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Defence: UK Military Status

Volume 792: debated on Tuesday 26 June 2018

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they intend to ensure the United Kingdom remains a “tier one” military power.

My Lords, the Government’s modernising defence programme aims to strengthen defence and our Armed Forces, ensuring that we have the right capabilities to meet an intensifying and more complex global security situation.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer. Once again, it seems that a Scot has been thrust into the breach to answer an indefensible position. There is no doubt whatever that we have insufficient money at the moment to support the defence programme that was laid down in the strategic defence and security review of 2015. There is a hollowing out of the forces, there are real problems and concerns. Across this House noble Lords are extremely worried, as are those in the other place. I am afraid that it is no good—it does not wash—to say that we are providing the defence that is required for this country. When the national security review was looked at we discovered that things had got worse; the threat is even greater. Are the Government going to actually face the fact that defence is underfunded and, unless extra money is found, as the HCDC said, we will not be able to provide the force that we said we would and we will certainly no longer be a tier 1 nation? How extraordinary it is that our Prime Minister is the first since Walpole to have to ask whether we are such a nation.

I do not think anyone is being thrust into the breach here, Scot or otherwise. I find it a matter of great privilege and pride to be at the Dispatch Box, speaking on behalf of the Government in relation to defence, in respect of which the Government have a very proud reputation. I am sorry to see that there is a glaring omission from the speakers’ list for what I know will be a very good debate this afternoon. I am truly sorry that the noble Lord, Lord West, is not going to be able to participate in that debate, when we could deal with this issue at slightly greater length. I remind him that the United Kingdom is one of the few NATO allies to spend 2% of GDP on defence, and we have pledged to do so for the duration of this Parliament. In addition, he will be aware that we are the second biggest budget contributor to NATO and the fifth largest defence spender in the world. That does not seem to me to be calling poor mouth—it seems to be clout and capability.

My Lords, I will reflect briefly on the fact that we have had a Question from my noble friend Lord West that did not ask for more ships. At the recent RUSI conference, my honourable friend, Nia Griffith, said:

“Look at what Labour has committed to, and what you would consider a tier-one power to require. An independent nuclear deterrent? Yes. Good conventional capabilities? Yes. And in the changing threat climate, taking steps forward when it comes to cyber and technology—yes. So yes, it is absolutely a category that we want to be in”.

Can the Minister give an equally straightforward assurance?

There should almost be a pause for acclamation. I am inclined to respond by asking: where has the Labour Party been? Certainly not at the defence races. While welcome, this belated conversion would be much more convincing if the Labour Party were led by someone who actually believes in all of that. I am afraid to say that the current leader of Labour, Mr Jeremy Corbyn, most assuredly does not. For the avoidance of doubt, the Government are categorically committed to retaining the UK’s position as a tier 1 defence nation.

My Lords, like the Minister, I am mildly puzzled about why we are discussing this issue now, when we are going to spend the whole afternoon discussing exactly the same one in relation to our NATO contribution. That said, does she agree that the Prime Minister is totally right to question what our top-level and best defence and security package for this nation will fully cost? Is the cost best pushed out in relation to ever more expensive military weapons, or are there more advanced technologies and wider issues which should also attract expenditure in order to keep this nation safe?

My noble friend is absolutely correct to refer to the different challenges and the new age in which we live. Of course we must be realistic about what we think is appropriate as our defence capability. As I said earlier, the Government have a record of which to be very proud, but of course we have to look at what we are spending and what we are getting for the spend. In the new age that confronts us the real test is: what can we do and how and where can we do it?

My Lords, I am certainly looking forward to debating these issues with my fellow Scot in a few moments. If the United Kingdom is to be a first tier nation, that requires a full spectrum of military capability. That extends from one end of United Nations peacekeeping to the other—nuclear deterrence. How is it possible to maintain that spectrum on a defence expenditure of 2% of GDP?

These are all issues which are constantly under discussion and consideration—not just by the other place and by this House, but also by the Government. Indeed two very good reports have been produced, not just for the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence, but also by my noble friend’s International Relations Committee in this House. These two reports pose challenging questions—questions which cannot be dodged. They will have to be reflected upon. I think the noble Lord would agree that, as my noble friend Lord Howell indicated, there is more to this than just numbers and looking at bits of equipment and specific aspects of the defence capability. There has to be, in aggregate, a coherent and workable response to the new challenges confronting the United Kingdom and our global allies, not least in NATO.

My Lords, we seem to be skating around the definition of what tier one Armed Forces are supposed to be. Does the Minister agree that the outline of what Force 2025 should be, set out in SDSR 2015, is tier one—and if we fall away from that, we are no longer tier one?

As the noble and gallant Lord is possibly aware, tier one does not have any legal definition. It is shorthand, used to identify the very few states whose militaries are the world’s elite. Fortunately the UK is one of these. It comprises states which have objectives of an effective operational defence capability, constructed and configured in conjunction with our allies—as I say, not least in NATO—to meet the challenges now confronting the world of a very different nature to the challenges which we were familiar with 30 years ago. It is important that we get less caught up in etymology and semantics and more focused on what the actual objectives are that the UK wants to adhere to—I have outlined what the Government consider these to be—and how we then derive a strategy for delivering on these objectives.

My Lords, may I say how delighted I am to see the noble Baroness in her place, contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord West, said? Does she agree that the British public and particularly a very large number of Conservative supporters will be puzzled that we are even questioning whether the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will remain a tier one nation? It would be helpful if the Government could reassure the British public and those Conservative supporters.

As I indicated in my earlier response and in my very recent response to the noble and gallant Lord on the Cross Benches, the Government are absolutely clear what their defence objectives are. They are categorically committed to retaining the UK’s position as a tier one which, while not definable in specific terms, is shorthand for a state at the forefront of having a military which is among the world’s elite. That is what the United Kingdom possesses.

My Lords, since her famous Lancaster House speech, the Prime Minister has said many times that we are going to go global—that we will re-emerge and re-engage, taking our proper place in the years to come. In the last year a great deal of work has been done and we know what the answers are. The savings that have been made are causing cuts which are completely undermining the integrity of our armed services. Does the Minister agree that at this moment the one thing we know is that our American friends, who will be our key allies in the future, do not believe that we will have the capability to run alongside them as their key ally in dealing with difficult world circumstances in the future?

I do not completely agree with my noble friend. I think that the United Kingdom Government’s record is sound and there is evidence to support that assessment. That is not to say that there will not be challenges in the future—we know that there will be. However, we are also very aware that the United States has been, and is, a significant contributor to NATO and it has specifically confirmed adherence to Article 5 of NATO. Therefore, the United States is an important presence in all of this. I reiterate to my noble friend that I do not desire to suggest—nor do I think that anyone else, including my noble friend, would desire to suggest—that the UK is becoming weak-kneed in defence. Nothing could be further from the truth. We want to have influence, capability and clout, and we have no intention of renouncing any of those things.