James Heappey – 2022 Speech on NATO and International Security

The speech made by James Heappey, the Minister for the Armed Forces, in the House of Commons on 19 May 2022.

I thank all colleagues for their contributions to the debate. As ever over the past four or five months, it has been defined by gentle disagreement politely put by well-informed contributors to the debate around defence and security in the Euro-Atlantic.

NATO is inescapably the foundation on which Euro-Atlantic security is based. It is, always was and has proven itself over the past three months still to be the most enormous deterrent, even against Putin at his most belligerent. Other multinational fora, many of which have been mentioned today—the UN, the European Union, the G7, the coalition of donors that sit outside NATO and the coalition of those who have imposed sanctions on Russia—have all been able confidently to make interventions to try to resolve the conflict, safe in the knowledge that NATO’s overwhelming firepower keeps the conflict contained within Ukraine. That has enabled many international fora to take measures to impose cost on Russia and try to persuade it to change course.

Not only does NATO have an enormous technological and numerical advantage but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) made clear, the nuclear deterrent is inescapably important to the deterrence that NATO provides. That is why the SNP’s positions on nuclear and on NATO are so contradictory. Scotland’s geography is the gatepost on the southern side of the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap. That is the most strategic gateway to the north Atlantic and is essential to all NATO’s plans. Right now, at the very tip of Scotland, some of the most advanced anti-submarine warfare capabilities are based at RAF Lossiemouth. They are there because one of Europe’s best-funded and biggest air forces is able to have those capabilities alongside the fast air that polices threats in the Norwegian and northern seas and beyond.

Of course, Scotland hosts the nuclear deterrent on which so many countries around NATO depend, because it is the only nuclear deterrent that is assigned to NATO. It therefore seems to me more than a little contradictory that a party that wants to expel the UK’s nuclear deterrent from Scotland wants to apply to join an alliance that is ultimately underpinned by that very same deterrent.

Stewart Malcolm McDonald

I will be brief. After a vote for independence, who will the nuclear deterrent belong to?

James Heappey

I am trying hard to follow the question. The answer is either that it belongs to the United Kingdom and the Scottish Government would insist on its removal—

Stewart Malcolm McDonald

Yes—so it is not ours.

James Heappey

Yet the hon. Gentleman’s position and that of his party is that he would want to join an alliance whose deterrence is underpinned by that deterrent. It feels inconsistent. To NATO countries around the alliance, the idea that that pivotal geography on the southern end of the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap should wish to break away from one of the world’s biggest, best-resourced and best-trained armed forces seems like absolute nonsense.

Mr Kevan Jones

I agree. The argument is clear: NATO is a nuclear alliance. SNP Members always refer to other countries in NATO that do not have nuclear weapons, but those countries have a commitment not only to receive nuclear weapons but, in some cases, to have aircraft that deliver them. Would a future Scottish air force have to deliver the nuclear deterrent?

James Heappey

That is an interesting point. It seems to me that NATO is one of the most powerful arguments for the Union, because if one supports NATO, surely one continues to support the Union.

Many colleagues have discussed the Madrid conference and shown particular interest in the strategic concept. Fundamentally, the strategic concept has three key elements for which we should be looking out and in which the UK has particular interests.

The first key element of the strategic concept relates to the resilience of member states and the wider alliance, and to the interweaving of national security plans, reinforced by a wider NATO mass at appropriately high readiness, with robust enablers and industrial bases to get NATO into the fight and sustain it once it is there.

The second element is adapting and modernising around advanced technologies. Inescapably, the battle space is changing. Everyone harks back to the armour-on-armour conflict of the past, and, of course, as we have seen in Ukraine, there is still a place for it, but, inescapably, there are technological advances that cannot be avoided and that the alliance must embrace. Missile technology is in the ascendancy. Cyber and space remain pivotal, even if their role in Ukraine has not been as great as we expected, and the alliance must embrace them.

The third element is competing and integrating across domains using both military and non-military tools. Far too often in discussion, NATO is viewed through a military lens when the nature of competition is now more than just military mass on mass; it is the ability to bring to bear the full effects of the state, and all states within the alliance, to impose cost on the adversary.

It is a selective retelling of history if the UK’s own increase in defence spending is ignored. I would argue that the UK led the way in encouraging people to increase defence spending in anticipation of the way the world was developing. Many countries have now followed, which is enormously welcome. That has changed the Euro-Atlantic security situation beyond recognition. In particular, Germany’s spending as a large continental power in the middle of Europe has massively changed things. It gives the UK and others a lot to reflect on around the capabilities that we should seek, given the mass that Germany and Poland will have in the centre of Europe.

It is not just the cash spent on military mass that has changed; there has been a huge geo-strategic shift. As Members across the House have remarked, the fact that Finland and Sweden have abandoned decades of neutrality to join the alliance is a quite remarkable development—perhaps the most vivid example of just how badly Putin has miscalculated in his strategic aims for this conflict.

I do not accept the Opposition’s charge that the integrated review has been overtaken by events. The IR was fundamentally about a return to systemic competition. I have an awful lot of time for the shadow Secretary of State, as he knows, but when he said that there was a section on the Indo-Pacific but not on Russia, I had a quick flick through the IR and the defence Command Papers since the IR. I found that almost every paragraph mentions NATO, Russia or the Euro-Atlantic. The one part that does not is the section on the Indo-Pacific to which he refers.

In any case, the argument that the UK can focus only on the Euro-Atlantic is just not sound. The reality—this feels rather like watching my son’s football team play the Cheddar under-10s, where they all run around following the ball—is that there is lots to distract us in Europe right now, but there is a world beyond that is increasingly unstable and insecure. It is struggling with high food and fuel prices, which brings instability, as we saw in the Arab spring. The UK needs to keep an eye on that beyond Europe and remain engaged with it, because Iran, China, Russia and violent extremist organisations are all looking to use the west being distracted as an opportunity to stake their claim.

Mr Baron

Will my hon. Friend give way?

James Heappey

If my hon. Friend does not mind, I will push on because I have only a minute and a half to go.

I pay tribute to our armed forces deployed right now across the entire eastern flank of NATO, in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria, in the sea as well as in the air. Thousands of them are deployed, and they are enjoying their service alongside their NATO allies. They are coming to understand exactly what it is to be a part of NATO, believing in the collective defence of countries on the other side of Europe and being willing to give their lives in their defence, as the NATO treaty requires.

We will continue lethal aid to Ukraine for as long as it is required. We are sending in a great deal of our own stuff, but we are also bringing influence to bear to encourage others around the world to send theirs. Then there is the race for Ukraine to rearm more quickly than a sanction-ridden Russia. We are working hard with the Ukrainians to understand what their requirements will be, work out how to get them the platforms and deliver the training that they will need to operate them. Of course, colleagues in the rest of Government are working to rebuild Ukraine when the conflict finishes. We must not get carried away by any of the successes for Ukraine in recent weeks. A great deal of hard fighting remains. There is no celebration when Russia fails, but Russia is failing far too often. We will continue to do everything we can to support Ukraine. NATO will continue to reinforce its eastern flank to reassure our allies there, and the UK will continue to do all we can to ensure that Putin fails.