Phil Wilson, MP for Sedgefield, speaking in the Defence Expenditure debate in Westminster Hall on 27th October 2016.
This debate is about what sort of country we see ourselves as being. I have always seen the UK as a force for good, and I mean that not just in military terms but in our humanitarian role in the world and how we have defended liberal democracy over the decades. The issue is not just the 2% pledge, but whether we have the capability to achieve what we set out to do as a military nation. In 2013, the UK’s GDP was £1.6 trillion, with a defence budget of £37 million, or 2.3% of GDP. In 2014, our GDP was £1.7 billion and the defence budget was 2.17% of GDP. At the same time as the budget has fallen significantly over that period, Russia’s defence budget went up by 21% last year alone. That is what we must consider.
I do not think the Russians want to enter into a war with the west, but times are uncertain. Russia might be a declining power, but insecure powers, like insecure people, may lash out, and that country also has nuclear weapons. I read in The Times at the beginning of this week that Russia has just unveiled a new sort of intercontinental ballistic missile. We know that it has put nuclear weapons into Kaliningrad, and we know what it does in Syria. We definitely know what it did in Ukraine. Russia is flexing its muscles, and we must be prepared for that.
General Sir Richard Shirreff said in his evidence to the Committee that even if all NATO’s member states put 2% of their GDP into the defence of the west, he was sceptical about whether that would be enough to see off the threat from countries such as Russia. We must realise that many of the military conflicts and issues around the world are asymmetrical, and there are all sorts of issues such as cyber and terrorism. Russia is one nation that we could find ourselves in conflict with.
China’s defence budget is well over $200 billion. The rest of that region’s defence budget put together is only $45 billion. A figure I came across at the beginning of the week is that there are more than 100,000 UN peacekeepers around the world in 16 locations, many of them in Africa. The world situation is very turbulent. Are we in a position to defend ourselves?
Sir Richard Barrons said in The Daily Telegraph on 17 September that the UK’s armed forces are withered. I do not want to talk down our armed forces and the brave men and women who serve in them, but this man knows what he is talking about, so he should be listened to. He referred in the Financial Times to Britain’s ability to defend itself from aerial attacks and said:
“UK air defence now consists of the” working Type 45 destroyers,
“Enough ground-based air defence to protect roughly Whitehall only, and RAF fast jets. Neither the UK homeland nor a deployed force—let alone both concurrently—
could be protected from a concerted Russian air effort.”
These issues are worrying for me and, I believe, for the other people in this Chamber and the Defence Committee.
Is 2% enough? When other things, such as pensions and so on, are included, and there is creative accounting, do the Government really mean 2%? We must sit down and think whether it is enough. Efficiencies are brilliant and fantastic. We all agree with that, but the one thing we must do is to protect this country. We must have a serious look at whether 2% is what we should be paying.
We have two brilliant aircraft carriers that will come into service in a little while, but have we got enough ships to defend them? Have we got the submarines to defend them? Have we got the skills to man them? We need to look at that. If we are to punch above our weight, let us ensure that we can actually do that. We just have to be honest with ourselves. Is 2% enough? Is the 2% actually 2%? Should the figure be higher? We need to hear from the Minister on that.