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National Security Capability Review

Volume 788: debated on Monday 15 January 2018


My Lords, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given earlier this afternoon in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence on defence and the national security capability review. The Statement is as follows:

“In the 2015 strategic defence and security review, the Government identified four principal threats facing the UK and our allies in the coming decade: terrorism, extremism and instability; state-based threats and intensifying wider state competition; technology, especially cyber threats; and the erosion of a rules-based international order.

As the Prime Minister made clear in her speech to the Lord Mayor’s banquet late last year, these threats have diversified and grown in intensity. Russian hostility to the West is increasing, whether through weaponising information, attempting to undermine democratic process or increased submarine activity in the North Atlantic. Regional instability in the Middle East exacerbates the threat from Daesh and Islamist terrorism, which has diversified and dispersed. Iran’s well-known proxy military presence in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere poses a clear threat to UK interests in the region, and to our allies.

I have, as other Members have, seen much of the work that our Armed Forces continue to do in dealing with these threats. It is because of this intensifying global security context that the Government initiated the national security capability review in July. Its purpose is to ensure that our investment in national security capabilities is joined-up, effective and efficient.

As I said in Oral Questions, since becoming Defence Secretary, I have asked the department to develop robust options for ensuring that Defence can match the future threats and challenges facing this nation. Shortly, when the national security capability review finishes, the Prime Minister with NSC colleagues will then decide how to take forward its conclusions, and I would not wish to pre-empt that decision.

While the detail must wait until after the NSCR concludes, I can assure the House that as long as I am Defence Secretary we will develop and sustain the capabilities necessary to maintain continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence, a carrier force able to strike anywhere on the globe, and the Armed Forces necessary to protect the North Atlantic and Europe and to ensure that we continue to work with our NATO allies. The Prime Minister, the Chancellor and I will be doing all that we can to ensure that we have a sustainable budget so that we can deliver the right capabilities for our Armed Forces”.

That concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I may regret this but I am almost tempted to welcome it—however, I had better be careful to understand it first. It seems to say that this review will define the threats. I think its implication is that the Ministry of Defence will not do its normal thing of muddling through, and that when the defence needs for the threat are defined, the money will be found. Is that a reasonable précis?

Certainly, my Lords, there is no intent for us to muddle through. The threats we face are ones we believe we correctly identified in the 2015 SDSR. What we did not sufficiently predict was the intensification of those threats that we have seen over the last two or more years. So, the capability review is designed in part to ensure that we have the right capabilities for the threats we face and expect to face but, as the noble Lord is aware, it is also a response to the EU referendum turning out as it did and the pound sterling depreciating to the extent that it did. We must therefore be realistic in the way we configure our budget over the next few years.

As far as I am concerned—and perhaps this is in the mind of others—the word “realistic” conveys a certain ambiguity. I appreciate that the Minister is unable to go into detail about what the defence proposals may amount to, but I ask him as a matter of principle to agree three things: that it is necessary in a defence review, first, to state clearly your foreign and defence policy objectives; secondly, to determine the military resources needed to meet those objectives; and, thirdly, to provide the funding to ensure that those military resources are delivered. It is being said that the defence review is fiscally neutral. If that be so, how can all three of those principles be met?

My Lords, the capability review has indeed been fiscally neutral in its approach, but we are addressing the challenges we face—I would not disagree with the three factors the noble Lord articulated—by ensuring that the policy and plans that support the implementation of the national security strategy are as joined-up, effective and efficient as possible. That may mean that we enhance the resources that are channelled towards certain capabilities and, as the noble Lord might expect from that, that we reduce the resources we are currently devoting to other capabilities.

My Lords, I am prepared to give this review a welcome but if, as the Minister said, many of the threats are getting greater, we need to look at enhancing the amount of money we spend on defence. If the threats are greater, our defences must be greater as well.

My Lords, from many of our debates on this topic I am well aware of the feeling of the House—that many noble Lords believe we should be spending more on defence. However, that is not currently the reality we are working with in the context of this review. As I say, we have a budget. We want to ensure that we are spending it intelligently in the context of the threats we face, and of our overall foreign policy.

My Lords, my blood runs cold when I look at the various options that seem to be being floated about cuts to defence. The Minister and I have both been involved with government and Whitehall long enough to know that these things do not just pop out of the undergrowth; it means that people are genuinely looking at options like that. If any of the options I have seen so far are implemented, the Conservative Government will have overseen a reduction of 50% in our military capability since 2010—quite an extraordinary figure. I ask the Minister to confirm that none of the measures said to be under consideration—the Government say that nothing at all is on the table—have actually been looked at. Or are they being looked at, and are we really thinking of making such a major reduction in our military capability?

The Government have not reached the point where they are thinking of doing anything along the lines the noble Lord suggested. I am well aware of the press reports to which he refers. I must emphasise again that they are speculation. Ministers have not had a formal set of options presented to them, and that is the point at which there will be a decision-making process. Until then, I fear that I cannot comment on any speculation.

My Lords, I welcome the Statement, particularly the last words, “deliver the right capabilities”, and the word “ensure”. We may at last have a Defence Secretary who will fight our corner. When we talk about threats, many of those who are much more knowledgeable than me through their days in defence will say that it is the unknown threats that we have to be prepared for. The known threats are much more straightforward; the unknown requires a different capability entirely.

The debate in the Commons last Thursday was one of the finest debates I have come across since I have been in Parliament. If any noble Lord has not read it, you should. This coming Thursday, we will have our own debate, as some noble Lords will be more than aware. When will the Government come to a viewpoint and state the way forward? Will it be in March or April, because time is not on our side?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right that there is no merit in delaying the announcement on this subject longer than we need to, but I am glad that he picked up the tone and tenor of the Statement. The main purpose of the review is to ensure that we have a full suite of national security capabilities, from hard power to soft power, to achieve the security goals, the economic goals—the goals that depend on our national influence around the world—set in the 2015 strategy and in the context of our exit from the European Union.

My Lords, my noble friend just confirmed the Government’s continued adherence to continuous at-sea deterrence. Will he further confirm that that means four submarines, no less?

My Lords, yes, that is the conclusion that we and previous Governments have reached as the minimum practicable and credible force required to deliver continuous at-sea deterrence.

My Lords, the Secretary of State makes a commitment to protecting the north Atlantic. Is he also concerned about the south Atlantic, or should the Falklands be concerned?

Yes, my Lords, and nothing I said should be taken as any indication that we will cease to keep a firm eye on the defence of the Falkland Islands, which we will continue to do.

Does the noble Earl realise that the continued delay in making key decisions about future capabilities is simply paralysing decision-making inside the Ministry of Defence and encouraging our opponents outside? Our allies in NATO will also be dismayed at the fact that these decisions are still pending, still waiting and seem to be kicked further down the road. Is he not concerned that this is affecting the security of this country?

As I said, we certainly want to make our announcement as soon as possible, but I would have thought that it would be even worse if I were to stand here and noble Lords were accusing the Government of making snap decisions, as I have heard criticism to that effect in relation to the 2010 SDSR. We are not in the business of making unconsidered judgments.

My Lords, would the Minister agree with me that it is important in any public statement that the people of this country are properly apprised of the fact that, if we say yes to and prioritise some elements of our defence capability, we are inevitably saying no to others, and that we are given a proper appraisal of what our capability actually is? In this country, particularly in some of our newspapers, we still hear statements that imply almost that Britannia still rules the waves. Our rhetoric and prioritising ought to match the reality of the situation in which we find ourselves.

The right reverend Prelate is correct. We need to tailor our capabilities to what is affordable, certainly, but we also need to bear in mind that the importance of the UK acting with its allies will not diminish. As I have said many times, NATO is the bedrock of our national security, and will continue to be so.