New Forest East




BBC Radio 4, Today in Parliament – 26 March 2021

Mark D’Arcy: ... To explore all of these issues, I turned to one of the Commons’ leading defence experts, the Conservative Julian Lewis, a former Chair of the Defence Committee and now Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I put it to him that many people now think that the main challenge comes not from Russia, but from China, and that the UK might find itself in a new Cold War with Beijing.

Dr Julian Lewis: I think people have forgotten the meaning of the term ‘Cold War’. Those of us who lived through it know that the whole point about the concept of the Cold War is that you kept the dangers of your confrontation below the level at which it could surge into open warfare. Now, surely, that's what we are doing already, and the reality of the matter is that Russia and, indeed, China are our adversaries; and they do operate in this ‘grey zone’, where they take hostile steps, which we try to counter. But it is all carefully calibrated, because both sides know that, if ever it went over that boundary into open warfare, it would be disastrous for everybody. So people should stop talking about the risks of a new Cold War. They should recognise that what they call the grey zone is, in fact, a new Cold War.

Mark D’Arcy: One of the things that was most striking, as the various Parliamentary discussions around the Defence Review unfolded this week, was the level of pain, particularly on the Conservative benches, at reductions to conventional Armed Forces – the cut in the size of the Army in particular. What's going to happen here, because Parliament doesn't necessarily have to have a vote, but you can bet that the Labour Opposition will find a way to force one?

Dr Lewis: There could be some degree of embarrassment for the Government, if certain pro-defence MPs felt they were unable to oppose a carefully-worded opposition motion –

Mark D’Arcy: Might you be one of them?

Dr Lewis: Probably not, on this occasion. The reason for that is that the real problem lies in the fact that during the previous Cold War, as I prefer to call it, we spent regularly between 4.5 and 5 per cent of GDP on defence. Now, as we all know, we spend – well, it’s now gone up possibly to about 2.2–2.3 per cent. If we actually spent 3 per cent of GDP, then we would have fewer of these difficult choices to make between investment in new technologies and investment in keeping the size of the conventional Armed Forces at the level we would like them to be. But if it has to be a choice on reducing one of the conventional arms, it must be said that, in a major conflict, it is easier to build up troop numbers than it is to replace very expensive items of kit for the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force or, for that matter, for the Army. So I fear that, unless the defence budget is raised, we will have to see cuts of this sort going ahead.