New Forest East



Dr Julian Lewis: May I warmly endorse what the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) just said about our late, dear colleague Cheryl Gillan?

It is often said, in the military context, that quantity has a quality all its own. That is perfectly true, but it does not mean that the strength of the Armed Forces should be measured by their size alone. A revolutionary advance in military technology in the hands of a few can defeat almost any number of assailants; think of the Somme and the mass slaughter of troops by limited numbers of machine guns with interlocking fields of fire – only other new technologies eventually broke that dreadful stalemate.

After the end of the Cold War, the threat picture finally shifted away from Europe and towards expeditionary warfare, based on carrier-strike, which is air power from the sea, and amphibious capability, which is land power from the sea. Such traditional technologies are still essential for those sorts of campaigns against opponents who are no match for us militarily. Yet against advanced peer opponents armed with hypersonic anti-ship missiles, for example, traditional assets such as surface ships are potentially very vulnerable. As we know, the pendulum has now swung back from countering insurgencies and their sponsors to state-on-state confrontation with major military powers.

As has been pointed out, at the root of our Defence dilemma is one inescapable limitation: between 1988 and 2018, Defence expenditure halved as a proportion of GDP. The most welcome pledge of an extra £16.4 billion spread over a four-year period should fill a “black hole” in the equipment budget and facilitate investment in critical new areas of technology. What it will not do, sadly, is prevent serious cuts in conventional Armed Forces. An estimated 2.2% or 2.3% of GDP Defence budget is well short of the 3% recommended by Defence Committees past and present, let alone the 4.5% and above regularly allocated during the Cold War years.

Yet, even if all our dreams came true on the size of the defence budget, we would still be at the mercy of nuclear blackmail and attack if we had not voted in July 2016 to proceed with the renewal of the Trident missile submarine fleet. Given that the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), a former Labour leader, and I have debated such matters good-naturedly for more than 20 years and he is up next, let me conclude with reference to the Government’s announcement that they will no longer reduce the total of our nuclear warheads from a maximum of 225 to a maximum of 180 by the mid-2020s. Instead, they will set a new overall ceiling of 260.

This is predictably being denounced as a 40% increase; but the cancellation of a reduction is not an increase. Most probably, it is a recognition that advances in anti-ballistic missile technology might tempt an aggressor to think – probably mistakenly – that he could avoid a devastating response. Why, then, raise the theoretical maximum from 225 to 260? The Government have not said so, but my guess is that it is to cover any temporary overlap when the current generation of UK warheads are replaced by their successors. We have always followed a policy of minimum strategic deterrence, and long may we continue to keep ourselves safe by doing so.