Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)
I am well aware that my No. 1 obligation in my new role in the Defence Committee is to sit down quickly to let other people speak who know a great deal more about the subject than I do. I will therefore, very rapidly, give a sense of what the Defence Committee has been working on for the past 15 years directly relating to defence spending.
Over the past three or four weeks, I have had a happy time going through an enormous number of Defence Committee reports; as one can imagine, after 15 years they fill almost an entire room. The central theme in everything the Committee has done is to argue that defence spending should be determined, above all, by our assessment of the threats we face and the strategy we have to deal with them—that it is not good enough to base a defence strategy, or defence spending, on what we have spent in the past or on what kit we have had in the past that we wish to replace.
Over the past 15 years, the Committee has identified three types of threat: state-on-state threats, threats from humanitarian catastrophes, and threats from terrorists. Today, in 2014, we face all these threats simultaneously—in some cases, in a more extreme and aggressive form than we have ever seen them before. First, on state-on-state threats, there is Russia. I have here the Committee’s 2008 report, in which Mr Jones participated as a member, “Russia: a new confrontation?” As Hugh Bayley said, Putin’s actions in Crimea suggest a very dangerous type of threat—a type of threat that the Committee was beginning to point to in 2008 and has finally come to fruition. It is the threat, as proved in Crimea, of Putin’s ability to deploy unconventional measures almost without a shot fired.
This is traditional spetsnaz or GRU activity whereby he is able to annex part of a neighbouring state without the deployment of full conventional forces. Another type of threat is represented by last year’s so-called Zapad 2013 exercises, which suggested that Russia is practising an airborne invasion of the Baltic and is able to follow this up with a maritime blockade and the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons.
The second type of threat is evident in Syria, where the challenge of humanitarian intervention can be seen at its most extreme, with 150,000 people killed and millions of refugees created.
Thirdly, on terrorism, we face in western Iraq almost the sum of all fears from the past decade. We have there exactly the problem that the global war on terror was supposed to solve for ever: an entire territory controlled by a jihadist group that now, in Mosul, controls a city of 2 million people. Unfortunately, that represents a real challenge to the west.
The question is what we—Britain and our allies—can do and what additional resources we would require to deal with those three threats. If we look at it on the surface, we will see that it is pretty depressing. It does not seem, looking at it directly, as though there is much that Putin would be worried about if he was contemplating chewing off a corner of Latvia. We need to be clear about the decline in our capacity and planning over the past 20 years. We have not been exercising for this phenomenon, nor have we designed troops for it. The kind of man who likes to go fishing with his shirt off might well be tempted to try to humiliate NATO. The chance of that happening might be 0.1% or 1%, but it does not matter how unlikely it is: the question is whether we are ready to meet it. Do we have the kinds of plans in place to make that article 5 defence credible? In particular, when we talk about tripwires, do we have a population prepared to use nuclear weapons to support a NATO member state?
On humanitarian intervention in Syria, the entire debate in this House showed the problems of us responding to that situation. On the subject of terrorism, the failure, ultimately—four years later—of the deployment of more than 100,000 American troops and $120 billion of expenditure to achieve a lasting settlement to the Sunni insurgency in western Iraq suggests that we will face a very considerable problem doing it again.
Nevertheless, on the basis of my very early superficial reading of what the Defence Committee has been saying for the past 15 years, I would suggest that the answer, ultimately, is more hopeful. What the Defence Committee has argued again and again is that to answer these kinds of questions we need to begin fundamentally with strategy. That means that we as a country need, bluntly, to get more serious. We need to invest far more in our thinking capacity and to rebuild a hollowed out Defence Intelligence. We need to rebuild the hard questions that were regularly asked in NATO planning meetings throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
We need to focus on where we have got it wrong. If we are to win the public back again—if we are to win back public confidence in intervention and action, which we must—we can do so only if we are honest about our failures. We will not be able to carry the public with us if we try to pretend that everything we have done over the past 15 years has been absolutely perfect and all gone swimmingly; that nothing is our fault, but the fault of
the United States or the local government; and that Britain has no lessons to learn. If we take that attitude, we will not be able to carry the public with us.
We must focus on what we can do. We can address these threats. We showed for 60 years that NATO knows how to contain the kind of threat posed by Putin—we have proved it again and again, year in, year out, and it is the greatest achievement of our civilisation. We achieved that peace in Europe and we can do it again. We have shown—my hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart showed this in Bosnia—that we know how to do humanitarian intervention. We have proved it clearly and we can do that again—perhaps not on the scale of Syria, but that is not a reason for despair. Finally, on counter-terrorism, we have shown for the past 12 years that we have effectively prevented a repeat of a 9/11-style attack on the homelands of the United States or Europe, and we have done so without winning the counter-insurgency campaigns, creating rule of law and governance, or nation-building under fire.
As we go into the NATO summit, these lessons from the Defence Committee over the past 10 years need to be taken forward: investment in strategic thought; a focus on what we have got wrong and on what we can still do; and absolute leadership in NATO on the subject of the 2% spending. That leadership is essential to protect ourselves and to encourage other NATO countries to meet their obligations. Above all, we need a commitment to that level in order to show Russia that we are not bending or moving away and that we are determined to maintain the hard-won peace of the past 60 years.
If we can get that right and connect strategic thinking to defence spending, we can make this NATO summit in Wales a chance to say, finally, that Britain understands that if we cannot always do what we pretend, we can do much more than we fear.