Thursday 20th October 2022

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - -

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. At a time of much Government chaos, I also thank him for his calmness and professionalism in the job.

The incident with the RAF Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft that the Defence Secretary described is serious. He outlines that the correct steps have been taken, the malfunction has been confirmed and the incident has now been resolved. It is welcome that RAF flights have restarted and that there has been a clear recognition from Russia that the aircraft was flying in international airspace. The RAF has this House’s full support; we are grateful to it, to other UK forces and to our NATO allies for their work protecting the alliance and protecting freedom. The incident is a serious reminder of the importance of avoiding escalation and miscalculation while continuing with the UK’s united support for Ukraine.

Almost eight months on from Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine, I pay tribute to the remarkable and continuing Ukrainian resolve in the face of Russian aggression. Putin has made a huge strategic miscalculation in invading Ukraine, which has resulted in Russian forces suffering heavy losses: the MOD estimates 25,000 Russian dead, tens of thousands injured, tens of thousands who have deserted and more than 4,000 armoured and protected vehicles destroyed.

At a time when Ukrainians have shown incredible resilience in defending their homeland, Britain must honour their bravery by remaining unwavering in our support for Ukraine. I am grateful that the Defence Secretary has set out the UK’s continued support under Operation Interflex for training Ukrainian forces; we thank UK members of the armed forces for their work. I would also be grateful if he confirmed when the promised action plan for continuing UK support for Ukraine will be published, outlining the type and quantity of military, economic and diplomatic support that Ukraine will receive. Putin needs to be in no doubt that our resolve will continue; whether the Defence Secretary’s party or mine is in charge, that will not change.

I think it is time the Defence Secretary made a statement about the planned drawback of troops from Estonia and about how that decision can be properly scrutinised. I would also be grateful if he set out whether orders have been placed for the replacement next-generation light anti-tank weapon missiles and when our stockpiles will be replenished.

There has been a concerning increase in Iranian drone activity. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State set out what additional support can be provided by the UK and our allies to ensure that the Shahed 136 and Mohajer 6 drones from Iran can be properly intercepted and defeated to protect Ukrainian infrastructure.

In his speech last night, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, threw into doubt the planned rise in defence spending to 3% of GDP, referring to it as a “potential increase”. I would be grateful if the Defence Secretary spelled out the Government’s position on defence spending and whether the increase is confirmed or—as Admiral Sir Tony Radakin says—only potential.

The Opposition’s support for Ukraine is unwavering. The Defence Secretary knows that he has Labour’s full support in the provision of military aid to our friends in Ukraine. Putin must fail in his aggression. As we enter an incredibly difficult period of the war, with cold weather drawing in, we must make sure that we support not only our friends fighting in Ukraine, but those civilians who are there fighting on its behalf. I would be grateful if the Defence Secretary set out what support the UK can offer to civilian infrastructure. The protection of energy sources is particularly important, not only for Ukrainian industry but for the Ukrainian people.

Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for his questions. To assure the House, I did not choose to make my statement when my counterpart on the Opposition Front Bench, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), was not here; I spoke to him at length yesterday. I also assure the House that although there are some things that are of the highest sensitivity and cannot be said in public or in this House, I continue to engage with the party leaders on the most sensitive areas to ensure that they are fully apprised throughout this process.

Calibration is incredibly important to me. We are dealing with a President and with Russian forces who, as we have seen from the Rivet Joint incident, are not beyond making the wrong calculation or deciding that the rules do not apply to them. That is why I ask those constituents who are fearful that this report could lead somewhere to have faith that all of us in this Chamber are working on a detailed response to ensure that we walk what is sometimes a tightrope.

On Rivet Joint, as I said, we have made sure that the flight path is pre-declared, so that it is no surprise to the Russians and is logged in the normal manner. Indeed, I informed the Russians that they would be escorted, so there were no surprises.

The shadow Minister asked about the action plan; I think he was referring to the broader Government action plan, including foreign aid and support. I concur that the foreign aid package and helping Ukraine’s economy to survive, stand on its feet and go from strength to strength are as important as an effective military response. I will press my colleagues in other Departments to ensure that we get the shadow Minister details of the time and date, but it is a fundamental plank for Ukraine. Some of what I discussed when I was in the United States was in that area.

On the second battlegroup deployed in Estonia, hon. Members will remember that after the invasion a number of countries deployed what we called enhanced forward presence groups in Bulgaria, in Romania and around Europe. There was some talk about deployment in Hungary, but that did not materialise. Germany stepped up in Lithuania, and so did we in Estonia. The second battlegroup was always going to come back; our fixed position in Estonia is effectively a battlegroup that we vary in size and capability. To recognise the changed threat, we will keep our guided multiple launch rocket system, our longer-range deep fires and indeed our air defence capabilities, which are not always an accompaniment to that battlegroup. We have effectively beefed up the existing battlegroup, but we need to bring back the next battlegroup, which has been extended for another six months. I thank the men and women of the armed forces whose time out there has been extended. That battle- group will come back.

We should not forget that we also have a squadron of tanks in Poland, more forces, a company—a sort of small battlegroup—in Bulgaria, part of a US strike brigade, and we are now exploring having more Royal Engineers in Poland to assist with training Ukrainians and with things like combat engineers. That is why the battlegroup came back. I engage with my Estonian counterparts, whom I met only last week; indeed, I met them the week before in Poland to talk them through this, and they were given prior notification. We are very keen to continue to work strongly with them.

We have given an extra commitment on Estonia to have a brigade headquarters and a brigadier. In the same way, the German plan in Lithuania is to allocate a brigade for fast response to deploy, and that is one of the ways we seek to go. We are also helping Estonia to develop its own divisional headquarters, hand in hand, but we always keep things under review. We are all waiting for the NATO regional plans that will set out in detail how our forces should be deployed across Europe as part of a bigger comprehensive plan. It is really important for us all to be guided by that.

The Ukrainians are having success in shooting down a number of the Iranian drones, but it is a question of sheer scale. Members will not have missed the similarity with V1 rockets. I urge the Iranian Government to understand that supplying Russia so that it can indiscriminately kill civilians, including women, children and babies in prams, is surely not an activity with which Iran wants to be associated. I urge them to desist as soon as possible. We are not at all convinced by the Iranian Government’s denials that they are not supplying the drones.

We will use some of the funding that I have mentioned to invest in other novel capabilities that we can find to deploy. In the meantime, we are continuing, and will step up, our supply of low-velocity missiles to Ukraine to work with the Stormer system and ensure that we can help with detection or electronic warfare schemes. Obviously the Ukrainian conflict has flushed out counter-drone technologies that we all need. Members will recall the Gatwick airport scenario. Everyone came up with magic solutions, but, if memory serves, when we tested them almost none of them did what it said on the tin. However, we are helping rapidly, and the best of innovation is being used to help the Ukrainians.

When I was in Washington, it was made very clear from No. 10 that the commitment on 3% of GDP by 2030 would stand. I should be interested to know whether the Labour party will match that important commitment. If Labour Members are getting ready for government, as they seem to think they are, these are the questions that they will need to answer for the British public and the British armed forces as they lay out their timetable and their plan. They will have at least two years in which to do it, so I am not too worried—[Interruption.] It is when I am guessing the election will be, but that is definitely above my pay grade.

As for how we can get the Ukrainians through the winter, we are all working internationally to see what we can do. The European Union has announced a fund, and we will ensure that we do what we can to help Ukraine with critical infrastructure and energy.