House of Commons Debate: Backbench Business — Nato, 4 July 2013

Hugh Bayley (York Central, Labour)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered NATO.

Let me begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for granting us time for this afternoon’s debate. I thank colleagues, particularly fellow members of the UK delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, for joining me in requesting this debate. We used to have three or four defence debates a year in this House in Government time, but when the Government allocated time to the Backbench Business Committee they gave up, among other things, those general defence debates. I am therefore grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for giving those of us with an interest in defence and security some of that time back. I hope that when members of the Committee read the report of the debate they will feel that it was worth while and that if we make applications in the future we might get similar debates, perhaps twice a year after the two annual sessions of the Assembly.

As delegates to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly—I see in the Chamber many colleagues on both sides of the House who are part of the delegation—we have a responsibility to report back to colleagues on the work of our Assembly and of NATO. On my way into the House today, an hon. Member who had seen the agenda for this afternoon simply said to me, “You are having this debate, but why do we need NATO?” It is a question that those of us who believe that there is still a need for collective security and joint action with our allies must answer convincingly, not just for fellow Members of the House who do not share our view, but for members of the public who are often sceptical about the defence and security missions with which our country is involved and increasingly want a say in defence and foreign policy matters.

NATO, in a attempt to address that question, recently adopted a new strategic concept to define its role and mission. I do not believe, however, that we can any longer be satisfied that Ministers, ambassadors and generals understand what NATO is for. We need to explain to the public—and, clearly, from this morning’s conversation with a colleague, to other Members of Parliament—why it is still relevant and necessary.


James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire, Conservative)
I congratulate Hugh Bayley on securing this debate and I have agreed with all he said—with one exception, which I will come to —particularly about the need for NATO. The one exception was that I think there is a bit of work to be done on the need for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. I was once a Member of what was then the North Atlantic Assembly for six months. Then I realised that for two years I had been a Defence Minister and had been completely unaware of the existence of the North Atlantic Assembly. Therefore I suggest that the NATO Parliamentary Assembly needs to do some work in order to build its profile.

It is a great pleasure to see the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend Mr Swire in his place, ready, willing and able to answer this debate. It is also a bit of a surprise, as some of us in our ignorance might have thought that NATO was a matter for defence, but there we are.

My great-great-great-great-grandfather, Captain George Duff of HMS Mars, who was committed to the deep, along with 28 of his crew, off the coast of Cadiz at the end of the battle of Trafalgar, and whose memorial is next to Nelson’s tomb in St Paul’s cathedral, would have been proud to find the French, the Spanish and the British working as closely together now as NATO allows us to do. Interestingly, at the battle of Trafalgar there were a lot of French and Spanish sailors in the British fleet, just as there were quite a number of British sailors in the French and Spanish fleets. That was not a matter of treachery—more a matter of expediency. In those days, when a ship was taken by the enemy, its sailors were given the not very difficult choice of joining the enemy crew or sleeping with the fishes. I do not want to describe Trafalgar as the beginnings of NATO, but it could be described as an early example of exchange postings.

Allied Maritime Command is the central command of all NATO maritime forces and the commander of MARCOM is the prime maritime adviser to the alliance. While the Allied Land Command is held by a US general, and the Allied Air Command by a US general—

although at the moment the acting commander is French because the last US commander became chief of staff of the US air force—the Allied Maritime Command is not only based in the UK at Northwood, but is commanded by a British vice-admiral, Peter Hudson. We have an important and respected role to play in NATO.

And we play it to the full, with our crucial role in ISAF, our joint leadership in Libya, our contribution to Mali and the Balkans, and our operations in Sierra Leone and elsewhere. Some of those were not, of course, NATO operations, but even when NATO itself did not deploy, as the hon. Member for York Central said, the command structure, the training, the equipment convergence and the sheer competence of NATO were fundamental to our own command structure, training, equipment and competence. NATO is a vital resource and a valuable pool from which coalitions of the willing can be drawn.

The Defence Committee has been told that the United Kingdom is still regarded by its NATO allies as a leader, and so it should be. Unfortunately, the last strategic defence and security review spoke of “no strategic shrinkage” while shrinking the means available. That led to a perception that there is a gap between the United Kingdom’s stated policy and its delivery. The Defence Committee recently heard from Professor Lindley-French, who told us:

“The German-Netherlands Corps, which I know well, had several British officers in. About a week after we had made the statement in SDSR 2010 that we were going to reinvest in the alliance as a key element in our national influence policy, somebody in the MOD decided that they had to pull those British officers out of the German-Netherlands Corps headquarters. The Dutch and the Germans said, ‘Right, we will pull the Dutch and German officers out of the ARRC.’”— that is, the allied rapid reaction corps—
“In a sense, what is happening is that we are declaring policy at one level, and somebody lower down the food chain is taking a spreadsheet action at another level, so we are sending conflicting signals.”
Not only the UK but NATO itself is facing unprecedented challenges. The fundamental one, as the hon. Member for York Central said, is how to maintain a strong alliance without a war, whether it is a cold or a hot war. The withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan will throw this matter into even starker relief than did the events of 1989. This will be exacerbated by the economic woes of the western world. How do you spend money on defence if your people are in financial pain, cannot see an external threat and are at the very best ambivalent about the use to which we have put our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Madeleine Moon (Bridgend, Labour)

James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire, Conservative)
I give way to the hon. Lady, who plays such a valuable role on the Select Committee.

Madeleine Moon (Bridgend, Labour)
I thank the right hon. Gentleman and our Chairman of the Defence Committee. Is not part of the vital role of NATO in these straitened times to enable key competences to be maintained by allowing capacity sharing and allowing officers and service personnel to train, particularly in relation to platforms that have been cut in various countries?

James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire, Conservative)
I agree. Capacity sharing is essential and there is a lot that we can do together. NATO at its highest levels keeps talking about pooling and sharing, but there is not much that can be pooled and shared if member countries are constantly cutting their defence capabilities, so that is a real worry and it is all caused by the financial concerns that we have.

The economic downturn has meant that the defence expenditure of most countries has declined, with the exception of countries that are definitely not in NATO, such as Russia and China, whose expenditure is increasing. Perhaps we in Europe know something about world stability that the rest of the world does not know, but in Europe, the United Kingdom is, as the hon. Member for York Central said, almost the only country which meets the NATO target of 2% of gross domestic product spent on defence. Greece does, but for increasingly irrelevant reasons of its own.

I believe that the 2% target has considerable importance which is not only symbolic. I am glad that the Secretary of State for Defence confirmed in answer to a parliamentary question last week that the UK will continue to meet this 2% target until 2015-16. I believe it is very important that it is met after that as well.

In February this year, in Oslo, the Deputy Secretary-General of NATO, General Verschbow, suggested that the 2% target might be replaced by an aspiration that no single ally needs to provide more than 50% of certain critical capabilities. I am always suspicious about aspirations, but what would the consequence of this be? In my view it would reduce the last remaining pressure on our European NATO allies to maintain their defence spending at respectable levels. It would be a negative aspiration rather than a positive one—it would say what countries did not need to do rather than what they did need to do. Sadly, our European NATO allies have no difficulty in agreeing what they do not need to do.

The only clear practical difference it would make would be that the United States would not need to commit so many of its forces to NATO. That would, at a stroke, weaken the alliance and result in reduced ambition overall. It is my clear view that it would be the wrong road to go down. I think we should stick with the 2% target and that we in the United Kingdom should find innovative ways of encouraging our allies to meet it.

The United States historically has provided the lion’s share of NATO expenditure. That country is now in the grip of sequestration over and above the originally agreed defence spending cuts. Nevertheless, our US interlocutors assured us that despite the rebalancing it is currently going through, the US still attaches importance to NATO and, within NATO, its relationship with the United Kingdom. The US looks on its allies for niche capabilities and says that it needs its friends more than ever, but when the Defence Committee visited the US a couple of months ago it made it clear that it expects other NATO nations to provide a larger share of their own defence, and well it might. The Libyan operation demonstrated that the US intention of taking a back seat whenever possible shines a stark light on the poor capabilities of its European allies in NATO. Air Marshal Harper told the Defence Committee:
“There is no question but that this operation throws into stark relief the capability gaps that exist between the non-US members of NATO and the United States.”
That is hardly surprising, because the US still spends more on defence than the whole of the rest of the world put together.

I have a dream, and it has tinges of nightmare about it. I foresee that the economy of the west will gradually get stronger, and that we shall therefore eventually be in a position to spend more on our own defence. However, before Europe decides to do that, and to create the defences that the instability of the world requires, we shall have to go through a major—perhaps catastrophic—incident that reminds our people that without strong defences we have no schools, hospitals, welfare payments or economy. Then, and perhaps only then, we shall painfully learn our lesson. Let us try to do it without having to go through too much pain.


Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling, Conservative)
I, too, congratulate Hugh Bayley on securing this debate. He has fulfilled his responsibilities as president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in an exemplary manner, to the credit of Members in all parts of this House.

All three of the major military contributors to NATO have in the last few weeks made a significant policy change on the supply of equipment to Syria. All three have said that they are now ready to supply lethal military equipment to Syria. I want to bring before the House what I believe is a critically important case study before those countries, and possibly other NATO countries, decide in specific detail whether they will supply military equipment to Syria and, if so, what types.

Over the last few days, I have been analysing what was supplied to Gaddafi’s Libya in the five years prior to the outbreak of the Arab spring. The UK was one of the NATO suppliers, and was far from the only one. Non-NATO countries were supplying arms as well, and contributing to the substantial Libya-Gaddafi arms stockpiles. That five-year period ran from the beginning of 2006 until the end of 2010, which was of course the eve of the Arab spring.

I shall give the House a brief snapshot of the arms export licences that were approved by the previous Government here. They covered items including components for assault rifles, armoured personnel carriers, command and control vehicles, military utility vehicles, military communications equipment, cryptographic equipment, electronic warfare equipment, artillery computers, and components for surface-to-air missile launching equipment. The decision to issue an export licence for that last item— components for surface-to-air missile launching equipment—was made here in London, in blissful but understandable ignorance of the fact that within a few months NATO aircraft, including those from this country, would be overflying Libya to establish the no-fly zone.

Then came the change of Government in May 2010. In the subsequent seven months leading up to the outbreak of the Arab spring in 2011, the present coalition Government continued the policy of the previous Government. Indeed, I believe that they somewhat enlarged it. The export licences that were granted to Libya’s Gaddafi regime covered items including small arms ammunition, semi-automatic pistols, sniper rifles, assault rifles, machine guns, military communications equipment, cryptographic equipment, military cargo vehicles and, once again, components for surface-to-air missile launching equipment.

I raise this case study because the key issue for NATO in relation to supplying arms to Syria is to determine what has happened to the Libya-Gaddafi arms stockpile. To help us to answer that question, we are indebted to one key public source: the report presented to the United Nations Security Council by the panel of experts charged with reporting to the Security Council on the implementation of Security Council resolution 1973. I believe that that report should be made compulsory reading for all Ministers considering whether NATO countries should supply weapons to Syria and, if so, what weapons they should be.

I wish to place before the House a few key sentences from that recently published report. The panel of experts states that
“the proliferation of weapons from Libya has continued at a worrying rate and has spread into new territory: West Africa, the Levant and, potentially, even the Horn of Africa. Since the uprising and the resulting collapse of the security apparatus, including the loss of national control over weapons stockpiles and the absence of any border controls, Libya has over the past two years become a significant and attractive source of weaponry in the region. Illicit flows from the country are fuelling existing conflicts in Africa and the Levant and enriching the arsenals of a range of non-State actors, including terrorist groups.”

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
I compliment the right hon. Gentleman on his excellent speech. Does he agree that, once those weapons have leeched out of Libya, there is no way of retrieving or controlling them, and no way of knowing where they will end up? This happened in Afghanistan in the past, and it could well happen in Syria.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling, Conservative)
The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to learn that he has anticipated a point I am about to raise.

I raised the future of the Libya-Gaddafi arms stockpile with the director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, Professor Michael Clarke, when he gave oral evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee last week. His answers were extremely illuminating. In reply to my first question to him, he said:
“The arsenals that existed in Libya, as we all know, were extensive, and there has been almost no control over those weapons stocks. The new Government has proved virtually incapable of preventing those weapons stocks draining away.”
He went on to make this key point:
“Weapons never go out of commission; they just go somewhere else. Almost all weapons find a new home once a war is over.”
On Syria, he said:
“There is a lot of evidence that Libyan weapons are now circulating pretty freely in the Levant, and that seems to be where they will have the most destabilising effect.”
The huge geographical dispersal of the Libyan stockpile is happening not only because of the breakdown of security in Libya following the end of the Gaddafi regime but because, in the middle east and in north Africa, all through Saharan Africa and down to west Africa, arms are seen in a different way than they are in NATO countries. In NATO countries, the value of weapons relates to their military capabilities. We ask how capable a weapon is, how much firepower it has, how accurate it is, and so on. In that part of the world, however, there is a different approach to weapons. It is not merely a matter of their military utility. They are tradeable items.

I put that point to Professor Clarke:
“Would you conclude from that, as some people have, that the very act of supplying weapons in those circumstances means that you are basically supplying weapons into a commercial market? The moment the weapons leave your possession—whether it is weapons or ammunition—they become commodities to be sold at the highest price.”

He replied:
“I would agree with that. There is no such thing as an end-user guarantee on anything other than the most sophisticated of weaponry. Everything below the level of major aerial, maritime and ground-based combat systems—the really high-tech stuff that we produce—that is classed as small arms, light weaponry or even medium-range weaponry, is on the market once it is sold to anybody.”

A key question for NATO is whether our decision takers will take account of the very different way in which arms are seen in that part of the world. Arms are seen not merely as weapons but as money-making opportunities. Arms are bazaar items; they are there to be bought and sold at a profit if at all possible.

In conclusion, I say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and, most particularly, to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister: before deciding whether to supply particular lethal weapons and equipment to Syria, take note of what happened to the Libyan stockpile. They should ask themselves the questions, “Where are the British weapons that went into that stockpile; which countries are they now in; and in whose hands are they now in?” Most of all, they should ask themselves, “If Britain is going to supply military equipment to Syria, what is the risk of putting petrol on the fire?”


The full debate is available here.

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