In this speech on the national security situation Lord Bilimoria argues that Britain has had a loss of standing caused by Brexit. He states that the decision to deploy the Armed Forces was the correct one and notes the difficulties there would have been in getting a UN resolution for this action. He notes the rumours of cuts to the Armed Forces and loss of personnel and that spending needs to be increased to meet new threats and there needs to be more direction. He stresses the importance of the EU to maintaining the peace in Europe alongside NATO and asks what is being done to maintain the important links. He is critical of past reviews and notes the cuts to the services that have taken place reducing areas such as personnel size. He notes the age of some of UK’s military equipment and expresses his anger that in the recent actions in Syria the UK Armed Forces effectively played “second fiddle” to the Americans and French. The lack of engineers and the issue of morale is also touched and he stresses the importance of the Police to national security who have also been cut. He concludes that both the Armed Forces and Police have been cut when national security is meant to be the main priority. He argues spending needs to be increased in order to be able to face threats.
National Security Situation
19 April 2018
Moved by Lord Ahmad:
That this House takes note of the national security situation.
My Lords, the National Security Capability Review starts by saying:
“The world has become more uncertain and volatile since 2015”.
It goes on to talk about the new fusion doctrine. It says categorically:
“We will further strengthen and modernise Defence and the Armed Forces”.
All the right intentions are laid out right up front in dealing with strengthening our overseas network, expanding the communications team and enhancing cross-government funds. But what is the reality? It is the backdrop of Syria, where the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has estimated that 13.1 million people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance and that, as a result of the crisis, 5.6 million of them are in acute need. It also estimates that 6.1 million people have been internally displaced by the violence. This is a shocking scenario. In addition to the 13.1 million people estimated to be in need in Syria, the UN has recorded that 5.6 million refugees have fled the country due to the civil war.
When we had the awful chemical attacks and the world got to know about it, what really upset me was that President Trump called President Macron first. That is Britain’s loss of standing. It is for one reason only: Brexit. We have lost our standing in the world even before leaving the European Union. The USA and the UK have had the closest special relationship. How on earth did this happen? It would never have happened historically. I take it as an insult to our standing in the world that that happened.
The decision to deploy the Armed Forces using the prerogative power was absolutely right in this instance. If we had waited for a UN resolution we would not have got it because Russia would have vetoed it. In fact, I remember in the summer of 2003 my late father General Bilimoria’s last visit to Britain straight after the Iraq war and invasion. He was asked by a journalist, “General, should the West have invaded Iraq?” He replied, “Absolutely not without a United Nations resolution”. He was absolutely right then, but I do not think that Theresa May could have waited for a United Nations resolution and if she had she would not have got it.
Since 2015, looking at the SDSR 2015, defence policy has been defined by the words “global reach”. But then there is this funding gap of supposedly £20 billion. Could the noble Earl confirm that there is this gap? Could he also reassure us, following all the rumours for months that HMS “Bulwark”, HMS “Albion” and 28 Wildcat helicopters are going to be chopped, and that we are going to lose 1,000 soldiers from the Royal Marines, that that is not going to happen, against the backdrop of the threats we face?
The other aspects of the warfare we face are, yes, the jihadi terrorism of the Islamic State, but also the hybrid warfare that is being practised by President Putin. Instead of the piecemeal cuts that have been going on, we need to increase our spending—as we have heard on all sides of the House—from 2% to not just 2.5% but to 3%, as the noble Lord, Lord Owen, and others said. Will the noble Earl confirm that that is what we should be doing? Our national security strategy is failing to keep pace with emerging threats. We need more direction. In fact, government committees and parliamentary committees are saying that. The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy said that an “honest conversation” on increasing defence spending was needed if the Government were to match their stated ambitions. Does the Minister agree?
The vote for Brexit has pushed the UK into a different context. A lot of the talk now is about how we will continue maintaining defence and security links with the EU. Let us be honest: the peace that has existed in Europe over the last seven decades has been not just because of NATO but because of the existence of the European Union as well. The fact that it exists has created the peace, but the mechanisms that exist within the European Union have also helped the peace. Could the Minister tell us what we are going to do to try to maintain all those important links?
The report from the committee talked not only about the rise of ISIS but about the refugee crisis; the tensions in North Korea, Iran and the South China Sea; increasing Russian aggression, and the impact of technology and cyberattacks. There is also radicalisation, which continues to be a huge threat. The defence committee has very clearly said that 3% should be the figure.
We are finally getting two aircraft carriers. It is shocking, in the world we have had since the awful SDSR 2010, when Liam Fox, our great Trade Secretary, was the Defence Secretary—it was the worst SDSR in living memory in this country, wrecking our Armed Forces—that our total Armed Forces now are 155,000. On top of that, they are all currently short-staffed. There is a deficit of 5.6%, or more than 8,000 personnel. Will the Minister confirm that there is this deficit? If we add the reserves and the Gurkhas we have a total service personnel of 195,000. The SDSR 2015 said that we were going to increase Army numbers to 95,000. We are now going backwards. Could the Minister explain what is going on here? While the threat is increasing, we are reducing the numbers of staff. I appreciate that important things such as the nuclear deterrent are being maintained, but is everything else being maintained to the extent required?
The Royal Navy and the RAF are 10% short of their recruitment targets. The Army’s shortfall at times has been 30%. This is another thing that upset me about the attacks. The fact we had to attack was bad enough in itself, but there is more and more an accusation that we have out-of-date equipment. The Tornadoes have been around since 1979. The British forces, in this joint attack with France and America, were, quite frankly, playing a supporting role when we should have been right there at the front. Our Royal Navy destroyer, HMS “Duncan”, was moved away while the French ship fired on the Syrian targets. Where was Britain’s £1 billion vessel? It has space on its deck for a cruise missile launcher, but that was axed, supposedly to save cash. Could the Minister confirm that that happened? It was the Rafale jets, along with the Americans and supported by Mirage 2000s, that were at the forefront. People have said that it was an America and France show where we played second fiddle. I take that as an insult, because we have some of the finest Armed Forces in the world. We should never play second fiddle. We should be right there in front leading the way.
Meg Hillier, the Labour chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee, has said that tensions have never been so bad with Russia and that it was critical that the Armed Forces were fully staffed. However, the National Audit Office report shows that the Armed Forces are woefully below complement. The Ministry of Defence needs to take a long, hard look at its current approach. Without more innovative methods to retain staff, there are going to be big gaps in capability and the overstretching of already hard-working Armed Forces.
As I mentioned earlier, we know that recruitment is almost facing a crisis, and on top of recruitment is morale. The latest survey shows that 58% of service personnel are either neutral or unsatisfied with service life in general. Again, morale is the most important thing, along with esprit de corps, in the Armed Forces. On a positive side, I am delighted, with CHOGM taking place and Prime Minister Modi here, that the UK and India want to continue to strengthen their ties in respect of their armed services, their defence and security relationships and their joint exercises; with officers from both armed services at the RCDS, the National Defence College and staff colleges in both countries and the conducting of joint exercises throughout. This is absolutely good news and it should be encouraged even more.
The lack of engineers is another area of concern. There is a shortfall of 2,400 engineers and a shortfall of intelligence analysts. The RAF, which we are all so proud of, is celebrating its centenary. It is a phenomenal institution that is an example to the whole world, yet there is a shortfall of 800 pilots.
It is not only the Armed Forces that are vital to national security: it is the police as well. Theresa May, when she was Home Secretary, stood up to the police and everyone said how brave she was, but she was standing up to the wrong people. We should have been increasing our police forces, but we have cut them by over 20,000. We have cut neighbourhood policing and our armed police officers. Now it is so reassuring to see two armed officers at every entrance to Parliament. If there had been two armed officers at every entrance, our police officer would not have lost his life. We have not taken our security and our armed police officers seriously enough: we need to bolster our police forces far more and appreciate them far more. Neighbourhood policing through the internet is all very well, but there is nothing that makes up for police officers on the ground: the British bobby, respected around the world, is what is required, not cuts to the police forces.
In conclusion, we have cuts in our Armed Forces when threats are increasing and cuts in police officers when threats are increasing, yet national security is meant to be the number one priority of a Government. We need to increase spending and prioritise the Armed Forces for 3% GDP straightaway and bring our police forces back up to strength to where they were before all the cuts; then we will be able to face all of these awful threats—this hybrid warfare—whether they are from Russia, China, jihadi terrorism or anywhere else.