UK's Nato commitment 'undermined by delays and rising equipment costs'

UK’s commitment to Nato being ‘undermined’ by shrinking Army, delays and rising costs of new kit including armoured vehicles and surveillance aircraft, says Labour – as ministers commit to sending Apache helicopter gunships to the Baltic

  • Shadow defence secretaryJohn Healey lashed out at procurement failings 
  • Came as ministers unveiled plans to send equipment and personnel to Estonia 
  • ‘Periodic’ deployment of Apache gunships and Chinook transport helicopters
  • Typhoon fighters would take part in air policing over the Baltic March to July 
  • But British Army is to shrink to its smallest size since the Napoleonic era
  • Programmes like Ajax armoured car and surveillance planes behind schedule 

Britain’s commitment to Nato in the face of Russian aggression is being ‘undermined’ by a catalogue of equipment problems and the shrinking size of the British Army, Labour has warned. 

Shadow defence secretary John Healey lashed out as ministers unveiled plans to send equipment and personnel to Estonia, including ‘periodic’ deployment of  Apache gunships and Chinook transport helicopters.

The Ministry of Defence also said Typhoon fighters would take part in air policing over the Baltic from March to July and contribute to patrols in the area. 

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace visited the Lydd Army camp in Kent on Wednesday, where Ukrainian volunteers are being trained to fight in the war against Russia. 

But Labour highlighted other issues facing the UK’s forces. The £5.5billion Ajax armoured car programme is years behind schedule due to problems with vehicles making crews sick and damaging their hearing. 

And plans for a new surveillance aircraft, the E7A Wedgetail, to enter service next year have been pushed back to 2024 at the earliest.

The British Army meanwhile is to shrink to its smallest size since the Napoleonic era, with just 72,5000 troops, and question marks remain over whether plans to increases defence spending across the board will be honoured given economic problems. 

It has been reported that the number of UK troops stationed in Estonia will be halved before Christmas when a 700-strong battalion returns to the UK.

The Mod yesterday said a brigade-sized force will be kept at ‘at high readiness in the UK, ready to reinforce Estonia and the Baltics at a time of need’. It will also hold exercises in Estonia from May. 

Mr Healey was in Brussels this week to meet senior Nato officials. He said: ‘The Conservatives are running a ”broken” military procurement system which is failing British troops and British taxpayers.

‘Ministers have done nothing to fix the repeated delays and ballooning costs that create defence capability gaps, like the RAF’s unmanned surveillance planes. This could undermine the UK’s full contribution to NATO.

Shadow defence secretary John Healey lashed out as ministers unveiled plans to send equipment and personnel to Estonia, including ‘periodic’ deployment of Apache gunships (pictured)  and Chinook transport helicopters.

The £5.5billion Ajax armoured car programme is years behind schedule due to problems with vehicles making crews sick and damaging their hearing.

And plans for a new surveillance aircraft, the E7A Wedgetail, to enter service next year have been pushed back to 2024 at the earliest.

Mr Healey was in Brussels this week to meet senior Nato officials. He said: ‘The Conservatives are running a ”broken” military procurement system which is failing British troops and British taxpayers.’

‘Labour would conduct an across-the-board audit of MoD waste and apply a ”NATO Test” to all major defence projects in our first 100 days in government. We will ensure value for taxpayers’ money and our obligations to NATO are met in full.’ 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he may remove the Government’s current Nato spending target of 3 per cent of GDP by the end of the decade.

Asked if he can continue as Defence Secretary if this happens, Mr Wallace said: ‘My determination is to deliver a modernised Ministry of Defence and armed forces and continue to invest in them, and therefore I need that capability to do so.

‘Three or 2.5 per cent targets at the end of the decade are not something that’s right in front of me in the here and now. In the here and now I need continued investment to not only support Ukraine but also for that vital modernisation.

‘We’ll take each budget as it comes; there’ll be a budget some time in the spring and we’re negotiating for the short period of time between now and then to protect us from the impacts of inflation.’

Wallace joined NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to observe the training of Ukrainian troops in the southeast English town of Lydd, as Britain announced the delivery of a further 12,000 extreme cold-weather sleeping kits for Ukraine. 

Mr Stoltenberg, who said NATO allies were also providing support to Ukrainian troops through the winter months, will meet British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak later  in London to discuss the future of the defence alliance.

Stoltenberg is the first international leader to visit Sunak in Downing Street, and the meeting comes as Britain looks to update its Integrated Review of defence priorities as the government mulls spending cuts.

Sunak said in a statement that Britain would remain a bedrock of NATO but that the alliance must evolve as challenges change.

Britain is a major contributor to the NATO defence alliance, but public finances are under pressure.

The government will lay out spending cuts and tax rises in a budget on Nov. 17,

There are several plans understood to be on the table, including the MoD holding out and waiting for Ajax’s defects to be fixed

Ajax was meant to be the Army’s first new armoured vehicle in a generation, designed to make the military more deadly on the battlefield.

A massive £5.5billion was set aside for the project – but it has been a disaster plagued with glitches, with prototypes damaging the hearing of troops who tested them and making other personnel sick.

Now, with £3.2billion of taxpayers’ cash pumped into the scheme – which has failed to put a single one of the promised 589 tanks into service – fresh question marks are swirling over whether it is time for Ajax to be axed. Ministers have so far insisted it will enter service.

The Boeing Wedgetail aircraft is due to replace the E3 Sentry aircraft as airborne early warning. But while the E3 fleet was retired last year, the first new aircraft will not enter service until 2024. The order of five has also been reduced to three, with the final aircraft not expected in service until 2027.

Labour has become more focused on defence under Sir Keir Starmer, who has spoken out in support of Nato after the wavering years under Jeremy Corbyn. 

A recent poll have the Tories only a slender lead on the issue with voters.  Labour has pledged its Nato test on defence projects to make sure they align with the UK’s membership obligations.

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