With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the NATO summit held in Warsaw last Friday and Saturday.
The 2015 strategic defence and security review reaffirmed NATO’s position at the heart of UK defence and security. The United Kingdom remains a leader within the alliance, with the second largest defence budget after the United States, and the largest in Europe. The range of challenges that the alliance faces, including Daesh, migration and Russian belligerence, meant that this summit was of major importance for Euro-Atlantic security. The overwhelming message from Warsaw was one of strength and unity. We believe that the summit has delivered an alliance that is now more capable and that projects stability beyond our borders, based on stronger partnerships, which collectively protect our citizens and defend Europe.
At the Wales summit in 2014, NATO agreed its readiness action plan to ensure that the alliance can respond swiftly and strongly to new challenges. The UK is at the forefront of these efforts: our Typhoons are currently conducting Baltic air-policing missions from Estonia; our ships are making a significant contribution to NATO’s naval forces: and we will lead NATO’s very high readiness joint taskforce next year, with 3,000 UK ground troops ready to deploy within days.
To demonstrate the allies’ solidarity, determination and ability to act in response to any aggression, Warsaw builds on the Wales’ commitments by delivering an enhanced forward presence in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. I am proud that the UK is one of four nations to lead a framework battalion alongside Canada, Germany and the United States. These battalions will be defensive in nature, but fully combat capable. The UK force will be located in Estonia with two UK companies, a headquarters element and equipment including armoured vehicles, Javelin anti-tank guided missiles and mortars. Denmark and France have said that they will provide troops to the UK battalion. In addition, we will also deploy a company group to Poland. That is our response to Russian aggression. NATO’s approach is based on balancing strong defence and dialogue. Dialogue remains right where it is in our interests to deliver hard messages to promote transparency and to build understanding to reduce risks of mis- calculation.
Credible alliance defence and deterrence depend on NATO’s ability to adapt to 21st-century threats through both nuclear and conventional forces. The summit recognised the important contribution that the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent makes to the overall security of the alliance. I can confirm that we expect the House to have the opportunity to vote to endorse the renewal of that deterrent next Monday.
Initiatives on cyber and hybrid warfare among others will give the alliance the capabilities that it needs to respond quickly and effectively. However, modern capabilities require appropriate funding and here good progress has been made against the defence investment pledge, a key commitment from Wales. Following this Government’s decision to spend 2% of GDP on defence and to increase the defence budget in each year of this Parliament, cuts to defence spending across the alliance have now halted, with 20 allies now increasing defence spending, and eight allies committing in their national plans to reaching the 2% target.
Delivering the best for our country also means maximising the talent in our armed forces. The Prime Minister has accepted the recommendation of the Chief of the General Staff to open up ground close-combat roles to women. NATO’s role in preventing conflict and tackling problems at source has become ever more important as threats to alliance security grow out of instability and fragile or weak states. NATO’s defence capacity-building initiative, which was first announced in Wales, is a powerful tool in projecting stability and we in the United Kingdom continue to provide significant support to Georgia, Iraq and Jordan.
Building on that, the allies agreed that NATO will conduct training and capacity building inside Iraq. In Afghanistan, local forces are taking responsibility for providing security across their country. Our long-term commitment, as part of NATO’s Resolute Support mission, is crucial. Next year, we will increase our current troop contribution of 450 by 10% to help build the capacity of the Afghan security institutions.
The summit also reiterated its support for our European partners, including Ukraine and Georgia. I was delighted that Montenegro attended the summit as an observer, as a clear sign that NATO’s door remains open.
However, the scale of Europe’s security challenges means that NATO must work with a range of partners to counter them. This summit sent a strong message of NATO’s willingness to build strong relationships with other international institutions. I welcome the joint declaration by the NATO Secretary-General and the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission on NATO-EU co-operation. We continue to support a closer relationship between NATO and the EU to avoid unnecessary duplication.
Our strong message to our allies and our partners was that the result of the referendum will have no impact on any of our NATO commitments and that NATO remains the cornerstone of our defence policy. The United Kingdom will be leaving the European Union, but we are not reducing our commitment to European security—we are not turning our back on Europe or on the rest of the world.
HMS Mersey will deploy to the Aegean from late July to continue our support for NATO’s efforts to counter illegal migration. We will also provide a second ship—RFA Mounts Bay—to the EU’s Operation Sophia in the central Mediterranean, and NATO has agreed in principle to provide surveillance and reconnaissance support to that operation too.
It is a United Kingdom priority for NATO to do more against Daesh. NATO’s airborne warning and control system will now support the counter-Daesh coalition. In addition to our own assistance to the Government of national accord, we will consider what NATO can do in Libya—for example, through capacity building of the Libyan coastguard.
It is our firm view that the Warsaw summit successfully demonstrated that the alliance has the capacity, the will and the intent to respond to the range of threats and challenges that it may face. The summit also showed that Britain is stepping up its leading role in the alliance by deploying more forces to NATO’s eastern borders and to NATO’s support to Afghanistan and in countering illegal migration. With that strong UK leadership, Warsaw will be remembered for the concrete steps that were taken to deliver a strong and unified alliance that remains the cornerstone of European defence and security. I commend this statement to the House.
First, I thank the Secretary of State and his team for the work that they did at the Warsaw summit this weekend. I would also like to remind him that rumours of my going absent without leave in the muddy fields of Glastonbury were greatly exaggerated.
The Opposition welcome the clear message from the Warsaw summit that NATO is determined to strengthen its commitment to our friends and allies in eastern Europe. Whatever the consequences of Brexit—and there will be some that are unforeseeable—we must not let one of them be that the UK is seen as retreating into isolationism. We therefore welcome the Government’s readiness to make the United Kingdom one of the four contributor nations to the new rotational force announced last year. That force will have an important symbolic value in providing a visible reminder of the article 5 commitment to collective defence.
Members may have noted that I deliberately emphasised the word “collective”, and that is because, in essence, the basic values that underpin NATO—collective endeavour, human rights, liberty and democracy—which were specifically re-emphasised in the communiqué this weekend, are the same values that underpinned two of NATO’s key founders: Clement Attlee’s Labour party and the United States’ new deal Democrats. As such, the Opposition are entitled to share some of the credit for helping to build those values into the alliance—values Opposition Members can genuinely get behind and reaffirm. But let me get back to the detail.
Many questions remain about how the deployments in Estonia and Poland will work in practice, particularly in terms of equipment, training and rules of engagement. As such, I would be grateful if the Secretary of State would commit to providing regular updates to the House as these plans move forward.
In the light of ongoing tensions between NATO and Russia, I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State mention the need for dialogue. That commitment was echoed in the summit communiqué, which recognises the risk of misunderstanding and calls for a renewed commitment to improving dialogue, particularly through the NATO-Russia Council. However, what steps are the Government taking through bilateral channels to reduce the risk of misunderstanding between the UK and Russia, or of a possible miscalculation, on defence matters?
It is now well over a decade since NATO took command of multinational operations in Afghanistan, where more than 450 British servicemen and women have been killed since 2002. As many in the House will know, I spent some time in the Afghanistan theatre on operations. I have some personal experience having served a three-month tour there back in 2009 as part of the NATO deployment. I will draw on that in our future debates. Although the UK’s last remaining combat troops were withdrawn in 2014, hundreds have stayed behind to continue training local Afghan security forces as part of NATO’s support mission. The announcement in Warsaw that a further 50 British troops will be deployed to Afghanistan next year, and the planned withdrawal date pushed back for a second time, will therefore be of concern to many. While I note that UK troops will continue to be deployed in non-combat roles, I would be grateful if the Secretary of State set out the measures that are in place to safeguard against the possibility of mission creep, given the substantial difficulties in handing over responsibility for the security of the country to Afghan forces themselves.
For a number of years, the UK has been the only major NATO power to continue to exclude women from ground close-combat roles. Labour Members therefore welcome wholeheartedly Friday’s announcement to approve the integration of women across all front-line combat roles. This decision is a huge step forward, not just for equality but for the effectiveness of the armed forces. In Iraq, in Afghanistan, and all over the world, women have served our armed forces with professionalism and distinction. I would be grateful for any information that the Secretary of State can provide today, or in the weeks ahead, as to what specific steps he will take to monitor and ensure the smooth transition of this process.
We must never lose sight of the vision of NATO’s founders. They understood that peace was always built on a foundation stone of justice—justice in the form of freedom, of democracy, and of economic fairness. The Secretary of State was right to affirm the UK’s commitment to NATO. I hope that the NATO he affirms is one that stays true to the vision of its founders, because that is a vision that Labour Members share and that I look forward to holding to account in the months ahead.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments and welcome him on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. I think that he is the fourth shadow Defence Secretary in the past couple of years. I also welcome the broad welcome that he has given to this statement. I wholeheartedly welcome his reminder of the original establishment of NATO under a Labour Government who, of course, fully supported the nuclear deterrent at the time, and were ready, like every Labour Government, to commit that nuclear deterrent to the overall defence of the alliance, as well as the defence of this country. I am sure that he will explain all that in a little more detail when we come to the debate on Monday.
The hon. Gentleman asked four specific questions. First, on the battalion to be deployed in Estonia, yes, I will update the House on the precise arrangements for that deployment, which will begin, we hope, in spring next year. As he will understand, there is much detail to be finalised with regard to the command and control relationships and the precise activities that the battalion will be involved in, but, yes, we will keep him and the House up to date on that.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman asked about the dialogue with Russia. I want to be very clear with the House: because of the annexation of Crimea and the aggression in Ukraine, it cannot now be business as usual with Russia, but there are interests that we have in common, as we saw in the refinement of the nuclear deal with Iran and ongoing discussions about a political settlement in Syria. It is right that we continue to talk to Russia in the areas where we have shared interests. I can confirm that the next meeting of the NATO-Russia Council will be on 13 July, and that we do continue links of the sort he mentioned, at ambassadorial level, to ensure that any misunderstandings can be avoided.
Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman asked about Afghanistan. Let me put on the record my tribute to him for his service in Afghanistan. We are increasing the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan by about 50. There is no danger of mission creep, because those additional 50 troops will be doing what the existing 450 are doing, which is supporting the security institutions, providing advice and support to the fledgling Afghan air force, and continuing the important work of mentoring at the officer academy. A number of other allies have been able to increase their support to Afghanistan. The hon. Gentleman will know, of course, that the alliance also welcomed the change of heart in the American position, which is not going to reduce down to the level originally forecast.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about the decision to open combat roles in the Army to women. I am glad that he has welcomed that. Of course, we will do it on a phased basis, continuing the essential research to set the right physical standards as each role is opened up. I am very happy to keep him up to date on that.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement, and thank him for emphasising the centrality of NATO in our collective defence. What particular discussions has he had with members of the European Union on those parts of the common security and defence policy that may continue to be of mutual benefit? I am thinking in particular of elements of the European Defence Agency and exercising with the EU battlegroups.
Let me make it very clear that, until we leave the European Union, we remain full members of it and committed to the security that it adds to that provided through NATO. That includes our participation in the EU battlegroup and in missions such as Operation Sophia in the central Mediterranean, to which we are now committing an additional ship. It is also seen in our continuing work to get the two organisations to work more closely together, avoid unnecessary duplication and co-operate more closely.
Paragraph 40 of the Warsaw summit communiqué focuses on NATO’s maritime security. Given that there are no surface vessels or maritime patrol aircraft based in Scotland, the UK Government are clearly failing in their duty. Did the Secretary of State have any discussions with his Norwegian counterpart over her plea earlier this year for increased co-operation in the maritime domain?
Paragraph 10 of the Warsaw summit communiqué lists a number of Russia’s destabilising actions and policies, including the annexation of Crimea; the deliberate destabilisation of eastern Ukraine; large-scale snap exercises; provocative military activities near NATO borders; aggressive nuclear rhetoric; and repeated violations of NATO airspace. Which of those actions has been deterred by Trident?
Finally, paragraph 64 of the communiqué focuses on nuclear non-proliferation. What specific discussions did the Secretary of State have with NATO counterparts on further nuclear disarmament? In the coming weeks, my SNP colleagues and I will vote not to renew Trident. May I invite the Secretary of State and Labour MPs to join me in voting against it, so that we can achieve the alliance’s aim of a world without nuclear weapons?
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first point, the defence of the United Kingdom is organised on a United Kingdom basis. He should be in absolutely no doubt about that.
On our relationship with Norway, yes, I had a bilateral meeting with the Norwegian Minister. We work extremely closely on defending our respective countries and are looking for further areas of co-operation, particularly in the light of our strategic defence review and Norway’s long-term plan, which was published more recently.
On maritime patrol aircraft, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have caught up with this morning’s announcement that we are to purchase nine Boeing P-8 aircraft, as announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister with me at the Farnborough air show this morning. I hope it will not be too long before those patrol aircraft are able to help better protect our deterrent, as well as protect our aircraft carriers and conduct other tasks.
Non-proliferation was not subject matter for the Warsaw summit. We remain, in principle, committed to the search for a world without nuclear weapons. However, I have to say to the hon. Member and his party that there are 17,000 nuclear weapons out there and states that are trying to develop nuclear weapons. There remains the danger that others, such as non-state actors or terrorist groups, may try to get hold of nuclear weapons. That is why I will be inviting the House to vote next Monday to continue the principle of the nuclear deterrent that has served this country well and will protect it in the 2030s, 2040s and 2050s.
Let me say to my right hon. Friend how delighted I am that we have reaffirmed our commitment to the NATO alliance by sending the strong signal of using our troops on the ground in Estonia and Poland. Further, I thank him for making arrangements for French and Danish troops to join our battle group in Estonia. I speak as perhaps the only British officer to have commanded the 1st Parachute Battalion of the French Foreign Legion—albeit briefly.
The purpose of this deployment is to reassure our allies on the eastern border of NATO, as much as to make Russia think twice about any further aggression. I can tell my hon. Friend that our deployment in Estonia was warmly welcomed, not simply by Estonia but by the other Baltic states too. We are seeing now a coming together of the NATO countries and a commitment to each other’s formations, whether it is the very high-readiness joint taskforce or the enhanced forward presence. We particularly look forward to working with French and Danish troops alongside our battalion in Estonia next year.
Georgia is an enhanced opportunity partner of NATO and a package of measures is in place to strengthen defence co-operation between NATO and Georgia. We are playing a significant part in the training of the Ukrainian armed forces, building up their capacity to deal with the insurgency in eastern Ukraine and to reduce the number of casualties that they were suffering initially. As for future accession to NATO, we have made it very clear that there can be no shortcuts to NATO membership. There are criteria to meet, and any future applications require the unanimous consent of all the existing members. Equally, the accession of Montenegro sends a very clear message that nobody, and certainly not Russia, has any kind of veto on future membership.
Has my right hon. Friend seen the remarks from the former Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, who has expressed concern that we are moving from a new cold war to a hot one? Speaking as somebody who was a soldier in the cold war, I express grave concern that all we are really doing is irritating Russia by putting a number of troops on its border. We have to recognise that Russia has a zone of influence, which includes Ukraine and Belarus. If we do not find a way of negotiating with Russia, we are only going to make the danger of a new cold war, or possibly a hot war, more likely. We really have to look at these realities.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s former service in the military, but I have to say to him, and to Russia, that NATO remains a defensive alliance and is not threatening anybody. However, given the commitments that we have all made to each other under article 5, it is very important that we reassure members, particularly those on the eastern flank of NATO, that we are ready to stand by those commitments and to come to their aid. I must remind my hon. Friend that they, of course, have seen Russia trying to change international borders by force, annexing Crimea and interfering in eastern Ukraine. It is very important that we remind members of NATO that it is committed to defending their territorial integrity, and that we send a message right across Europe to Moscow that we are not prepared to see the sovereign integrity of these countries further impugned.
The Warsaw conference underlined NATO’s concept of deterrence. Does the Secretary of State agree that for deterrence to be effective, it has to be credible, and that any suggestion that our nuclear deterrent could be delivered other than by continuous at-sea deterrence would not only lead to its credibility being questioned, but threaten the nuclear posture of deterrence by NATO?
I absolutely agree with that. The previous coalition Government looked exhaustively at alternative systems for delivering such deterrence. We looked at whether it could be done from the air, from land or with fewer boats, and the overwhelming conclusion of that review was that the simplest and most cost-effective form of deterrence is to maintain our existing four-boat nuclear submarine fleet. That is the purpose of the motion we will be putting before the House on Monday.
I am very grateful indeed for my right hon. Friend’s robust statements on the NATO summit. Can he assure me that with the good news of more European nations pledging to spend 2% of their GDP on defence, and with the commitment to Trident, NATO will remain an alliance of co-operation between European states and Atlantic states?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said, not least because I think we were on opposite sides of the argument during the referendum. The most encouraging thing since the Wales summit—fully confirmed at Warsaw—is the number of European countries that have put plans in place to increase their spending. The general decline of defence spending in Europe has been halted and is being reversed. Allies such as the Czech Republic, France, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, the Slovak Republic and Turkey are putting in place plans to get to the 2%, as we have done.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, it might be helpful for me to pass on to the House the news that the Unite trade union has just reaffirmed its strong commitment to the building programme for the submarine fleet, which is going on in Barrow and across the nation. I hope that that will help Labour Members as we seek to fulfil our manifesto pledge to carry on and complete the programme that we began in government.
I turn to the vote that will take place on Monday. What, in the Government’s view, would it do to the UK’s position in the nuclear alliance of NATO if we were suddenly to commit to unilateral disarmament by scrapping the programme to create a new fleet of Successor submarines?
On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, let me welcome the decision of Unite to support the renewal of the nuclear deterrent. It is, of course, important for security, and it is also important for the economy. More than 200 companies are already involved in the supply chain and are starting to deliver some of the long-lead items that the House, through its expenditure, has already authorised, and several thousand jobs are beginning to be committed to the renewal of the deterrent. It is important to bear those in mind during the debate on Monday.
On the hon. Gentleman’s bigger point, any decision by this House to resile or withdraw from the position of successive Governments—Labour and Conservative—that we are committed to the nuclear deterrent, and committed to placing that nuclear deterrent in support of the NATO alliance as a whole, would fundamentally undermine that alliance and have serious repercussions for our relationships with our key allies, especially the United States.
May I return the Secretary of State to the issue of Ukraine? The belligerence of Russia is of great interest to the Council of Europe, and at its last meeting, Madam Savchenko, the Ukrainian pilot who was arrested by the Russians, was able to join us. What will NATO involvement in Ukraine try to achieve?
I had the privilege of meeting Madam Savchenko in Warsaw on Saturday, when she attended with the President of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Defence Minister. Although Ukraine is not a member of NATO, a number of NATO allies are working extremely hard to try to reinforce Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. We are co-ordinating our training effort, and doing what we can to stand behind the territorial integrity of Ukraine, not least through the sanctions that the European Union continues to apply.
May I also welcome Unite’s decision to reconfirm the position that dates back to Ernest Bevin—the former general secretary of what was then the Transport and General Workers Union and today is Unite? Will the Secretary of State say more about the situation post-Brexit? Programmes such as that for the F-35 cost around $100 million per aircraft before the referendum. Will there be a rescheduling of the assessment of those programmes, as well as others in the strategic defence and security review?
On the nuclear deterrent, I hope that we will get as large a majority as possible, and that Members across the House will join us in recommitting this country to the nuclear deterrent that has served us so well. We must send a further signal to the rest of the world that Britain is prepared to continue to play its part in the defence of NATO as well as of our own country. On the specific question about the cost of F-35, it is a little too early to be sure exactly where the sterling-dollar exchange rate will end up. Like any large commercial organisation, we take precautions against fluctuations in the currency, but it is too early to say whether that current level is likely to be sustained.