British Forces are involved in 28 operations in more than 25 countries, protecting the United Kingdom and its interests from a range of threats and promoting security in key regions of the world. The Royal Navy deploys some 29 ships and submarines across the globe, supported by more than 8,000 sailors and Marines.
Women have served alongside men with distinction aboard Royal Navy ships in combat service for many years. Does the Secretary of State agree that opening up front-line roles to women in the Royal Marines, the Army and the RAF will enhance their effectiveness in operations?
The Royal Navy has been ahead, as one might expect of the senior service, in demonstrating how women serving in front-line roles improve the capability of our armed forces. Five Royal Navy vessels and one shore establishment are currently commanded by women, and some 9% of the Royal Navy is now female. Opening ground close combat roles to women will provide further opportunities to attract and retain talented women from the breadth of society. Doing so is fundamental to the successful delivery of operations now and in the future.
May I press the Secretary of State on the co-operation that we need to be effective? Is he happy with the level of co-operation we get across NATO, where many of our NATO friends are not spending sufficient amounts of money on their defence? Is he worried that if the presidential election in the United States went one way tomorrow, we would be hard put to be an effective force against Putin?
A number of NATO members have much more to do. Some of them still spend less than 1.5%, and a few of them even spend less than 1%. But in the deployments that are being agreed on the eastern border of NATO we are seeing more co-operation, with countries such as France and Denmark coming alongside the battalion that we will lead in Estonia next year.
Will the Secretary of State, in the context of the operational effectiveness of our forces, emphasise that such things are normally done in partnership with other countries? Does he therefore agree that it is vital that members of the US Administration and other NATO partners recognise that they are strengthened by the contribution that NATO countries collectively make to the defence of the United States?
It is probably the wrong day to comment on the position of the United States. Yes, NATO is a collective defence organisation, and we all, in that respect, rely on each other. I note, for example, that when Britain leaves the European Union, three of the four battalions on the eastern border of NATO will be led by non-EU countries.
Speaking as a ray of sunshine, may I ask whether the Ministry of Defence has made any assessment of how the Army’s new Ajax fighting vehicle would fare against Russia’s equally new T-14 main battle tank?
I do not think it is right to compare one particular armoured vehicle with a completely different type of armoured vehicle. What is important is to look at our armoured vehicles and our combat systems as a whole across the range that we have deployed and are going to deploy, including the new Ajax armoured vehicle.