Rory speaks in Parliament on the Next Defence and Security Review

I should like to begin by talking about the House of Commons Defence Committee’s report. The key element in the report, and in what I hope will be my relatively brief remarks, is that Russia poses a significant and substantial threat to Europe. That argument has been made in great detail by the Defence Committee and, in the months since the report was published, it has become increasingly evident that it is correct.

I remind the House that, while we were working on the report, we had a statement from the Foreign Secretary that he had been assured by Lavrov that Russia would not invade Crimea. Four days later, Russia invaded Crimea. We then heard a number of specialists and analysts say that Russia would not go into eastern Ukraine, but it then did so. We also heard people say, after the Malaysian airliner was shot down, that that would be the moment at which Russia would back off because it was embarrassed by what it had done. Russia did not back off. People then made it clear that Russia would not extend its activities to Mariupol or Odessa, but as we can now see, separatists with Russian support are moving towards those two cities.

What does this mean for the United Kingdom, the Ministry of Defence, NATO and defence spending? The House of Commons Defence Committee’s report focuses on two things: the conventional threat posed by Russia, and the threat that we describe as next generation warfare, ambiguous warfare or the asymmetric threat posed by Russia. Although those two things are related, it is worth analysing them separately.

On the conventional threat posed by Russia, the report argues that, through its Zapad exercise in 2013, Russia showed its ability to deploy almost 70,000 troops at 72 hours’ notice. The current estimate is that it would take NATO almost six months to deploy that number of troops. Russia has also displayed its ability to fly nuclear bombers to Venezuela and to exercise for a full amphibious assault on a Baltic state. It has upgraded its nuclear arsenal and it is committed to spending $100 billion a year on defence. All of that is taking place in the context of a decline in NATO defence spending.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I thank the Chairman of the Committee for giving way so early in his speech. One of the reasons that he has had to consider only two aspects—namely, conventional and unconventional warfare—is that our strategic nuclear deterrent is still in place, and if either the Opposition or the Conservative party has anything to do with it, that will remain the case. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be madness to think about disposing of our deterrent and ending our continuous at-sea deterrence? Is it not strange that there is not a single Member present who represents the party that proposes that we should abandon that continuous at-sea deterrence—namely, the Liberal Democrat party?


Oh, the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) has just appeared. I hope that he disagrees with his party on that matter.

Rory Stewart: That is an invitation to go into exactly this theme: in terms of responses to the Russian conventional threat, we have planned, for 20 years, for fighting enemies in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. We have planned on the basis of such expeditionary warfare. The planning assumptions at the base of Future Force 2020 or the strategic defence and security review were about being able to put 6,600 people—or 10,000, in the past—into the field and maintain them there for enduring stability operations. We have not really thought about taking on an enemy such as Russia. In the national security strategy, the threat of what we have seen done by Russia was marked down as a tier 3 or bottom-level probability.

That means a lot of things: it has implications, of course, for nuclear weapons; it has implications for many capacities that we have got rid of in Britain over the past 20 years, such as our ability to exercise at scale —in the mid-1980s we used to be able to exercise with 130,000 or 140,000 people, whereas last year we were exercising with about 6,600 people, at a time when Russia was exercising with about 70,000; it has meant that we got rid of our significant capacity in wide-water crossing—that is engineering; it has meant a reduction in armour, because we did not expect to be fighting tank battles; and, more relevantly to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), it has also meant that we need to think much more seriously about ballistic missile defence, and about chemical, biological and radiological and nuclear.

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I accept my hon. Friend’s Committee’s recommendation that as a minimum we have to spend 2% of GDP, but even at that level how many of these missing things could we put back into our capabilities?

Rory Stewart: That is a very good question, which I hope to be able to deal with towards the end of my speech. The assumption of spending 2% of GDP on defence, which is essential because we organised an entire NATO summit around the idea of doing that, is of course the hope that as the economy grows, defence spending will grow and we can make the necessary five-year planning, which will return confidence to the armed forces and allow us to make some of these investments. The question is a good one, because we would still face significant constraints in relation to Trident and to operating our aircraft carrier. If we wanted to make significant investments in restoring armour capacity, even 2% of GDP would be pushing it.
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Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I apologise for coming in late. About 30 years ago, when Denis Healey, as Defence Secretary, looked down the road at the defence needs, he said that modern warfare for the future would rely more on conventional weapons than nuclear weapons and that sort of thing. On the hon. Gentleman’s other point, although we may not have planned for any war with Russia, I imagine the United States has, because it plays “war games”, for want of a better term, and examines various scenarios. What does he think about that? Does he know anything about that?

Rory Stewart: The hon. Gentleman rightly says that we have not been focused on Russia, and the United States certainly has more capacity, but it is striking that even the US significantly reduced its capacity to deal with an adversary such as Russia. There has been a lot of criticism within the entire Pentagon administration about the focus on counter-insurgency warfare, and a man called Colonel Gentile ran a huge campaign to try to get the US to focus more on conventional threats. Britain has got rid of a lot of our Russian analysis capacity. One thing my Committee’s report pointed out is that we got rid of the Advanced Research and Assessment Group, which did the basic Russian analysis, we sacked our Ukraine desk officer and the defence intelligence service reduced its Russian analysis. The same has been happening in the United States, although it is now building this capacity up rapidly, but when we go to Supreme Allied Commander Europe and look at the American capacity, we see that that Russian capacity is being built up from a very low base again, which is troubling.

I do not wish to speak for too long, because I know many Members wish to contribute, so let me return to the basic framework of my argument: conventional; unconventional; and what we should be doing. I have set out the conventional, so what should Britain be doing? The Committee believes we should be looking to exercise at a larger level, so we should begin to return to some of the kinds of exercises we did in previous eras, which involve exercising at least at a divisional level. Encouragingly, NATO is beginning to look at an exercise at a level of 35,000 people—we would like to see more of that, and we would like politicians and policy makers to be involved in that. We would like to see all-armed exercises. We are going to be looking closely at Norway 2018, which seems to be a big opportunity to do this.

We have to look carefully at this very high readiness taskforce. One thing the Committee recommended was the setting up of a deployable force under SACEUR like the allied rapid reaction corps, which could go out and respond rapidly within 72 hours to a Russian threat. It was a very good sign at the Wales summit that that commitment was made, but the details need to be improved dramatically. The framework nations are struggling to provide 5,000 people and they need to produce one brigade standing up, one currently in exercise and one standing down. We have not yet seen what is happening with the enablers. We need to see whether they will be able to move forward with ISTAR––intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—and whether they are going to have the cyber-capacity connected. Here is another question, perhaps for the Minister: France has committed as a framework nation, but are we certain that it is committing its troops uniquely to SACEUR or are we in danger of a situation in which people are double-hatting? In other words, are the French retaining the ability to deploy their brigade to Africa when it suits them, so that this very high readiness taskforce will then be a second-order call?

But it is on asymmetric warfare that we need to focus most of all, because although Russian tanks crossing the border into Estonia would be a high-impact event, we estimate at the moment that it is a low-probability event. It is not one we should ignore, because of course were Putin to do it, we really would not know what to do. Were Putin to roll tanks across and take over even a mile or two of Estonia, NATO would be in a very serious problem. As the Swedish general Neretnieks has pointed out, it would be very difficult—it would require very considerable political will—to get Russia out of that situation. But the most likely move is asymmetric warfare first.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): On that point about capacity, it is interesting to note that in 1989 there were 5,000 US battle tanks stationed in Europe, whereas now there are 29. The capacity is not there, even if we look just at what the Americans are providing, never mind our failure to provide.

Rory Stewart: That is a significant point. It is true that, ultimately, the theoretical NATO capacity dwarfs that of Russia, but a lot of this stuff is extremely difficult to deploy; many nations are very reluctant to pay the money required to exercise; a lot of this money is absorbed in pension schemes; and our problem is that we are defending an enormous, multi-thousand-mile border, where Russia could, should it wish, cause trouble all the way from the Baltic to the Caucasus. We have to deal with that entire area, which may be very difficult to do, even with the 3.3 million troops we currently have in NATO.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman referred to Estonia. Clearly, under article 5 of the NATO treaty all the other 27 member states would have an obligation to respond to an armed attack on Estonia, but there is a level of ambiguity, given the hybrid warfare that the Russians are engaged in and have been engaged in—cyber-attacks and others. Given that Putin does not necessarily wish to invoke a major military conflict, how does NATO deal with those hybrid attacks?

Rory Stewart: The hybrid attacks are exactly what I was getting on to: the asymmetric and next-generation warfare attacks. As the Labour former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee has just pointed out, the conventional attack is a low-probability, high-impact event. Much more probable is this asymmetric, hybrid warfare. In other words, we are more likely to find cyber-attacks of the kind we saw in Estonia in 2007, and separatists popping up claiming that they are being abused or that minority rights are being abused in places such as Narva, in eastern Estonia. As we saw, 45% of the Russian population of Latvia supported the Russian occupation of Crimea in a survey at that time. So what are we supposed to do? The answer is: it is really difficult and we absolutely need to raise our game in three areas. As has been indicated, those are cyber, information warfare and special forces operations.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. The Defence Committee, which completed its report on deterrence just before he assumed the Chair, made it clear that in the event of a cyber attack we should be prepared to say to a potential adversary such as Russia, “We will not necessarily wait for 100% proof before we enact counter-measures.” We should do that despite the fact that it might have tried to create some uncertainty and ambiguity over the exact emanation of such an attack.

Rory Stewart: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise that point about cyber-attacks. Crucially, very few of us in this House—I certainly include myself in this—understand cyber in detail. We are taking it on faith that we are developing a significant cyber-capacity. It is extremely difficult for us to be confident about what we are doing in this regard. I have two questions on cyber that I would like to put to the Minister. One is to do with NATO’s cyber-capacity. The members of the Committee visited the cyber-centre in Estonia and discovered that there were only two UK personnel posted to that site. It was very difficult to be confident about what deterrent effect that kind of cyber would involve.

My second question is to do with doctrine. Are we prepared to threaten a cyber response as a way of deterring a Russian cyber-attack? In other words, if Russia were to mount a cyber-attack against a NATO member state, would we respond with a cyber-attack in kind?

Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I agree with everything my hon. Friend has said, particularly with regard to the importance of cyber. He will remember that in the SDSR 2010 one of the Secretary of State’s “up arrows”—areas in which we need to invest—was cyber-security, where we set aside £650 million over four years. Part of that was cyber-attack.

Rory Stewart: That is very important. The thing about cyber-defence that is difficult for us as a Committee to deal with—given that when we look at cyber we are often told that much of it is the job of the Intelligence and Security Committee—is just how good it is. Clearly, the Government have committed a lot of money to it, but at the same time, many Members come to us having spoken to the Ministry of Defence which is concerned about our cyber-capacity, and are not confident that we have really got to where we want to be or that we fully understand what the technology is.

The second issue is around information operations. It is very clear that the basic problem for Russian minorities in the Baltic states is the fact that they watch Moscow television. We need to ensure that we have the ability to project television into the Baltic states in the Russian language that is entertaining and engaging, that the minorities in those areas are prepared to watch, and that counters propaganda not with propaganda but with the truth. Such broadcasts must provide an objective, truthful and honest conversation about what is going on in the world and, above all, that is able to draw attention to the things that Putin is doing. That means that centrally we must invest in the BBC World Service. We spend a lot of time talking about this, about Russian-language television, but the reality is that we have yet to see the evidence from this Government, or from the United States, that the real investment is being made to create a genuinely watchable, attractive Russian language service that could be watched by Russian minorities around the edge of NATO.

The final and most difficult thing is dealing with special forces, insurgents, “little green men” and exactly the kinds of events that we saw in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The reason that that is the most difficult of all is that it is a challenge of understanding not only for us and the Ministry of Defence, but also for the Foreign Office and the intelligence agencies. If Putin does something, the first question will be one of interpretation or understanding. He will operate under the thresholds. As the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who was the Labour Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, pointed out, Putin will not initially do something that crosses the article 5 threshold. Let me provide a couple of examples to illustrate the threats. If, for example, the Polish electricity infrastructure were to go down, there might be an immediate claim that it had been taken down by a Russian cyber-attack. Britain would need very rapidly to be in a position to know whether that was in fact the case and to determine how to respond. In order to do that, we would need to have what we currently do not have—namely, the people on the ground in Poland with the necessary relationship with the Polish electricity Minister to get to the bottom of the matter very quickly and to pass the information through to us. We lack intelligence and information at every level from the strategic political level all the way down to the ISTAR level of watching Russian kit moving around.

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): My hon. Friend is quite rightly focusing on the clear and present threat of Russia, but when looking at asymmetrical war, we should also be looking at the threats from the middle east and considering how to deal with those challenges. There are also cyber-threats from China and North Korea. We should be cognisant not just of the Russian threat but of other areas of the world that pose a direct threat to the UK.

Rory Stewart: That provides me with a good way to drive towards a conclusion. As my hon. Friend has just pointed out, the kind of threats that Russia or Putin can bring will be very unpredictable. I will be humiliated by what Putin does over the next five to 10 years. It is very difficult to guess what he will do next. What is clear about Putin is that he has been thinking very hard, since at least 2008, about how to unsettle or unbalance NATO. He will be pulling levers and pushing buttons that we cannot yet anticipate.

I imagine that he will be tempted to do things in relation to Iran—perhaps in relation to the Iranian nuclear negotiations. We have already seen Putin’s very direct contribution to the civil war in Syria through the protection of Bashar al-Assad. We can see his control over the gas supplies in Bulgaria. It is not very difficult for us to imagine how he could cause trouble in Narva, or how he could put a few Spetsnaz troops in a forest in Latvia, just sit them there and wait to see what we do. If we are dealing with threats along that arc, we need to change the way we think in the Ministry of Defence. We cannot rest in the comfortable world we have been in for the past 20 years—imagining that we will have a neat deployment of 6,600 soldiers on an expeditionary warfare campaign, that they will stay there for five to 10 years doing stabilisation operations and then come home. We will have to respond to very nuanced, ambiguous and unpredictable attacks all the way along an arc between the Baltic and, potentially, Iran. In order to do that, we need to invest very heavily in Russian language expertise, defence engagement, and defence attachés in all those countries. The United States currently has three defence attachés in each Baltic state; we have one defence attaché covering three Baltic states. That is not enough.

The Ministry of Defence would not be able tell us whether the defences in Mariupol were adequate to deal with a Russian advance because the defence attaché currently in Kiev is not permitted to travel up to the front line. We need to invest in defence intelligence staff in the Foreign Office. To do that—this is what I will conclude on—we must make this investment of 2% of GDP in defence. We need to do that for many, many reasons.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I do not want the Chair of the Select Committee to ignore one part of the world. With regard to all the countries that he has mentioned we can act as part of the NATO family, but what about the Falklands? He will be aware that Argentina has not given up its ambitions, but who will support us down in the South Atlantic?

Rory Stewart: That is a very significant question. It is definitely worth thinking about in the next SDSR. As the hon. Gentleman points out, many of our assumptions are based on the fact that we will operate with the US coalition, but in relation to the Falklands we cannot be so confident that that will happen.

Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): The figure of 2% is just a number that has been dragged out of the air, but it happens to be the level of our defence expenditure—about 2.07% of GDP. The conclusions of the summit in Wales seemed remarkably similar to the British posture of what NATO’s targets should be. The fact is that Russia has taken a disappointing divergence from the path that we had hoped it was on after the end of the Soviet Union. That is now beyond contradiction, and we are back to where we were in 1977. Regrettably, we should now be preparing for conflict, and 2% does not cut it.

Rory Stewart: I am very supportive of the idea that we should be spending even more.

Mr Andrew Robathan (South Leicestershire) (Con): So am I, if I may say so. My hon. Friend is giving an excellent analysis of the situation. At the NATO summit, Britain was at the forefront of demanding that all NATO countries use 2% of GDP for defence spending. I absolutely support the Prime Minister on this. We want to spend 2% of GDP. Personally, I would rather go further and spend more.

Rory Stewart: To come to a conclusion, I am giving the four reasons why we need to spend 2%. The first, which has just been pointed out by the former Defence Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), is UK credibility. The UK led the push for 2% at the Wales summit only six months ago. We stood alongside the United States and went around every other country at the summit saying, “If you’re going be serious, you have to commit 2%.” We emphasised again and again that we were spending 2% of our GDP on defence and that they should spend 2% of their GDP on defence. That was very important in getting a range of countries to commit to spending 2% of GDP on defence over the next five to 10 years. The first reason why we must do it is simply out of a sense of shame. The honour and credibility of the United Kingdom are bound up in this.

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): The Chairman of the Select Committee is giving a fantastic analysis of the situation. May I add my concern that 2% simply is not enough for the commitments that we will inevitably have? Our forebears fought and died for freedom and democracy. What concerns me even more is that some people do not seem to appreciate that it takes years to get ships and aircraft carriers, and to get groups and battalions reformed and retrained. Once they are gone, if we are called to action we simply will not have the manpower to deal with it.

Rory Stewart: That is the second point that I was coming to. The second reason why we have to spend 2% of GDP or more on defence is that we have concrete tasks that we need to perform. There are some real requirements if we are to deal with the new threat. The problem with the threat assessments since the end of the cold war is that they have been done in a vacuum. Now that we can see a threat in the form of Putin, we realise that there are considerable capacities that we need to rebuild. Those capacities cost money, so we need to invest in them.

The third reason is that deterrence is about psychology. Deterrence is about will-power and confidence; it is not just about kit. The 2% is about what Putin thinks of us; it is about whether he thinks that we are serious. Often, we think that the way to deal with a Russian conventional threat is with a conventional response, and that the way to deal with a Russian unconventional threat is with an unconventional response. Of course, the Russians, particularly Gerasimov, the chief of staff, use the phrase “asymmetric warfare”, which means that they understand very well that often one should deal with a conventional threat with an unconventional response and vice versa. One of the best ways of deterring Putin from mucking around either conventionally or unconventionally is to let him see the confidence of that NATO commitment towards 2% of GDP. As he begins to see the exercises, the spending and the increasing confidence of our armed forces, that will act as the deterrent.

That brings me to my last argument for why spending 2% of GDP on defence is central: it will provide a fantastic framework of planning for our armed forces for the next five years. The fundamental problem in defence and foreign affairs is, of course, that the electoral cycles and financial cuts of modern democracies simply do not operate in sync with the realities of the world and its crises.

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): Is it not also the case that the rigour of the SDSR process needs to do justice to the nature of the threats we face? It should not be an argument about 2% or bust; it should be about correctly assessing the world as it exists today and as it will exist and ensuring that we have the capabilities to meet the threats that will exist over the next 10 years.

Rory Stewart: The process will be led—must be led—by the SDSR. The entire problem that we face starts with the fact that the SDSR put the Russian threat down at tier 3. It will be impossible in the system to argue for more defence spending unless the Foreign Office and the agencies agree with our assessment that Putin represents a significant threat. We must make that absolutely central to the entire debate in the House today to establish that we really believe in this threat and that it is not a joke threat; that this is not special pleading by the Ministry of Defence, nor an attempt to sneak resources in by the back door, but that what Putin has done since the moment he entered Crimea—in fact, probably since the moment he entered Georgia—is to demonstrate the reality that to hold the order of Europe, to maintain NATO and to deter future Russian expansion, we must have the credibility, the capacity and the confidence.

To come back to the final point, the 2% will allow us to step away from the political debates and say to the armed services, “Your budget is protected. You can plan over the next five years on the assumption that your budget will rise in real terms. If the economy rises by 3%, your budget will increase by £1 billion a year. You will be able to use that money to make the investments we need, whether in cyber, in ballistic missile defence, in CBRN or—as I have been trying to argue—“in the massive panoply of intelligence, defence engagement and assessment, which allows us to work out what is happening in the world.” It is that which will draw a new generation of soldiers and officers into the armed forces, because they will see that confidence. Above all, it is Russia and our adversaries who will see that confidence and who will see that, at a time when the world is becoming increasingly dangerous and unstable, our commitment to collective security is generous, clear and long term.

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