Armed Forces Readiness

Defence – in the House of Commons am ar 25 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Ian Blackford Ian Blackford Scottish National Party, Ross, Skye and Lochaber

What progress his Department has made on improving the readiness of the armed forces.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

Mr Speaker, thank you very much indeed for your words at the beginning of questions. I also thank the shadow Secretary of State, John Healey. You were both very kind indeed to say what you said.

The UK armed forces are meeting all of their commitments, but there is no mistaking that they are very busy, as one would expect at such a turbulent geopolitical time. People across the Army, Navy, Air Force and strategic command are working incredibly hard, and we are very grateful to them and their families for their forbearance while they do so. The Government are investing £1.95 billion extra in our resilience and readiness, but more than investment is needed, which is why all three services are getting back into the business of being ready for warfighting. The 3rd (United Kingdom) Division recently exercised its combat service support echelons for the first time in decades; the Royal Navy is operating concurrent task groups as well as forward presence, a test of our naval logistics; and the Royal Air Force is refining its abilities to disperse the force through its agile combat employment mechanism.

Photo of Ian Blackford Ian Blackford Scottish National Party, Ross, Skye and Lochaber

Of course, we commend the efforts of all those in our armed services, but the Defence Committee’s “Ready for War?” report substantiates that our armed forces are constantly overstretched and are being deployed above their capacity. When are the Government going to respond appropriately to the scale of the geopolitical challenges by driving up recruitment and retention and making sure that we can face the challenges that we see ahead of us—that we can take them full-on, and are ready for whatever comes our way?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

There is no escaping the fact that the world is incredibly complicated at the moment. In the Euro-Atlantic, we face the challenge of Russia; in the middle east, the challenge of Iran and its proxies; in the Indo-Pacific, the growing competition with China; and then across Africa and other parts of the world there remains the challenge of violent extremism. At a time of such crisis, one would expect the armed forces to be as busy as they are. That does not mean that we should take for granted the effort that they are putting in, but if we were not reaching for them as extensively as we are right now, we would have to question when on earth we would reach for them, given the demands on our nation.

Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Ceidwadwyr, South Dorset

I pay tribute to my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister for Armed Forces—I am very sad to hear that he is going. He talks of warfighting. As he knows, I am on the Defence Committee. I would challenge the idea that we are ready to fight a sustained war with the armed forces that we have, and bearing in mind all the threats that we face, that possibility has become very real. Bearing in mind that his collective responsibility is about to go, will he now stand at the Dispatch Box and say that we need to spend a lot more money on defence?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

That will go soon, but not yet. Colleagues on both sides of the House will note that whenever I have been invited to respond to such a question, like all good Defence Ministers, I have never missed the opportunity to say yes, but the reality is that our armed forces remain fit. Yes, it is the job of this House and particularly my hon. Friend’s Committee to scrutinise our readiness, as the Committee has done—and I commend the report to colleagues who have not already read it—but reinvestment is needed to sustain our armed forces at warfighting level. That is no scandal; that is the consequence of a peace dividend that rightly allowed successive Governments to disinvest in the resilience that kept our cold war force credible. However, as the Secretary of State so rightly said in his speech the other week, we are now in a “pre-war era”, so it is the responsibility of this Government and those who follow to reinvest in the necessary warfighting capability.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Llafur, Warley

The Minister rightly points to the ability to sustain fighting. He knows that an exercise conducted with the Americans showed that the British Army would run out of munitions within 10 days. Battles in Ukraine showed very early on that this would be an artillery war. Why—I have asked this question of several Ministers, so I hope that he has the answer—did it take from March or April 2022 to July 2023 to place the orders for new munitions? We cannot afford this sort of delay in the Ministry of Defence.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

The contract has now been placed, and it increases our supply of .155s significantly. I take issue with the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes: I am not aware of the exercise he referred to, but in exercises that I have seen, in which the UK has operated alongside the US, again and again the American senior commanders have held the UK force elements in the highest regard.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Ceidwadwyr, Rayleigh and Wickford

As I used to do my right hon. Friend’s job, may I join the tributes to the outgoing, outstanding Armed Forces Minister?

The “Ready for War?” report just referenced identified problems with recruitment as one issue that impedes our ability to fight. The Defence Secretary himself has called our recruitment system “ludicrous”, and he told The Times earlier this month that

“the ‘Amazon’ generation, which is used to getting things instantly, were not prepared to wait a year to join the army.”

He is absolutely right, so when will the utterly ludicrous “Crapita” finally be sacked?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

I am unable to answer my right hon. Friend’s specific question, but he will be heartened to hear that as a consequence of all that is going on in the world, and the geopolitical uncertainty that requires us to use our armed forces so extensively, in recent months we have enjoyed record expressions of interest in joining His Majesty’s armed forces. Obviously, we need to make sure that the time between expressing an interest and starting training is as short as possible; all colleagues on the Front Bench perceive the need for that.