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Armed Forces: East of Suez

Volume 779: debated on Thursday 9 March 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what proportion of the United Kingdom’s Armed Forces will be deployed east of Suez, in the light of the Foreign Secretary’s speech in New Delhi on 18 January.

My Lords, a significant proportion of the UK’s Armed Forces are deployed in the Gulf. As the Prime Minister said last December, Gulf security is our security. This figure fluctuates according to operational demand. However, with the advent of major exercise programmes, British defence staff in Dubai, the regional land training hub in Oman and the UK naval facility in Bahrain, we will have the permanence and presence to deepen our partnerships in the region.

My Lords, it is 50 years since the then Government announced that we would withdraw from east of Suez. They published a White Paper and there was substantial debate in the Houses of Parliament. The Foreign Secretary, first in Bahrain and then in Delhi, has spoken of deploying an aircraft carrier group to the Indian Ocean and of Diego Garcia being a major UK and US base. I am told that to maintain an aircraft carrier group in the Indian Ocean would take almost half the surface vessels available in the fleet. Presumably, there would be a significant air and land element on Diego Garcia. Will the Government bring this major shift in policy to Parliament, or does the MoD think that the Foreign Secretary was speaking a little out of turn and a little unbriefed?

My Lords, there is no question but that the UK and US military facility in Diego Garcia contributes significantly towards regional and global security. The UK footprint may not be major in size, but it represents a significant contribution to our bilateral defence and security relationship with the US. At the moment the Royal Navy has 41 personnel permanently deployed in Diego Garcia, with a capacity to surge that for contingent operations in the wider region from 2021. That could include a carrier strike task group, should the situation change.

My Lords, a carrier battle group is the perfect platform for power projection east of Suez, but whenever one goes east of Suez one might be going in harm’s way. A carrier battle group is not a carrier on its own. When I took a battle group to the Far East for the Hong Kong withdrawal, it was 14 ships, including two nuclear attack submarines, because of those sorts of risks. Does the Minister really believe there is sufficient money in the naval programme to ensure adequate support shipping for a carrier operating in the Far East?

Yes, indeed. The noble Lord will know that these matters are kept constantly under review. The new class of Queen Elizabeth carriers are going to be the biggest and most powerful warships ever built for the Royal Navy, so the capability is certainly there. Their deployment to the Gulf will depend very much on what the demand will be.

My Lords, some of us may be able to remember the speech by Harold Wilson, some 50 years ago, in which he said that withdrawing from east of Suez would leave the Americans and Chinese facing each other eyeball to eyeball. Does the Minister consider that the current difficulties in the South China Sea are similarly dangerous, and what contribution can the UK make there?

The situation in the South China Sea is certainly also being kept under review, but this Question relates to the Gulf. At the moment we see it as extremely important to be sure that our presence in the Gulf is strong enough for our interests there and to work with our Gulf partnerships.

My Lords, we are in the 21st century, not in the 19th. Is this macho posturing really helpful to the cause of world peace? Russia and China could argue, with similar logic, to have a naval presence west of Suez, much closer to home. Should we not be thinking in 21st-century terms?

We believe that we are thinking in 21st-century terms. Let me say a little more about the build-up of our presence in the Gulf. It is very important to have a strong defence presence with the naval facility in Bahrain, HMS “Jufair” and the regional land training hub in Oman—and to have a stronger engagement with the creation of the British defence staff in Dubai. We are also building more short-term training teams to build our partners’ capacity. For example, in 2018 exercise Saif Sareea 3 will take place.

My Lords, in his Bahrain speech the Foreign Secretary said:

“Britain is back East of Suez”.

He also said:

“We are spending £3 billion on our military commitments in the Gulf over the next 10 years”.

Yet the SDSR barely mentions it, merely speaking of “setting our vision” in the “Gulf Strategy”. When will that strategy be published? The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, said in March last year—almost a year ago—that it would be published in due course. When have we heard those sorts of words before? Does the Minister agree with me that a major shift in our military profile in the Middle East should be put before Parliament first and not used as a headline-grabbing speech for the Foreign Secretary on a world tour?

When we get to the point where we want to build up our presence in the region, it is absolutely right that it is announced. It was announced as part of a speech, which is perfectly normal. Over the next decade we will spend £3 billion on defence in the Gulf region. That will very much help us build up our maritime land and air bases in Oman and give us a persistent and increasingly permanent naval defence there. Therefore, what has happened is perfectly normal.

My Lords, last year, an extra £800 million was committed to defence projects east of Suez. As the Minister said, we currently use bases in the Gulf, Diego Garcia and, of course, the Sultanate of Brunei. Are there plans for more? With hard power comes soft power, so are human rights ignored in these countries as part of these deals?

The noble Baroness may be referring to arms sales as well as human rights. We consider our arms export licensing responsibilities very carefully. As well as having an increased presence in the Gulf to tackle terrorist issues, it is very important that we look at cybersecurity and all those matters to which I think the noble Baroness alluded.