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Armed Forces: Cuts

Volume 785: debated on Tuesday 14 November 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the comments made by General Ben Hodges, Commander of United States Forces in Europe, that the United Kingdom would be unable to maintain its international commitments if its Armed Forces were cut further.

My Lords, the UK Armed Forces are fulfilling all their international commitments. Her Majesty’s Government will ensure that they can continue to do so. The national security capability review is being conducted to make sure that the UK’s investment in national security capability is as joined-up, effective and efficient as possible. We take the views of the US, our closest ally, seriously and we will continue to consult with it.

I welcome the noble Earl to his multi-portfolio today. Are the Government aware that General Hodges is but one of a number of senior United States military personnel who have criticised with dismay the reducing size and shape of our Armed Forces? Can he therefore confirm that there is no intention—which would earn further rebuke—to cut the size of our Armed Forces, for example in the Royal Marines, or to curtail flying training for helicopter pilots?

I thank the noble and gallant Lord for his question. He is quite right that concerns were raised in the newspapers by General Hodges. The fact is that all these budgets are under some pressure or other. Any speculation about the measures the Government will take through the NSCR is exactly that—speculation. No decisions have been taken. Rumours in the press have been misleading and deeply unhelpful.

My Lords, we are to have a national security and capability review—that is code for “more defence cuts”. We have a statement from Ben Hodges, commander of the US Army in Europe, who said that if the UK,

“can’t maintain and sustain the level of commitments it’s fulfilling right now, then I think it risks kind of going into a different sort of category”—

that is code for “we will become second-class allies”. How does the Minister reconcile this with the Statement by the then Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, in 2013, when he said—nay, boasted:

“The savings that I have agreed will have no impact on military manpower or equipment”?

He went on to say:

“The ambitious and far-reaching reforms we began in 2010 have eliminated the £38 billion black hole and balanced the defence budget for the first time in a generation. We are determined to ensure that the Armed Forces of the future have the resources they need to deliver our nation’s security”.

There has been an impact on manpower and equipment. We have failed to balance the defence budget and Ben Hodges clearly believes that in the future we will not have the resources to deliver our nation’s security.

My Lords, I repeat that our Armed Forces are fulfilling their commitments across the globe and this Government will ensure that they continue to do so. I remind the House—as many Ministers have in the past—that our investment of 2% of UK GDP in defence gives us a leadership role in operations and exercises. To name just some of the activities currently under way, we are proud of our leading role in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence, NATO air policing and NATO standing naval forces. We continue to play a pivotal role in coalition operations against Daesh.

My Lords, I fully respect the right of General Hodges to pass comment on his closest ally, as he sees it. It is difficult to give reassurance right across the board but there are certain yardsticks as far as UK defence capability is concerned that an ally watches very carefully, one of which is our ongoing capability to field a division in a future conventional conflict of at least two combat brigades. That has always been our intention, our policy, and what we have managed to do. Can the Minister give an assurance that this remains our policy in this very important yardstick area?

My Lords, the noble Lord, with his great knowledge—far more than mine—has asked a question that I cannot answer. I can say that the NSCR is being undertaken to ensure that the UK’s investment in national security capabilities is as joined-up, effective and efficient as possible.

My Lords, is it not the harsh, unpalatable truth that we are cutting not into fat or even muscle but now into the very bones of our defence capability? How else can one explain the decision—not speculated but in fact—to reduce the number of replacement Apache helicopters from 50 to 38 and, further, to consider the sale of HMS “Albion”?

My Lords, as I said earlier, press reports are pure speculation. There are always pressures on our defence budget but we will continue to enable our Armed Forces to carry out the job that we ask them to do in defending this country.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister will be aware that I am not convinced that we have struck the right balance between overseas aid and defence but is it not clear that, with the notable exception of France, the defence effort of our European partners is, relatively speaking, pathetic? Will the Minister encourage our European partners to increase their defence effort and meet the 2% target?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his question. There are in fact six EU states that meet the 2% NATO target, including the United Kingdom, Estonia, Greece, Poland and Romania. I should add that France does not meet that target but falls a couple of points behind. As for meeting the 0.7% and the 2% targets, I think our country is the only one to manage that.