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Defence: Military Commitments

Volume 726: debated on Monday 4 April 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the extent to which the resources available to the Ministry of Defence match the United Kingdom’s military commitments.

My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Major Matthew Collins and Lance Sergeant Mark Burgan, both from the 1st Battalion Irish Guards. My thoughts are also with the wounded, and I pay tribute to the courage and fortitude with which they face their rehabilitation.

The Government are fully committed to providing our Armed Forces with the resources needed to carry out operations, as has been demonstrated in Afghanistan and more recently in Libya. The strategic defence and security review, while addressing the imbalance in defence that we inherited from the previous Government, established the policy framework for our Armed Forces and the capabilities that they will need to meet future challenges and to achieve success on operations.

From these Benches, I join my noble friend’s tribute. In the light of today’s remarks by the Chief of the Air Staff, is it not clear that we have gone from overstretch to critical stretch, and that the defence cuts have been too draconian? Libya, of course, exemplifies the unexpected. Does not the nation expect that a Conservative-led coalition will put defence as a number one priority? Is not spending 2 per cent of GDP just too tight, as many of us have been saying?

My Lords, the Government’s primary responsibility is to ensure national security. Without healthy finances, we cannot create the public services or the national security we need. The SDSR established the policy framework for the Armed Forces and the capabilities that they will need to meet future challenges. Events in Libya have proved how right we were to design adaptability into defence so that we are able to be flexible as strategic threats change. The outstanding work of our Armed Forces demonstrates that Britain remains a key player that is able to project power and influence on the world stage.

My Lords, from these Benches, we associate ourselves with the Minister’s words of tribute to Major Matthew Collins and Lance Sergeant Mark Burgan of the Irish Guards. We too offer our sincere condolences to their families and hope that their pain will be eased a little by the knowledge that, in the eyes of the nation as well as of this House, Major Collins and Lance Sergeant Burgan are brave and courageous heroes.

We now have commitments in Libya that were not anticipated or even contemplated in the recent rushed strategic defence and security review, which has not survived its first encounter with reality. As a result, we have aircraft—and certainly one naval vessel—in theatre that were due to be decommissioned. Is it not time for the validity and relevance of the SDSR to be reviewed in the light of what is happening in north Africa and the new commitments that we have taken on? Is it not also the case that, if the Government decide to extend further our operational commitments, they have a responsibility to provide the additional resources and not leave our Armed Forces even more stretched than ever, as appears to be the case from the comments this morning by the head of the Royal Air Force?

My Lords, I agree with every word that the noble Lord said about the two brave soldiers from the Irish Guards.

The SDSR states explicitly the need for an adaptable posture to defend our interests in the world. As a result, we have structured and resourced our forces to give us flexibility to conduct operations such as the one in Libya. The SDSR correctly predicted that we would need to carry out civilian evacuations, and rightly assessed that we could mitigate capability gaps resulting from the SDSR through working with allies, overflight and basing rights. We are continuing to develop and refine the SDSR, but it will not be reopened. Finally, the additional costs of operations in Libya will be fully met from the reserve.

My Lords, in his answer to a question on 15 February, the Minister said that the Ministry of Defence was planning on the basis of a flat real-terms budget after 2015. In his Statement on the defence review made in the other place on 19 October last year, the Prime Minister said that the outcome of the review—the 2020 structure—would be affordable only with real-terms growth in the defence budget after 2015. It seems that the Chief of the Air Staff was merely agreeing with the Prime Minister. Will the Minister therefore confirm that the Ministry of Defence is planning on a lower level of capability than that set out in the defence review, and will he tell us what that is?

My Lords, the Prime Minister has been very clear that the defence budget will have to increase in real terms beyond the current spending review period to deliver the Future Force 2020 structure set out in the SDSR. Our aim over the next four years will be to put our forces in a position to reach that ambition, given real growth in the later part of the decade. However, we cannot guarantee what the budget will be under the next Government. Spending post-2015 will be a matter for a new spending review and the next SDSR. Until then, the department will need to plan carefully for those new commitments that will entail significant additional expenditure beyond 2015.

My Lords, it is quite clear how uncomfortable the Minister feels about giving these answers. When the Minister looks at events across the whole Middle East, the ratcheting up of tension off the Falklands with statements made about oil prospecting, tension in Korea and the ongoing war in Afghanistan, is he really saying that the NSC will not put its slide rule over the strategic defence and security review? Everything that has happened must mean that there have to be changes. I cannot believe that this will not be looked at. Is the Minister saying that this will not be looked at by the NSC?

My Lords, of course we all want more money for defence. However, if we have financial difficulties in the MoD, we know where they came from. We went 12 years without a proper defence review. We are spending £120 million every day just to pay off the interest on the previous Government's debt. Every department must make its own contribution to deficit reduction, and the MoD is no exception. We have to put the economy on the right track for the sake of our national security, and across government we will do it as a team.