Sir Hugh Bayley: Ready to respond to new global threats

MOST readers of The Yorkshire Post will be surprised to learn that the Conservative governments under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and the coalition government under David Cameron, cut Britain’s defence spending sharply. Compare this to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s Labour governments, which kept defence spending constant at 2.5 per cent of Britain’s national income, comfortably about the two per cent level demanded by Nato.

It has become clear over the past year that we face new and challenging security threats from Russia. There is not just the annexation of Crimea and the intervention in eastern Ukraine, but President Putin has set out a new Russian foreign policy doctrine that reserves to Russia the right to intervene in other states where there are Russian-speaking minorities, in defiance of international law which Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, should be upholding, not breaking.

We should have read the warning signs – Russia’s military occupation of two regions of Georgia in 2008, and their refusal to withdraw Russian “peace keeping” troops from Transnistria, the northern part of Moldova.

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And we should have noticed that Russia has increased its defence spending by 10 per cent a year over the last five years, while western European countries, including ours, have been cutting defence spending by two per cent a year on average – and four per cent a year in the UK.

Our defence cuts have sent the wrong signal to Russia, and to ISIS, the Islamist extremists in the Middle East.

We have had to respond to both threats – by sending aircraft to patrol the Baltic, and watch Russian activity over Ukraine, and to bomb the ISIS terrorists in Iraq.

We face new and growing security threats, and we clearly need new capabilities and strategies to deter our enemies and defend ourselves. We need to establish, as soon as possible, a new Nato very high readiness joint task force and we need to be able to deploy it quickly.

The House of Commons must consider how political authority will be given to deploy and use our task force and its reinforcement brigades. We need to discuss with our allies how other Parliaments, especially those that have a constitutional requirement for a vote in Parliament before forces are deployed, will ensure that the very high readiness force can be deployed within 48 hours, if needed, even though their Parliaments cannot meet within that timescale.

We will need either some pre-authorisation, as we had in the old days of the Cold War, when Nato’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe could mobilise troops quickly if threatened by Russia and the Warsaw Pact, or acceptance that parts of Nato will move within 48 hours.

We also need to improve our strategy for dealing with cyber-threats, our response to propaganda war when it is waged against us, and our response to the use of irregular personnel, whether that means Russian-paid and armed fighters in Ukraine or jihadists in the Middle East. We must be clear that these new capabilities and strategies will cost money.

Before the Nato summit in Cardiff last September, the Prime Minister quite rightly called on the majority of our Nato allies who do not spend two per cent of their GDP on defence to do so. The summit concluded: “All Allies agreed to halt any decline in defence spending, aim to increase it in real terms as GDP grows and to move towards two per cent within a decade.”

Some of our allies have responded to that decision since the summit. Poland agreed on February 18 to increase its defence spending to two per cent of GDP by 2016. Romania, through a pact signed between the political parties on January 13, pledged to reach two per cent by 2017.

Lithuania has pledged to meet two per cent by 2017 and Latvia by 2020. Estonia, which is already at two per cent, has increased its defence spending to 2.05 per cent this year.

Overall, however, western European allies are still cutting their defence expenditure. Last year, in 2014, Germany cut its defence spending by 3.9 per cent and we in the UK cut ours by 2.3 per cent. The figure was 0.8 per cent in France.

I entered the Commons in 1992-93, when defence spending was £23.8bn or 3.5 per cent of our GDP.

By 1997-98, when the Conservatives left office, defence spending had fallen in cash terms to £21.7bn, or 2.5 per cent of GDP. Throughout the period of the Labour Government, from 1997 to 2010, defence spending remained at 2.5 per cent. The Ministry of Defence’s statistical analysis shows a real terms increase, but if we remove the spending on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it remained at 2.5 per cent.

I have put my name to a cross-party early day motion which calls for the two per cent defence commitment to be maintained. However I do not believe that this is enough. I believe that we should be increasing our defence spending to counter the new security threats we face.

We cannot expect our European allies to increase their defence spending, in line with the Nato
summit decision, if we are cutting
ours. The point of spending more is not to go to war but to deter aggression, so we do not have to use our military forces as we are doing currently in
both Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

It is five years since Nato adopted its new strategic concept. It was intended to last for 10 years, but the security threats we face are clearly changing. It needs to be reviewed, and Britain will carry more influence at the next Nato summit, in Warsaw next year, if we are pulling our weight, like those allies who are committing more to defence even at a time of austerity.

The coalition government has cut defence spending by £5.5bn a year. It may sound a lot, but to restore the Armed Forces budget to what Labour spent would cost one twentieth of what we spend on health, or one fiftieth of the budget for benefits. It is worth spending that much to keep Britain, and British citizens secure in an increasingly unpredictable world.

• Sir Hugh Bayley is the outgoing MP for York and the former president of the Nato Parliamentary Assembly.