Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 20 June.
“Russia’s assault on Ukraine is an unprovoked, premeditated attack against a sovereign democratic state that threatens global security. As set out to the House previously, the United Kingdom and NATO stand with Ukraine. We are providing political and practical support to support its self-defence, and will further strengthen NATO’s deterrence and defence posture. Individual NATO allies, led by the UK, are also supporting Ukraine with lethal aid to ensure that Ukraine wins.
The United Kingdom was the first country to provide lethal aid, and we have increased our military and aid support, bringing the total budget to £1.3 billion. To date, we have sent over 6,900 anti-tank missiles; five air defence systems, including Starstreak anti-air missiles; 120 armoured fighting vehicles, including a small number of Stormers; 1,360 anti-structure munitions; 4.5 tonnes of plastic explosives; and 400,000 rounds of small-arms munitions. In addition, we have supplied over 200,000 items of non-lethal aid, including more than 82,000 helmets; more than 8,000 body armour kits; range finders; and medical equipment. As announced on 6 June 2022, we are providing cutting edge multiple-launch rocket systems, which can strike targets up to 80 kilometres away with pinpoint accuracy, offering a significant boost in capability to the Ukrainian armed forces. On 17 June, the Prime Minister offered to launch a major training operation for Ukrainian forces, with the potential to train up to 10,000 soldiers every three months—120 days.
We are currently supplying significant air power to NATO, including increased air patrols, with both Typhoons and F35s for NATO air policing. We have also deployed four additional Typhoons to Cyprus to patrol NATO’s eastern border. That means that we now have a full squadron of Royal Air Force fighter jets in southern Europe, ready to support NATO tasking. The United Kingdom has contributed more troops than any other ally to NATO’s enhanced forward presence. UK troops will also be deploying a company-sized sub-unit to Bulgaria to work bilaterally alongside our Bulgarian counterparts for up to six months, enhancing interoperability. The PM will meet NATO leaders again for next week’s Madrid summit, where NATO will agree the new strategic concept to set the direction of the alliance for the next decade and will agree long-term improvements to our deterrence and defence posture in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The United Kingdom’s commitment to the alliance and European security is unconditional and enduring. Our commitment to Article 5 of the Washington treaty is ironclad. We stand ready to defend our allies.”
It is the start of Armed Forces Week, so I begin by thanking them for all they do. We also reiterate our full support for the Government’s actions in Ukraine.
In continuing this support, the Prime Minister said last Friday that we would offer to train 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers every three months. Can the Minister say when this will start and give more detail of the plan? For example, where will they be trained—in the UK or another NATO country?
We also know that the Ukrainians have asked for more weapons. Can the Minister explain the Defence Minister’s remarks in the other place? He said that the Prime Minister and Defence Procurement Minister met yesterday morning to discuss
“escalating the supply of NATO standard equipment”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/6/22; col. 558.]
New contracts are also under discussion. Can the Minister say more about that and explain what it means?
The new head of the Army is also reported to have said that we need an Army capable of fighting Russia in battle. Can the Minister clarify those remarks? Were they actually said and if so, what was meant? Is that accurate? Whatever he meant, a reduction in our Army of a further 10,000 soldiers is not in our interest or that of our allies, is it? The Government need to rethink this.
First, I echo the noble Lord’s sentiments of gratitude to our Armed Forces. I have already participated in one of the services, up in Scotland, and I did so with a great sense of pride. I also thank him for his constructive approach, as ever, to matters in Ukraine.
On training, on which the Prime Minister’s announcement was very welcome, the UK is considering several options outside Ukraine to roll out the training programme, and that could include locations in the UK and other locations in Europe. The UK plans to provide basic infantry training to new or entry-level conventional recruits of the armed forces of Ukraine. The noble Lord will be aware that the Treasury has made £1.3 billion in operational support and capability available for Ukraine. This fund is expected to contribute to the first stage of the training initiative.
The noble Lord asked about the placement of contracts. His colleague the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan, raised this last week and I shall write to him, but I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, that there is of course constant engagement. The department is fully engaged with industry, allies and partners to ensure that all equipment and munitions granted in kind are replaced as expeditiously as possible. But I am afraid that, for operational, commercial and security reasons, I cannot provide any further information at this stage.
The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, raised the question of the size of the Army. It is important not to impute to the Chief of Defence Staff anything he did not say. My understanding is that he did not make some simple, binary arithmetical comparison—big is good, smaller is bad. In fact, I think in his remarks he reflected exactly what we established and identified in the integrated review, reflected in the Command Paper and then fleshed out with Future Soldier. Some very interesting comments have been made in the House about this issue, but I was particularly impressed by two contributions in the debate on the humble Address, one by the noble Lord, Browne of Ladyton, and the other by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton of Richmond. They were incisive and analytical and I commend these speeches to your Lordships.
My Lords, may I begin by associating myself with the expressions of gratitude to our Armed Forces? May I also say that, sooner or later, the Government will have to grasp the nettle and admit that the tasks before land forces in particular will not be carried out effectively by the numbers contained in the integrated review? It will happen sooner or later, but the sooner it does the quicker it will be possible to see how additional land forces can be properly deployed. I wonder whether the Minister sees what I see. I see a war of attrition, with Russia now temporarily outgunning Ukraine and doing so by grinding out painful and bloodletting progress at a terrible cost to forces on both sides. Does she accept that Ukraine can survive only if the supply of weapons from the United Kingdom and others in NATO matches that of Russia in quality, quantity and capability? Will she tell the Prime Minister to tell that to the meeting of NATO Heads of Government next week?
With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, who, as he knows, I admire hugely, I disagree with his analysis. With the biggest investment since the end of the Cold War, the Army will reorganise; it will re-equip to become more integrated, active and lethal as a high-tech force fit for the threats of the future, not the battles of the past. As people increasingly recognise, what we do with the Army and how we do it in the future is not based simply on boots on the ground, but on a much wider understanding of how we are smarter and cleverer—finding better equipment and using technology. In that respect, we can operate in a much more agile and resilient fashion.
I say to the noble Lord that the nature of the conflict in Ukraine is certainly arduous and worrying; I think everyone accepts that it will be of long duration. But I would also say to him that the UK has been a singular contributor in leading the charge to help Ukraine defend itself, and we welcome those within and outwith NATO supporting that endeavour. The NATO summit on 28 June will be an important occasion because NATO will agree the new strategic concept and set the direction of the alliance for the next decade. Much of that will be informed by what has happened with this barbarous and illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
My Lords, I shall use three quotes from yesterday’s debate. First, Tobias Ellwood, who put down the Question, said:
“But Russia is not losing and Ukraine is not winning”. ––[Official Report, Commons, 20/6/22; col. 556.]
Secondly, the new head of the Armed Forces said that we must be
“fighting alongside our allies and defeating Russia in battle”.
Thirdly, the Secretary-General of NATO said that this could take years. I should like to ask the Minister: where are we actually going? Last week in the Duma, there was discussion about the Suwałki Gap, the strip of land running between Lithuania and Poland that links Kaliningrad to Belarus. What happens if the Russians decide to force the Suwałki Gap? They would not be fighting Ukraine, but the Lithuanians are very anxious to implement all the sanctions and Kaliningrad is becoming more or less isolated. I should like to think that our forward planning stretches beyond Boris Johnson and the end of next week, and that we are looking seriously at ways in which this conflict could be gradually edged-up in a way that it would be very difficult for NATO to respond to with unity.
I do not agree with my noble friend’s somewhat dismissive commentary on how the UK has responded to this. I think, by universal assent, the UK has played a pivotal role in coming to the aid of and supporting Ukraine, which knows that it has in us a solid and reliable friend. I say to my noble friend that within the whole Baltic area there has been a bolstering of the enhanced forward presence, to which the UK has been an important contributor. That has been a necessary response. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, what we are witnessing is quite simply an illegal and barbarous invasion by President Putin of an innocent sovereign state.
It is interesting that, within the Baltic area, Sweden and Finland now seek to join NATO. I assume they are motivated by the sense of comfort and reassurance that the alliance will bring them if they are able to become members. That is a matter for hope and optimism.
My Lords, I wish to associate myself with the expressions of gratitude to our Armed Forces and our veterans. Yesterday in the other place, Leo Docherty, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence People and Veterans, in answering this Question spoke about the Government’s
“absolute resolve to meet our NATO commitments”
and said that they are doing that by delivering
“at pace the technological and military revolution necessary to make ourselves more lethal, agile and deployable around the world than ever before.”
He went on:
“For too long, the measurement of our military capability has been about men and vehicles in garrisons, rather than our ability to project power”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/6/22; col. 558.]
The Minister knows that I think that is the right approach. Why then, on 15 June, did the MoD slip out, under cover of a Written Ministerial Statement, the Defence Artificial Intelligence Strategy and its accompanying document on the ethics of military AI? When will the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister come to Parliament to explain how this strategy will, in the words of that Statement,
“transform the culture of defence”—[Official Report, Commons, 15/6/22; col. 13WS.]
and to answer questions about it?
As ever, I appreciate the noble Lord’s interest in these matters. Indeed, the Defence Artificial Intelligence Strategy was published on 15 June. It is an important development; on artificial intelligence, we as a department want to be effective, efficient, trusted and influential. As for when there will be an opportunity to question the Secretary of State in the other place—or, for that matter, to question me in this Chamber—I will make inquiries about what the intention is for parliamentary procedure. I shall try to ascertain whether there is a likely date for a Statement. Personally, I think it would make for an interesting and very useful debate in this Chamber.