach, with likely a very poor outcome. Lord Richards, a former defence chief, said that “mass still matters” and that cuts to personnel are

“an asymmetric attraction to one’s opponents”.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. He has been a long champion of our armed forces. The analysis we sometimes get from Government, and which we may hear from the Minister today, is that when it comes to the size and structure of our armed forces, it is determined by threat. The problem is, as my hon. Friend will know very well, that we do not know what the threat is going to be next week, next month or next year. We certainly do not know what it is going to be in three, five or 10 years’ time. Given that that is the state of affairs, will my hon. Friend join me in urging caution at reducing the number of people who serve in our armed forces? They are our insurance policy. We do not know what is around the corner. Therefore, we should be very cautious about reducing numbers, particularly at this point in time.

My hon. Friend will know how much I agree with that. In every town and city—in Wales, Yorkshire and all over the country—we used to have recruitment centres where people learned how to join the Army and got information and advice. That has all been abolished. I would love to see them come back. They offered a very good career and fine skills training to whole generations of people.

Our allies agree. Former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Admiral Mullen has said that we risk not being able to contribute on the world stage if we continue to cut troop numbers. Under current plans, we would not have been able to act decisively in the Falkland Islands nor have the strength to stop the genocide in Rwanda. It is imperative that we build up the capacity to act in defence. There is no doubt that the United States is willing to be the world’s police force. The United States is tilting towards Asia, so European nations like ours must take responsibility for their own defence. As I have said, technological advance is welcome, but it is not a panacea. Mass still matters and cutting troops is taking the wrong action at the wrong time. I remember the days of recruitment centres. Let us get back to recruiting more full-time soldiers.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has rightly united this House. It has brought us all together. It has woken us up to the real threats to peace in Europe. It has shown this place at its best. We have worked together and agreed on Russian action. It is now time to unite behind a new approach to defence, where we stop the cutbacks and invest in our ability to defend ourselves and allies. This is Britain's 1937 moment. The west faces an uncertain future, and our defence policy should reflect this.

I am honoured to respond to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) in what is a very important debate. I acknowledge his long-standing track record in raising defence issues; I know he feels passionately and sincerely about these matters.

Of course, the Government acknowledge the urgent need to ensure that our armed forces are up to the challenges they face. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the defence Command Paper, which I am sure everyone present will know well. Those who read and reflect on its contents will acknowledge that the threat of Russia is front and centre when we identify the risks this nation faces, with page 5 noting:

“Russia continues to pose the greatest nuclear, conventional military and sub-threshold threat to European security.”

Our response to that threat in the context of our membership of NATO drives forward the transformation plan set out in the Command Paper, which is manifested in the Future Soldier programme. We should acknowledge the fact that the Russian threat, prior to this February, was seen as being a centrally important driving factor in the urgent need for us to update and modernise our armed forces and make them more deployable, lethal and agile.

Let us reflect on what Future Soldier actually means. Thanks to the £24 billion increase from the multi-year settlement, which runs until 2024, we have the resources to fund an Army of 100,000, combining regulars and reserves; we should also mention the civil servants and private sector partners. We have to understand that in the context of both lethality and mass. Clearly, mass is important. However, what we have seen in recent years—particularly in February’s outrageous and illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine—is the fact that, while mass matters, it matters less than lethality, deployability and sustainability. We were heading towards that lesson in the Command Paper, but our experience since February has made that even more urgent. That is something of which we are taking great note.

Of course, the reforms bound up in Future Soldier will see the British Army reformed into brigade combat teams, making them more self-sufficient as tactical units and better-integrated with digital communications. For once, all our soldiers will be able to speak to each other right across platforms in all five domains. In practical terms, that means that artillery, unmanned aerial vehicles and systems, air defence, engineers, signals, logistics and infantry will all be connected and combined in the traditional doctrinal sense. They will also be much more potent in the modern sense of being able to speak to each other and bring effect to bear in a much faster and more agile way. That is the output of lethality: bringing military power to bear more quickly and in a more effectively combined arms manner.

I should also mention that with the new laydown of infantry divisions, we have our Ranger battalions, which will be a forced multiplier when it comes to working with allies. In concert with that doctrinal response of wanting to be better-formed, better-connected and more potent, the equipment platforms are a critical component. It is important to note that we have invested more than £43 billion in the Army’s equipment plan over the next decade—£8.6 billion more than was originally planned in the integrated review. That will bring state-of-the-art equipment.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield asked about Challenger tanks and so on. The new array of platforms includes Boxers, the upgraded Challenger, more mobile deep fires capability and ISTAR assets—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance. That range of better military equipment, driven by the £43 billion equipment plan, is very important. As part of that, we will seek to learn with great urgency the lessons from Ukraine.

The challenge is to be more doctrinally capable, and we had some of that doctrine in the defence Command Paper and the Future Soldier plan. We need to be better equipped and, importantly, better integrated with allies, because we have to see our defence response in the collective context of our membership of NATO which, I am sure we all agree, has been the cornerstone of our defence for many years.

Our sustained forward presence with allies is really important. We should acknowledge that our presence in Estonia on Operation Cabrit has been hugely important, and we will increase that to ensure that the total presence is some 3,000 people, including a one-star headquarters. Working with allies will allow us to be much more on the front foot. As I said, it is also about ensuring that allied countries are more capable, which is why our new range of battalions, and the security force assistance battalions, will seek to build capacity with allied partners. We saw that par excellence with the amazing strategic outcome of a very tactical weapon: the impact that the next-generation light anti-tank weapons had on the Ukrainians’ ability to defend themselves from invasion. Delivered by this country, with training provided by UK personnel, it was a remarkable example of the force multiplier and the amazing capacity of a tactical weapon to have a strategic effect when utilised in the right manner. That is a really important point to make.

Since the excellent defence Command Paper and the plans for Future Soldier were rolled out, and following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, we will continually review our posture, just like any other organisation. This time last week, the Chief of the General Staff made it clear in his speech to the land warfare conference, which was followed by a speech from the Defence Secretary, that we need to mobilise in order to ensure that we accelerate all our plans. They are very good and very sound, but we must now ask how we can accelerate everything that we have been doing in order to mobilise all our assets to meet the urgent threat. Op Mobilise will allow us to ensure that no gaps are left and that any wasteful activity, or anything that distracts from the main effort, is attended to.

The leadership shown by the Defence Secretary and the Chief of the General Staff is already having a galvanising effect on the defence community and the British Army in meeting the threat. We have an honourable heritage in helping Ukrainians—not just with the delivery of lethal aid, but with the magnificent Operation Orbital, which has run since 2014, training some 20,000 Ukrainian soldiers. The fact that we now have Ukrainian partners and others improving their warfighting skills on Salisbury plain is a really good sign of the energetic focus of the entire British military in empowering our Ukrainian allies to better respond to the threat that they face.

Op Mobilise will boost readiness. It will speed up all the technological advances that we seek to make as part of Future Soldier, and it will reconsider doctrines. The CGS was very clear when he said:

“If we judge that revised structures will make the Army better prepared to fight in Europe”,

we will look again. The context of his remarks was commendable, because he started his speech by quoting Brigadier Bernard Montgomery, who said in the desert in 1942 that if the only reason we do something is because we have been doing it for a long time, perhaps we should do something else.

Op Mobilise, and a highly energetic appetite for focusing on the threat, will accelerate our plans. I will resist the temptation to speculate about levels of investment, because I do not think it would be useful for a humble junior Minister to speculate about the exact year in which more defence investment will be made by the Government, but both the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary have made it very clear that more is required and more will come. At the point at which that is delivered, I think they will have the overwhelming support of the British public and our international allies, and we should have that confidence too.

Question put and agreed to.