House of Commons debate

As for others who have spoken in this debate, it is likely that this will be my last debate in Parliament. I am glad that it is on defence—the defining purpose of the state and of Parliament. I will seek not to repeat what others have said, but I want to say this. We have no more important role than to keep those who elect us safe from our enemies. This view is not as popular as it was. Elections, we are told, are not won and lost on defence; there are no votes in defence. I am not so sure. If the political establishment is seen to be playing fast and loose with our security, we will all pay a heavy price in further disillusion and alienation.

The 2% NATO floor or target, to which we are all politically and morally committed, is the minimum that we should spend, yet it is far from safe. I do not generally favour targets for spending of any kind, and I certainly do not favour writing them into law, but the unavoidable truth is that if we are to achieve our current objectives, spending of that order is needed. I understand the scope for increased efficiency in every area of human activity; indeed the increased sophistication of the technology behind military equipment enables us to do more with less, which means that fewer people are needed to deliver the same effect than even a decade ago.

A Type 45 destroyer is considerably more capable than the Type 42 that it replaces and needs a smaller crew. And there are opportunities to do more with less. That is one of the purposes of the UK-French defence relationship. The application of the whole force concept could increase the effect and efficiency of defence. So our debate about national security must not lapse into sentimentality.

It is not sentimental, though, to speak up for defence. I want to do so by addressing three things—the financial background, the fact that defence is a long-term game and the threat to essential investment in science and technology.

The Chancellor is right to say that strong defence depends on a strong economy. That is why as a Minister in 2010, I swallowed hard and accepted significant cuts to defence capabilities, even though they led to some very challenging gaps in capability. But for a trading nation like ours, the protection of the sea lanes and the maintenance of an open rules-based trading system are crucial. So a strong economy also depends on strong defence. Prosperity is built on peace. The urgent question to both Front-Bench teams today is this. The funding post-2015 that is needed just to achieve Future Force 2020 is based on a 1% per annum increase in the equipment budget and flat real for the non-equipment budget. That is what the Chiefs of Staff and Ministers were promised at the time. So will Ministers and shadow Ministers commit today to both the equipment and non-equipment figures that we were promised?

The commitment on the equipment budget made only by my party is welcome. There is a long list of very important capabilities, but it is not enough on its own. The significant cuts that appear to be pencilled in for current expenditure—RDEL, or resource departmental expenditure limit—are deeply worrying. I commend Professor Malcolm Chalmers excellent paper, “Mind the gap; the MOD’s emerging budgetary challenge.” It is an objective, factual assessment of the cost pressures facing defence. I doubt that the Minister can offer reasons to disagree with any of its deeply worrying conclusions, but even in the optimistic scenario that Professor Chalmers outlines, under which defence is given the same protection as health and education, those cost pressures would still force a total cut of 8.7% over the next 10 years—about £35 billion in total.

If further cuts are to be made, they would sadly have to be based on a refreshed and less ambitious strategic approach. The decisions in the 2015 review, then, could redefine Britain’s role in the world. There are other strategies, depending more on diplomacy, soft power and development assistance, for example. They are all vital components of our national security, but are they credible without strong defences too? No. Not when, for the first time since the cold war, Europe faces a real military threat on its borders. The world is more dangerous than it has been for decades.

In some ways, though, the 2015 SDSR will be easier than the last one. Crucially, a major programme of reform has rebuilt the MOD’s credibility, and its performance on equipment acquisition has been transformed. From both the industrial and security perspectives, the 2010 SDSR succeeded in protecting the very special US-UK defence relationship, but will this last? President Obama, the US Chief of Staff and the US ambassador to the UN have all warned us and are sending us a clear message about what they fear is the future of UK defence spending.

So to my second theme—the need to take long-term decisions to protect our operational advantage and our freedom of action. In layman’s terms, that means making sure that we have superior capabilities to our enemies and that we can use them and sustain them whenever we want to. At the heart of this for me is the alarming engineering skills shortage that we face as a nation, especially in defence. This is the area of the 2012 White Paper on defence acquisition, to which I put my name, with which I am least satisfied. The ingredients were all there, but the urgency of the issue was not properly articulated and opportunities were missed. Crucially, commentators did not understand what the White Paper said. It made it clear that

“We will take action to protect our operational advantages and freedom of action, but only where this is essential for national security.”

Here is the commitment to invest in what industry calls the body of knowledge essential to sustain capabilities in the long terms. We cannot protect all the skills and capabilities that we need and would like to on current budgets, but there are areas of capability that we simply must invest in to sustain our security. Short-term budget cuts make this White Paper promise, which is essential to our security, impossible to deliver, with serious long-term consequences.

My third theme is the priority that we must attach to sustaining investment in technology. The centrality of research investment to UK national security takes on greater significance in a new global security context—a context defined by state fragmentation, asymmetric threats and technology proliferation. Belligerent non-state actors are increasingly using technology to counter the traditional technological advantage of conventional military and security forces. Since the end of the cold war, we have seen widespread development of technology by commercial organisations and individuals driven by a consumer society and business sector hungry for tomorrow’s technology today. This has lowered the bar for entry to conflict, espionage, terrorism and serious and organised crime, meaning that there are far more threats out there now than there were. As a result “conflict” will be far less predictable than we have seen before. It simply will not conform to set-piece scenarios in the same way that the west planned for in the last century or in the last SDSR.

If we are not committing to investing a realistic amount in science and technology, I see several things happening. First, we will become less relevant to our key strategic allies—the United States and France. Second, we will miss the opportunities to build capability by adapting the best of the commercial and international technology sector because we simply will not know what the cutting edge looks like. Third, we will cease to act as an intelligent client. How do you know what you are buying if you do not know what good looks like? Fourth, we will be unable to evolve during a conflict. This is potentially the most serious if we cannot defeat the novel threats deployed against us.

If the 2015 SDSR correctly prioritises science and technology, logically the MOD must spend more on it.

Mr Havard: The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. The Defence Committee in reports in this Parliament and the previous Parliament has talked about the MOD devoting 2% of the money that it has to S and T as well as R and D so that such spending is structured into budgets.

Sir Peter Luff: I could not agree with the hon. Gentleman more strongly. That is the precise figure that I have in mind for the level of resources from the defence budget that should be spent on S and T. It was 2.6% under the previous Government, but it declined under them to 1.2%. The White Paper on technology put a floor under it of 1.2%. It is far too low a floor, and what is more, as defence budgets have shrunk, the sum being spent has gone down too. It is only a third higher than what the Department for International Development now spends on research. Two per cent. is the bare minimum, of rising budgets as well. The trouble is that the Department sees S and T as the cash cow of the spending round. It is a resource that is easily cut because contracts are short term, but the consequences for our security are devastating.

If cuts to revenue spending happen, the science and technology budget will go straight back into the firing line of the Treasury and the bean counters of the MOD. We must not let that happen. Maintaining operational advantage is a race against time to take innovation from the lab and into the battle-space.

Our partners envy our ability to do more with less. Key to this is understanding the operational advantage of technology and moving it quickly into the hands of the military. As Bernard Gray, Chief of Defence Matériel, put it recently,

“The key question is, of all the desirable things in the world, which are the ones you can afford?”

But the country can afford more, as it should choose to do. In the end, this is not about votes, it is about leadership. We must all in this place do everything we can to sustain the national understanding that we maintain peace through strength, not weakness. That is why it is imperative that the next SDSR is well argued, persuasive and properly funded and why all the political leaders of our nation must show their deep personal commitment to this outcome.

After every major conflict we have cut defence and regretted it. The Crimean war, the first world war, the second world war, the cold war—cut and regret, cut and regret, cut and regret, cut and regret. As Hegel said,

“We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

In 2015 we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the foundation of our freedoms, Magna Carta, and the 750th anniversary of the beginning of our representative democracy and Simon de Montfort. It would be depressingly ironic if in 2015 of all years a timid Parliament, an intellectually feeble SDSR and another round of austerity combined further to weaken our defences and threaten our freedoms at such a dangerous moment in world history.


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