CARRIER STRIKE STRATEGY – 28 February 2019
Dr Julian Lewis: I congratulate all four Members who have spoken so far. Only one of them is a member of the Defence Committee, which I have the honour to chair. Given their depth of knowledge and enormous enthusiasm, the Defence Committee will not be short of worthy members in the future. I encourage those who are not yet on it to redouble their efforts to be so at the first opportunity. The beneficiaries of their enthusiasm and breadth of knowledge will be the House and the country as a whole.
The previous speeches have not left me with as much to say as I might otherwise have said. That is an additional benefit to anybody watching the debate. I will pick and choose a few points here and there from what has been said already, and try to develop them into a theme of strategy and adversaries. When I talk about adversaries, I am really talking about one overwhelming adversary: the Treasury. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) that, after bringing in one of the two largest vessels ever built for the Royal Navy, the Treasury might be thinking of mothballing it. I suppose that is a little better than the proposal that I heard from one George Osborne in the run-up to the 2010 election, which was to scrap the project for building the carriers completely. It is amazing how many times we have almost lost the ability to project air power from the sea. In one case, we did lose it. We lost it when we lost the Invincible class of carriers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), in his magisterial opening speech, referred to the fact that those carriers were termed 'through-deck cruisers', and he was rather critical of that. This is the only minor point of correction I would make to his exemplary exposition. Those ships were from the outset aircraft carriers capable of enabling the Harrier still to offer fixed-wing coverage from the sea to the land. They were called through-deck cruisers to defeat the adversary – the Treasury. If they had been called carriers from the outset, they would never have been built. [Interruption.] I am glad to see that my hon. Friend accepts that. Once they were safely in commission, and after a respectable number of years, it became possible to reclassify them as aircraft carriers, which is what they were always intended to be.
Of course, we very nearly had no carriers for the Falklands conflict. We only had them, as I say, because of a bit of subterfuge on the part of the Admiralty. When it came to the Libya conflict – a disastrously misconceived conflict, as it happens – we had no carrier capability at all. I recall that when the decision was taken to have a gap between the phasing out of the Invincible-class carriers and HMS Queen Elizabeth’s coming into service, we did not anticipate any role for a carrier for 10 years or so. I believe that the Libyan scenario arose after something like 10 months, rather than 10 years. Guess which warship our French allies in that conflict immediately moved to the theatre? It was their one and only aircraft carrier.
Paul Sweeney: The right hon. Gentleman is making a very important point about euphemisms. Another favourite of mine is “capability holiday”, and “fitted for but not with” was a common theme on the Type 45 destroyer. Does he agree that the issue of capability holidays needs to be properly scrutinised? I do not think the Ministry of Defence has recognised the damage that the 2010 SDSR caused, in terms of the loss of maritime patrol capability and carrier capability.
Dr Lewis: The trouble with 2010 was that it was a funded defence review that was totally unstrategic. People say that the 1998 defence review was the reverse: it was very strategic, but almost totally unfunded. Our problem is that we are unable in times of peace to persuade the people in charge of the national purse-strings that the best investment they can make in the long term is to have strong Armed Forces. If our Armed Forces are strong enough, we will not have to spend all that treasure, let alone all those lives, in fighting conflicts that arise as a result of our perceived weakness.
Robert Courts: My right hon. Friend is making an absolutely outstanding point. Does he agree with this summary of it? We need to have a strategic look at what we want to achieve with our strategic defence goals and then fund them, as opposed to having the funding and then seeing what we can still manage to do.
Dr Lewis: I will go some way towards acknowledging that, with this one caveat: our strategic goals cannot be defined more tightly than the ability to have a full range of military capability to meet whatever threats may reasonably be regarded as likely to arise. I am afraid that all speeches that I make about defence policy and military strategy come back to the same three basic concepts: deterrence, containment and the unpredictability of future conflict. Libya and the Falklands were unpredictable.
The only thing we can predict is that the vast majority of conflicts in which we will be engaged in in the future, as in the vast majority of conflicts in the past, will arise with little or no warning significantly in advance, and that is why we have to have a comprehensive range of military capabilities. It is very difficult to persuade budget-conscious Treasury officials not to take a chance with the nation’s security. That is why the Defence Select Committee comes back time and again to the same point, which is that defence has fallen too far down our scale of national priorities. When we compare it with other high spending Departments we can see that because in the 1980s, at the stage when we faced an aggressive Soviet Union and a major terrorist threat in the form of Northern Ireland and the IRA insurgency, we spent approximately the same on defence as we spent on health and education. Now we spend four times on health and two-and-a-half times on education as we spend on defence. We can get away with that as long as things do not go wrong, but if they do we live to regret it bitterly.
Mr Sweeney: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his indulgence in giving way. Although I do not think the decisions on spending are mutually exclusive – I think we have sufficient capacity in the state to fund all these things adequately – he makes an important point about thinking we can get away with not properly investing. I think of the predecessor of the new Prince of Wales, which was sunk by the Japanese in 1941 because there were fatal weaknesses in the battleship’s design. Its air defence systems had been scrapped because of cost-saving measures in the 1930s. Does he not agree that that is a lesson of history that we ought to probably learn if unpredictable conflicts are to emerge in future?
Dr Lewis: I wondered whether I should make a reference to that terrible event in December 1941 when the Prince of Wales and the Repulse were sunk by Japanese air power. One of the main problems was that they were sent out with inadequate protection and inadequate escorts, and, as I recall from my history books, no air cover whatever. Having said that, we can say that HMS Queen Elizabeth has already claimed one victory. Given that, as I said earlier, the Treasury can be regarded as the main adversary – I think the Treasury has probably sunk more ships in the Royal Navy than any other enemy we have faced – it was gratifying to see a bit of advance retaliation in that HMS Queen Elizabeth appears to have sunk the Chancellor’s visit to the Communist Chinese without even having embarked on its first operational voyage. [Laughter.] I hoped to get a laugh at that point, but behind that is a serious point that relates to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney [Robert Courts] a moment ago in an intervention: the Government need to have an overall strategy. All too often they look both ways with regard to countries that do not mean us a lot of good.
Let us take the example of China. Before I come to the more recent issue of its behaviour in the South China Sea, let us go back to 2013 when I served on the Intelligence and Security Committee, which devoted a great deal of time to a study of foreign penetration of British critical national infrastructure. That was the overall title of the report that we produced, but in reality it was all about Huawei and the way in which that giant Chinese Communist telecommunications firm had penetrated British Telecom and been brought into the system without Ministers having even been alerted until it had happened. I remember being somewhat fazed when, within a matter of a few weeks of the publication of that report, with all its dire warnings about the need for it never to happen again, I saw a picture of the then Prime Minster David Cameron shaking hands with the chief executive of Huawei on the doorstep of No. 10 on the basis of some great new deal that was being proposed.
We need to understand that if there is something so sensitive about the idea that a ship of the Royal Navy could even dream of going into the Pacific Ocean that a major trade trip from the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom to China has to be called off, there is something terribly wrong both with the attitude of the Communist Chinese in calling off the trip, as it were, and the attitude of the Treasury in wanting the Chancellor to undertake it. I will leave the point at that at the moment, unless I get some in-flight refuelling from the hon. Gentleman.
Mr Sweeney: Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the concept of ITAR – international traffic in arms regulations – which is a NATO standard, should be extended to such spheres to address the insidiousness of the new penetration by foreign powers?
Dr Lewis: I think that is a very perceptive suggestion. When it comes to the issue of keeping the country safe from threats to our way of life, which now take on new forms that are much more difficult to recognise because they do not operate at a level that would automatically trigger the same sort of alarm bells as traditional military threats, the support that I find as Chairman of the Defence Committee from Members of all four parties represented on it is absolutely outstanding. The House should acknowledge more than it does the high degree of consensus among defence-minded people in all the major parties, irrespective of occasional disagreements on specific aspects of defence, now and again.
I want to bring my remarks to a conclusion by talking about the 1998 Labour Government Strategic Defence Review, which I described as unfunded but highly strategic. It was a very good review. If the funds had been made available for it, it would have been an outstanding success. At that time, in 1998, the threat from the Soviet Union had gone away and it was hoped that we would not have to consider a major confrontation in Europe. So the thinking behind that review went something like this: given that we do not anticipate our Armed Forces having to be engaged in the European theatre in future, it follows that if they are to be engaged on a significant scale anywhere, it will be at some considerable distance from Europe. Given that we no longer are a global imperial power with a network of strategic bases around the world from which to intervene, it follows that we need a concept that enables us to have a movable strategic base. At the heart of that Strategic Defence Review of 1998 was the concept of the 'sea base', which had two central pillars. One was carrier strike and the other was the amphibious taskforce.
Carrier strike was to enable us to exert air power to the land from the sea, and the amphibious taskforce was to enable us to insert land forces on to territory likewise from the sea, taking the whole strategic concept into a way in which we could travel to the theatre where the need to intervene militarily applied.
Only a year ago we faced yet another major potential crisis. It was widely reported in January last year that the core ships – HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark – of the amphibious taskforce were going to be pensioned off 15 years before their due date. I can honestly say that the most influential report of the 27 so far produced by the Defence Committee since I have been chairing it was the one that we brought out in February 2018, which described the proposal to lose our ability to exert land power from the sea as 'militarily illiterate'. I absolutely welcome the intervention of the Secretary of State for Defence, who could see the risk and what was going to happen. Some people have criticised the Modernising Defence Programme for not being been quite as substantial as they expected. However, that is to miss the point, because although I welcome the concept of the Fusion Doctrine, which my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred to, there was a way in which it posed a risk to the future of our Armed Forces. The way in which the defence theory for the future was being amalgamated in the National Security Capability Review with newer threats, such as those from cyberspace and disinformation, was conceptually sound but economically dangerous. I shall explain after taking an intervention from my hon. Friend.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan: On that point, the great challenge of the Fusion Doctrine, whose strategic vision is really intelligent, as my right hon. Friend says, is that, as ever – it is difficult to say out loud – the adversary in the Treasury and those who were in my view driving the policy forward saw it as an opportunity to take hold of the defence budget and bring it into a greater whole, without fully understanding the need for hard power to remain in our national picture.
Dr Lewis: I am delighted with that intervention, which has saved me at least the next two paragraphs of what I was going to say. That was precisely the danger. The defence budget was being wrapped up inside an overall defence and security budget and we were being told that that national security capability review would have to be fiscally neutral. So effectively, if £56 billion was going to be put together overall, and if more money was to be spent to meet the new sorts of threats we are constantly told about – threats in space or cyberspace, or threats of disinformation that are not really new but are moving into new dimensions – every £1 received for those threats would mean £1 less for the Army, the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force. That is why there were leaks – clearly authoritative – about potential cuts in each Service, including about the loss of HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, which would have happened if the Secretary of State for Defence had not fought and won the political battle to strip out the defence elements from the National Security Capability Review and have a separate Modernising Defence Programme. That meant that he was no longer caught in that fiscal or financial ambush.
Let us not be too complacent in congratulating ourselves on the advent of such marvellous vessels, because they very nearly did not happen, first because of the Treasury, back in 2009-10, and secondly because even as we brought in half of the concept of the 'sea base' – carrier strike – we were in danger, right up to a few months ago, of losing the other half of the concept. That was amphibious capability, without which we would not have a rounded overall capability to intervene strategically in whatever theatre of the world a threat might arise unpredictably. Believe me, when a threat arises in the future, it will be unpredictable and we will be lucky if we are sufficiently equipped to meet it. That luck depends on the advocacy of people such as those we have heard from this afternoon, in every party represented in the debate. I hope that my hon. Friend who speaks for the Scottish National Party, the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), will presently make a speech and keep up the tradition.