Every so often we are abruptly reminded of how fragile the security that we take for granted, both economic and physical, really is. How our world can be shaken or undermined by events beyond our control. From the real and ever present threat of global terrorism, most recently and heartbreakingly seen on the streets of Orlando, Tel Aviv and Mosul, to the stark reminder of the true horrors of war as we commemorated the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. A hundred years on from the war to end all wars, the folly of that appellation remains painfully clear. Our world has become smaller but no safer, and in this era of globalisation new threats to our peace and stability have emerged.
It is our responsibility as a future party of government to understand these threats and to have a clear, strategic defence policy. The country must know that we can and will protect them.
No defence review should be undertaken without a clear understanding of the threats that we face. We simply cannot determine what capabilities we need until we have an understanding of who our opponents are, their relative strengths and weaknesses, and what we need to both deter and defeat them. A worthwhile defence review is one which begins with an analysis of the threats we face as a country, develops a strategy to provide long-term security from those threats, and finally proposes a model of organisation and procurement which supports that strategy.
In the current climate this process has to start with an understanding of the current Russian psyche and their strategic regional objectives. Last month I visited Moscow as part of a defence committee delegation. The visit highlighted quite how much our relationship with Putin’s regime has deteriorated. It became clear that as much as we may have in common with the Russian people, we have little shared comprehension of vocabulary or history with Putin’s regime and the threat posed to us and our NATO allies from the Russian Federation is escalating at an alarming rate.
The facts speak for themselves. After 30 years of neglect, Russia is rapidly upgrading and modernising its military. It has deployed short range nuclear capable missiles in Crimea, and continues to exert its influence in Ukraine through the use of ‘asymmetrical warfare’ – the deployment of non-conventional, paramilitary forces acting at arms-length to destabilise the region. It has even begun the process of repositioning its nuclear doctrine, confirmed by the head of the Duma’s security committee, who stated on record that Russia is prepared to deploy nuclear weapons as conventional weapons in regional and local conflicts. This alone makes it clear that the debate on our nuclear deterrent has never been more timely.
But we must begin from an understanding of this situation, and from the realisation that our independent nuclear deterrent plays a strategic role in preventing not only a nuclear attack by Russia on the United Kingdom, but also an attack on other NATO countries with conventional forces, securing peace across the European continent. Last week’s publication of the parliamentary Labour party’s backbench defence committee report on the ‘Trident’ renewal vote made this point strongly.
My colleagues and I were elected on a manifesto which recognised the importance of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. The experiences I have had as part of the defence select committee have only strengthened my belief that a continuous at sea deterrent is the necessary and proportionate tool to protect ourselves from the threats we face as a nation.
But our deterrent also serves a wider function: as a creator of jobs (which is why my union, the GMB, are so supportive), a generator of skills and technological advance, and most importantly as a guarantor of Britain’s global influence. The UK is the only country in the world that is a member of the European Union, a member of NATO, and a permanent member of the UN security council – the latter of which is guaranteed by our status as a nuclear power.
That unique standing in the world is our greatest strength, and one that is already imperilled by the looming EU referendum. And while the issues of Europe and Trident may seem poles apart, the truth is that they both speak to a broader debate we have yet to settle – Britain’s wider role in the world.
As we look ahead to the defence review and begin to grapple with the challenges we face in the 21st century, we must never lose sight of just what is at stake.
Ruth Smeeth MP is member of parliament for Stoke-on-Trent North. She tweets @RuthSmeeth
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