Thursday 10th May 2018
James Gray, Conservative MP for North Wiltshire, discusses with
Marcus Papadopoulos the state of Britain’s military and how best to
counter the UK’s adversaries in the world
Whilst there is no historic ‘golden age’, one cannot help but feel that the world today is in a
very unhealthy state. The specific threats of our time are numerous and major, and they
require an extensive and intelligent debate as to how to deal with them in the long-term.
Great power rivalry constitutes one of the key factors behind the destabilisation of peace and
security in the world today. How Francis Fukuyama must lament his ill-advised
proclamation of the “end of history”, following the closure of the Cold War. Because whilst
the ideological component in the rivalry between the leading powers of the world ceased with
the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the element of traditional geostrategic rivalry
never really stopped and has, in fact, exploded in recent years. To any enlightened and
grounded person, what the world is witnessing today, with the standoff between the West and
Russia, is of no surprise whatsoever; it is merely a continuation of history.
Together with great power competition is the ever-increasing rise of Islamic
fundamentalism, which has not only caused carnage in North Africa and in the Middle East
but also in western countries, as the three deadly terrorist attacks in the UK, in 2017,
For the British Government, Russia and Islamic fundamentalism pose a serious threat to
both UK national security and global stability. Regarding the former, Whitehall’s perception
of the “Russian menace” is a traditional one, for British policymakers have, over hundreds of
years, viewed Russia with suspicion and hostility, regardless of what system is ruling Russia –
Tsarist, Communist or the modern-day Russian political system.
In this exclusive interview, James Gray, Conservative MP for North Wiltshire, who is a
member of both the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy and the NATO
Parliamentary Assembly, and who has long pursued an interest in Parliament in defence and
foreign affairs, discusses whether the British Armed Forces are fit for action in what is an
unpredictably dangerous world, who the UK’s allies and adversaries are and how Whitehall
should respond to the threats it faces.
Q You served for seven years in the Territorial Army. Has that experience assisted you
as an MP when discussing matters relating to defence and foreign affairs?
A No is the answer to your question, as I make no pretensions about my service in the
Territorial Army. I was in the Honourable Artillery Company for seven years – from 1977
until 1984 – and never saw action. During that period, I enjoyed myself enormously and a lot
of my subsequent life has been structured on that experience. However, I would not pretend
to any military distinction of any kind whatsoever. One sees people in Parliament who
served in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq and so I am very modest about my own
military experience. That said, however, when I became an MP, some 21 years ago, I looked
around and considered what I could focus my attention on. Because of my background in the
Honourable Artillery Company, I took the view that defence was going to be one of my main
interests, which matched very neatly with how my own constituency, North Wiltshire, is a
military one, with three major bases located there and with many of my constituents having a
military background. So, in short, matters of defence are a very big constituency interest and
a personal interest to me because of my time spent in the TA. Consequently, over the last 21
years, I have become a bit of a ‘defence anorak’ in Parliament.
Q Do you believe that the British Armed Forces are adequately trained and equipped to
protect the UK and UK interests around the world?
That is, of course, an enormously complicated question and one that Parliament and the
Government are engaged with at the moment as a result of the National Security Capability
Review. Now, there is a huge internal battle waging at present between the Ministry of
Defence, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office about how much money there is and how it
should be spent. As the Defence Secretary has made abundantly clear, two percent of GDP is
not a target; rather, it is the baseline from which defence spending should go. In fact, I and
many of my colleagues across both sides of the House of Commons believe that the figure
should be three percent, if we are to be involved around the world in the way we have been in
the not too distant past.
That then takes me to a very critical question, which is: do we have the money?
Regrettably, the answer is No. So, if there was to be some terrible crisis in the world –
whether it be Russia stirring up a conflict or something appalling happening in the Middle
East or in the Far East – the UK would not be able to carry out its defence duties as it has
done so in the past. And I think that is quite wrong. An army of 82,000 soldiers – the
smallest figure ever in the history of the British Army – a Royal Navy with 19 operational
warships, and a Royal Air Force facing the prospect of being hollowed out with fewer
personnel or few aircraft, is extremely disconcerting.
Furthermore, if the rumours circulating around Westminster and Whitehall are correct, that
there are people within the defence establishment who want to reduce the British Army to
70,000 soldiers, delay the arrival of the F-35 fighter aircraft and make more invisible cuts,
then the British military will simply not be able to carry out its duties. I and other
Conservative MPs have told the Government that if those cuts go ahead, then it could have a
rebellion on its hands in Parliament. Let me be very candid: if the cuts happen and if British
national security was to be seriously threatened, the consequences for the UK could be
catastrophic. So, I very much favour the defence budget being increased, and hope that
Secretary of State for Defence will find a way of convincing the Chancellor that it is the right
thing to do. Only by increasing our investment in defence will we ensure that the MOD can
properly equip our personnel to tackle the diversifying threats which they are facing and
ensure that the UK’s interests will continue to be protected in the future.
Q In your opinion, what are the threats to British national security and to British
interests around the world?
Well, the threats are incredibly diverse. First of all, there is Islamic fundamentalism. Even
though we have defeated ISIS in Iraq and Syria, I am afraid to say that this is not like
defeating a conventional enemy, as the terrorist attack on a mosque in Sinai, Egypt,
demonstrated late last year. Defeating an organisation like ISIS is not like defeating the
Nazis because the former will keep on showing its head in countries across the world – it is a
multi-headed hydra. So we have to deal not just with ISIS’ soldiers but with its funding, too;
hence, we must counter how ISIS uses the London markets and cryptocurrencies to raise
money. Further to that, we must deal with dissatisfaction felt by young Muslims in the UK
who are being lured into joining ISIS.
Secondly, and very obviously, there is a tremendous threat from Russia. We know what the
Russians are up to in Ukraine, in Syria and in the Mediterranean. But there are other
geographical areas where the Russians are very active, including the Baltic, the Arctic, and
the North Atlantic. Regarding the former, the Russians are turning their Kaliningrad enclave
into the most militarised part of the world and they left a significant amount of military
hardware behind there after the recent Zapad-17 exercises. In the Arctic and North Atlantic,
the Russians have reinvented the “Bastion” concept, both the defensive bastion and the
outward-looking bastion; they have vastly increased their submarine activity in the Arctic and
across the North Atlantic; they have built, to the tune of many billions of dollars, at least
eight – and probably more – new bases along the Arctic coast; they have two brigades, some
say a division, based outside of Murmansk, trained in Arctic warfare; and their build-up in
the Kola Peninsula is quite simply huge. Put simply, Russian activity in the High North and
the North Atlantic is bigger than it has been for a very long period of time. NATO is now
beginning to react to Moscow’s activity, re-focusing its attention to the Greenland-Iceland-
UK gap, for instance. But NATO can be a very slow-moving organisation, and how it would
react to a Russian military campaign in either the High North or in the Arctic is questionable.
Thirdly, our security and interests are regularly under attack in the cyberspace. On the one
hand, the threat of cybercrime has grown exponentially over the last decade, costing the UK
economy tens of billions of pounds every year. Examples includes online fraud, identity theft,
intellectual property theft, industrial espionage and so on. What do those types of crime have
in common? They are almost always financially motivated. On the other hand, there is,
however, an even more worrying risk of cyber-sabotage. Can we envisage a situation
whereby state-sponsored hackers can cause, for example, a power outage? That is precisely
what Russian hackers did twice in Ukraine in 2015 and 2016. Now, let us imagine that their
target would be a UK nuclear facility. The effects could be catastrophic.
Q How should the UK respond to those threats?
A Well, I have already said that defence spending should be increased – we should aim for a
target of three percent of GDP. On top of that, we must rediscover our naval capabilities in
the North Atlantic and in the Arctic, and must further develop our Royal Marines’ arctic
capabilities. Our mindset should be on preparing to fight a potential war in the Arctic, rather
than focussing solely on fighting wars in desert environments.
Further to that, we absolutely must invest the necessary resources in cyber intelligence and
cyber security to protect our national infrastructure from the intensifying threats. And if we
are to deter other nations from attacking us in the cyberspace, we need to develop our own
sovereign offensive cyber capabilities.
Q Finally, who do you regard as the UK’s principal allies and adversaries in the world?
A Our key allies are very clear and very straightforward: NATO and therefore the United
States of America. Without the US, NATO is nothing – we could not defend ourselves and
NATO would collapse. Now, of course, there are many individual countries with whom we
have very good relations with. Regrettably, though, most do not step up to the mark when it
comes to defence spending.
We also have a good working relationship with China, which might seem odd, but I
personally do not view China as an adversary to the UK. The Chinese are certainly spreading
their power in the world; however, they are not going to jeopardise their trade with the West,
which amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars each year, through military adventures.
Now, regarding adversaries, the principal ones are, on the one hand, Russia, and, on the other
hand, ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. There is no doubt about it that Russia harbours hostile
plans; for example, during the Zapad-17 exercises, Moscow deployed approximately 125,000
troops, supported by tactical nuclear weapons, which came within 100 miles of the NATO
border. Further to that, there were around 40 incidents involving the Russians with the Royal
Navy in 2017. Those sorts of acts are not to be taken lightly so we need to decide on how to
deal with the threat from Moscow. Do we increase our military presence in Poland and
Estonia? Do we encircle the great Russian bear? Do we encourage Sweden and Finland to
join NATO? And do we increase our air surveillance of the Russians? Alternatively, do we
encourage diplomatic, artistic and cultural exchanges with Russia to try and bring them back
into the mainstream of international politics? There is a debate to be had about that, but I
believe that we need to answer Yes to all of the above questions. Right now, relations with
Russia are at an all-time low since the end of the Cold War – we are not talking with them at
all. I find that deeply worrying because we simply do not know where it could lead to.