On 15th September 2015 the Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Revd Christopher Foster, took part in a short debate led by Earl Howe on ‘The Role and Capabilities of the UK Armed Forces, in the Light of Global and Domestic Threats to Stability and Security’. The Bishop spoke about the growing credibility and capability gaps in British defence structures.
The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, in welcoming this debate, I offer some comments addressing the subtext—as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, put it—and in particular the strategic defence and security review. I am very well aware of the range and depth of experience among your Lordships. I offer these comments without such knowledge and background but from deep admiration for those who serve in our Armed Forces, not least in the Royal Navy, for which you will understand my local pride. We all share a concern for the stability and security of our nation and our world.
Unsurprisingly, I note that, at the time of the last strategic defence and security review in 2010, the plan for 2015—that a light-touch strategic defence review would be needed now—was based on what seems today no more than a pious hope. The world today looks far more dangerous than it did then. There has been a series of issues that make the context anticipated then, of a planned withdrawal of British forces from combat operations in Afghanistan and a period without significant challenge, seem a distant pipe dream. NATO in Libya; the US pivot to Asia; the rise of so-called Islamic State; the Russian illegal incorporation of Crimea and the civil war in Ukraine, among other things, have contributed to the flow of refugees towards Europe. The world has changed and, as we all know, some have also raised questions about the credibility of the United Kingdom as an ally. As one notable American commentator put it rather sharply, Britain has effectively, “resigned as a global power”.
The journalistic style may be questionable, but such a perception about our credibility is disturbing. As the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, reminded us in his comments about translators, this is a reputational risk, even if not an actual one.
As a credibility gap has emerged over these five years, so also has a capability gap, most notably in maritime patrol aircraft and aircraft carriers. Happily, the Government have already committed to the NATO target of 2% of GDP, with a related, but distinct, commitment to spending 0.7% on international development. Significant other commitments have already been made in advance of the review: enhancement to UK Special Forces; expansion of drone capability; retention of both new aircraft carriers; new Type 26 frigates; no further cuts in Regular Forces personnel; no more regimental reductions; an Army of not less than 82,000; retention of the Red Arrows with new aircraft; a successor system to the current nuclear deterrent with updates at Faslane and Coulport. I hope I have got those right.
With these commitments already made, is the Minister able to commit the Government to deepening and widening the public consultation process? Though there has been welcome wider engagement outside government this time, it has remained largely limited to the traditional London think tanks. The online consultation process limits contributions to only 2,000 characters—rather less, if you count them, than my speech so far. That seems to be superficial public consultation, and I ask the Minister what steps the Government will take to encourage deeper consultation with civil society in a more thorough way.
Secondly, will the Minister confirm that the review will address the capability gaps and shortfalls accepted in 2010 as temporary—in particular the maritime patrol aircraft capability; the challenge for the Navy in crewing ships; the diminishing fast jet fleet; the timing and the size of orders for the F35B joint strike fighter; recruitment and retention within the Reserve Forces; and the not yet resolved issue of women in combat? Will all these be addressed urgently?
Lastly, the review must articulate and justify a narrative about Britain’s place in the world and how the Government intend to respond to changes in the international security environment. As we have seen over the past five years, that will involve not just a response to present circumstances but a plan for other possible challenges as yet unknown. As we respond to secure stability and security, we surely must confirm that we retain the talent, history and capacity not only to respond but to shape the international order.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe) (Con) [extract]: ..The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth and other noble Lords questioned whether it was the Government’s genuine aim for the UK to remain a major global player. We are clear that there will be no reduction in Britain’s influence overseas. Our military, security, diplomatic and development capabilities are respected globally. Our diplomatic network spans 268 posts in 168 countries and territories and nine multilateral organisations. The UK has world-leading intelligence agencies and Armed Forces, a strong police force and an impressive National Crime Agency. The UK led the EU’s response to the crises in Syria and Iraq, including responding to the threat from ISIL. The Government will continue to do more on forward defence, reducing the threats before they reach our borders.
….The right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, raised the issue of the SDSR process itself. In developing the NSS and SDSR, the Ministry of Defence, alongside the Cabinet Office, the FCO, DfID and the Home Office, has engaged with a broad range of internal and external stakeholders. We have met groups of external experts; hosted academic engagement sessions across the UK; participated in meetings with NGOs and industry round tables; we have briefed Back-Bench MPs, the House of Commons Defence Committee, interested Peers and the devolved Administrations. In total, we have discussed the review with more than 100 experts from nearly 40 different organisations and institutions. I can tell my noble friend Lord Selkirk that we have also engaged with international allies and partners and welcomed the public to write in with their thoughts. The right reverend Prelate, in particular, will wish to take note of the online poll that was conducted recently. We are serious about open policy-making. We have sought comments over the summer, as this gives us the time to analyse the results and feed them into the review process in a meaningful way. The poll is only one of several ways of engagement and offers the public another avenue for comment.
…The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, my noble friend Lord Selkirk, the right reverend Prelate and other noble Lords spoke about the capabilities that we are reviewing in the SDSR. The SDSR is clearly an opportunity to re-examine our capability choices. In 2010, we highlighted that we would return to some questions in this review. Maritime patrol aircraft, ballistic missile defence and future combat aircraft fit into that category and they will all be considered. We also committed to considering NATO’s capability shortfalls and which ones we could help to mitigate. I am afraid it is too early to discuss options and decisions in detail, although I will comment on particular questions that noble Lords have raised in a second. The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, asked whether defence engagement would become a formal military task. The framework by which defence activity is directed is currently being revised as part of the review. Defence engagement is clearly a very important defence function and is likely to be very prominent in the future framework for defence. I am afraid that is as far as I can go at the moment, but I hope he will take comfort from the fact that it is in our sights…..
….With time moving on, with the leave of noble Lords I will cover just a few more issues. The right reverend Prelate raised the matter of women in ground close combat roles. That is not strictly an SDSR issue, as I expect he knows, but, following a review of the exclusion of women from ground close combat roles, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced at the end of last year that defence welcomes the prospect of opening ground close combat roles to women subject to the outcome of further physiological research before a final decision is taken in 2016.