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Defence: Expenditure

Volume 799: debated on Wednesday 17 July 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether current defence expenditure is sufficient to meet the United Kingdom’s responsibilities (1) nationally, and (2) to international partnerships and alliances.

My Lords, we continue to meet our commitments, both to our defence strategic objectives and to our international partners. The Government have committed to meet the NATO defence investment pledge to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence every year of this Parliament. We have the largest military budget in Europe and are the second largest spender in NATO behind the US.

My Lords, those are soothing assurances, as always, from the Dispatch Box but, in reality, we have weekly warnings from the noble Lord, Lord West, on naval stretch, the number of combat aircraft has fallen from 210 in 2007 to 119 today, and the Army has serious deficiencies in manpower, logistics and equipment. Encouragingly, Boris Johnson, in a letter to Julian Lewis, chairman of the Defence Select Committee, said:

“I can give you an absolute commitment to fund defence fully … I guarantee, of course, that we will exceed the minimum 2% NATO spending target and the defence budget will continue to grow at a minimum of 0.5% annually”.

Given Mr Johnson’s reputation for integrity, consistency and preciseness, how would the Minister prioritise these promised extra resources?

My Lords, it is undoubtedly true that the spending review later this year will be an important event for defence. It will build on the modernising defence programme, which will take forward our threefold agenda to mobilise, modernise and transform defence so that the Armed Forces can tackle new threats. As for equipment, we expect to publish our financial summary of the equipment plan in the autumn, and we will address the longer-term affordability of the plan in the spending review.

My Lords, I feel considerable sympathy for the Minister because he is defending the indefensible. The Foreign Secretary, who I think probably has a reasonable understanding of our foreign and international commitments, has said that we will double the percentage of GDP spent on defence. The former Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, continually argued against me, saying that there was lots of money for defence, but three weeks after coming out of the post he said that there was a crisis and we needed to spend a lot more on defence. His successor said the same. Clearly, there is a real problem. Come this summer, will we make sure that there is no further hollowing out of our Armed Forces—I emphasise that they are hollowed out—to ensure that we meet our procurement budget?

I think we can take some reassurance from the fact that the last Budget settlement gave defence a substantial boost, enabling us to say with confidence that we do not have to make any cuts, particularly on the equipment front. However, it is true—as I have said publicly before—that the forecast cost of our equipment plan exceeded the budget over a 10-year period, and if we took no action the plan would not be affordable. We are taking action, however, particularly through effective management to control costs and drive efficiencies, and, as I said, there is additional funding in the Budget. However, the spending review will count for a lot.

My Lords, amateurs talk tactics; professionals talk logistics. Notwithstanding the Minister’s reassuring words, the well-documented pressures and the level of risk in the defence budget are real. Can the Minister provide an assurance that the stock levels of the department’s weapon, ammunition and stores inventories will allow ships, planes and soldiers to deploy with the necessary resilience to conduct sustained operations?

I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, and can tell him that resilience is one of the priorities of his successor, the current Chief of the Defence Staff. We are acutely aware of the need not to run down munition stocks and a programme is in train to ensure that those matters are addressed.

My Lords, yesterday the Defence Select Committee report found that MoD expenditure has been cut by an eye-watering 25% since 2010. The former US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs said that during this time there has been,

“a steady decline of Britain as the partner of first choice for the US military”.

Does the Minister accept that austerity has undermined the UK/US defence partnership and that ultimately you cannot do security on the cheap?

My Lords, no, I do not think it has undermined the partnership. It is true that defence expenditure has declined as a proportion of GDP since the 1980s, but we have seen total defence expenditure steadily increase again since 2014. I would add only that, when we look at defence spending, it is not necessarily appropriate to try to compare like with like, because the nature of defence spending changes year by year, particularly the nature of operational spending. As I said, the core defence budget has been increasing and is currently £39 billion.

My Lords, the defence of the realm is the very first responsibility of any Prime Minister and not a laughing matter. Over history, the frigate has been absolutely key. The old ship of the line, the battleship, gets all the glamour but the frigate is key. Taking into account what happened last week with HMS “Montrose” and HMS “Duncan”, does the Minister agree that, with our global responsibilities coming up in the very near future, we need about 25 frigates ready to do the job properly?

I am grateful to my noble friend. I am not sure about the number he cites but I agree with the tenor of his question. We can be proud of what defence has achieved and the investments it has made in recent years, but we must also be vigilant. We must respond to growing threats, especially more persistent and aggressive state competition, and the disruptive effects of rapid advances in technology. With those things in mind, the MoD has established a set of policy approaches and capability investments designed to keep us on track to deliver the right UK defence for the coming decade.