Friday 26 February 2021 / 1:18 PM Defence / John Healey

John Healey speech at RUSI on Labour’s core principles on defence and security


In a speech at the Royal United Service Institute on Labour’s core principles on defence and security, John Healey MP, Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, said:

Thank you, Malcolm. Thank you to you and to RUSI for incorporating this speech into your calendar of run-up events to the Government’s Integrated Review.

Keir Starmer and I have both served in Government. You will hear us both affirm: the first duty of Government is to keep the nation safe and protect our citizens. We take this responsibility just as seriously in Opposition.

He appointed me to this privileged post as Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary two weeks after lockdown began.

It’s hard to get to grips with a new job – especially one like defence – when you can’t go anywhere, and you can’t meet anyone.

So I’m hugely appreciative for all I’m able learn through RUSI – your staff, associates and members make the RUSI calendar full of so many must-follow events.

Thank you all for your time today. I look forward to your views as well as your questions later.

In the British Parliamentary system Her Majesty’s Opposition face a massive mismatch in undertaking our constitutional duty to hold the Government to public account – there are 4000 staff in MoD main building alone and as Shadow Defence Secretary, I rely on one and a half policy advisers.

So good government depends on strong democratic debate and challenge – not just from politicians but from the range of voices in policy institutes, industry, the military and the media.

This will certainly be the case with the Integrated Review.

We need the Government to get this right: to make the best decisions about our nation’s sovereignty, our alliances and our security.

We need the Government to get this right because there is no ‘year zero’ in defence. Defence policy and procurement cycles reach well beyond political cycles, so decisions that should follow this Integrated Review will largely fix the framework for an incoming Labour government in 2024 and beyond.

The Integrated Review was launched as “the most radical reassessment of the UK’s place in the world since the end of the Cold War”. That’s a big ambition – but it’s the right one.

It comes at a time of very significant change.

The threats to our national security are proliferating; becoming less conventional, less predictable, more continuous.

Space and cyber are now rightly recognised as operational domains of warfare, with equal status to land, sea and air: but they’re domains in which we, as a country, cannot rely on centuries of tradition and experience. We’ll need to compete hard to maintain parity with potential adversaries, and we’ll have to collaborate closely with chosen allies.

Brexit has changed our relationship with Europe, and if we want to continue the leadership role we play among our European allies in security and defence, we will have to change the way we do it.

While the USA – our most important strategic partner – has announced its own global posture review, ending support for offensive Saudi actions in Yemen and pausing the removal of US troops from Germany.

We’re feeling the instabilities in the global order, not just at the edges but at the centres of the world’s major powers. The US Capitol under siege last month from far-right protesters; thousands arrested in democracy protests in Russia and Belarus; and three million Hong Kong citizens have seen their right to a British Overseas National passport derecognised by Beijing.

These are just the most obvious signals of uncertainty.

On top of the continuing hostilities – proxy wars, terrorism – that our armed forces and security services have been dealing with for two decades, technology is changing the kind of threats we must plan for.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, where the Azeri army used drones to defeat a well-equipped and trained opponent, means defence professionals all over the world are asking with added urgency: How much do we have to change, and how rapidly? And how continuously?

And we’ve seen the emergence of hybrid threats, and hybrid strategies – where countries are operating deliberately in the greyzones between war and peace, between international legality and organised crime. That was so dramatically illustrated by the Russian nerve agent attack in Salisbury, and the disgraceful Russian disinformation campaign that followed it.

So the idea of a radical review – starting from a clear statement of foreign and security policy, then calibrating defence budgets, force structures, intelligence and security priorities and development aid against that – was a good idea. And necessary.

Then Covid hit us. Understandably there have been delays, and we should cut the Government some slack.

But the Integrated Review was rightly first promised alongside the Spending Review in November. Without it the four-year settlement for Defence remains funding with no strategy, while pre-emptive leaks fuel stories that undermine both morale among our Forces personnel and confidence among our allies, as well as indicating weakness to potential adversaries.

The Defence Secretary promised publication “in the first two weeks of February”. A Foreign Office Minister has now said it will be March, but with no definite date. The Integrated Review should now be published without further delay, to bring an end to the confusion and speculation.

So, as we wait for the Integrated Review to report, and a likely defence white paper, I want to do three things today:

Restate Labour’s core principles on national defence and security, so that voters, service personnel and the defence industry can see where we, the new leadership of the Labour Party, are coming from.

Review the weakened foundations for this Integrated Review, after the last decade of defence decline or ‘the era of retreat’, as the Prime Minister calls it.

And set out some tests we think the Integrated Review must meet, and which will guide both our challenge to Ministers while in opposition and our own thinking in government.

I will start with Labour’s principles on defence and national security.

There are four. Each have their roots in the great post-war Labour government, whose achievements Britain – not just Labour – still draws on. These are principles not based on party politics but on what’s required for Britain’s security and for Britain being a force for good in an increasingly unstable global order.

First, Labour’s commitment to NATO is unshakeable. And mutual defence through Article V is the cornerstone of Labour’s commitment on Britain’s security, which Attlee’s foreign secretary Ernest Bevin fought for at NATO’s foundation. All wings of our party supported its formation. And as President Biden’s administration re-engages with Europe, we want to see the Alliance strengthened as a force for peace and security in the region.

Second, Labour’s support for nuclear deterrence is non-negotiable. The matter is settled. From Kinnock to Corbyn – with Blair, Brown and Miliband in between – this has been, and will remain, Labour policy. So we are committed to building four new submarines at Barrow, committed to continuous at-sea deterrence and committed to all future upgrades to this capability that may be necessary. And as a P5 UN Security Council member, we want to see Britain doing more to lead efforts to secure strategic arms limitation and multilateral disarmament.

Third, Labour’s commitment to international law, to universal human rights and to the multilateral treaties and organisations that uphold them is total. Our core Labour values are internationalist and multilateralist. We believe cooperation and binding mutual obligation provide the greatest assurance of global progress and peace. And we want to ensure no treaty partner can call into question Britain’s full adherence to the agreements we’ve signed, whether that’s the NI Brexit protocol in the Internal Markets Bill or the Geneva Conventions in the Overseas Operations Bill.

Regrettably, recent months have seen the Conservatives damage Britain’s international reputation and relationship with allies by breaching treaty agreements or court rulings on exports to regimes that commit human rights abuses.

Fourth, Labour’s determination to see British investment directed first to British industry is fundamental, not just to our thinking on defence, but to our vision of the kind of society we want to build. When done well, we believe defence spending has a multiplier effect. As the Party of working people and trade unions we see spending on defence as a force for good in the country. It strengthens our UK economy and, as Covid has exposed the risks of relying on foreign supply chains, it also has the potential to strengthen our sovereignty and security. We want to see a higher bar set for decisions to procure Britain’s defence equipment from other countries.

These four principles are what will guide our thinking on defence as we build on the Integrated Review and lay out a programme for government in 2024.

Let me turn to my main concerns ahead of the Integrated Review, and the way the foundations for this Review have been weakened during the last decade of Conservative government.

For us, the national security of this country starts here, at home, in our towns, our communities, our territorial waters, our cyberspace, our energy infrastructure, our information networks and – as we’ve learned the hard way – in our public health systems.

We owe a great deal to our Armed Forces for helping the country through this pandemic – from building Nightingale hospitals to delivering PPE to planning behind the scenes in every part of government. At one point 95% of mobile testing centres around the country were run by the military.

The pandemic has shown the Armed Forces are essential to our national resilience, not just our national defence.

But Covid – let’s be frank – has exposed a lack of homeland resilience, as well as the changing nature of the threats we’re facing.

Even as our service personnel mobilised to help contain the pandemic, so our adversaries were feeding disinformation and division into our communities.

Covid, in short, shows what happens if you recognise a threat in theory but fail to do the hard graft to prepare for it. Because ‘pandemic’ had been identified as a tier one risk in both the 2015 SDSR and the 2018 Security review, yet when the virus hit less than 1% of our PPE was sourced in Britain.

It shows how essential public understanding is in a crisis and that the enemies of democracy will exploit every weakness in the resilience of civil society.

And it shows resilience can’t be done on the cheap, but the costs of being under-prepared are so much greater, in human and economic terms.

The security lesson seems clear to me: full spectrum society resilience will require planning, training and exercising that must be led by government and involve private industry, local agencies and the public.

Some countries are ahead of us with such civil-military ‘greyzone’ strategies and I expect the Integrated Review to catch up.

The Conservatives’ decision to produce a National Security Strategy alongside the 2010 defence review, and then incorporate this into the 2015 review, were useful innovations that we continue to support; as we do the National Security Council. The five-yearly drum beat of defence reviews also has advantages we would retain.

Nobody expects twenty-twenty foresight. I see our 1998 Labour strategic defence review as exemplary for its broad engagement with the forces, industry, experts and opposition. It built a strong national consensus around its conclusions; and I contrast this with an Integrated Review conducted largely behind closed doors and with no great consensus to help with implementation. But our 1998 review did not foresee 9/11 or the lengthy stabilisation campaigns that followed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and deployment to southern Afghanistan in 2006.

The 2010 review was right to make cyber and global terrorism top priorities, but it was myopic in misjudging the menace of state-based threats, especially from Russia.

The 2015 National security risk assessment listed international military conflict and hybrid attacks as tier one threats. But it didn’t anticipate that Russia might stage a chemical attack on British soil.

And it was glowing about economic collaboration with China, lauding Chinese investment in Hinkley Point as part of the Government’s new “golden era”. What was published said nothing about the national security risk arising from China’s involvement in our 5G infrastructure and when it mentioned Xinjiang it spoke of Islamist terror, not the threat of mass persecution against the Uighur population.

We need better this time.

We’re entitled to expect that when we fail to anticipate threats, lessons are learned.

The main lessons I take are two-fold: first, that state-directed threats to Britain’s security have been consistently underplayed and the range of ways to attack us underestimated. Second, that, in the current global order, economic ties to other countries do not ensure their collaboration or stability or respect for international law.

These underlying assumptions of SDSR 2015 no longer hold. National defence planning must in future be based on the threats we’re facing, not the economic interests we’re trying to pursue.

Under successive Conservative governments there’s been a clear drift towards embracing the illusion that Britain is somehow able to project force everywhere in the world at once, and needs armed forces designed to do a bit of everything.

Global Britain is a beguiling phrase. But it was under this Global Britain mantra that the Government opened our 5G infrastructure to Huawei, while the Chinese state was challenging maritime freedoms in the South China Seas. Slogans do not deliver security.

The most important thing the Government can do in the Integrated Review is to refocus our defence efforts on where the threats are, not where the business opportunities might be.

Labour in government would give the highest priority to Europe, the North Atlantic and the high North – our NATO area – where Russia’s growing arsenal of longer-range missiles, together with modernised land and sea forces and intensified greyzone activity, pose the greatest threats to our vital national interests.

Let me be clear: when Russian state media dripfeeds disinformation into our society, when the Russian oligarchy tries to buy influence the City of London or at Westminster, one of their aims is to undermine the political and public will to have British troops deployed in Estonia doing their duty in defence of our allies.

Whilst the biggest threat to stability for Europe is coming from Russia at present, China has emerged as the principal strategic competitor to the USA, with trade war, espionage, cyber operations and soft power being deployed with increasing intensity. Although this is certainly significant for the UK’s national security, it is principally a big powers contest.

As the USA pivots to meet the long-term challenge of China, Britain’s military leadership in Europe will become more essential.

How Britain’s role in European defence and security will develop, is a key question for the Integrated Review to answer.

For some Brexit will have little impact on Britain’s defence strategy, although the UK risks weakened security ties with our closest country neighbours at a time when growing external threats make it more important to work closely together. Boris Johnson’s decision to take defence and security off the table during Brexit negotiations already means we’ve been expelled from Galileo, lost access to the Schengen Information Service database and been cut off from any new EU defence investment funds.

Britain’s never been signed up to the more ambitious aims some allies have set for the EU’s common security and defence policy but Brexit has also now ended our British veto over its development. So we will have to work harder to maintain our security ties, and Britain will need to become a partner – not a part – of the EU drive for greater defence cooperation, especially if we aim to remain the major bridge between Europe and the US.

Of course, NATO remains central to British defence and our role remains central to NATO – 23 of the 30 Deputy Supreme Allied Commanders in NATOs history have been British – and Labour would ensure this unwavering British NATO commitment continues.

However, simply committing to the 2% spending threshold is no longer enough. It’s not just how much you spend that counts, but how you spend it most effectively to strengthen the alliance. With new developments in AI, space, cyber, robotics and greyzone deterrence, we should contribute to NATO’s armoury in these novel areas of conflict.

NATO2030, authored with John Bew as the British expert on the Reflections Group, calls on NATO members states to: “put collective defence at the forefront of consultation … enable swift decision-making … and … ensure actions do not undermine the utility and cohesion of the Alliance”.

I think this challenges us in Britain on our political investment in NATO, not just our military contribution, which we should meet.

If this is our main defence job in a post-Brexit European world, let’s do it enthusiastically and do it well.

Since 2010, the Conservatives have cut £8 billion from the defence budget and cut our full-time Armed Forces by nearly 45,000. As a result, our ability to monitor Russian submarines in our own coastal waters was outsourced to allies for nearly a decade; our tanks and armoured vehicles have not been upgraded for 20 years; and our new carriers sail without vital supply ships, the new radar system and with far fewer than the number of F-35s needed to provide a “minimum credible force”.

The Defence Secretary declared in 2012 that the deficit “has been eliminated and the budget is now in balance”. But MoD habits die hard. They’ve continued reducing budgets but increasing costs – £31 billion since 2015 alone – then glossing the gap with fictional figures from ‘efficiency savings’, ‘invest-to-save schemes’ or ‘reprofiled procurements’.

So the NAO has judged the defence equipment plan “unaffordable” for four years in a row and now reports a black hole of up to £17 billion.

These financial failings damage the ability to plan or procure strategically and weaken the foundations for the Prime Minister’s extra £16.5 billion capital funding, which Labour welcomed as the promise of an overdue upgrade to Britain’s defences after a decade of decline since 2010.

But the new defence budget is not all it seems.

Ministers talk about the rise in capital funding but not the real cut in revenue funding over the next 4 years. This means less money for Forces’ recruitment, training, pay and families.

It means the risk we get new ships but no new sailors.

Worse still, over half this year’s £16.4 billion defence equipment budget is revenue-based, for ‘equipment support’ and maintenance.

The revenue cut is the Achilles heel of defence plans.  No other Whitehall department is projected to have a cut in day-to-day spending between now and 2024/5. The Defence Secretary should never have agreed it.

There are big decisions that can no longer be ducked. The Integrated Review must confirm the answers.

Labour’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review devoted a full chapter to service personnel. By contrast both the 2010 and 2015 reviews had less than two pages.

I’ve urged the Secretary of State to avoid the same mistake in this Integrated Review by putting our service men and women at the heart of future defence plans – while high tech systems and weapons are essential, highly-trained personnel are indispensable.

Size matters. Our Forces are already 10,000 below the strength Ministers confirmed was needed in SDSR15 to meet the threats Britain faces.

Deeper cuts could significantly limit our Forces ability simultaneously to deploy overseas, support allies and maintain a robust national defence and resilience.

The Chief of Defence Staff said in 2015 that the ability to field a single, war-fighting division was ‘the standard whereby a credible army is judged’. Yet the fully capable division mandated then, including a new strike brigade, will not now be battle-ready for another ten years, according to written Army evidence to the Defence Select Committee.

SDSR15 is the benchmark. Unless the IR confirms a reduction in threats and a reduction in the scale and type of operations the armed forces will undertake, then it will be hard to accept a case for reducing the strength of our full-time Forces.

The Secretary of State rightly says, in the future, servicemen and women will go to war alongside robots. Robots we are told, enthusiastically, don’t need pensions. They also don’t give Covid jabs. They don’t rebuild broken societies. They don’t comfort the victims of ethnic cleansing or sexual violence. They don’t seize and hold vital ground from the enemy.

I’ll be interested in the IR’s expert views on how fast we can transition towards robot and drone-supported warfare. What I don’t want is Britain’s servicemen and women paying the price for a tech transition we’re only just beginning.

I would also be interested in your views on how we should assess the Integrated Review.

Let me offer some tests that Labour will use as our starting points for scrutiny.

First, is there a clear foreign and security policy baseline built upon Britain’s national interests and multilateralism? Is it a realistic statement about what constitutes our strategic security priorities? Does it provide a platform for the values Britain and our allies must uphold to strengthen the rules-based international order?

Second, is there a full and forthright threat assessment based on the motives and abilities of our adversaries to exploit our vulnerabilities? Does it recognise the need for wider public debate and understanding of the threats we face? Does it avoid the mistakes of the last two reviews – downplaying emerging threats, soft-peddling on criticism of geopolitical competitors or inappropriate commercial interests clouding risk judgements?

Third, are the planned capabilities and procurements based on a strategic realism? Will the proposed combination of platforms, capabilities and force structures provide the best deterrent and defence against identified threats? Is the necessary strength and flexibility for the Armed Forces maintained? Will it strengthen our national resilience and the civil-military relationship? Are plans being diluted by virtue signalling to backbench political interests and penny pinching?

Fourth, is the budget sufficient and sustainable through to 2024 and beyond? Does it clearly spell out how the £16.5bn will be spent? How has the £17bn equipment plan black hole been fixed? Have the tough strategic decisions been taken or do we have more of the same short-term fudging that have left major procurement projects at the mercy of the illusion that “something will turn up” to pay for them?

Fifth: does the Integrated Review strengthen our defence industrial resilience by growing our sovereign capacity to regenerate equipment and platforms if they are degraded in conflict? Does it set out a long-term plan to boost Britain’s foundation industries in steel, shipbuilding, aerospace and cyber security as national assets?

Sixth: Does it enhance British multilateralism as a force for good in the world? Does it equip the armed forces to fulfil their commitments to NATO and the UN? Does it aim to use our P5 status to press for new international rules over conflict in space and cyber? Does it set out a bigger vision for Britain in peacekeeping, disaster relief, civil contingencies support and safeguarding sea trading routes? Does it reverse the steep and self-defeating cut to development aid, especially damaging as it coincides with the humanitarian catastrophe created by Covid?

We want to see the Integrated Review succeed.

We will inherit the Review’s decisions as a Labour government after the next election, so we will kick the tyres hard on what comes out next month.

Previous strategic defence reviews have been ‘overambitious and underfunded’, and weakened the foundations for our Armed Forces.

This review must not make the same mistakes. It must fix the foundations and secure the future of our nation’s defences.