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Armed Forces: Baltic Defence

Volume 759: debated on Tuesday 24 February 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the ability of the United Kingdom’s armed forces to participate fully in any NATO-led Baltic defence operations.

My Lords, NATO remains the cornerstone of UK defence. We are committed to Article 5 as a fundamental principle at the heart of NATO. An attack on one is an attack against all. We maintain a range of forces at the required readiness and standard and would respond to any NATO request to defend the Baltic states against external aggression. The level of our participation would depend on what requests NATO made of us.

My Lords, there is a saying that it is useless for the sheep to pass resolutions in favour of vegetarianism if the wolf is of another opinion. Is my noble friend not ashamed and embarrassed that, with clear Russian aggression in the Ukraine and major increases in Russian defence expenditure, all our major political leaders, ostrich-like, totally fail to spell out their respective positions on the levels of overall defence expenditure? Do we not need a clear commitment to maintain a 2% of GDP spend on defence and, indeed, probably more? Can my noble friend tell us why the Chief of the Defence Staff was gagged yesterday from speaking at Chatham House?

My Lords, we have met the NATO target since coming to office and will do so to the end of financial year 2016. NATO membership means equitable sharing of risks and responsibilities, so it is a case of comparing Russia not to the UK but to NATO, which spends 10 times more on defence than Russia. On my noble friend’s second question, the Defence Secretary decided that the Procurement Minister should speak, given the conference’s focus on relations between industry and government.

My Lords, four destroyers and frigates were lost in the Falklands; eight were very badly damaged. That is 12 destroyers and frigates. Today, if we lost 12 ships, we would have seven destroyers and frigates protecting this great maritime nation. Our defence forces have been cut too far. Will the Minister pass on to his right honourable friend the Prime Minister the message that, bearing in mind the world situation, with chaos in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia and Ukraine, and risk of growing tension with Russia, we need to spend more money on defence and must not have a block to proper discussion of defence in the lead-up to this election?

My Lords, sufficient defence spending is particularly required in light of recent events. We need to be able to deal with multiple challenges and undertake a range of operations across the military spectrum, as well as maintain our standing commitments. This Government have consistently committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence and 20% on equipment, and, along with the US, we have been one of only two allies that currently meet the NATO guidelines.

In their present mood, the Russians are likely to be using a whole variety of hybrid and cyber forms of warfare, as they have in the recent past in the Baltic area. Are we fully prepared to meet that?

My Lords, NATO is working to tackle the challenge of hybrid attacks. There is little new in the tactics and techniques of hybrid warfare, such as subversion and the use of proxy forces, but the scale of sophistication of Russian activities, combined with the use of new instruments such as cyber, presents a new challenge and we are doing our best to get on top of it.

What assessment is being made by the British Government and Ministers of the impact on Russian public opinion of provocative NATO exercises on the border with Russia?

My Lords, the information given by my noble friend the Minister is to some extent reassuring, but perhaps it might be more reassuring if there were two aircraft carriers actually in service and if F-35B assault aircraft were actually working on those aircraft carriers. Will the Minister tell us what message we send out to our enemies, to whom we might seem somewhat unprepared?

My Lords, we are not unprepared. Our equipment programme represents a substantial investment: some £163 billion over 10 years on equipment and equipment support, ensuring that our Armed Forces retain a formidable range of cutting-edge capabilities, and the ability to project power across the globe, hence aircraft carriers. This investment is not only securing the best possible military capability; it is also helping to secure UK jobs and growth.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is in this House quite a mood of concern about the level of defence expenditure? We have also seen the concern expressed in the media. We are aware that there is a Bill currently going through your Lordships’ House to place 0.7% of GDP into the international development budget by law. Would the Minister consider a government amendment to that Bill, or an addition to that Bill, to link that to 2% of GDP for defence spending?

My Lords, I note the concern, but the defence budget this year is £33.8 billion. We have the second largest defence budget in the alliance—behind the US—and certainly the largest in the European Union. The UK remains a global power, making the second biggest contribution to the campaign against ISIL and sending 750 military personnel into Sierra Leone to help fight Ebola.