In this speech Lord Bilimoria discusses the UK Defence spending and the state of the combined UK armed forces. He notes the strain the Defence Forces are currently under and the issues that they are currently facing in areas such as funding, equipment and numbers of personnel.
UK Defence Forces
23 November 2017
Motion to Take Note Moved By Lord Soley:
That this House takes note of the case for maintaining United Kingdom defence forces at a sufficient level to contribute to global peace, stability and security.
My Lords, as we have heard, the UK has the fifth largest defence budget in the world and we meet our NATO 2% commitment, but we have heard in this debate, including from the noble Lord, Lord Soley—I thank him and congratulate him on initiating this debate—that perhaps that figure should be 3% of GDP.
When commenting in July this year on the role of the Armed Forces in responding to the spectrum of threats, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy highlighted its concern that the Armed Forces would,
“not be able to fulfil the wide-ranging tasks described in the … SDSR 2015 … with the capabilities, manpower and funding”.
The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee stated that,
“the Ministry of Defence’s … Equipment Plan is at greater risk of becoming unaffordable than at any time since … 2012”,
and that it is, quite frankly, optimistic. It also says that the devaluation in the pound caused by Brexit could increase the cost of procurement by £5 billion. Does the Minister agree with that? In fact, the defence editor of the Times thought that the funding shortfall would be £10 billion. A senior partner at PwC, Roland Sonnenberg, thinks that the figure is approaching £30 billion, driven by the cost of new defence expenditure. Does the Minister agree with that? Turning to our own Defence Minister, Tobias Ellwood said that the capability review was required because there had been changes to the international situation since SDSR 2015. He pointed out the growth in terrorism and extremism, state-based aggression and cyber—all points that have been brought up. Sadly, there have been five recent terrorist attacks in this country.
The strength of our Army, at 82,000, does not even fill Wembley stadium. The SDSR in 2010, headed by Liam Fox, was awful. It projected an Army of 95,000 by 2015 and 94,000 by 2020. Now we are at 82,000 with 30,000 reserves to be achieved by 2020. A former Armed Forces Minister, Mark Francois, said recently that:
“A combination of lower retention than expected and failure to achieve recruiting targets means this under manning is”,
worse than ever. He continued:
“The Royal Navy and the RAF are … running … 10% short of their … recruitment target, whilst … the Army … shortfall is … 30%”.
Will the Minister confirm that?
Will the Minister give us an update on the nine new Boeing Poseidon aircraft that are replacing the Nimrods that, awfully, were destroyed? We have had a decade without an aircraft carrier. Do we have the aircraft carrier force capabilities to support the aircraft carriers that the Minister has confirmed? Probably, what is required with all of these changes is a new SDSR. Does the Minister agree that we need one right now?
Then there is the role of NATO and the threat of Trump’s comments and now, on top of all that, the head of the Defence Police Federation has said that years of cutbacks risk leaving,
“many of the UK’s critical military assets and sites at unacceptable risk”.
Even the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has said that,
“we’ve reached, as a consequence of … cuts … a tipping point in our ability to keep Londoners safe”.
Of course, many noble Lords have mentioned General’s Richard Barrons’ claim that the Army is now,
“20 years out of date”.
“Defence is close to breaking … Unless we put more money in it, it will fall over”.
He also said:
“The armed forces are in a denial … They cannot hold this together”.
“They are effectively fielding holograms of capability in some cases”.
Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges, commander of the US Army in Europe, has said that the UK would be unable to keep up its international commitments if forces were cut further.
Can the Minister confirm that HMS “Albion” and “Bulwark” will not be taken out of service and that the Royal Marines will not be cut by 1,000? Lieutenant-General Jerry Harris of the US Air Force said that he too was against a reduction in the size of the Royal Marines.
This is about defence capability, but it is also about credibility. We were a global power but, thanks to Brexit, the perception is that we no longer are. I host Indian civil servants in Parliament and they unanimously think that we should remain in the European Union. One went so far as to say that he felt sorry for us. We have an abundance of soft power, but it is useless without hard power. Barrons described the cut in the Marines as “madness”, which was echoed by Admiral Sir George Zambellas, who has just retired. He said that the Marines are the “Premier League fighting force”, made up of a small proportion of the total number of troops, but they contribute half our Special Forces. He said that the services have been under-resourced for years and that the choice being offered to service chiefs amounted to whether to cut off a right arm or a left one.