On the 12th January Lord Robertson of Port Ellen hosted a debate “that this House takes note of the future capability of the United Kingdom’s armed forces in the current international situation”. The Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Christopher Foster, highlighted the need for a new Strategic Defence and Security Review, alongside recognition of new partnership and leadership roles.
The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, agree with it or not, Brexit was a decision to determine our own path. This debate requires us to consider critically whether we have the capacity to determine our own strategic path in the realm of defence and security. The extent of our global reach must reflect our economic and strategic interests as well as our security and military concerns in these changing times, which now make these considerations, as one analyst has put it, “supercharged”.
My anxiety is that there is a gap, if not sometimes a gulf, between rhetoric about our concerns and ambitions on the one hand and our constrained capability on the other.
For example, not long ago the Foreign Secretary declared that we are “back east of Suez”. It is true that the Gulf and Asia are regions of growing global importance, and this country has new defence centres in Dubai and Singapore. We have some Army presence in Oman and joint training with Singapore after 70 years of this co-operation with only the US. A naval support facility has opened in Bahrain and the new aircraft carriers will have what is called “a presence” in the Pacific.
We may welcome and applaud the strategic intent but our capacity to sustain and resource effective presence and capacity remains limited. Our only garrison in Asia, in Brunei, is funded by the Sultan. We have small quantities of advanced, expensive equipment, of which the new carriers are the most obvious example, but sparse support capacity. In a navy of 19 surface vessels, an effective carrier group needs most of the deployable capacity. My spellchecker has substituted “deplorable capacity” for my intended words “deployable capacity”. The iPad technology seems to know a thing or two. We are talking not only about defence and security capacity. Intelligence, influence, diplomacy and trade considerations are part of our strategic reach and so affected by financial limitations.
This is surely the time to recognise the opportunities open to us, as well as the threats, and with realism to reconsider our ability to resource needs and ambitions. I, with others, including my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds (who regrets the necessity for his late withdrawal from the debate), have already suggested a new SDSR that addresses a global situation so changed in a short time. Peace in Europe and US commitment to NATO are no longer reliable bases for our policy. We must surely conclude that, as we see a more assertive Russia to the east and a new American President questioning the orthodoxy we have long accepted.
I am not proposing a crude attempt at empire restoration, but rather a recognition of opportunity and need for us to resource new partnership and leadership roles. I need hardly add, too, that increased defence spending would move us beyond the mere preservation of an industrial base by stimulating innovation, employment, morale and prosperity in regions that have suffered most from deindustrialisation. Our words, aspirations and actions must be much more consistent.