STRATEGIC DEFENCE AND SECURITY REVIEW – 21 June 2010

Dr Julian Lewis: It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), and he will not be surprised to hear that I agree with almost every word – no, actually with every word – that he said about the nuclear deterrent. I hope that that does not damn his political career for eternity. He paid generous tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Fylde (Mark Menzies) and for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) for their maiden speeches, which I am happy to endorse.

Perhaps I can cheer the hon. Gentleman up a little by letting him into a secret. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was aspiring to the leadership of our party, he held a series of interviews with his hon. Friends, of whom I was one. When I went in, I asked him only two questions. One need not concern us today, but the other was about his attitude to the nuclear deterrent, and I am delighted to say that he was extremely robust about it. If the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members care to check the response of our current Prime Minister to the Statement of former Prime Minister Tony Blair on the subject in December 2006, they will see that it was once again extremely strong. That was the only occasion when I was ever called in to have anything to do with drafting a response to a Government Statement from 10 Downing Street. Our current Prime Minister made two alterations to what his speechwriter and I had drafted between us, both of which were to toughen up his response, not to weaken it. Although our coalition partners may hope to chip away at the edges on this matter, if I know the Prime Minister as well as I think I do, at least on this subject, they will undoubtedly be disappointed.

As hon. Members on both sides of the House will undoubtedly be aware, in the mid-1920s, a glassy-eyed rabble-rouser called Adolf Hitler was incarcerated in Landsberg Prison, putting the finishing touches to Mein Kampf. At the same time as, sad to say, that man was pre-determining future history unregarded in that cell, the Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces were trying to decide what they would have to defend Britain against in the future. So incapable were they of predicting the future, understandably, that each of the Armed Forces prepared its hypothetical contingency plans against an entirely different potential enemy.

The Royal Navy – understandably, because Japan had a large navy – felt that we should prepare against possible Japanese aggression in the Far East. The Army – understandably, because Russia had a large army – felt that we should prepare against possible Russian aggression somewhere in the area of the Indian sub-continent. The Royal Air Force was a little bit stuck, but eventually came up with an idea. Because the French had a rather large air force, it decided that we should prepare against a possible war with the French. Not one of the three wise men heading the three Services, which had eventually done so well in the final stages of the Great War, predicted that the real enemy that would face us, only 15 years later or less, would be a revived Germany led by that man scribbling away in a cell in Landsberg Prison.

Mark Tami: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and we do not need to go that far back. When I was growing up in the 1970s – I know it does not seem possible, but I am genuinely that old – we were facing what we were sure was the actual threat, which was the Soviet Union pouring across the plains of Germany, massed tank battles and the use of tactical nuclear weapons, and then no doubt some form of nuclear holocaust engulfing the world. Nobody mentioned North Korea or Iran – they were not even on the radar. It is clearly difficult to guess what the future holds.

Dr Lewis: I am delighted that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right. I could add to the examples that he gave the Yom Kippur War, which was not predicted by hyper-sensitive Israel, the Falklands War, which was not predicted by us, the invasion of Kuwait, which was not predicted by anybody, and the attacks of September 2001, which were not predicted by the world's then only superpower. I therefore very much welcome the Secretary of State's acknowledgment that there is an unpredictability factor. We simply do not know what enemies will arise, when, and what sort of threat we will face.

This argument has been had over and again throughout the history of Defence, most notoriously between 1919 and 1932, when something called the Ten Year Rule was in operation. It was felt that we could cut forces, because we could always look ahead a decade and say: "Well, there doesn't seem to be any threat facing us now". It is impossible to know significantly in advance, if at all, when we will next find ourselves at war. That means it is a limiting factor when we say that a Defence Review must be Foreign Policy-led, or even Defence Policy-led. At the end of the day, what we are doing in the Strategic Defence and Security Review is calculating the premium that we are prepared to pay on the insurance policy against harm befalling this country. With a normal insurance policy, if we knew when an accident would happen or when an injury would be inflicted, we could probably take steps to avoid it and would not need to spend money on the premium in the first place. However, we do not know, and that is why we have to spend the money.

As I indicated in an earlier intervention, I am particularly concerned about a frame of mind that is prevalent in some quarters of the Army. That asserts that, because we are engaged in a counter-insurgency campaign now, anybody who says that in 20 or 30 years, or even longer, we might need modern aircraft to defend our airspace, modern naval vessels to defend our waters and lines of communication or even modern military vehicles to enable our Army to fight – hopefully alongside others – a foreign aggressor that not just had irregular or guerrilla forces but was possibly a hostile state, is living in the past or still thinking in Cold War terms. I think like that, but I am not still thinking in Cold War terms. I am thinking of the wars that we might have to face two or three decades hence, not just the conflicts in which we are engaged today.

A few years ago, I heard a senior military officer say that a tipping point might come when we had to choose between fighting the conflicts in which we were currently engaged and fighting a war at some time in the future. In other words, he was trying to contrast the expectation of a big war in the future with the big expectation of a war that we might have to fight sooner. I said at the time that I felt that to be a false choice, but if I had to make the choice, I would rather insure against the danger of a big war in the future than that of a war closer to hand.

Mr Jenkin: My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. To reinforce his point, I add that the wars that we have fought recently have had more characteristics of state-on-state warfare than many people would care to admit. Serbia fought like a state, as did the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein certainly fought like a state twice. The idea that we should give up state-on-state warfare capability is absolute madness.

Dr Lewis: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that that is absolute madness. I shall not name the senior Army officer who first proposed that thesis – all I will say is that he has become a very senior Army officer, and some say that he might even become an extremely senior Army officer – but leave it to people's reading of the runes.

The reality is that in those conflicts that we fought, our high-end, precision materiel, our modern techniques, and our use of aircraft, naval vessels and mechanised warfare equipment, have been essential in getting us into theatre. The country has been disturbed and worried not by the casualties we have taken going into a theatre and displacing a hostile Government, but the casualties we take in day-by-day attrition that result from our persisting with methods that make it inevitable that our opponents can inflict them. I say this to Shadow Ministers: it is not unpatriotic to question the strategy that is being followed in Afghanistan. Strategies can be improved. In previous wars, we have used strategies that failed over and again. Eventually, when they were changed, the outcomes improved. That can happen in Afghanistan.

I understand that resources are scarce and that each of the Armed Forces will want to make a case that suits its book best, and to claim most of those scarce resources; but we must have balanced forces, and I am delighted that the Secretary of State indicates that we will.