19 January 2023
Dunne calls on Government to review equipment needs of British Army

Philip Dunne speaks in Commons debate on Russia’s grand strategy, highlighting the impact of Putin’s weaponisation of energy and calls on the Government to use the imminent refresh of the Integrated Review to recognise the new strategic reality of war in Europe to accelerate the capability and capital equipment needs of the British Army. 

Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con)

It is a great pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale), who is a great expert on Ukraine in this place. In fact, the only time I have visited Ukraine was when we went to Kyiv together—over a decade ago, I regret to say.

This is the first time I have spoken in a debate on Russian grand strategy, so I do not have the pedigree of most of the other speakers today, certainly those on the Government Benches. There is a reason for that. Before I get on to my main remarks, I want to point briefly to where I think this House has had some responsibility for allowing Russia under Putin to develop its strategy. It goes back to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), whom I should have congratulated on securing this debate—nobody knows more about strategy and its absence in this country than he does. He is doing a lot of work to try to put that right.

My hon. Friend referred to the vote in this House in 2013, in which I participated. To the great shame of this House and this country, we decided not to take action when Assad used chemical weapons on his own people in Syria. I believe that that vote led to Obama’s decision that it was not appropriate for the Americans to go it alone in taking action, even though the red line that had been talked about had been crossed. I think that that was one of the most important of the many triggers that allowed Putin to take the action that he did in 2014 by invading Crimea and the Donbas, from which the subsequent invasion has flowed.

Following the invasion, the EU decided in 2015 to put sanctions on 89 Russian officials. In response, Putin imposed sanctions on 89 officials in the European Union, of whom I was one; I think I am the only remaining Member who was sanctioned by Russia in 2015. I have chosen not to speak in debates on Russia for that reason—I did not want to highlight the fact, feeling that that would not be the right thing to do. Since this latest action, of course, almost every Member has been sanctioned and it is no longer quite the badge of honour that it once was. I feel in good company now, and I am very grateful to Mr Putin for making me feel slightly less lonely.

I want to focus most of my remarks on what we can do as a nation at this stage, but before that it is worth building on what was said by other speakers about the totally bogus narrative. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon said, Putin has created a narrative for not just domestic—although that is probably the primary objective—but international consumption. He has used the narrative of wanting to restore Russia to its rightful historical place as one of the great powers by undoing the damage from the collapse of the Soviet Union to win diplomatic support internationally. He has done that in a subtle way over a long period.

I point to Russia’s joining OPEC to form OPEC Plus in 2016 as a pivotal moment. Russia has used its oil and gas position and wealth to not only fund its war effort but work within international forums to frustrate attempts—particularly by the United States, but also by the United Kingdom—to encourage other OPEC members to increase production in response to the energy crisis caused by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia persuaded them to do the reverse, to decrease production, thereby keeping up the oil price and helping to fund his war effort. That was an effective mechanism he deployed using the status of victim and NATO being the aggressor, and the bogus narrative that others have spoken of. That was a critical step. It is really important that we, in leading international efforts to help Ukraine, work across international forums with our friends in the Gulf to point out to them that Russia is not their friend. They may have been somewhat disturbed by the west’s approach to the protection of Gulf states, in particular the American oscillation over its relationships as it pivots to Asia, but the Gulf states are fearful most of all of the threat of Iran. Iran has demonstrated very, very graphically, through its support for Russia and the provision of military capability to Russia, which has been deployed effectively in Ukraine, that it is no friend of the Gulf. Iran is friends with Russia, and other nations need to come together with traditional western allies who are their real friends.

I want to focus my few remaining remarks on what we can do as a nation right now. I draw the attention of the House and the Minister to the refresh of the integrated review, which others—notably my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), the Chair of the Defence Committee, in a powerful contribution—have already raised. It is an opportunity to try to reflect on the new strategic reality. I was involved in the strategic defence and security review in 2015, and we had the integrated review in 2021. In neither case was war in Europe an active reality when those reviews were conducted. We need to recognise that the peace dividend that we as a nation and other western nations banked in the 1990s is no longer available. It has left our defence forces with funding for a peacetime environment. We are no longer in a peacetime environment. We are in a war environment and we need to recognise that through this refresh. It is therefore very timely that this opportunity has arisen, partly in response to what is happening on the other side of Europe.

A year ago, the Defence Secretary secured a record increase in the defence budget. The Minister was a Minister in the Ministry of Defence at the time and I am sure he made a powerful contribution. The £24 billion, as we have heard, is a very welcome addition to the budget. However, it is fast being eroded by inflation and it is not, as so often in defence budgets, leading to increases in capability in the here and now. Over a spending review period, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and I know all too well, these things tend to be backloaded. We cannot afford to backload and restore capability in five or 10 years’ time. We need it now. Our armed forces need the confidence to be able to go out and rebuild hollowed out capability.

Mr Francois 

My right hon. Friend is making a very good speech. As he will recall, we served together as Ministers in the MOD. I completely commend his call for a sense of urgency in these matters. He was a procurement Minister, so he knows how long it takes to build this stuff. We are running out of time, so I absolutely endorse the powerful point he has just made.

Philip Dunne 

I am very grateful. I am well aware that my right hon. Friend, who, when we were in post was responsible for personnel primarily and then became armed forces Minister, has taken a particular interest in procurement of late. I have not always agreed with everything he has said, but I think we are absolutely as one on this issue.

What should we be looking at, in the refresh of the integrated review, to deliver the strategic shift that is needed in UK military capability? First, there must be an immediate restoration of the manpower that has been cut from the British Army. It is very clear that what is happening in Ukraine is a land conflict. Our Army’s land capability has suffered cuts for years, perhaps because it has been given lower priority in the allocation of funds for new capability. That is largely because it is easier to cut a small programme, either by deferring it for a bit or by cutting a bit out, than to cut a major programme, which takes years longer to achieve, as is typically the case in the air and maritime domains.

We also need to prioritise land capability from an equipment perspective, so the second thing that the refresh needs is to look at the capability and capital equipment that the British Army requires. The Chairman of the Select Committee listed a number of items that he would like to see restored or improved.

We need to learn clear lessons about what the current conflict is delivering from the state-on-state aggressor in the Ukraine. I do not have a military background and have not studied the doctrine as the Minister has, but it is very clear that taking territory on a modern battlefield requires the ability to manoeuvre at scale under armoured protection. It is vital that our infantry mobility and our power projection on land, at scale, be restored. As we have heard, much of our equipment is now decades old. Although some of it remains more effective and capable than what an adversary might have, we just do not have enough, and what we do have is getting pretty tired.

We also need to be able to clear territory in advance, so we need artillery capability and agile unmanned aerial vehicles capable of delivering force across a battlefield. Air protection is critical to that, so we need air defence and a variety of UAVs. Much of our UAV capability has been built around delivering precision fire remotely, which has been very effective in theatres in which we have been operating, such as Afghanistan or Iraq, but would be much harder to deliver at scale across a wider battlefront.

New capability and equipment cannot be effective unless we have manpower trained to use it, so the integrated review also needs to provide adequate funding to allow force-on-force armoured training at scale, access to training areas and the ability to experiment with novel groupings and battlegroups at scale. We are in danger of giving up the capability that we had; I am thinking in particular of the training ground in Canada.

To achieve this, we need agile procurement, as I called for in a paper in 2018. That approach has been provided through the urgent operational requirements system and by individual commands through the rapid capability offices that have been established, which are doing well at bringing in new capability, often procured off the shelf but typically at a small scale. What we are talking about today is on a different scale, so we need to consider acquiring some capability off the shelf. We do not have the luxury of a 10-year procurement programme that may slip, as has often been discussed in this Chamber. We have to contemplate that approach, even if it means not necessarily buying British all the time.

We can continue to provide Ukraine with equipment. We have taken a lead in Europe in providing equipment— I command the Government for their stance—and in training the brave Ukrainian soldiers in its use. However, the conflict is going on for longer than the aggressor intended and longer than any of us would like. We must assume that it will continue, and that supplies will be needed, for some time. In the integrated review, we must be prepared to backfill our own supplies of munitions and increase our own stockpiles and capability. That takes time, and it takes treasure. We need to establish strategic reserves as a consequence of the integrated review, which will allow us to sustain our own forces and those in Ukraine for a long time. We have to demonstrate to the Russians that the UK has the resolve to stand fast behind Ukraine, and the resolve to ensure that NATO is in a position to act as a deterrent to any extension of this conflict beyond where it currently is.


Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con)

The hon. Gentleman’s case would be considerably enhanced if international courts were to find the Russian military guilty of war crimes during their conduct of this so-called special military operation. Does he agree that that would provide even further justification for what he is arguing?

Sir Chris Bryant 

It would undoubtedly add a fifth leg to a four-legged stool, but a four-legged stool is strong enough. I do not want to have to wait for that moment to be able to do this, because Ukraine needs the money now to be able to put food on the table and proceed.


Philip Dunne 

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the Wagner Group is recruiting convicts released from Russian jails for that purpose? It is arming some of the most dangerous people in Russia to spread terror around the world. That could affect all of us.

Vicky Ford 

I absolutely agree. Not only is the Wagner Group using Russian criminals; it is also recruiting in Africa and other unstable parts of the world such as Afghanistan, and using those people to fight these wars.


Other interventions in the same debate

Philip Dunne 

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, the shadow Minister’s declaration of his interest with the GMB union prompts me that I should have declared my interests when speaking, and I apologise to you, Sir, for not having done so. Until the end of last month, I was deputy chairman of the Defence Growth Partnership and I remain a non-executive director of an engineering company with defence interests, as declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)

The right hon. Gentleman is aware that that is not a matter for the Chair, but he has placed his interests on the record. I now call the Minister of State; if he would be good enough, as a courtesy, to allow Sir Bernard a couple of minutes at the end to wind up the debate, that would be helpful.