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Russian Military Activity

Volume 639: debated on Monday 23 April 2018

4. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of recent Russian military activity. (904862)

Russian military activity has been more assertive over the last few years. Russia has pursued a 10-year programme of military modernisation that has bolstered its armed forces. We recognise the importance of responding with allies and partners, and that has been the strength in our united action following the Salisbury attack. We are enhancing our deterrence and defence policies, especially through NATO, to prevent Russian aggression.

The National Cyber Security Centre describes Russia as

“our most capable hostile adversary in cyberspace”

and recently released a joint technical alert with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security about malicious cyber-activity carried out by the Russian Government. Will my right hon. Friend give an update on the progress he has made to improve our active cyber-defence to protect Government networks, industry and individuals from high-volume cyber-attacks?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct to highlight that increasing threat. The Government have committed to spending £1.9 billion to ensure that our defences are in the best possible place. As the nature of warfare starts to change, and as the threats increase, we have to be realistic about the fact that the two realms of cyber and conventional forces will increasingly start to merge. We should not just think about the importance of defending ourselves in terms of cyber-security; it is also about conventional forces.

Russian submarines are increasingly aggressive, so is the contract for Astute boat 7 signed and is the Secretary of State alive to the need to accelerate future capability research so that we can get back on top in this arena?

I very much hope to be able to update the House and the hon. Gentleman in the not-too-distant future. We are very conscious of the importance of our deterrence, which is absolutely pivotal for keeping this country safe, and our submarines in the north Atlantic are absolutely central to that.

When the threat from Russia receded at the end of the cold war, we understandably cut our defence budget to 3% of gross domestic product. Given events—from Salisbury to Syria—demonstrating that, sadly, that threat is now reappearing, should we not seek to get back to that sort of level of defence expenditure, and will the Secretary of State lay that pertinent fact in front of the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

My right hon. Friend tries to tempt me. We have to be realistic about the fact that the threat picture is changing. It has escalated considerably since 2010—even from 2015—and we have to make sure that we have the right capabilities. That is why we are carrying out the modernising defence programme: to deliver the right types of capabilities for our armed forces to deal with the increasing threat that we face. We have to be realistic about the challenges—those posed by Russia are far greater than the challenges that were presented as an insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan—and how we get the right mix of military equipment and capability to deal with that increased threat.

The Secretary of State cannot be accused of excluding from his answers any consideration that might in any way, at any time, to any degree, be considered material, for which we are immensely grateful. However, there is a premium on time, because we have a lot of questions to get through.

Given the increased activity of Russian submarines in our waters and our reliance on allies for maritime patrol support, will the Secretary of State now admit that it was a gross mistake to cut our maritime patrol aircraft in 2010 without a planned replacement, leaving us without that capability for nearly a decade?

I suppose, having spent time in the Whip’s Office, that the freedom to get on the Floor is a shock and we become too verbose.

I do not accept that it was a mistake and I am proud that we are investing so much in the new Poseidon aircraft to make sure that we have the new, exciting capability that will be able to support our forces in the north Atlantic.

I remain concerned that the Government have not learnt the lessons of the past when it comes to cutting capabilities, leaving serious gaps in our defences only to have to replace them further down the line. Will the Secretary of State confirm today that the modernising defence programme will not cut our Albion class amphibious warships before their out-of-service dates of 2033 and 2034?

There are many right hon. and hon. Opposition Members who care incredibly passionately about our armed forces and will do all they can to support them: I know that the hon. Lady is very much one of them. But when we talk about the risks and threats that are posed to our armed forces, I sometimes think that we should be worried about the Leader of the Opposition a little more than anything else.

In the modernising defence programme we are looking at all our capabilities and how we ensure that we are able to adapt to the increasing challenges and threats, but I will not prejudge that programme. We will look at the evidence and the information that comes from the public and the wider defence community.