CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

DEFENCE IN THE WORLD (FRONT BENCH) – 1 February 2007

Dr Julian Lewis: I am sure that the entire House will agree that it is absolutely typical of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) that at the end of a long debate such as this one, he is still supplying something absolutely fresh, absolutely original and – dare one say it, however entertaining his contribution – absolutely serious.

Before I begin my winding-up speech, I should like to say this. Twenty years ago, I had occasion to visit the British Airborne Cemetery at Oosterbeek, near Arnhem. Among the serried rows of gravestones, I was interested to see a considerable number that were engraved not with the Christian Cross, but with the Jewish Star of David. I realised then that, as far as the Services in the Second World War were concerned, the people from other religions who fought and died for freedom and democracy did so, from this country’s point of view, irrespective of their religion because they were British and because they were proud of the values that we were all standing up to defend.

That has now begun to occur in the case of Muslim members of the Armed Forces. I pay tribute to the first Muslim soldier who was killed in action. He was a British hero, and if we are to fight and win what is fundamentally a battle of ideas, we will depend on people like him – and on his religious community to stand up for people like him and do what is right when extremists in that community seek to add to the dangers of our brave, patriotic, British Muslim Servicemen and women.

The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) made such an impressive speech, in which he said that there was a danger of the Strategic Defence Review being blown off course, that I dug out a copy of that document from my little portfolio. It was produced in 1998 and broadly welcomed, not least by the Opposition. It set out a basic, strategic realignment, given that the likely threats would arise not on the continent of Europe but in locations much further afield.

It followed that, if the Armed Forces were ever engaged in major war-fighting, power would have to be projected at a distance. We are no longer an empire and can thus no longer rely on bases in many countries overseas. We cannot even rely on overflying rights, and it was therefore necessary to devise a power projection concept of a moveable base – a base in the sea from which the Armed Forces could be taken to the theatre of operations and could project power from the sea to the air, from the sea to the land and from the air to the land. From that came the essential realisation that we needed to focus on the Royal Navy in general and carrier capacity in particular.

That strategic concept has not fundamentally changed. However, the prescriptions set out in the document for what would be necessary to fulfil it have changed. Those changes appeared in two other documents which are cited much less frequently. One is the Defence White Paper, which was produced at the end of 2003, and the other is the paper on Future Capabilities, which was produced as a supplement to the White Paper in July 2004.

The problem is that the two documents do not match up. The earlier document admitted that the Armed Forces were engaged in a much heavier scale of operations than the Strategic Defence Review anticipated. However, the rot set in in the 2004 document because that was when the Government started making the cuts in current capabilities in order to fund current campaigns. They not only cut current capabilities but made cuts in future capabilities, which the Strategic Defence Review had described as necessary to implement the strategy that everyone accepted.

Let me concentrate briefly on the Royal Navy and one aspect of it: the frigate and destroyer fleet. When the Strategic Defence Review was published in 1998, it stated that we would cut the number of frigates and destroyers from 35 to 32. After two wars had broken out and were being fought, we suddenly found that, instead of 32 ships to discharge that function, there had been only 31 and a further six were to go, leaving only 25.

The argument was put forward – it was dubbed by me, if nobody else, as the Hoon Excuse, in honour of the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Geoff Hoon), who was then Secretary of State for Defence – that we did not need so many platforms, as the new platforms were going to be more powerful than the old ones. We always knew, however, that we were going to have those new platforms. Even at the time of the SDR, we knew that they were going to be more powerful than the old ones. The difference was that whereas the Navy chiefs had accepted reluctantly a reduction from 35 to 32 in return for getting the carriers, they were now being expected to do the same job with 25. I am not as sanguine as the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mike Hancock) that the fleet is not in danger of being cut further, because we all know that it is widely rumoured that a Defence Management Board meeting may mothball another six frigates and destroyers.

Mr Hancock: I believed the Secretary of State when he said in Portsmouth that he had no reason to do that and that the commander-in-chief had not asked for that to be done or even discussed it with him.

Dr Lewis: I never thought that I would have the opportunity to regard the Liberal Democrats as more trusting and naive than me. I am happy to do so on this occasion. I will be delighted if the hon. Gentleman is proved right and I am proved wrong.

We have heard from several Members, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Tobias Ellwood), the catalogue of woes and cuts, and the concerns expressed, with unprecedented frequency, by senior serving and recently retired heads of the Armed Services. I could cite General Lord Guthrie, and we all know about General Dannatt and his predecessor as Chief of the General Staff, General Jackson. And let us not forget General Shirreff’s plea for adequate standards of Service housing, training and healthcare. Of them all, however, I am particularly interested, with my Navy responsibilities, in the contribution of Sir Alan West, the former First Sea Lord, who said both in and out of office that for the tasks that the fleet is being asked to undertake we need 30 frigates and destroyers, and we are doing the work of 30 frigates and destroyers with only 25 now and possibly even fewer in the future.

The Royal Navy had emerged triumphant from the Strategic Defence Review, but now it is looking distinctly on the ropes. The reckless reductions have been based on the strategic falsehood that numbers no longer matter in an era of more capable ships. In reality, the cuts have been accepted for the promise of the aircraft carriers, and yet no order has been placed for those aircraft carriers, and a threat is hanging over ships seven and eight in the Type 45 destroyer fleet.

Will the Minister answer three questions when he sums up?

  • When will he order the carriers?
  • Are ships seven and eight in the Type 45 programme under threat or are they not?
  • Will he guarantee that the Government’s commitment to the deterrent will not trigger even more intolerable cuts in front-line forces and in the infrastructure of Britain’s armed services?

Turning to some of the contributions in the debate, the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Nicholas Brown) denied that there could be any danger of a Russian military threat. I hope that he is right. Twenty years ago, he would not have denied that. We must consider what the threats will be, not now but in the period between 2025 and 2055 when the next generation of the nuclear deterrent will come into service and go through its service life. The onus is on people such as him and his right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Michael Meacher) to rebut the argument that what matters is not the threats that we face now in relation to the next generation of the strategic nuclear deterrent, but the dangers that will confront this country that far ahead.

If I had stood up and said, at the height of the second Cold War 15 or 20 years ago, that the main threat facing this country would be from fanatical religious extremists and suicide terrorists, everybody would have thought that I had taken leave of my senses. We do not know what threats will arise over the next 10 or 15 years, let alone over the next 25, 35 or 40 years. When the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Dai Havard) asks what he should say to his young godson about how he voted on having a strategic nuclear deterrent for that period, my answer to him is that you will be able to say proudly to your godson, if you vote for it, that you –

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.

Dr Lewis: I beg your pardon, Mr Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman will be able to say that he offered his godson the same protection against future threats from any country armed with a mass destruction weapon that we in our generation have enjoyed.

The right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton said that he would deal with the argument that a future threat might arise that would require us to have a strategic nuclear deterrent, and I was waiting to hear what he was going to say; but he did not deal with it at all. He just argued that it was not an independent deterrent, that there was a political price, in terms of being too close to the Americans, to be paid for having it, and that others will use our example to justify the retention or the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Mr Nicholas Brown: I think that I answered the hon. Gentleman’s point. My argument is that we can confidently rely on NATO’s nuclear deterrent because we are members of NATO and that we can trust our American allies.

Dr Lewis: The point about the reliance on the American nuclear deterrent is this: we cannot rely on an American nuclear deterrent to act as a cover for our conventional forces when they are engaged against a country that might or might not have a nuclear weapon. The example of the Falklands was given and we were told that the strategic nuclear deterrent did not deter General Galtieri. Of course it did not – democracies do not use nuclear weapons to deter conventional aggressors. However, that was to make the wrong point. What should have been asked was that if General Galtieri had had a nuclear weapon, however crude, would we then have dared to retake the islands conventionally, knowing that he could have unleashed that on us and we would not have been able to deter him?

The nuclear deterrent has two functions, not only the one that the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton mentioned. It has the function of deterring strategic nuclear or other WMD attack against this country, and it has the function of ensuring that if our Armed Forces ever need to go into battle conventionally, they cannot be prevented from doing so by an opponent having even a crude mass destruction weapon.

As for why we cannot solely rely on the American deterrent, it is quite simple: we are the principal ally of the United States, we often go to war alongside it, and there is a danger that, even though the Americans might well retaliate on our behalf to an attack with mass destruction weapons, an opponent might make the mistake of thinking that they would not and that it was easier to go after the smaller of the two allies. That mistake, with all its fatal consequences for all concerned, is done away with by our independent nuclear deterrent being under our independent control.

Time is defeating me, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I just say, in terms of what has been said about Iraq and Afghanistan, that in Iraq and Afghanistan there are doctrinal differences between our approach and that of our American allies. I believe that if we are the principal ally of the United States of America – the one country of a certain size, for there are smaller countries too, on which it knows it can rely – it needs to take our representations seriously, particularly in the field of counter-insurgency campaigning. I mean no insult to the record of the American Armed Forces when I say that Britain’s achievements in counter-insurgency campaigns in the past feature lessons that can usefully be learned by our allies, and that, along with some of my colleagues, I am not entirely sure that they are always prepared to listen and take those lessons on board.