Skip to main content

Falkland Islands Defence Review

Volume 760: debated on Tuesday 24 March 2015


My Lords, with permission, I shall repeat a Statement on the Falkland Islands defence review. The Statement is as follows:

“Safeguarding our citizens and their way of life remains the most important responsibility of government and of defence. In March 2013, the Falkland Islands referendum reaffirmed the islanders’ overwhelming wish to remain British. Of the 92% who voted, 99.8% voted in favour of maintaining their political status as an overseas territory of the United Kingdom.

We will always defend the right of the Falkland Islanders to determine their own political future. The Ministry of Defence retains responsibility for the external defence and security of British interests in the south Atlantic, and to that end undertakes regular assessments to ensure that we have in place the appropriate defensive capability.

In autumn 2013, my predecessor asked officials to undertake a thorough review of the forces that we hold on the Falkland Islands and our contingency plans for their defence. The objective was to ensure that our enduring commitment to the defence of the islands is sustained effectively. That review has now been completed.

The review’s conclusions remain operationally sensitive in the light of potential threats, and I hope that the House will understand that I cannot disclose much of the detail.

However, I can tell the House that we have updated our assessment of any threat to the islands. This includes a consideration of the changes that may arise from the islanders’ plans to develop their economy, including the potential for development of an oil and gas industry. We continue to discuss these issues with the Falkland Islands Government.

I have endorsed the assessment of the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Commander of Joint Forces Command that the current military presence is broadly proportionate to the threats and the risks that we face. Our forces in the south Atlantic are entirely defensive, and are at the level required to ensure the defence of the Falkland Islands against any potential threat.

However, I have also agreed a number of measures designed to ensure our resilience for the short, medium and longer term. I can tell the House that these measures will include the return of military support helicopters, which were removed in 2006 to support operations in Afghanistan. On current plans, this will involve the deployment of two Chinooks, which will be operational by mid-2016. This is a significant capability, which will provide reactive, 24/7 tactical mobility in order to allow a swift and decisive response to any emerging incidents. The helicopters will also bring a heavy lift capability and will enhance the training opportunities available to the resident infantry company.

We also have plans in place to deliver enhanced operational communications for the headquarters at Mount Pleasant to better enable the sharing of real-time operational data, and I can confirm that we will be renewing the ground-based air defence system when Rapier comes out of service around the end of the decade. We will also maintain our commitment to provide a Falkland Islands patrol vessel, currently HMS “Clyde”.

In addition, we intend to carry out a number of projects to replace some of the ageing infrastructure, for example the refurbishment of Mare Harbour and the replacement of the existing power generation systems at Mount Pleasant Airfield. A major modernisation of the fuels infrastructure is also under way and is now nearing completion.

In total, we expect to invest up to £180 million in improving and modernising our infrastructure on the islands over the next 10 years. In addition to the operational improvements that I have already mentioned, we are also taking action to improve the quality of life of those who serve in the Falklands, including planned improvements to their accommodation, and a new primary school.

Although there will be some changes in personnel numbers as the Sea King helicopters are withdrawn and the Chinook force stands up, I have decided that for the foreseeable future we will keep our numbers at around their current level of about 1,200 personnel, military and civilian.

I know that the House will want to join me in taking this opportunity to pay tribute to our brave men and women, military and civilian, who leave behind their families and friends for months or years at a time in order to ensure the right of the Falkland Islanders to remain British. We will always remember the bravery of the 255 British servicemen who gave their lives for that cause.

I am aware of the close interest that the Defence Select Committee takes in the Falkland Islands, and of the committee’s most recent visit there earlier this year. I am grateful for its insights, some of which echo the findings of this review. I have written earlier today to the committee chairman.

The review that we have undertaken confirms our commitment to the Falkland Islands. We will continue to defend the right of the islanders to determine their future and maintain their way of life against whatever threats may exist. This review ensures that we will continue to have the right mix of people, equipment and infrastructure to deliver that commitment in the years ahead.

We are not complacent. The Government will continue to remain vigilant, but on the basis of the review and the follow-on measures that I have established I am satisfied that the Government can be confident in their continued ability to defend the south Atlantic islands. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the other place by the Secretary of State on what is a busy day for the Ministry of Defence, with one oral ministerial Statement and no fewer than five written ministerial Statements.

In his Statement today, and on the radio this morning, the Secretary of State—in response to a question about a newspaper report that Russia was working on a deal to lease 12 long-range bombers to Argentina—said that he had been reviewing the defence of the Falkland Islands and it was right to do that every so often. He went on to say that we needed to modernise our defences in the Falklands to ensure that we had sufficient troops there and that the islands were properly defended in terms of air maintenance and maritime defence. He added that our commitment to the Falkland Islanders having the right to remain British, and to proper protection by our forces, remained absolutely clear. We would certainly endorse that commitment, not least in the context of the outcome of the 2013 referendum when the Falkland Islanders made clear their emphatic wish to remain British. We, too, wish to express our gratitude to our personnel who have served, and continue to serve, in the Falklands, and in particular to our 255 service personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice and the hundreds who were injured in action retaking the Falklands.

Can the Minister say whether the Government regard the threat to the Falkland Islands as having recently increased and whether the Statement today is the response to that? On the radio this morning, the Secretary of State simply said that the threat had not reduced; he did not say that it had increased. Do the Government regard Russian influence in the region as increasing? What, if any, new diplomatic initiatives are taking place with the Argentinian Government and other Governments in South America, as well as with our allies?

In the Statement, reference was made to the refurbishment of the harbour in the Falklands. It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate when that work is likely to be completed. Can he also say how soon the missile system will be upgraded?

We certainly support the measures that the Government have announced today, but I would like to ask where this announcement fits in with the pending strategic defence and security review, since the Government have presumably decided that the announcements today could not wait until the SDSR planned for later this year. On the radio this morning, the Secretary of State said that he had started a review of the defence of the Falkland Islands last year—not, as I think is indicated in the Statement today, that it had begun in 2013. Last year, the Secretary of State said in the other place that he was,

“very clear that the next SDSR is being carried out next year”—[Official Report, Commons, 20/10/14; col. 662]—

that is, in 2015; and that the Government had not started on the review in 2014, since “that awaits next year”. Now we know that a review of what is surely one important part of our existing and future defence commitments was in fact already taking place when the Secretary of State made that statement. Can the Minister say what other aspects of our existing and future defence commitments are currently the subject of review at ministerial level? I ask that in the context of the Government’s apparent lack of willingness to engage with the public in general—and key stakeholders in particular—on the 2015 strategic defence and security review, which is now scheduled to be completed in some nine months’ time. Yet we now find that what appear to be key decisions have just been made in respect of the defence of the Falklands, which will surely have implications for the 2015 SDSR, on which very little significant progress, if any, has apparently been made.

Indeed, it appears that a further key strategic defence decision has already been made by this Government since the Secretary of State repeated on the radio this morning the statement made by the Prime Minister that there will be no further cuts in the size of the Regular Army, a statement that likewise must have some considerable significance for the direction and content of the SDSR. The Prime Minister’s statement was an interesting one. Does the reference to no further cuts in the size of the Regular Army also extend to no cuts in the future size of our intended 30,000 Army Reserve strength, or was the silence on any commitment in respect of the Army Reserve both deliberate and significant?

Have any other decisions impacting on the 2015 SDSR recently been made before there has apparently been any attempt to involve the public or key stakeholders in consultations on the 2015 SDSR? Finally, while I reiterate our support for the measures that the Government have announced today, do the Government feel that the situation in the Falklands from a defence point of view is such that the decisions could not have been announced later this year as part of, and in the context of, the 2015 SDSR?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his broad welcome for our conclusions to the review. I join him from these Benches in paying tribute to those who are currently serving in the Falkland Islands. Like him, we remember those servicemen who were lost in the battle long ago.

The noble Lord asked me a lot of questions; I was not able to write quickly enough to get them all down, but I will undertake to write him a letter with the answers as soon as I possibly can. He mentioned the recent referendum and the democratic right of the Falkland Islanders to remain British. This Statement sends a strong message to the Falkland Islanders.

The noble Lord mentioned the review. We review all our activity routinely. However, in 2013, given the time that had elapsed since the comprehensive review of the Falkland Islands, officials and Commander JFC advised that such a comprehensive review would be appropriate. Ministers agreed with this advice and provided clear direction for that review.

The noble Lord asked whether Russian influence had increased in the region. The Ministry of Defence undertakes regular assessments of potential major threats to the Falkland Islands to ensure that we retain an appropriate level of defence capability to address such threats. He asked if the threat had increased. There is no current evidence of Argentina’s intent or capability to launch a credible military attack on the Falkland Islands, but we are not complacent and the Government remain absolutely committed to the protection of the Falkland Islands and its population.

The noble Lord mentioned the story in the newspaper this morning. I have no idea where that came from; I have asked officials at the MoD and they do not know either.

The noble Lord asked me about the missile system being upgraded. Our current short-range air defence system—Rapier—is due to go out of service at the end of the decade. Due to the age of that system it would be impractical to sustain it in the longer term, and therefore it needs to be replaced if UK forces are to continue to be able to provide defence to our deployed forces against an air threat.

The noble Lord asked about diplomacy. We have warm relations with most of the South American countries. I meet a number of Foreign and Defence Ministers from these countries, and I assure him that none of them has ever mentioned the Falkland Islands to me. Still, I am sure that these diplomats have noticed the Falkland Islands referendum. We want to have a full and friendly relationship with Argentina as neighbours in the South Atlantic and responsible fellow members of the G20, but we will not negotiate away the rights of the Falkland Islands people against their will or behind their backs.

The noble Lord asked when the harbour is going to be refurbished. It will be done by the end of 2017. I am afraid I could not keep up with all his questions, but he asked me about the 2015 SDSR. As he knows, a lot of background work is being done on that. The decisions on the Falklands Islands announced today are separate from the SDSR, and in all honesty the Statement is not making very big decisions.

As this is probably my noble friend’s last defence Statement as a Minister in this Parliament, I congratulate him on his exemplary service as a Defence Minister over the past five years. I understand that HMS “Clyde” is an off-shore patrol vessel. Does my noble friend agree that we should strengthen the permanent Royal Navy presence in and around the Falkland Islands?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his very kind, totally undeserved, words. The Falklands Islands patrol vessel capability will be retained when HMS “Clyde” leaves service in 2017. I assure my noble friend that we always have either a Type 45 destroyer or a Type 23 frigate available to reinforce the Falklands Islands.

I have no idea whether this is the last appearance of the noble Lord at the Dispatch Box—of course, on this side we all hope that the Government are defeated in the forthcoming election—but if it is his last performance in this role, I shall say how much our side have appreciated the courtesy and conscientiousness which he has always shown in fulfilling his roles in this House. The depth of his genuine commitment to our military and to the defence of the nation has never been doubted by anybody.

As the noble Lord knows from many discussions and debates, I have always believed that capability and threat are not independent variables. It is not an accident that since NATO started cutting its defence expenditure Mr Putin has become ever more bold and ever more aggressive. At present, Cristina Fernández is in a very difficult situation and is facing a major scandal and the collapse of the Argentinian economy. She could well be tempted to have a go at some adventure if there was a quick trick to be taken. A strong signal needed to be sent and the Government appear to have done that—that is how I interpret the Statement today. All of us on this side of the House will endorse my noble friend in giving the Government support on that.

There is one question I want to ask. Everybody who knows the Falklands knows that we cannot go on much longer there unless an effort is made to refurbish and rebuild the barracks which were constructed after 1982 and at that time were due to last for 20 years. They are already in a state of embarrassing disrepair. Are there any plans to replace them or to refurbish them?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his very kind words. I understand that the barracks are going to be refurbished. I can write to the noble Lord with specific details on the plans.

My Lords, I welcome the Statement that the Minister has made, and I endorse the comments about his conduct and attention to the House in his time as Defence Minister, which have been admirable. If there is any relevance in the story that appears today, I hope that the Government are making the strongest representations to the Argentinian Government about the unwisdom of becoming involved with Russia at present and what that might mean for the continent of America. The United States of America has previously taken a slightly detached view about the relationships and has viewed the Falklands as a matter between the United Kingdom and Argentina. Were there to be Russian involvement in some way, it would be of keen Interest to the United States.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his very kind words. As regards Russia, the Ministry of Defence undertakes regular assessments of potential military threats to the Falkland Islands to ensure that we retain an appropriate level of defensive capability to address any such threats. We remain vigilant and are committed to the protection of the Falkland Islanders.

My Lords, I lost 22 of my boys when my ship was sunk in the retaking of the Falklands, so the islands are particularly close to my heart. I am very glad that we are showing a commitment to keep defending them. The Argentinians’ behaviour is consistently extremely bad; for example, they are calling the new class of frigates they are buying from China “Malvinas class”, which is a clear statement of intent, even if currently they do not have the capability to do much about it.

I am concerned that our strategy for the whole South Atlantic has not been cleverly put together as regards things such as the British Antarctic Survey, how we look upon Antarctica, the other islands we are responsible for, the mail steamer that goes from Tristan da Cunha, as well as the defence aspects of the Falklands, all of which should be looked at together. Every time I go to the Falklands I am delighted to see that society there is now wealthy and vibrant, getting wealthier—and, my goodness me, if they get oil, they will be like Kuwait. Are they going to pay a large chunk of that £185 million? We seem to have almost no money, looking forward to our large defence budget, which will plunge to below 2% of GDP.

My Lords, I pay tribute to those brave sailors who went down on the noble Lord’s ship. He asked me about the oil situation. The Falkland Islands Government have said that if the oil exploration is successful they would wish to share some of their revenues with the UK to offset the costs to Her Majesty’s Government of the defence of the islands.

My Lords, we on these Benches share in the complimentary comments on the Minister’s contribution to all defence questions—I thank him very much indeed. I hear what the Minister said about there being a destroyer or frigate available to go down and help the patrol ship should the occasion arise, but sometimes these destroyers or frigates can be quite a long way away. Does the Minister agree that the best form of defence for the Falkland Islands is to have a visible, upthreat, maritime presence of significance? A patrol ship does a good job, but it is not a very serious deterrent. Therefore does he agree that the frequency with which the destroyers or frigates can get down to the Falkland Islands and show themselves there from time to time should be increased—and that there should be the odd submarine visit as well? As a corollary to that, we need a destroyer frigate force larger than the 19 we currently have.

My Lords, I can assure the noble and gallant Lord that the destroyers and frigates are within a certain number of days’ sailing distance from the Falkland Islands—we are very insistent on that. I think he will agree with me that sometimes an invisible deterrent is as effective.

My Lords, the Minister has made an important Statement, but it really says, “We’re continuing as we are, doing some routine maintenance” —which after 30 years is hardly surprising—“and we’re sending a couple of Chinooks there next year”. That seems to beg the question: why has this become an Oral Statement rather than just a Written Statement?

My Lords, after the reports in the news today that the Russians are providing the Argentinians with military equipment, will the Government undertake a fresh review?

I can tell my noble friend that we will not undertake a fresh review, but we keep the situation under constant and continual review.