The Prime Minister may sound tough on Russia, but we can’t keep our country safe on the cheap
In uncertain times, we need to exert confidence to friend and foe alike. But years of defence cuts have chipped away at our credibility on the world stage, writes Luke Pollard
The Salisbury chemical weapons attack was an unacceptable act of aggression from the Russian State on British soil. While the Prime Minister was right to expel 23 Russian diplomats, we must be prepared to show we can go further. Cancelling the cuts to our Royal Navy and Royal Marines would send the right signal that Britain will stay strong in the face of Russian aggression.
This incident and its aftermath is the latest in the long list of offences by Russia designed to test our nerve. Russia is playing fast and loose with international norms – not just mocking, but trolling the first chemical weapon attack since the Second World War with memes of Detective Poirot on Twitter.
How did we get here? Up to now, the strength and depth of the Royal Navy deterred Russia. But austerity and years of budget cuts has taken its toll. We have lost ships and sailors in cuts. We cannot deal with this new pressure by continuing to drain resources.
Since 2010, the constituency I represent in Plymouth has been on the hard end of cuts to our Royal Navy and Royal Marines. With the closure of Stonehouse Barracks, the cuts to 42 Commando, the loss of the Royal Citadel and the sale of our Royal Navy flagship HMS Ocean, serious questions have been raised about the sustainability of the UK’s amphibious capabilities.
A weaker Royal Navy is Putin’s objective. In uncertain times, we need to exert confidence to friend and foe alike. But years of defence cuts have chipped away at our credibility to project our power effectively on the world stage.
The recent sale of HMS Ocean to Brazil marked the loss of a third of the Royal Navy’s amphibious assault ships. Losing HMS Ocean also meant losing unique littoral water capabilities for a helicopter carrier – something that can’t be replaced by other vessels.
Talk of further cuts continued this summer, as speculation and soft leaks suggested that amphibious ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark could face the axe as well. If these were to be cut (which is still to be ruled out by ministers) there is a logical threat to the existence of the Royal Marines. Rumours in April that the Marines might be merged with the Paratroopers only adds to concerns.
A strong Royal Navy also needs strong Maritime Patrol Aircraft in the skies in the face of increased Russian sub activity. Since the decision of Conservative ministers to disgracefully put a JCB through the wings of Britain’s Nimrod fleet, we have been left without a British owned Maritime Patrol Aircraft until the expensively bought P8s arrive.
Add to this the underwhelming new National Shipbuilding Strategy that opts for a cheaper and under gunned Type 31e Frigate, and you have the mighty Royal Navy being given kit without the capabilities to face down Russian threats. What message does this send to Putin?
Post-Brexit Britain cannot be seen as turning our back on the world. But other nations, whose navies are expanding despite fiscal pressures, may assume these cuts along with Brexit mark Britain’s waning leadership.
The continued possibility of more armed forces cuts raises serious questions over our ability to defend ourselves or support allies against an expansionist Russia.
Salisbury should be a wakeup call. In defence, as in so many other areas of government, the Tories approach of say ‘one thing, do another’ needs to be called out. If the Prime Minister is serious about standing up to Russia, she must put an end to the gaming of the 2% defence spending figure by the inclusion of war pensions and spend a genuine 2% at least.
We cannot defend our country on the cheap. Now is the time to drop the government’s Royal Navy cuts. So I say to the Prime Minister, be strong against Russia and do what Putin hates: project power and cancel the planned latest armed forces cuts. A strong Royal Navy is the best deterrent to Russian aggression and expansion.
Luke Pollard is Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport