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Ukraine: Challenger 2 Tanks

Volume 826: debated on Wednesday 18 January 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether the budget of the Ministry of Defence will be increased to compensate for the donation of 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine.

My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I remind your Lordships’ House of my interest as a serving member of His Majesty’s Armed Forces.

My Lords, the Autumn Statement has already made clear the Government’s recognition that defence spending needs to increase. The department continues to work closely with the Treasury on plans to replenish individual capabilities, including Challenger 2 tanks, and the Chancellor has committed to sustaining the level of support this year that the Government provided to Ukraine in 2022.

My Lords, first, the donation of the Challenger 2 tanks and AS-90 artillery pieces is the right thing to do, but they are but the tip of an iceberg. Beneath the waterline there is an incredibly complex logistical chain required to make them effective. Can my noble friend assure me that, away from the headlines, this logistical chain is in place? Secondly, on money, the Secretary of State has acknowledged that we need to invest in the Army, but we need to do it now. While any new money is welcome, what will the profiling be of that money? Will it be available now, or will we be subjected to the trick of many a Government, whereby it will not be available for some years to come, when, frankly, it will be too late?

Let me first reassure my noble friend that the donation of the Challenger 2 tanks will be accompanied by an armoured recovery vehicle designed to repair and recover damaged tanks on the battlefield, but my noble friend will be aware of the very impressive record of the Challenger 2 in resisting attack. In addition, the AS-90 self-propelled guns will follow; there will be one battery of eight immediately battle-ready, and three further batteries in varying states of readiness to be provided to the Ukrainians to refurbish or exploit for spares. In addition to that, as my noble friend will be aware, hundreds more armoured and protected vehicles will be included. The Ukrainian Government have responded very positively to this announcement.

On the matter of money, as my noble friend will be aware, there is a fairly closely woven tapestry of timelines, which includes a combination of the integrated review refresh and the Autumn Statement of November 2022 being built on. Negotiations are currently going on between the MoD and Treasury. The Spring Budget has been announced by the Chancellor for 15 March. We await confirmation from the Secretary of State for Defence about the defence command plan publication date, when more information will be available.

My Lords, is not it the case that Challenger tanks require a unique kind of ammunition? Are we supplying ammunition with the tanks, or will the Ukrainians have to buy their own?

My understanding is, and I can reassure my noble friend, that tank ammunition is part of what is being provided. The exact quantities, he will understand, I am unable to comment on, for reasons of security.

My Lords, this support by the United Kingdom for Ukraine is part of the sustainable support it requires. When our Secretary of State for Defence meets the German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius for the first time in Ramstein, will he push for a German commitment to provide Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine? Without a contribution that is comprehensive, Ukraine will not get the response it needs and deserves.

Yes, there is a lot of sympathy with the point the noble Baroness makes. She is perhaps aware that engagement is going on. The Chief of the Defence Staff is meeting NATO CHODs today and tomorrow. The Secretary of State will be in Estonia tomorrow and the noble Baroness is quite correct that at the donor conference being hosted by the United States at Ramstein, the Secretary of State and the Chief of the Defence Staff will be present. There is a recognition that, despite the donation of tanks to date —and I think I am correct in saying that the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Poland have been donating tanks—there is a quantum step that could be taken with the addition of the Leopard tanks.

My Lords, the Minister knows that the House supports, without qualification, the supply of arms to Ukraine, but are we not entitled to credible evidence that the Government are even now replenishing our own stocks of military equipment so as to maintain, now, the credibility and the capability of our own Armed Forces?

I know that the noble Lord takes a keen interest in this and has posed similar questions before. I can reassure the House that the Secretary of State is cognisant of this and indeed commented in his Statement in the other place on Monday that we are very closely engaged with industry, as are our allied partners, because we are not in a silo in respect of industry supply and security of the supply chain. We are having to work with partners to ensure that, holistically, industry is able to understand demand and plan accordingly to supply it. Certainly, we are confident that we have retained sufficient equipment and ammunition so that we are able to undertake our primary responsibility to the security of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, in pursuit of a more precise answer on this issue of funding, will the Minister answer two questions? First, does the aggregate of all our activities in support of Ukraine meet the formal title of a military operation? If that is the case, do the NACMO procedures apply; that is, that the net additional costs of military operations are met not from the defence budget but from the Treasury reserve?

My understanding in relation to the donation of munitions and equipment granted in kind to Ukraine out of our own stocks is that replenishment of granted assets is managed under a standing arrangement between the MoD and the Treasury, and funding is provided from HMT reserves.

My Lords, the Defence Secretary tells us:

“Even as we gift Challenger 2 tanks, I shall at the same time be reviewing the number of Challenger 3 conversions, to consider whether the lessons of Ukraine suggest that we need a larger tank fleet.”—[Official Report, Commons, 16/1/23; col. 36.]

When will that review report, and have we the capability to deliver a larger tank fleet quickly?

Although the Secretary of State in the other place did indeed indicate that he would be reviewing the number of conversions and considering the lessons of Ukraine, I think that remark did not constitute a formal review of the process; rather, it is his understandable discretionary right as Secretary of State to look at that issue. Interestingly, he also said later on, in response to questions:

“I am always happy to keep under review the number of tanks”—[Official Report, Commons, 16/1/23; col. 42.]

and the nature of these tanks. I think that the Secretary of State is absolutely realistic, as many of us are, and I know the noble Lord is, that the conflict in Ukraine is constantly educating us and instructing us, as it is our allies and partners, but we are trying to respond to that in a sensible and pragmatic way.

My Lords, how are the Ukrainian armed forces to develop and generate highly sophisticated first- and second-line support for a complex range of NATO armoured fighting vehicles?

I am not a military strategist or a military technician, but my noble friend is aware that part of the training that we are engaging in with the Armed Forces of Ukraine is to ensure that they can be as professional and strategic in military thinking as possible. My noble friend will be aware that what was announced on Monday in the other place was a very extensive list of additional equipment—another important indication of the fundamental need to work in partnership with other allies. The Secretary of State made it clear, for example, that the merit of the donation of the Challenger 2 tanks will depend on these being able to work with United States Bradley equipment. I think that is an important example of trying to work in tandem to let the armed forces of Ukraine operate to best effect.

My Lords, if the provision of these Challenger 2 tanks is thought to be a success, however that is defined, do the Government intend to provide further such tanks to Ukraine?

We constantly review the assessed need through a combination of the Ukrainian armed forces telling us what they think they need and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stuart, indicated, consultation among different countries. Part of this is, in a sense, about what we can achieve in aggregate through individual contributions. As the noble Viscount will be aware, other countries are donating tanks but the noble Baroness made the important point that the addition of Leopard tanks would be a significant step forward.

My Lords, do not the questions asked this afternoon, particularly those from the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton, underline the need for a proper debate in your Lordships’ House on Ukraine? In a few weeks, we will mark the first anniversary of the opening of the invasion. We have a great deal of expertise in your Lordships’ House—far more than in the other place—so will my noble friend please talk to my noble friend the Chief Whip and make sure that, rather than considering some of the very unnecessary legislation being brought to this House, we have a full-scale debate on the most important international crisis since the Second World War?

Trying to answer questions on defence issues at the Dispatch Box is quite onerous enough for me to undertake without understanding the labyrinthine workings of the usual channels, but I am sure that my noble friend’s plea is heard by my very good friend the Chief Whip and that the usual channels will be interested in his observations.