COMBAT AIR STRATEGY & DEFENCE EXPENDITURE – 27 June 2019
Dr Julian Lewis: It is a pleasure to make a brief contribution to this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. All three previous speakers have shown absolute mastery of the detail, which I cannot hope to match in this context, so I intend to draw out some of the broader issues and seize a particular current opportunity: the forthcoming election of a new leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister.
Occasionally in politics, a window of opportunity opens, usually when aspiring leaders of the nation wish to generate support from those whom they presume to lead. We on the Select Committee on Defence met on Tuesday and decided that we would write to both of the final candidates in the leadership election. I have in front of me the text of the similar letters sent to each, picking up on the Foreign Secretary’s bid for the support of defence-minded MPs. In those letters, we spell out the fact that the Defence Committee, whose members represent four different parties, has for several years been absolutely united about the fact that we need to be spending more on defence.
In particular, the Committee believes that we ought to have as our target figure not the bare 2% of GDP that we currently just about manage to spend, but a figure approaching 3% of GDP, the proportion of gross domestic product that used to be spent by the United Kingdom – not during the cold war, when that figure was 4.5% to 5%, but as late as the mid-1990s, several years after the cold war had come to an end.
The complexity of weapons systems in any of the dimensions that we might care to identify – land, sea, air, cyber-space, or space itself – is increasing. If we do not have an adequate financial base for defence, it is difficult to see how any of those projects can hope to be brought to fruition. That applies as much to what from this moment onwards I will call “the Tempest strategy” as it does to every other system.
In a few moments, I will come back to the terms of the letter that I sent. However. I want to emphasise what my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) has just said by noting that as these advanced weapons systems get more complex, their numbers get fewer, and they have to be planned longer and longer in advance. Needless to say, they also cost a great deal more. I am a little more familiar with the cycle involving warships than I am with aircraft, but we can see the same pattern. For example, there are two types of submarines: nuclear-powered attack submarines and ballistic missile submarines. No sooner have we completed the construction of a class of one of those vessels than we have to construct a class of the other.
Graham Stringer (in the Chair): Order. I do not wish to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, who is making some interesting points, but the question is “That this House has considered Combat Air Strategy progress and next steps.” I hope the right hon. Gentleman will focus his remarks on the objective of the debate.
Dr Lewis: All will become clear very soon, Mr Stringer; you have my assurance.
Just as we must not interrupt that cycle, whether it be for a nuclear-powered submarine that is an attack submarine or a nuclear-armed submarine that is a ballistic missile submarine, we must not interrupt it for frigate or destroyer construction. We face exactly the same problem with aircraft strategies: we have gone from the Typhoon to the F-35, and even as we are introducing the F-35 – the fifth-generation aircraft – we must already be planning for the sixth. That is despite the fact that, as has been pointed out, one of the existing aircraft still has at least 20 years to go in its lifespan, and the other has only just begun a period in service with the Royal Air Force lasting probably twice that. The question that arises, therefore, is how the new generation of aircraft can be financed.
With that, we come back to the issue of what we are being promised. Whenever Prime Ministers or Defence Secretaries are in place, we are told constantly that all is fine and everything in the garden is rosy and flourishing, yet when Defence Secretaries leave their position, they immediately call for increases. Recently, one brave Defence Minister even said at the Dispatch Box that we are not spending enough on defence. Now, we find that the Foreign Secretary is saying that within the next five years we ought to increase defence spending by a quarter, and he even made a speech at Mansion House suggesting that over 10 years, the rate of increase should be that much greater.
Looking at the Tempest strategy, we have to ask ourselves how an aircraft of that degree of complexity, requiring so long to be designed and brought into service and demanding so much in the way of our resources, will be financed. The sole issue that I wish colleagues to consider today is that, if it takes 30 years to conceive and build the sixth generation of our air power, we will have to invest a great deal of money in it. We on the Defence Committee have worked across party lines to try to change the terms of the debate on funding aircraft, land systems and naval systems, as well as dealing with the issues that arise from what are commonly called the 21st-century threats in space and cyber-space.
It is a matter of concern that there have been indications that the permanent part of defence and security machinery has been advocating that we move away from our traditional profile and stance: of investing in such systems as those aircraft to a greater degree than the rest of our NATO European allies. Normally, as we know, the overall burden of NATO’s expenditure has been borne by the US superpower; the continental allies have put forth something below the minimum guideline and we have been somewhere in between.
It has been disturbing to see arguments being put behind the scenes that we should come to terms with the fact that we should not in future seek to outdo our continental European allies and should lower our expenditure to the level they invest. Personally, I feel that would be a disastrous mistake – it would mean that we would no longer be able to rely on retaining an industrial base that could produce and develop weapons systems of a complexity to keep us at the cutting edge of air power, sea power and land power, let alone protect ourselves in space and cyber-space.
Jack Lopresti: In this debate, we have spoken about sovereign capability, the industrial base, the agenda for jobs and apprenticeships and the economy. In his position as Chair of the Defence Committee, would my right hon. Friend say that we should always be seeking the capability to conduct unilateral operations? On that basis, is it not crucial, in terms of sharing intellectual property and technology with our partners in building the new generation of aircraft, to have the most reliable strategic partners who will enhance our capability to conduct unilateral operations?
Dr Lewis: That is a critical point, because the argument to which I have obliquely referred – I was tempted to refer to it more explicitly, but I decided not to, bearing in mind your stricture, Mr Stringer – and which is being put forward by civil service mandarins is not only that we should spend less, but that we should recognise the fact that we will only ever be involved in major conflicts along with allies and so we do not need the full spectrum of capability on land, at sea or in the air.
The problem with that approach is that it assumes that if we were to go into a conflict alongside allies at the beginning, those allies will remain available throughout – right until the end. What happens, however, if one of those allies is overrun and occupied, as has frequently happened in major conflicts in the past? If we are relying for the sake of our air power, for example, on a particular injection of expertise and capital from a particular ally who is no longer available, our defence capability could be fatally undermined.
I will conclude with this point. We are trying, as always, to construct a system for the air, as in the other dimensions, that is the most advanced the world has ever seen. That means that we have to be prepared not only to pay for it, but to recognise that we cannot expect to anticipate the context and circumstances under which the crisis will arise where the system will be put into action. We cannot anticipate that, so equally we cannot anticipate whether our allies who might be available in one type of conflict will be available in another and, even if they are available in that other context, whether they will remain available until the fight is brought to a close.
As we get involved in more complex and expensive systems – systems that take longer to design, develop and produce – we also must recognise the limitations on our scenario prediction ability. That is why we must invest enough and recognise that a full spectrum of military capability is essential, including, of course, in relation to the Tempest aircraft strategy.
Robert Courts: [...] I am always humbled to speak in the presence of the Chair of the Defence Committee. He is right to argue, as he always does, for the financial base. I think his target is 2.5% –
Dr Lewis: Three.