As a Tory MP and former soldier, a failure to maintain Britain's military strength would be untenable.
This Christmas time, British servicemen and women are on duty around the world. More than 5,000 are deployed on over 20 operations in more than 25 countries; from fighting Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) in Iraq and Syria, to training allied forces in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Ukraine, from Nato missions in Estonia, Poland, Romania and the Mediterranean, to humanitarian and peace-keeping operations in Somalia, South Sudan, Cyprus and the Caribbean. At home, the Ministry of Defence reported an “upsurge” in Russian vessels transiting UK waters over Christmas, monitored closely by the Royal Navy.
In 2004, I spent Christmas as a soldier in Al Amarah, southern Iraq, attached to the Welsh Guards Battle Group in the mud-stricken outpost Camp Abu Naji in Maysan Province. On the day itself, those of us who were unmarried – and not conscious of missing out on Christmas morning with wives and children – were amused by the experience of making merry and donning Father Christmas hats in an Iraqi backwater.
We were in the land of the Garden of Eden, but this was no paradise. Our celebrations were aided by an illicit bottle of whisky, a surfeit of Duchy Original Biscuits (thoughtfully dispatched, we imagined, by the Welsh Guards’ Regimental Colonel, the Prince of Wales) and relentless black humour, the life blood of the British military, which thrives on adversity and the ridiculous.
But we were also quietly proud that, while our friends, families and contemporaries were safe at home, we were out in the world, pursuing adventure, serving our country and doing our duty. This sense of duty motivated a generation of servicemen and women who, from 2001, deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the same sense of duty motivates the men and women deployed around the world defending British interests today.
Our people are our finest resource, and we need them now more than ever. We may have ended large-scale operations in Iraq and Afghanistan but we will not be able to pick and choose the conflicts of the future. Indeed, it was the mistaken belief that Britain would only fight wars of convenience that led David Cameron’s government to reduce our Armed Forces’ fighting power by some 25 per cent after 2010.
We must shake off this legacy, because the world is full of direct threats to our security. The Middle East is beset by multiple conflicts and the abomination of Isil, now dispersed and more dangerous. A resurgent Russia is probing Nato’s flank, North Korea is seeking nuclear showdown with the US, and terrorism is more pervasive and agile than ever and has moved into the cyber-sphere.
We should certainly be spending more on cyber-security and counter-terrorism, but this must not come at the expense of conventional hard power
It therefore seems odd that a debate has been raging recently about further cuts to our Armed Forces, sparked by a review led by the National Security Adviser, Mark Sedwill. The review will reportedly present the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary with a range of options that all involve cutting the conventional capabilities of our Armed Forces, while giving counter-terrorism and cyber-security a boost.
We should certainly be spending more on cyber-security and counter-terrorism, but this must not come at the expense of conventional hard power. Sources in the MoD report a £2 billion annual budget shortfall, potential cuts to amphibious capability, to the Royal Marines, and even a possible reduction in the strength of our Army from the current target of 82,000. For MPs like me, who stood on a Conservative manifesto pledge of maintaining the strength of our Armed Forces, failure to do so would be untenable. When I was serving 10 years ago, our Army was more than 100,000-strong.
The unfortunate reality is that the National Security Adviser is making these recommendations with a view to achieving what he calls fiscal neutrality. The more important truth is that, if the threats we face increase, we need to increase our capabilities and be prepared to pay for it. In a post-Brexit world, the UK will rightly embrace a more globalised posture than ever before in trade, diplomacy and defence. We must be ambitious for ourselves, credible to our allies and resolute in the defence of our interests. My generation and those who find themselves on duty today will accept nothing less.