Lord West of Spithead (Labour)
My Lords, I thank the Minister for this opportunity to debate the armed services. I share his views on commemoration and the importance of remembering what has been done. Indeed, two weeks ago, as president of the Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel at Pangbourne, I was with veterans and the next of kin of those who brought us that victory 32 years ago. The way to avoid wars is to have strong forces. The Minister talked very positively about our forces today, and I would expect nothing less from the Minister; indeed, I would expect nothing less from the Chiefs of Staff because they are working for the Government. However, I am tempted to say, “Brave words, my fine young Jedi,” because there is a sort of hollowness there.
For many decades, successive British Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries have been able to stride the world stage, punching above our weight for Britain. Why have they been able to do that? It was not because of our economic strength, but because we had powerful military forces and have been willing to use them around the world. Countries such as Japan and Germany were not even there for the big, important debates on restructuring things, while we were able to be part of that. Yet they were economic giants. Bearing in mind our status as a permanent member of the Security Council, perhaps it is necessary and right that we should be in that position. However, our status is now changing, and our forces are being cut to the bone. One wonders whether the Government have hoisted in the implications of that change.
I have a real worry that we are becoming a different nation by default. I do not need to go into what a dangerous and chaotic world this is; the Minister mentioned that, and I am sure that other noble Lords will do so as well. We only need to look at the television or listen to the wireless; it is very clear that it is becoming more dangerous and chaotic and a worse place to be in. In the 2010 SDSR—which I think impressed very few people—we made significant cuts to our military capability, and since then several billion pounds have been taken from defence as underspend. I know that it is difficult to predict at the moment, but can the Minister predict whether there will be another large underspend in this financial year? We have had underspends worth billions of pounds in the past years, and although some of it has rolled forward, quite a lot of it has not.
Looking to the future, defence spending is on present plans due to fall to 1.7% of GDP—bearing in mind that we are withdrawing from Afghanistan, so spending on operations will drop dramatically and that is before any more cuts in the next spending round. That is not the 2% that we often boast and crow about. Can the Minister say whether we will commit to a real 2% of GDP at the NATO summit this autumn, and in the future, not counting the cost of operations and the like? What, therefore, is the impact of those continual cuts? I will focus on the Royal Navy and the maritime, as I know that other noble Lords will focus especially on the Army’s problems.
Successive cuts mean that the Royal Navy has, for example, 19 escorts—that is, destroyers and frigates. When I entered Dartmouth, which I know was a long time ago, the Royal Navy had 104. Clearly we do not require that number today—the world has changed—but if one does the sums, the need for about 30 escorts to match our security needs and commitments is quite clear and was implicit in SDSR 1997-98. I have said on numerous occasions, and do not mind saying again, that having 19 frigates and destroyers for our great maritime nation is a national disgrace. The Type 26 programme is fantastic, and I love the thought that it is coming along—but it has not been ordered yet. I am afraid that I have had bitter experiences throughout my time in the Navy. You need to see something ordered and being built; until you can stand on its quarterdeck, you have not jolly well got it.
As I speak, over 50 of our ships, submarines, squadrons and units are deployed at sea around the world. The price of unrelenting operational tempo due to too few ships and too many tasks has resulted in lack of time for basic maintenance before ships redeploy. Not surprisingly, material readiness continues to decline, and apparently some warships have had to be towed back to Britain after breaking down at sea because there is insufficient funding for maintenance and spares. Can the Minister say whether that is true? I have been told that by a number of people. Have we had to tow one of our warships back to this country because it could not get here under its own power?
The pressure is not just apparent in the surface fleet, as, notwithstanding the new Astute class submarines—which the Minister mentioned and which are very slowly entering service; that has been very protracted, and we are getting only seven of them vice the eight we had expected—the number of submarines available for operations is at an all-time low. The pressures of too few ships and too many tasks impacts on our people as well—the most important factor. Again, when I joined the Navy, it had about 104,000 people. Today, we are down to 30,000, which of course includes the Royal Marines.
The Royal Navy is a wonderful and incredibly diverse organisation, which includes nuclear submariners to fast-jet pilots, chefs to surgeons, saturation divers to chaplains, commando fighters to helicopter pilots, ballistic missile maintainers to sea-boat operators, a surface navy, a submarine force, an air force and our own maritime infantry. It is one of the most complex organisations in our country, all delivered by half the number of people who watch Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. That is impressive—but manpower has been squeezed too much and our people stretched too thinly. We need to invest more in people and in training as well as in equipment.
On the subject of people, I mention as an aside how important our cadet forces are. They are good in a national sense, but they are also good for the military as well.
The Defence Secretary said that, as we pull out of Afghanistan,
“we are reminded that we are a maritime nation and maritime power is crucially important to our security and to our prosperity”.
However, I am not convinced that we have the planned investment to ensure that we have that maritime power. The Minister mentioned the carrier programme. Yes, this is very good news; it is something that I am delighted about. However, at the time of SDSR 2010, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister were saying that the only reason we were getting these things was because they were so far advanced that they did not want to waste the money—not a ringing endorsement. I think that they now understand better how important they are as a joint force enabler, allowing the UK to maintain global reach, to use them in hot war at the very top level, right down through every level to disaster relief in all parts of the world. I have no doubt whatever that at some stage, or at many stages, over the next 50 years, our nation will be very grateful that it has possession of those carriers— 4.5 acres of British sovereign territory, capable of going 500 miles in any direction at our nation’s behest without anyone else stopping them going there.
However, on present plans, only the “Queen Elizabeth” will be operated. The “Prince of Wales”, after costing £3 billion, will be laid up or sold at a bargain basement price. I despair—and I am sure that if the nation was aware of that fact, it would despair. I beg the Government to please, for goodness’ sake, plan to run them both and make that commitment now. Can the Minister make that commitment now? I doubt it—but he would make me a very happy admiral if he could.
Our defence spending has been cut to an extent that we are balanced on a knife edge. We are still a great nation—and I know that is not something that people like saying, but we are. Depending on how it is calculated, we are probably the sixth richest in the world, as well as being a permanent member of the Security Council
and a nuclear power, responsible for the defence and security of 14 dependencies worldwide. World shipping is run from London, providing the sinews that enable the global village to operate. We are the biggest European investor in most parts of the world. Global stability and security are crucial for our survival and wealth. It is nonsense to say that defence should be cut again in the next spending round like other departments. The smaller cake of public money—and I know that it is smaller—can be cut in different ways. The Prime Minister has stated clearly that defence of the nation is the primary responsibility of government, and its highest priority. Finding more money for defence is just a matter of government resolve. Without an increase in defence spending, I believe that we are on a road to disaster. Indeed, I do not believe that for the moment we can make Future Force 2020, which is the plan. Our forces will not be able to do what the nation expects of them, and the nation expects a lot of them—going back to those memories of what they have done in the past. Is that really the intention of our Government?
Lord Chidgey (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, my noble friend the Minister has set out how the Government seek to create a smaller but very well trained Army, a Royal Air Force equipped with a smaller number of very expensive aircraft, highly effective through the use of leading advanced technology, and a Royal Navy centred around a single carrier group and a submarine fleet with the Trident nuclear deterrent at its head.
What does this actually mean in terms of the United Kingdom’s military capacity? How will we contribute to future demands from NATO? How will we respond to calls to engage in further conflict in, for example, Iraq, Libya or anywhere in that region, or in the Balkans? In the first Gulf War, I understand that we had to strip the 3rd Armoured Division, based in Germany, of all its tanks in order to send the 1st Armoured Division into action in the desert. I am advised that we only just got away with it. Given that the new carrier—or, I hope, carriers—is expected to be in service with the Royal Navy for many decades, what assessment have the Government made of its vulnerability to attack from the new generation of anti-ship ballistic missiles, the ASBMs, of which the Chinese DF-21D “carrier killer” is believed to be the first in production?
Will the cost in blood and treasure of the Afghan war prove to have been a prohibitive price to pay for any similar future actions? Did the Falklands War depend on a fleet of warships that we no longer have and on requisitioned merchant ships that are no longer available? For how long can the safety of the Falkland Islanders be guaranteed by, as I understand, four ageing fast-jet fighters? This thinking has now developed to such an extent—and such a low point—that Professor Chris Brown, an international relations specialist at the LSE, believes that the UK’s lack of ability to act independently or even anything like an equal partner is something that government and politicians need to be seen to accept. He believes that they should advise the public accordingly: that the UK’s position and influence in the world will from now on rest firmly on soft rather than hard power. That is a vision that I really do not want to accept.
We are about to go into another round of sell-offs predicated on projected savings rather than service delivery. The projected buyout of the Defence Support Group land forces “green fleet” support and maintenance function by a private, potentially foreign, buyer is another case in point of an exercise almost bound to prove less effective and more costly than government advisers imagine. According to the National Audit Office, the decision to restructure the Army’s Regular and Reserve Forces was taken without “appropriate testing of feasibility”. As my noble friend Lord Palmer of Childs Hill has already mentioned, the plan to raise the number of reservists from the current 19,400 to 30,000 by 2018 may not in fact be achieved until 2025. The head of the National Audit Office, Amyas Morse, said that these measures,
“could significantly affect the Army’s ability to achieve its objectives and value for money”.
He added that the MoD,
“must get a better understanding of significant risks to Army 2020—notably, the extent to which it is dependent on other major programmes and the risk that the shortfall in recruitment of new reserves will up the pressure on regular units”.
Recruitment will need to increase substantially over the next five years if the plans are to be met. Meanwhile, the risks continue to mount. For example, what are the contingency plans for integrating Regular and Reserve Forces within a single force structure? When will we have some clarity on how employers will be persuaded to release soldiers for long periods of time, or on how the required levels of training and fitness to fight will be achieved and maintained among the reservists?
In another cost-saving plan, part of the Defence Support Group is to be sold off, apparently to realise some £200 million to £300 million in savings. The DSG’s main customer is the Army. It operates from eight main sites in the United Kingdom as an arm’s-length organisation from the MoD, servicing and upgrading the UK’s armoured vehicle fleets. Nine pre-qualified organisations have been invited to negotiate, at least half of which are foreign-owned, and the Government are clearly anxious to complete the sale before the general election.
The Royal Aeronautical Society has recently published an overview of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation by a Mr Howard Wheeldon, a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, which is a sharply focused wake-up call. The DIO was formed in 2011 as a product of the Levene defence review. The intention was to bring together all property and infrastructure development management under a single organisation, designed to optimise investment in and the strategic management of our vast defence estate—so far so good. Here I declare an interest: as a fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers and a companion of the Royal Aeronautical Society, I was at one time engaged as a consulting engineer to the MoD’s direct works services, providing engineering management support on more than a dozen military bases throughout Hampshire, including the then Royal Naval Hospital Haslar and the Aircraft Research Establishment at Farnborough.
The DIO is the largest landowner in Britain. Worth about £25 billion, it is larger than either the National Trust or the Forestry Commission in terms of land, property and infrastructure. It has an annual budget of £3.3 billion. Yet concerns are already being raised about DIO’s performance on the ground and its inability to respond to some of the more immediate priorities of the military. For example, impacting on the Royal Air Force is the slow progress in adapting RAF Marham to accommodate the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. As we know, the arrival date is planned for 2018, at which time 617 Squadron will be stood up as the primary operational unit for Lightning II. Given the large amount of infrastructure work required, clearly time is of the essence, but apart from the announcement of the intention to spend £7.5 million to build three new landing pads alongside the existing runway, there is no news of plans to provide extensive new infrastructure. This will be needed to maintain and operate the multi-role strike fighter in what only last month the Secretary of State for Defence described as likely to be the largest fleet of new jets in Europe. What progress is being made on this essential infrastructure?
A second concern is the work to adapt the Royal Navy dockyard at Portsmouth to accommodate the—I hope—two new “Queen Elizabeth” class carriers that are going to be based there. When the announcement was first made in 2002, it was acknowledged that their size would create problems in entering the base except at unusually high tides. In 2003 a scheme was announced to improve Portsmouth Naval Base in order to ease the access in and out for both the Type 45 destroyers and the carriers. It is unclear how much work has been carried out so far. I would be grateful if my noble friend could shed some light on it. In 2012, the DIO released a scope of work document setting out what would be required at Portsmouth to accommodate the carriers. It included a tidal berth and the upgrading of an existing jetty to withstand berthing, mooring and operational forces. It also included increased industrial electrical supply and navigational aids on independent marine structures. In all, it was estimated to cost in excess of £60 million and take 22 months to supply. The first of the carriers is due to be launched in Rosyth in a couple of weeks and it appears that the work in Portsmouth has yet to begin. Again, I would be grateful if my noble friend could clarify this situation.
Finally, and to echo points made by so many other learned and gallant speakers, it is generally accepted that the first duty of government is to maintain the security of its citizens and to protect them from external aggressors. Looking back over the issues that we have
discussed today and that confront our nation, it seems to me that there is still some serious catching up to do.
Lord Ramsbotham (Crossbench)
My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to the Minister for the wonderful series of briefings that he arranges for Members of this House, which I know are widely appreciated.
I realise that at this stage of such an important debate, in which there have been so many remarkable and well informed speeches, there is little new that I can add. In disclosing an interest as a member of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, I have to admit that, although that committee has a far wider-ranging remit, I will be speaking mainly about the Army and, in particular, Army 2020. I will not repeat all that has been said about the role and purpose of our Armed Forces in general, particularly as regards their future should the Prime Minister’s promised budget increase not be realised, and about the gypsy’s warnings on that given by my noble and gallant friends Lord Stirrup and Lord Richards, including in the latter’s outstanding maiden speech.
In its first review of the National Security Strategy 2010, published on 8 March 2012, the Joint Committee commented that it had been produced to a very tight timetable, and hoped that the production of the next one in 2015 would include a much wider public debate and an attempt at political consensus. The security strategy had been used to guide capability decisions in the 2020 strategic defence and security review, but the committee was unable to find any evidence that it had influenced decisions made since then. It called on the Government to develop an overarching strategy, a common understanding about the United Kingdom’s interests and objectives, that could guide choices on investment across government departments as well as operational priorities and crises responses, based on a realistic vision of the United Kingdom’s future role in the world.
In its report on its work in 2013-14, published on 30 April this year, the committee repeated concerns about the way in which the National Security Council operated, including: focusing on short-term imperatives and operational matters, and showing little sign of considering long-term and blue skies topics; not making the contribution it should to enable the Government to work as a co-ordinated whole; and individual departments, notably the Ministry of Defence, making major policy decisions without discussion at the National Security Council. The committee urged the Prime Minister to reconsider his approach to the next national security strategy in 2015, and to give a clear steer to his officials that they were expected to produce a radically different one that tackled the big and politically difficult questions which would guide future decision-making.
I mention this as background to the ninth report of the House of Commons Defence Committee produced this year, entitled Future Army 2020, in which it expressed its surprise that such a radical change to the Army’s structure, reflecting a reduction of 12,000 personnel from that announced in the 2010 security and defence review, was not discussed at the National Security Council, and that it was the Ministry of Defence’s Permanent Secretary who told the Chief of the General Staff the future size of the Army under the Army 2020 plan, which I hope is not a portent of things to come when there is only one uniformed member of the Defence Council. It noted that the Secretary of State for Defence had subsequently accepted that Army 2020 was designed to fit a financial envelope and it called on the Ministry of Defence to explain the apparent lack of consultation with the Chief of the General Staff in the decision-making process that has affected his service so fundamentally.
However, what seems even more peculiar to me about this whole story is that the Government continue to claim that, despite the history of what has actually happened since 2010, their overall strategic vision, expressed in both the security strategy and the defence review, has not changed. The Defence Committee hopes that a concept of critical mass for the Armed Forces will be developed. Had this been in existence, and even in its absence, it would seem only common sense for the NSC to assess and confirm Army 2020 before issuing it to the Army, not just in relation to critical mass but to the MoD’s “fighting power” doctrine, both of which could arm it with a much better informed understanding of how well the Army will be able to fulfil its obligations and contribute to Future Force 2020. As many noble Lords have pointed out, there is in addition a danger that Army 2020 could unravel if there are any further Ministry of Defence budget reductions, in which case both the UK’s vision of its place in the world and the defence planning assumptions would have to be revised.
Army 2020 represents a radical vision for the future role and structure of the British Army, departing significantly from that which was published in SDSR 2010. I must admit that I share the Defence Committee’s doubts as to whether SDSR 2010 can meet the needs of the United Kingdom’s national security, not least in combating asymmetrical threats. Deterrence of asymmetrical threats is much more complex than deterrence of another state. Whether it is nuclear or conventional, there is great difficulty in identifying precisely what action can be threatened or taken against whom. If I have a particular concern, it is that Army 2020 appears insufficiently resourced to enable the Army to operate in the fourth environment in which services now have to operate in addition to land, sea and air—namely, the electromagnetic or cyberspace. If both attack and defence are to be conducted, Signals is currently at about half the strength required.
My other concern is the reserves, and here I admit that I speak as an Inspector General of the Territorial Army of 25 years ago. While conscious of the enormous contribution that the reserves have made to the hectic operational years, you cannot expect employers to go on releasing people without proper reward. You must also pay the volunteers sufficiently well to encourage them to turn out. There is another dimension to the reserves, which I am afraid receives less than due recognition, which is the representation of the Armed Forces throughout the United Kingdom now that they have been withdrawn from so many places. The whole reserves issue should be re-looked at in the context of SDSR 2015 and Future Force 2020, to confirm that plans exist to expand important requirements such as medical and cyber, identified in what I hope will be a better analysis of national security needs than was carried out in 2010.
Apart from Army 2020, I have one other plea on behalf of the Army. I well remember pleading with my military masters for a period of stability for my battalion, which I took to Gibraltar after two years on operations in Londonderry, a six-month unaccompanied tour in Belize, and a hectic six months during which we had to provide a national shooting team and train for a subsequent four unaccompanied months in Belfast. Having been able to catch our breath, get some basic skills training and allow children under four to have their fathers at home for Christmas for the first time in their lives, a rejuvenated battalion was able to deploy straight to South Armagh. The Army has had far worse than that, having been involved in continuous operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere for more than 10 years, with the result that national defence skills, including essentials such as all-arms training, are almost non-existent. The Army badly needs a period of stability, during which it can become accustomed to its Army 2020 posture, including the linkage between certain formations and certain parts of the world, which is resulting in 4 Brigade, with its Middle East responsibilities, training troops from Libya and Egypt.
The Ministry of Defence failed to communicate the rationale and strategy behind Army 2020 to the Army, the wider Armed Forces, Parliament and the public—the Government are saying that it has to work and there is no plan B. The Government owe it both to the nation and the Army to ensure that Army 2020 works. If the situation changes, they must be prepared to respond decisively by providing additional resources in order to guarantee the nation’s security. I therefore ask the Minister whether the Ministry of Defence accepts the Defence Committee’s request that the Government provide regular updates to Parliament on progress of all aspects of the Army 2020 plan, the first of which would be laid before Parliament in January 2015 to allow consideration and debate before the 2015 general election and the SDSR, and regular debates thereafter.
Lord Lee of Trafford (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, when one is the 20th speaker, as I am, in this sort of debate, most of the major themes have been covered. In my short contribution I will therefore put a number of questions to the Minister.
First, it has been noticeable that ever since the Prime Minister announced the withdrawal date of our combat forces from Afghanistan there has been an obvious turn-off of interest in that country both in the media and among the general public. I therefore suggest that we have a major, dual responsibility to Afghanistan and its future, and to our Armed Forces personnel, who in many cases have given their lives or limbs in this conflict. I have three questions on Afghanistan for my noble friend. First, given the current size and scale of the Afghan national forces, where is the funding going to come from to sustain this level of armed force? What is the latest allied agreement in this area? Secondly, what percentage of equipment that will be brought back from Afghanistan has actually been brought back so far? Thirdly, what are the latest plans, post the reduction or ceasing of our combat role, to give air support to the Afghan forces?
Turning to co-operation with our allies, which has hardly been mentioned today, I ask my noble friend specifically: what is the state of progress in our co-operation with France? Here we have a situation in which each country has a comparable defence budget and broadly comparable forces; yet it appears to me that we are still operating only in the margins of co-operation. Can my noble friend correct or update me in this area?
As regards the carriers, referred to in considerable depth by the noble Lord, Lord West, the last baseline figure given for their cost was £6.2 billion. It was strongly suggested that there would be an agreement to share between the contractors and the Ministry of Defence, on a 50:50 basis, any expenditure over and above that figure. Has that agreement been reached and ratified?
The Minister did not refer at all to the second carrier, HMS “Prince of Wales”. Has any decision been taken on what we are actually going to do with her when she comes on stream? I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord West, briefly touched on the potential of the “Prince of Wales” and carriers generally in disaster relief. We have in the world, sadly, horrendous refugee and humanitarian problems, and I suspect that this will continue. I suggest that instead of looking at the “Prince of Wales” in a minor role as an agent for helping with refugees and humanitarian relief, we give it almost a primary role in this area, with its military capability held in reserve. We have considerable funding pressures. The noble Lord, Lord West, pulls a face, but I suggest that if the “Prince of Wales” is involved in humanitarian operations, the revenue funding for the second carrier should come from our substantial overseas aid budget, not the defence budget.
The question of our escorts has been touched on, of which we theoretically have only 19 at the moment. How many are fully operational? On the Type 26 vessels, which we all welcome, I understand that vertical launch tubes were incorporated in the design, but that there are no present plans to give cruise missile capability to them. Could I ask the Minister what the extra percentage cost would be if our Type 26 vessels were equipped with cruise missile capability and capacity?
Turning briefly to procurement, in May the department issued a press release that said:
“The DE&S has been provided with the unparalleled freedom to manage its own business, outputs and workforce within an operating cost envelope set to drive significant efficiencies”.
Could I ask my noble friend whether these freedoms cover the salary levels of senior personnel in DE&S-plus? That obviously has an implication for recruitment of the right quality of personnel, which I believe to be vital.
Finally, I turn to the issue of training, where our Armed Forces excel. I am sure we were all pleased to be made aware that we have agreed to train 2,000 Libyan armed forces personnel. There are 325 who are already over here being trained in Cambridgeshire. Could I ask my noble friend whether this is our largest current training commitment? How many service personnel are engaged in training across the world? Linked to that, how many requests are there on the table from nations where there are unsatisfied commitments from this country—in other words, could and should our training capability be expanded?
Lord Craig of Radley (Crossbench)
My Lords, I too welcome the opportunity for the House to express views on defence and on the role of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. I join in the appreciation expressed for the Minister for the amount of effort he puts in to keep us informed on the defence scene. However, I fear too often with this Administration—maybe it is a feature of coalition government—there is little that gives an indication of long-term visionary and realistic thinking; I stress “realistic”. Certainly for the Armed Forces, that 2020 vision we heard about a few years ago, along with balanced manpower needs, is far from realistic or realisable given current funding projections. Indeed, as we hear more about belt-tightening and further financial stringency, there is a sense that, far from increasing the defence budget, further reductions are in the Chancellor’s mind.
However, before reviewing defence capabilities, there is a more fundamental question to answer: what is it that this country—under whatever Government—should aspire to in the field of international affairs? Do we wish to remain in the forefront of such affairs and alliances—and, if needed, punching military weight—that our place on the Security Council, our long history, NATO, our European identity and our Commonwealth membership once combined to give us that genuine status and real credibility? I hope that the next security and defence review will choose to dwell on and clarify that vision of our place in the world in this decade and the next, not just this for year and up to the next general election.
At present the impression is given that it is no longer realistic or thought right always to be active at that level of international influence. The notable absence of the Foreign Secretary at the start of international discussions about the Russia/Ukraine crisis and the almost instantaneously reactive statement at the first signs of the latest Iraq turmoil indicated that the UK would not consider the use of force. Did not that send a significant, albeit depressing, signal? Why was there not the time-honoured immediate reactions to crises, along the lines that all options are being considered and nothing has yet been ruled out? That reaction is designed to give comfort to one’s allies and friends that we are up to the necessary treaty and other commitments if all else fails, and to tell our adversaries that we do not intend to be a mere hand-wringing touch-line spectator that poses them no immediate need for concern. In the field of acquiring intelligence, for example, stand-off aerial platforms—including unmanned aerial vehicles—are available, as indeed are, if necessary, stand-off weapons from sea or air. Those are attacks without use of any ground commitment. Why are they all ruled out so quickly?
At its most elemental, lacking high-worth defence capability, as seen by others, is significant, if only as a further indicator that this country is no longer really prepared to make the effort to remain a leading power in the world of today and tomorrow. Above all, how does that read in Washington? Maybe it is not difficult to guess, if the concerns expressed by US Defense Secretary Gates and his successor Hagel are taken as seriously as they should be. The special relationship, so important to our national security, is starting to lack substance, as viewed in Washington. At a time when the United States’ strategic anxieties are focusing more across the Pacific than across the Atlantic, that may become all too obvious—obvious, that is, when your best and strongest ally just does not bother to consult you about a developing world crisis or problem.
Measures of comparison of input expenditure on defence do not reveal a true picture. The Government have claimed—perhaps it is no longer true—that their defence expenditure is the fourth largest in the world. However, output, not input, should be the true measure of defence capability. Rather than compare what we have spent in the past with expenditure today, I would prefer to use a comparison between what we had in the past—say, when we had realigned our defence posture after the end of the Cold War—and what we have now, as well as what we plan for the immediate future. Time is too short to spell this out in detail, other than to say that the Armed Forces’ manpower and inventory of war-fighting equipment are far below those of the late 1990s. Surely the world and this nation are not safer—maybe far less safe—than they were in that period.
Indeed, the Prime Minister only last week drew attention to the real threat of terrorism spawned in failed states. Defence capability, along with political, economic and diplomatic effort, will combine to tackle such threats, but the latter will lack weight without the backing of military strength and the will to use it to protect this country and its citizens. There are few, if any, quick fixes in defence capability, so a draw-down today will be as damaging in five or even 10 years’ time as it is at the present time. Equally, if in spite of recent indications we wish to retain our place on the world scene, now is the time to invest not only in capability but in numbers. This would both give an immediate indication of determination to remain at a leading position in world affairs and provide successor Governments with the wherewithal to retain that posture.
The 2010 strategic defence and security review was inevitably driven by the economic crisis and an aspiration for force levels a decade hence, in the timescale of 2020, but those aspirations are drifting far out from what was projected only four years ago. By 2020, further slippage and delay in an underresourced programme will be upon us unless significant new money is made available.
A further consideration, too often overlooked, is critical mass—in the number and trades of individual personnel, in the inventory holdings of critical major components, whether ships, aircraft or other weapons platforms, and in spares and availability of consumables. Smaller forces, too, inevitably reduce the scale and opportunities of career and professional advancement. As is already evident, this hampers the ability of the forces to recruit and retain, in particular, those with special expertise, such as engineers or aircrew.
Yet it is from those who first volunteer to join and then decide to remain in the forces for a full career that future senior commanders will have to be found. Headhunting a commander-in-chief or a chief of staff from outside their service is impossible, so the calibre and quality of those who decide in an all-volunteer force to remain and who will be the advisers to Ministers on the use and applications of military power is a further issue for politicians to ponder. Some of the brightest in the services are choosing to leave while they have the youth and skills to take up a new career in civvy street, leaving others maybe less capable to soldier on to fill the senior positions in the Armed Forces.
The next review of the defence and security of the nation must surely be more explicit about the future global posture and strategy for this country and it must be more realistically funded than at present, unless it is the intention to dumb down our standing in the world in a futile and fanciful search for a quieter life.
Lord Rosser (Labour)
My Lords, I thank the Minister for providing this opportunity to discuss the role of our Armed Forces. I also thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, for his powerful and very clear maiden speech, which contained some important messages for us all.
This debate has been welcome and relevant. In a year of key and moving anniversaries of both the First World War and the Second World War, Armed Forces Day is nearly upon us. It is a day which provides us with an opportunity to remember and highlight the immense role that the members of our Armed Forces have played and continue to play in the life of our nation, defending us and protecting and furthering our national interests, all too often at great personal cost.
This debate is also relevant because of the major changes taking place, or about to take place, affecting our Armed Forces. They include the transition to Army 2020 with its reduction in the size of the Regular Forces and an increase in the Reserve Forces, the imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan, the implementation of the basing review, and the potential impact of the considerations that will determine the direction and content of the next strategic defence and security review—a pending review that should not, like the 2010 review, be driven almost exclusively by the amount of money available rather than by a determination of our strategic objectives and requirements, with the role, size and capability of our Armed Forces being geared to delivering those objectives.
We believe that Britain can play a positive role in the international community and that to withdraw from the world is not just undesirable but impossible. However, we also think that the United Kingdom should be realistic because there are no gains to be made from promising what cannot be delivered. Continued fiscal restraint at the Ministry of Defence requires a more enhanced understanding of what can and what cannot be achieved alone. We know that we must strengthen and deepen our partnerships with existing allies, and seek to cultivate new ones if we are to achieve our strategic objectives. We are also committed to the minimum credible nuclear deterrent which we believe is best delivered through a continuous at-sea deterrent and we will continue to look at ways in which that minimum credible deterrent can be delivered most efficiently.
One of the main priorities of the 2010 SDSR was to ensure that we emerge with a coherent defence capability in 2020. In their foreword to the review the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister said that they were determined to retain a significant well equipped Army in the context of a review that provided for a reduction in manpower over the following five years of 7,000, from 102,000 to 95,000, with a stated assumption that by 2020 we would require an Army of 94,000 personnel, a Royal Navy of 29,000 personnel and an RAF of 31,500 personnel. The reduction in the strength of the Army would enable savings to be made of £5.3 billion over the 10 years from 2011-12 to 2020-21. However, this was subsequently changed downwards to a Regular Army of 82,500, which is a reduction of a further 11,500 or some 160% of the reduction of 7,000 set out only a few months previously in the SDSR.
The 2010 SDSR set out the new defence planning assumptions that envisage that our Armed Forces in the future would be sized and shaped to conduct an enduring stablisation operation at around brigade level—up to 6,500 personnel—with maritime and air support as required while also conducting one non-enduring complex intervention, with up to 2,000 personnel, and one non-enduring simple intervention, with up to 1,000 personnel; or alternatively, three non-enduring operations if we were not already engaged in an enduring operation; or for a limited time, and with sufficient warning, committing all our effort to a one-off intervention of up to three brigades, with maritime and air support—around 30,000, two-thirds of the force deployed to Iraq in 2003.
That is what was in the 2010 SDSR when the reduction in the Army was stated as being from 102,000 to 95,000. The subsequent reduction a few months later was made on cost grounds alone, not because of any change in the defence planning assumptions. The deadline for completing redundancies was also brought forward. It was originally 2017-18, but was brought forward by the Ministry of Defence to 2015-16, because, according to the National Audit Office, of further demands on the budget requiring the department to make staffing savings earlier. The question is that with the further reduction in the size of our Armed Forces going considerably beyond that set out in the 2010 SDSR, can the capabilities set out in the defence planning assumptions at the time, which have never been changed, still be delivered now and in 2015, and can they still be delivered through to 2020 without any increase in the size of our Armed Forces, and in particular the Army?
The recent National Audit Office report on Army 2020 contains some interesting information and robust views. It makes it clear that it does not examine whether Army 2020 will provide enough military capability for the Army to meet its required defence outputs which presumably are those set out in the 2010 SDSR. That is why I am asking this question of the Minister in the light of what has happened since the 2010 SDSR and the critical report from the National Audit Office.
When told in 2011 to make further savings of £5.3 billion, the department produced a programme of change and restructuring which led to Army 2020. Eight options to achieve the required savings were produced by the department, and a panel of senior military personnel selected three of the eight options for further development. However, the panel subsequently decided that none of the shortlist of three options avoided unacceptable risk to the Armed Forces’ ability to deliver the defence outputs required by the 2010 strategic defence and securityreview.In other words, the department had managed to put forward eight options in a bid to secure the Treasury-demanded savings, none of which would have enabled the Armed Forces to deliver the capabilities required in the Government’s 2010 SDSR.
Instead, a hybrid option was settled on which included a Regular Army supplemented by Reserve Forces, as well as proposals for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. In the words of the National Audit Office report, the panel,
“decided that the option would give enough capability, compared with the three rejected options, to provide the required defence outputs and offered a tolerable level of military risk”.
That was hardly an enthusiastic or ringing endorsement of the option.
Why the reference to the comparison with the “three rejected options”? If it is an acceptable option only when compared with three that have been rejected, it
raises questions about exactly what capability the hybrid option actually does deliver. What exactly is a,
“tolerable level of military risk”,
as opposed to an acceptable level of military risk? They cannot mean the same.
The National Audit Office report goes on to tell us:
“The panel did not consider whether recruiting and training the increased number of reserves was feasible as part of its assessment, or whether the requirement for reserves to undertake a substantially different role in a smaller Army would have an impact on recruitment”.
Whether the panel or someone else should have undertaken the exercise is not the question, but rather the fact that according to the National Audit Office no one did it. Presumably that means that the Secretary of State did not ask for that assessment to be made before agreeing to proceed with the hybrid option.
The National Audit Office report says:
“We have not seen evidence that the feasibility of increasing the number of trained reserves within the planned timescale, needed to provide the required capability, was robustly tested”.
To say the least of it, that seems to be something of a mistake as the essence of the hybrid option was that there needed to be a significant increase in the number of reserves, particularly Army reserves, playing a substantially different and more important role. Indeed, the NAO report specifically asserts that the Ministry of Defence did not assess whether it was feasible to recruit and train the number of reserves within the necessary timescale. If that is the case, on what basis have the Government repeatedly asserted their confidence that the required number of Army reservists would be recruited to see the trained strength increase from 19,000 to 30,000?
According to the NAO report, the Secretary of State for Defence can have had no firm basis for the statement in paragraph 1.15 of his July 2013 White Paper on Reserves in the Future Force 2020 in which he said:
“We are confident that the targets can be met”.
That statement was a statement of hope and nothing more, yet the ability of our Armed Forces to deliver the 2010 defence planning assumptions is dependent on it being achieved.
The National Audit Office report also found that recruitment targets for reserves were not underpinned by robust data and that even the working model the department now has for reserves, which contains limited historical data, suggests that it could be 2025, as my noble friend Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde has already pointed out, before the trained strength of the reserves is increased to 30,000. That assessment, said the National Audit Office, assumed an increase in recruitment rates for new reserves as well as an unevidenced assumption that the percentage of reserve recruits that go on to become trained strength can be increased from the current level of 34% to 55% from 2015-16.
It seems that recruitment is falling behind. Just under 2,000 reserve soldiers were recruited in 2013-14 against a December 2012 Army demand plan requirement of 6,000, and just under 3,200 Regular Army training places were unfilled in 2013-14 from a planned allocation of 9,382 places.
It is not clear what the Government’s attitude is towards the reserves and the increase in the number of trained Army reserves to 30,000. The Government have repeatedly said that the rundown in the size of the Regular Army is not conditional on an increase in the size of the reserves being achieved, even though delivering Army 2020 involves recruiting, training and integrating an increased number of reserves into a single Army. Yet the hybrid option with its “tolerable”—not acceptable—level of military risk is dependent on that increase in the number of reserves being achieved.
I come back to the question that the NAO report did not address: namely, whether our Armed Forces, and the Army in particular, can currently meet now and in 2015, as well as in the future under Army 2020, the defence output set out in the defence planning assumptions in the 2010 strategic defence and security review. The reality is that since those defence planning assumptions appeared in the cost reduction driven 2010 SDSR, the intended size of the Regular Army has been reduced by a further 11,500, from 94,000 to 82,500. A deliberately untested and unassessed objective of a projected increase in the size of our Reserve Army has fallen well behind schedule and a senior military panel has described the present hybrid option, even if achieved through the increase in trained reserves, as offering not an acceptable level of military risk but only a tolerable one. The conclusion must be that, at the very best, the Government, through their own actions, have placed the ability of our Armed Forces to deliver the defence outputs the Government set out in the SDSR in 2010 in jeopardy, both now and under Army 2020. Frankly, to try to maintain otherwise in the light of the further reductions in the strength of our regular forces, and the continuing failure to achieve the required recruitment levels to our Army Reserve Forces without making any changes to the defence planning assumptions lacks real credibility.
Of course it is possible, although contrary to everything the Government have been saying, that in the 2010 SDSR the Ministry of Defence made provision at a time of austerity for the size and cost of our Armed Forces to be considerably larger than was actually needed to deliver the defence outputs provided for in the SDSR. If that is the case, can the Minister confirm that such an overprovision at a time of austerity was an intended part of the 2010 SDSR? The National Audit Office has done a useful job in throwing some light on what was actually going on at the time of the SDSR and what has been going on since. It indicates that the Secretary of State is somewhat removed from his image as a safe pair of hands. The significance of the next SDSR, and the need to ensure that the demands we place on our Armed Forces, who do not let us down, are matched by the resources we provide for them to meet those demands, cannot be overstated.