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NATO: Eastern Flank

Volume 778: debated on Monday 30 January 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what contribution the United Kingdom is making to the defence of NATO’s Eastern flank.

My Lords, the United Kingdom plays a significant role in the defence of NATO’s eastern flank, leading NATO’s enhanced forward presence in Estonia, deploying a reconnaissance squadron to the US battalion in Poland and leading NATO’s very high readiness joint task force with up to 3,000 UK troops. Typhoon aircraft based in Romania will conduct southern air policing this summer, and we will deploy a Royal Navy ship to NATO’s standing naval mine countermeasures group in the Baltic.

My Lords, one should never take historical analogies too far. However, we have an America that is increasingly protectionist and isolationist; we have an international system in the United Nations which is becoming less and less effective; in Britain we have reduced our defence spending hugely since the Cold War a quarter of a century ago; and we have a large number of troops on the borders of eastern Europe. It sounds depressingly familiar to historians. I commend Her Majesty’s Government for the position they have taken in sending a battle group to Estonia. The Prime Minister said,

“we should engage with Russia from a position of strength”.

Does my noble friend agree that that means we should review again defence spending in this relatively new Administration and that we should increase defence spending to take account of new circumstances?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that the first duty of any Government is the safety and security of the British people at home and abroad. That is why we have committed to spending at least 2% of our GDP on defence every year of this decade. Not only that, in addition the MoD budget will rise by 0.5% a year in real terms to 2020-21 and we have access to up an additional £1.5 billion a year by 2020-21 through the new joint security fund. This is an appropriate response to the complex and challenging international and domestic security threats that we face.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that part of the NATO eastern flank includes maritime and the eastern Mediterranean? Will he say whether we are contributing our Royal Navy to NATO in that area, and if not whether we would have the capacity to do so if we were so asked?

The noble and gallant Lord will know that there is a NATO operation currently in train in the Aegean in which the UK is playing a leading role. As to a wider involvement in the eastern Mediterranean, I will write to him if I can find out any more plans which can be disclosed. What I can say is that we are conscious of the need to defend NATO’s southern border as well as its eastern borders, and that is why we are deploying RAF aircraft for southern air policing later this year.

My Lords, it is quite clear that we are not spending enough on defence, but that is not my question. I am delighted that we are showing support for our eastern allies in NATO, but I am wary of military involvement within Ukraine. Does the noble Earl agree that we must keep open at all levels every line of communication we can with the Putin Administration so that any incident does not actually become something far more serious? We are dealing with someone where things could become very nasty indeed.

The noble Lord makes an extremely good series of points. NATO’s renewed focus on deterrence and defence is, we believe, a proportionate response by NATO allies to the changed security environment in eastern Europe as demonstrated by Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine. However, that does not change our approach to bilateral relations with Russia. Despite the challenges I have referred to, we will continue to engage where necessary in areas of shared interest, and engage in dialogue as well through the channels we have available to us, such as the NATO-Russia Council.

My Lords, the deployment announced by the noble Earl in the eastern area of Europe is obviously to be welcomed, but is he aware of the RAND Corporation report of 2016 which sets out graphically the vulnerability of the Baltic states in the face of any Russian threat? Is not their best guarantee the fulfilment by all members of the NATO alliance of the obligation under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty—including, if I may say so, the United States, which after all was the beneficiary of that article after the events of 9/11?

The noble Lord is quite right. Article 5 is one of the key components of the NATO treaty and all allies are cognisant of what that means should any member of the alliance be subject to an armed incursion or attack.

My Lords, I endorse entirely the point made by my noble friend Lord West that we should keep a dialogue with the Russian Government open, and the NATO-Russia Council is perhaps a vehicle for doing that. The deployment of British forces in Estonia and Poland is purely defensive, but can the Minister assure us that this will be kept under review, and should it be the case, we would have the capacity to increase the number of troops we have placed there? Does he further agree that no one at all in this country or abroad should be in any doubt that if NATO invoked Article 5, we will respond if any of our allies in the Baltic are threatened?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. The enhanced forward presence is undoubtedly a major step forward in NATO’s deterrence posture. These are forces that will reassure our allies. They will defend Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, another NATO territory, and we believe that they will deter Russian belligerence on an enduring basis. The forces are designed to be defensive but combat-capable in order to show the Russians that should they be rash enough to contemplate any incursion into the Baltic states, that will be met with an appropriate response from NATO.

My Lords, will it be possible to persuade the eastern flank nations which have the benefit of all the arrangements my noble friend has described to contribute 2% of their GDP to the cost of all these arrangements?

My Lords, it is encouraging that the defence investment pledge taken in Cardiff at the NATO summit in 2014 has raised the profile of investment within NATO. It has galvanised the allies’ defence spending. When leaders made the pledge in 2014, only three allies met the 2% of GDP guideline. Since then, two more have increased their budgets and five allies now meet the guideline. There is further progress still to come.

Will the Minister tell us how many of our Typhoon aeroplanes are deployed in the east and how many are operational at any one time?

If the noble Viscount is talking about southern air policing, where we will station aircraft in Romania, four aircraft will be deployed to carry out that policing alongside the Romanians. The total deployment size is yet to be confirmed, but it is likely to be in the region of 140 personnel. I will write to the noble Viscount if I have any further details.