Previous Section Home Page

Column 551

I also pay tribute to the officers, non- commissioned officers and other ranks of the Regular Army and Territorial Army. They are going through a most challenging period of change and they continue to do what politicians ask of them in the most professional of ways. Under "Options for Change", the strength of the Army has been reduced from about 156,000 to 116,000. In February 1993, that strength was raised to 119,000 and 2,000 posts were saved in the support arms, which were transferred to front-line units. In December 1993, a further 3,000 posts were transferred from rear to front-line units. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said, that has allowed the re-roling of the Royal Armoured Corps Regiment, as an armoured recce regiment, which reduced the cadreisation of the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineering units and allowed for the retention of an additional battery of 24 Air Mobile Brigade Artillery Regiment. Apart from those changes, "Options for Change" is largely complete.

There have been further reductions in the defence budget since those changes were announced but, to take up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster, the introduction of further commercial management practices in certain areas should be welcomed, even if not necessarily in all quarters.

The Bett review and final withdrawal from Hong Kong is likely to mean that the strength of the Army will fall to 115,000 by the turn of the century.

The Territorial Army has also undergone substantial reductions and change through "Options for Change". I very much welcome the moves to which my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces referred, to integrate our volunteers more closely with the Regular Army. As part of the restructuring, I welcome the increased role of the Territorial Army in national defence, as well as the wider role as a national reserve. About 57 per cent. of units were allocated to national defence roles and the remainder dedicated to NATO's Allied Command Europe rapid reaction force, which means that our volunteers could be deployed anywhere from Norway to Turkey.

The shift has meant that in the move from teeth to combat arms, the infantry has been reduced from 41 to 36 battalions and from 164 to 109 companies. I welcome the increase in specialist areas--I emphasise the fact that it is an increase--especially in the Territorial Army's Armoured Air Corps, which will be increased by about 50 per cent., and in the Intelligence Corps, which will be increased by 40 per cent. All that restructuring is due to be completed this April. I am not entirely sure whether disbanding the Territorial Army in Germany is necessarily a good thing, but in general the greater integration with the Regular Army and the fact that some proposed cuts--there has been much speculation--have not taken place emphasise the importance attached to the Territorial Army and the cost-effective contribution that it makes to our military capability.

On the possibility of new reserve forces legislation, the terms of service for Army reservists are governed by the Reserve Forces Act 1980, which was drafted in response to the Territorial Army's enhanced role after 1979 in resisting a possible Warsaw pact assault on NATO. It sanctions Territorial Army mobilisation in the event of national danger or national emergency. That and other blunderbuss sections of the Act are unsuited to the


Column 552

multiple and low-level conflicts in which Britain's armed forces might become involved and in which the Territorial Army might be needed in the 1990s and the 21st century.

Present legislation undoubtedly hinders the use of reservists, as was seen in the Gulf war. We need to establish new categories of reservist--those of high readiness, subject to immediate call-out, especially combatants, those in the support arms, sometimes linguists and the ready reservists, to be mobilised to serve as a general pool and a back pool for regular personnel deployed abroad in an emergency.

I welcome the moves in that direction encapsulated in the consultative document published in October 1993, entitled, "Britain's Reserve Forces--a Framework Document for the Future". Some reservists have rightly expressed concern about the possible effects on cohesion of having different categories of reservist in one unit. Nevertheless, that is an important change and I look forward to hearing what my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement has to say on that topic when he replies to the debate. I also hope that he will express a further willingness along the lines that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces referred to earlier--a willingness to allow reservists, and where possible their units, to serve with regular forces more often.

That has long been the practice in Denmark and Canada, and the successful exercise to which my hon. Friend referred, when 40 territorial soldiers-- Territorial Army volunteers from the Royal Irish Rangers--served alongside 1 Royal Irish in the Falklands in 1994, is an important and significant step forward, which needs to be expanded and improved upon. I look to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement to give us a lead in that respect in his reply. Specialists, such as linguists and public relations experts, are working with regular forces in Yugoslavia and with United Nations forces in particular.

The one-Army concept is very important and was first embarked on some years ago. The legislation that I referred to and the changes that we are embarking on are very important and I hope that it will not be too long before legislation is introduced.

I also want to ensure that a Territorial Army soldier does not have to be almost discharged and re-enlisted in the Regular forces to undertake certain engagements of a more Regular nature. The one-Army concept should be entirely seamless.

This has been an historic week in Northern Ireland. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred to the peace initiative in the Province in a statement to the House. I wish the people of Northern Ireland well in their discussions about the way forward for their community, but I am concerned that there has been speculation that, as the peace process continues, the size of the Army presence in Ulster might be reduced. It has always been suggested that such a withdrawal might lead to an eventual reduction in the strength of the Army. In the short term, units on six- month tours might be withdrawn altogether. If that were to be the case--I hope that it will not be--it would lead to even further overstretch within our armed forces. In 1992, the number of Regular battalions in the Province was increased from 10 to 12 as a result of increased and heightened terrorist activity. A reversal of


Column 553

that decision might lead to the abolition of the six-month tour. More long-standing peace might bring pressure to bear for further infantry battalion amalgamations.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said, but surely he cannot be suggesting that we keep troops in Northern Ireland because we have nowhere else to put them. If we needed 10 battalions in 1991 and the peace continues, surely we should be able to look forward to bringing some of the 12 battalions back to the mainland.

Mr. Banks: Having made those earlier remarks, I look to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement to reassure me that no hasty decisions will be taken on that matter.

Additional responsibilities have made it impossible to ensure a 24-month interval between emergency tours. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster referred to concerns in the armed forces and in the House on that matter. The fact that the Ministry of Defence was unable to meet its target in that respect meant that a couple of the battalions that might have been amalgamated earlier this year were not. It led to the withdrawal of a unit from Belize.

In 1995-96, regardless of further commitments of which we are not currently aware, some 10 major units will breach the 24-month guideline for gaps between tours, if the Select Committee on Defence is correct. My right hon. and hon. Friends at the Treasury would not put up with a gap of less than 24 months, so our soldiers and service men should not, either.

That is why I expressed my concerns in the House and, perhaps more appropriately and effectively, privately, about the amalgamation of the Gordon Highlanders, the Queen's Own Highlanders and some other units. Behind the scenes, many discussions have taken place and I am pleased that the points concerning overstretch were well taken by my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench. I recognise the pressure on them, not least from our right hon. and hon. Friends at the Treasury.

I cannot continue without reminding my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement of the assurances made at the time of amalgamation. It is vital that the limited funding to maintain two regimental headquarters officers, in the case of north-east Scotland, in Aberdeen and Inverness, is retained. Without it, it will be impossible properly to carry out civil-military liaison, recruitment activities and other matters in such a large, disparate geographical area. My right hon. Friend should allow for a replacement to be made in the establishment in Aberdeen when the current grade 3 officer retires. At present, there are no plans to replace him, but I believe that he should be replaced.

I always understood that "Options for Change" was intended to reduce our armed forces to the minimum necessary to retain capability in all areas of low and high-intensity warfare. That appertains to equipment, as it does to size. The Government confirm that the Army will receive 259 Challenger 2 tanks, and orders are expected soon for helicopters. Much of the Army's equipment was, understandably, designed in the 1980s. In these days when defence inflation outstrips average inflation, there is genuine concern about whether there will be sufficient funding to procure replacements for all the Army systems at the beginning of the 21st century and beyond.


Column 554

If commitments are maintained and spending is not increased, a further defence review will be inevitable, particularly in Germany. I believe that the Foreign Office budget should shoulder a greater weight of the financial burden of some of our international peacekeeping operations, and I should be surprised if many of my hon. Friends, particularly in the Government, did not agree with me. I have had time in this debate only to scratch the surface of many of the important issues. I shall finish where I began, by paying genuine tribute to the men and women of our armed forces, particularly in the Army. They have always been professional in carrying out the duties that we as politicians put before them, often in very difficult circumstances. How I felt for some of those Army officers, non-commissioned officers and other ranks who, while serving in the difficult terrain of Bosnia, were called to see a senior officer one day and told that they had to go.

I am reminded of how many Ministers over the years, irrespective of which Government have been in office, have managed to survive a reshuffle because they have been taken away from London or were abroad at the time. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and we should not advocate one thing in one place and act differently somewhere else. My hon. Friends understand only too well my concern in that respect.

Having listened to some of the contributions by Opposition Members, not least an amusing and witty speech by the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), I believe that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces was right when he said: "There is no area of policy where the Labour party is less convincing than defence."

I have no doubt that Britain's defence interests are best served by a Conservative Government.

8.4 pm

Dr. Charles Goodson-Wickes (Wimbledon): I am particularly glad to be called in this debate as it releases me from the dubious delights of the Finance Bill Committee.

First, I re-emphasise the plea for stability in the Army after the inevitable disruption resulting from the three major exercises over the past three years: the prospect study; "Options for Change"; and the defence costs study. I objected to some of the proposals and welcomed others. I do not propose this evening to revisit those issues but I warn that, if the leaked proposals for a corps of infantry in planning project BA2000 are based on fact, my right hon. and hon. Friends in the defence team will experience the sort of whirlwind foreshadowed in some of the "Options for Change" potential amalgamations, which were later wisely shelved.

Mr. Freeman: I should not want to allow my hon. Friend to continue his speech with any sense of foreboding or depression, so I give him the absolute assurance that there is no plan whatever to reorganise the Army into a corps.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes: I am delighted to receive that assurance from my right hon. Friend, which will have the double benefit of reducing the length of my speech.

I emphasise that rumours that reach the newspapers aggravate the uneasiness that many soldiers feel about their job security and quality of life. They are concerned


Column 555

for themselves and for their families but they often hide or disguise those feelings in the interests of the duty that they have undertaken, to serve the country. Any further factors--I am glad to hear that any reform of the infantry is not to be one of them--will clearly adversely affect recruitment and retention.

The second point that I wish to make is about training. In this country, only Salisbury plain and Otterburn are suitable for proper collective training. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) expressed his views clearly and I am sorry that he is no longer in the Chamber because he knows that, as a part-time constituent of his--I spend only occasional days in the year in his constituency--I am careful not to trespass on his territory in the political sense.

However, Salisbury plain has been under increasing pressure since the return of soldiers from the British Army of the Rhine. I happen to think that the Army is one of the best conservation agencies in the country, protecting habitats and preserving marvellous parts of our countryside relatively and, perhaps paradoxically, undisturbed. Salisbury plain is now criss-crossed with roads to prevent damage from a greater concentration of tracked vehicles and, if that continues, it will ultimately look like an asphalt

parkplatz--something that no one in the House would want. It would serve nobody's interests.

When my right hon. Friend winds up, will he say what progress has been made in assessing new training areas? What is the point of having a training area in Alberta, Canada when, owing to our present commitments, we cannot supply enough men to exercise there? In any case, it is an expensive operation to maintain.

The Army admits that it is not as well trained now as at the time of the Gulf war. What will be done to redress that? Simulation, although it has a role, can never be as good as field training. What progress is there to report on the former GDR, Poland, Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic as potential alternatives? We need to exercise at proper levels and I hope that the tanks and other elements of the Army that we have at the moment will soon be supplemented by a fourth recce regiment and attack helicopters. My third and last point is to urge a rationalisation of our defence commitments, integrated as closely as possible with our foreign policy interests. In common with the whole House, I welcome the ceasefire brokered with such skill and determination by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Having served in South Armagh in the bad old days of the early 1970s, I found the difference in atmosphere when I returned to Ulster two weeks ago totally amazing. I shall not comment on the political situation, given the delicacy of the matter following the publication of the framework document this week. I have no intention of prejudicing any talks taking place at the moment, although I join my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) in welcoming the assurances that have been given that further force reductions will not result from a possible lasting peace.

However, I question the rationale behind the deployment of our troops around the world. It all seems somewhat haphazard to me. It was never clear to me why we went into Bosnia, other than as part of a larger NATO, WEU or United Nations operation. Do we really want to get embroiled in Angola? I have visited the war zone there


Column 556

and it has endured the most ghastly civil war for the past 20 years. Would not our particular skills, which have been admired worldwide, be better harnessed in other parts of the world? If the United States tends to become more isolationist, as the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) said earlier that it would, we certainly cannot be expected to be everywhere. Should we not be taking the lead in developing NATO on both sides of the Atlantic, or the United Nations with a proper command structure to combat the new menaces of today, such as drug trafficking, terrorism and nuclear proliferation?

In other contexts, our training teams do admirable work--which is often not publicised--in several parts of the world in passing on skills and developing the goodwill that is invaluable to future relationships and trade. Should we not be expanding, rather than contracting, that work? Why, in some affluent, anglophile and well-disposed countries in South America, for instance, are we reducing the number of military attache s so that they have to cover groups of countries, thus reducing their effectiveness and bringing about the loss of goodwill and trade from Britain to the United States and our European Community partners, who are often our commercial rivals?

Why does one come across the ludicrous situation of an NCO, however capable, being passed off as a subaltern to represent our interests in a particularly important part of the developing world in Latin America? Why do we have mere colonels as defence attache s in other significant countries in the far east when brigadiers, and now even major-generals, are being made redundant? I suggest that officers of the rank of colonel do not have access at the right level, and that their efforts in Britain's interests are prejudiced by their being relatively junior. One has only to look around gatherings in countries in many parts of the world to find that our attache s are of junior rank and have less effective access than their competitors.

I urge my hon. Friend to address that problem. I understand that talks are taking place at present between his Department and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I very much hope that he will address the matter with great enthusiasm and I urge him to involve the DTI in those discussions.

It is only in some ways--which may sound peripheral, but they are extremely important for the abiding and excellent influence of Britain overseas--that those matters are promoted and thus British interests, so ably looked after by our Army over the centuries, can best be developed effectively.

8.14 pm

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Army. Like my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, I served in the Army a quarter of a century ago. I served in The Life Guards, one of the two regiments of Household Cavalry, and I was fortunate to serve in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. Back in Europe, I served for a short time at Windsor and performed public duties here in London before being sent to Northern Ireland toward the end of my military career and at the beginning of the present troubles.

It is amazing to look back over the short distance of five or six years and consider the changes that have taken place in the world since then. We have seen the collapse


Column 557

of the Warsaw pact, and the western world has gone through the worst economic recession since 1929. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that there have been significant changes our in military forces.

It is remarkable that Britain has managed to maintain defence spending at its current level. We spend 3.7 per cent. of GDP on defence, whereas France spends 3.4 per cent. and Germany spends only 2 per cent. It has been possible to maintain defence spending at that level only because a prudent Conservative Government repaid debt during the good years so that we had the capacity to borrow to see us through the bad years.

What is the purpose of our armed forces? I suggest that they exist for three reasons. First, to maintain the security of western Europe, and with it the security of these islands; secondly, to maintain internal security, particularly in the Province of Northern Ireland; and thirdly, to perform a miscellany of tasks which, for the sake of argument, I shall call the optional extras.

The first two tasks simply must be afforded; there can be no question about that. Twice in the lifetime of many of our constituents, Europe has been convulsed by war. Twice in their lifetime, Britain has been caught napping and soldiers, sailors and airmen have been sent to die in the first battles in very large numbers. That must never happen again.

The extent of our spending on defence must, of course, depend on the assessment of the risks that the country faces from time to time. It is important to emphasise that the security of these islands rests upon the structure of NATO. It is a dangerous delusion to believe that western Europe, through the medium of the Western European Union or any other organisation, can effectively defend itself against a threat such as that which we faced from the east throughout the 1950s, 1960s 1970s and most of the 1980s. We hope that that threat will never arise again, but we live in a dangerous and unstable world and we cannot be caught napping again.

The Warsaw pact has now been dismantled. The formidable East German army is now on our side and the same can perhaps be said of the Poles, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Hungarians and others. We have entered into a new period of friendly and constructive relations with the Russian people--the Ukrainians and other component parts of the former Soviet Union. Long may that continue. Every sinew needs to be strained by the Foreign Office and the country in general to ensure that that constructive relationship with the peoples of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union is built upon and thrives. The threat that we face today is much less certain than the one that we have been used to. Today, the threat comes from further afield, from smaller countries with less formidable capabilities but still with the capacity to cause immense disruption to the interests of the western world at almost a moment's notice. Therefore, our forces must be flexible and additional effort must be put into intelligence gathering. We must always stay one step ahead in the present unstable international situation.

We must remember that, if we again face a major threat to our security, we shall not be able to mobilise either our men or our equipment as quickly or as relatively easily as we did before. It will be much more difficult next time. We must therefore ensure that we have adequate reserves of trained manpower and equipment and we must organise


Column 558

our military procurement strategy so that equipment can be produced and delivered to our armed forces much more quickly.

Secondly, internal security can pose a risk to our national security, and Northern Ireland is the most important at present. I am sure that everyone in this country and on the island of Ireland is immensely grateful for the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his colleague the Prime Minister of Ireland and the efforts of all of the Ministers and civil servants who have been involved in the peace process.

The peace process did not just happen; it has evolved from immense thought, careful planning and, not least, political risk, on the part of those involved. All those who wish to see peace in Northern Ireland must pay tribute to the work that has been done. It is too early to say whether that work will bear fruit, but I sincerely hope that it will. I think that the Prime Minister and his colleagues deserve the support of the House and of the whole nation, particularly at this delicate stage in the negotiation process. In the Northern Ireland context, I wish to address the subject of criminal liability to which our armed forces and our armed police are exposed. An armed soldier or an armed policeman has a duty to place his life at risk to protect the public. He is under a duty to fire his weapon, should that prove necessary, in order to protect the public. Therefore, I do not believe that he should be held to the same standards of criminal liability as those of us who are not under that obligation.

I believe that my right hon. and learned Friend the

Attorney-General should bring before the House for debate a form of words which would afford armed soldiers and policemen who are acting bona fide in the performance of their duties wider protection from criminal liability than presently exists. That situation is quite different from the recent incident where off-duty soldiers made a violent attack upon a civilian. Those soldiers were not on duty and were under no obligation to place their lives at risk. They should be held to the same standard of criminal liability as applies to the rest of us, and I understand that the Parachute Regiment Association concurs with that view.

Thirdly, we require our armed forces for optional extras. Those forces are deployed in support of our foreign policy objectives, which are essentially a matter for debate in the foreign affairs context. I sometimes think that when the House debates foreign affairs, we tend to concentrate too much on specific foreign affairs issues of the day. We do not stand back and consider what we need military forces for--what are the foreign policy objectives for which we maintain those forces.

We maintain military force in general support of western strategy, for example, in the Gulf. Although it does not threaten our security directly, stability in the Gulf is immensely important to the world's trade and to its strategic balance. World trade is immensely important to a country like Britain which, throughout its history, has lived by trade.

Armed forces are necessary to preserve respect for human rights around the world, but we cannot be a world policeman. We should play our part, but we must think carefully about the degree to which we wish to involve our soldiers, sailors and airmen in enterprises of that kind.


Column 559

We must support the Security Council of the United Nations. We are an important member of the world organisation and I hope that we shall remain so. I should like Britain's armed forces to be used more often in support of the Security Council. We should be proud of the fact that the British fighting man is among the best--I would say is the best--in the world. This country can make an important contribution to the work of the United Nations by deploying our soldiers, sailors and airmen in support of the Security Council. However, I do not see why we should pay for it. I believe that, when our armed forces are made available in support of the United Nations, those who are not prepared to put their armed forces at the United Nations' disposal should bear a greater share of the cost involved. It might be said that we would be offering our armed forces in a mercenary role. I do not think that that is the correct way of looking at it. Even if it were, I see nothing dishonourable in making our armed forces available in support of the United Nations, on the basis that other members of that organisation pay for it. We should debate in an objective manner our foreign policy objectives and the use to which we wish to put our military force. I do not think that journalists like Kate Adie, or anyone else, should be allowed to make British foreign policy. Whatever we decide, our armed forces should be properly equipped and manned for the role that they must perform.

I congratulate the Government on their commitment to order 259 Challenger 2 tanks for the Army and the new attack helicopters. The Army is also equipped with the Warrior, one of the best infantry armoured fighting vehicles in the world, and the AS90 self-propelled gun, which has proved to be one of the most versatile and effective artillery pieces available.

Our armed forces should be manned adequately, but I am concerned that, all too often, a minor unit is detached from its parent unit in order to support another unit, taking part of its regimental headquarters with it. As a result, what is left of the parent unit does not constitute an effective fighting force. We should also take care to keep the correct interval between tours. If we are to maintain the right calibre of men and women in our armed services, it is vital that there is adequate time to train them for the role upon which they are about to embark and to retrain them upon their return. They must also have adequate time to spend with their families. I also believe--this is perhaps the most important point I wish to make in relation to manning--that we must have adequate training at brigade level and above. Almost an entire generation of brigade and corps commanders have not been able to exercise their formations. Simulators and exercises without troops can help, but there is no substitute for exercises with real troops in co-operation with naval and air forces.

It is also essential that our Territorial Army be integrated much more with the Regular forces, and I welcome the Government's position on that issue. If future hostilities were to occur, there would not be time for those soldiers to be integrated with the Regular units. It is better for them that they are integrated with the Regular units, so that their training is more realistic and much more in tune with what their Regular comrades are doing. It is essential for the defence of the nation that they should be integrated.


Column 560

I should now like to say a word about the ceremonial role of the Army, having myself served on public duties here in London. Those duties are not, of course, essential to the security of our country, but they are essential to the maintenance of our traditions. They are a tangible reminder to our people of the great history of our country. They are also one of the major reasons why so many tourists come to this country. Those units probably pay for themselves, which is more than can be said for any other unit of our armed forces. I hope that we shall always be able to maintain the tradition of public duties in London, and that the Government will always ensure that the units that have to do those duties are properly manned and properly equipped.

We run the risk today of our armed forces being undermanned. I know that the economy is going through a difficult period, but I have the confidence that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is pursuing the right strategy. I am confident that the economy is improving, and when we begin to see more of the results of that economic recovery, I hope that we can have another look at the manning of our armed forces. I would like to see our Army maintained at a minimum of 120,000 trained men, with 12,000 more in training. I also hope that, whatever decisions we may take about the manning of the Army in future, we remember the importance of the regimental system. It is absolutely vital that the regimental system, which has been built up over 300 years or more, is preserved, because when a man goes into battle in the British Army, he is going into battle not just for his country but for the honour of his regiment. That may seem to be an intangible thing for anyone who has not served in one of our great regiments, but for anyone who has it is a very real factor and an important source of motivation at what can be a very stressful and difficult time.

I congratulate the Government on the skilful way in which they have negotiated the past five years, which have been immensely difficult for any Government, in terms of the economic resources; the dramatically changed nature of the threat; and the consequent need to restructure our forces. They have done well, but I hope that in future we can do better.

8.32 pm

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam): I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister of State's robust commitment and support for a lean and fit Army and armed forces in general in the "Front Line First" programme. Indeed, I was encouraged by the enhancements that have been made and the promises of the enhancements to come.

The danger, in my view, is that there is real doubt as to whether the Army will be considered sufficient to meet all today's needs; in general UN peacekeeping terms it probably will, but I very much doubt that it could cope with a real emergency requiring sustained and intense support over a period of months. In that, I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), who spoke in last week's Navy debate. He warned us then that the 25 per cent. cut from our defence spending overall was wrong. Indeed, he repeated that comment today. He said, quite rightly, that, in a dangerous world, we must

"begin to re-establish the strength of our military forces."--[ Official Report , 16 February 1995; Vol. 254, c. 1166.]

How right he is.


Column 561

I trust that the Government will keep an open mind and start preparing now for greater flexibility on defence spending. I fear that some were too euphoric in the ending of the cold war. The new world order did not necessarily become a better world order. Indeed, with a loss of a certain and identifiable potential aggressor, it has become a significantly more dangerous place, and certainly more hazardous. A seemingly small local conflict could explode and take on an international dimension. It would very likely affect us, for we are not just a little coastal nation.

We are but one of the few countries in the world with real global interests. We are a member of NATO and the Western European Union. We are a permanent member of the Security Council and are just one of the five nations in the world with a nuclear deterrent. We are an active member of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations. Some 47 per cent. of our trade is outside Europe. We head a Commonwealth of 51 nations. No other country holds all those positions of international prominence and responsibility. With those positions of influence, and with them the potential to be threatened in any number of areas, we are living on luck if we believe that our current level of forces will see us through every eventuality. They will not. I believe that we should take a lesson from history. Man does not change in character, despite modern technology. It just means that we can be even more devastating in warfare. One potential enemy goes; another will surely take his place.

Paul Beaver, who is well known for his work with Jane's Defence Weekly , in a presentation in the House some weeks ago, identified 44 flash points in areas of British concern for this year. He pointed to the new fighting in regional and ethnic conflicts, the continued regional and ethnic conflicts in former colonies, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the rise in Islamic extremism and the threats to our trade routes.

It would be a mistake to say that there would be no British strategic interest at stake in any one of those cases. Indeed, I recall the rueful comment made by Lord Callaghan, while Foreign Secretary, following the rescue mission by Turkish troops in North Cyprus in 1974. He said:

"Wars begin in the smallest and the most unexpected places." It was true then. It was certainly true later with the Falklands, when we had to scrabble over the map even to find the islands. This May celebrates the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Europe. It should be recalled that we entered the second world war unprepared. Do not forget the ignominy of 158,000 men being booted off the Dunkirk beaches, with the loss of all the equipment. They were hopelessly outgunned and outclassed by their German opponents. The same was true of our French allies.

Similar disasters were to follow in Norway, Greece, Crete and Singapore. The only encouraging development was the battle of Britain, fought by "The Few", Wavell's offensives against the Italians and the first defence of Tobruk. So why was there such a parlous state? The dead hand of politicians, I confess, in 1919, who were so horrified by the first world war--termed the war to end all wars--that the Cabinet brought in the notorious 10-year rule, which assumed that, for the purpose of


Column 562

defence funding, the British empire would not be engaged in any war during the next 10 years, and therefore no expeditionary force was needed.

The Geddes axe decimated the armed services, which were then made unfit for anything save imperial placing. That certainly applied to the Army. In today's somewhat more sophisticated scenario, I refer to our activities with the UN peacekeeping duties--worthy in themselves, but I very much doubt that we could cope with a conflict on a much wider scale.

The 10-year rule was still in operation in 1932, paralysing all defence development. After that, the Treasury did not lift the lid on defence spending until the day when Chamberlain, most reluctantly, had to see the light after appeasement in Munich in 1938. In no time at all, we were fighting for our lives--scrambling, almost too late, to repair the damage.

Surely we should not miscalculate a third time, and repeat that sorry chapter of disasters. Even if we accept that in future all security threats will be tackled by an international force, we must recognise that a sufficient body of organisation and troops will be needed for a sustained campaign. We are completely unable to contribute that today.

I pay tribute to Field Marshal Lord Bramall, who last month addressed the Defence and Security Forum of which I am proud to be president. The forum grew out of my anti-CND campaign Families for Defence, which I launched in 1983. Lord Bramall warned that after the cold war and the introduction of "Options for Change"--or perhaps I should call it "Options for Cuts"--we were caught out. We entered a full-blown war in the Gulf, ransacking men, tanks and equipment in Germany to keep ourselves going. Today, Lord Bramall told us, we could not possibly mount a repeat performance. Even in the Gulf we could not have sustained a prolonged campaign: we did not have the resources. We coped with 100 hours, but 100 days would have landed us in serious trouble.

Today our armed forces, especially the infantry, are over-extended. It could be at least two years before we achieve a proper tempo of unaccompanied service with gaps of more than 24 months. Lord Bramall argued forcefully that we should radically rethink our defence policy, and prepare with more realism for a sustained threat in the future. A man of his enormous calibre should be listened to very carefully. I accept that modern war-fighting is changing rapidly, with more emphasis on high technology-- which I acknowledge we are obtaining. None the less, I do not consider that we are in sufficiently good military health to cope with a serious and sustained threat to our interests. The Treasury must accept responsibility for its influence on "Options for Change". It is short-sighted to trim so bare to the bone to cut public spending. It seems to have been forgotten that to be ill prepared for a major war will cost us infinitely more than temporary savings today. Our current budget for 1995-96 is just £22.7 billion--only just more than what we spend on support for disabled people and their carers.

We have taken the stoic professionalism of our armed forces and their officers for granted, pushing their loyalty and efficiency to the limits. To slash the Army--at the Treasury's insistence--from 165, 000 to 116,000, when even the General Staff and Ministers agreed that 123,000 would have been more appropriate, showed a minimum


Column 563

of sensitivity and understanding. It was a relief that there was a reprieve, and the figure was raised to 118,000. That would just about fill Wembley stadium.

The truth is that the Army is overstretched, and is likely to remain so for as long as Bosnia lasts in its present form. That may be some time, for our troops are trusted and highly respected by all sides. Praise coming from the Serbs I know is praise indeed. At this point, let me pay tribute to the skills of General Sir Michael Rose and condemn the appalling attempt at character assassination by the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald). It was unworthy of him, and I hope that he will withdraw his remarks on another occasion.

The Army in Bosnia might be stretched even further: more troops would be needed if we were to supervise a political settlement. The real difficulty is that none of our infantry battalions or engineer units is strong enough without reinforcements to deal with more than day-to-day service, let alone anything that might constitute a real emergency. I do not see how we could ever contemplate any military intervention involving a brigade or more for at least six months. There are serious gaps in our equipment. Jane's Information Group has identified 13 areas in which we are below admitted par--and that applies to the Army alone. The catalogue of items that it provides reveals a "stop, cancel and postpone" movement in procurement. Even with the order of a further 127 Challenger 2 tanks by the year 2000, the United Kingdom main battle tank fleet will still be just under 400, although I accept that 200 Challenger 1 tanks will be available for training purposes.

We should compare that with 2,800 main battle tanks in Germany and just under 1,000 in France. Twenty-nine countries have larger main battle tank fleets, including Switzerland, Egypt, Iraq, Japan and five NATO countries. Fifteen nations, including three NATO allies, have larger holdings of armoured personnel carriers than the British Army's conventional forces in Europe inventory of 3,003.

Stocks of ammunition and spares remain too low for a sustained campaign, although I welcome the ordering of 400,000 rounds of 51mm mortar ammunition from the royal ordnance, which will help with current needs. We have no artillery with a range greater than 30 km save our multiple launch rocket systems, whose numbers have been cut. It should be said that both Iraq and Iran have artillery with a range of more than 40 km. Thirty-one countries have bigger stocks of artillery and multiple launch rocket systems, including six NATO partners. Nor is it helpful to reduce the amphibious bridging regiment to squadron size. I could continue with my catalogue, but I hope that the point is getting across.

I had understood that we had reached a period of stability in cost-cutting. The principle is welcome, but cost-cutting creeps on: gaps in our equipment needs are not being closed as rapidly as they should be. Cost cutting is continuing through the deferring of decisions. Let me give some examples.


Column 564

The original intention was to order 107 British Aerospace Rapier 2000 surface-to-air missiles for the Army and RAF regiments; that has been cut to 57. It was originally planned to order 1,048 Warrior armoured personnel carriers, but that was cut--

Mr. Soames: I have been listening carefully to my hon. Friend. Can she tell me what further artillery pieces she feels would be needed, and what their task would be?

Lady Olga Maitland: It is only fair to point out that it is not incumbent on me to tell an expert where the real needs are. I can only identify the areas where serious concern is being caused. It would, I think, be a mistake to be deaf to the experts who have commented; the comments that I have made are not mine alone. As a proud patriot, I wish only to ensure that we do not bind ourselves into a cost-cutting exercise today so that tomorrow we are unable to rise to a serious challenge.

Mr. Martlew: I agree with much of what the hon. Lady has said, but how are we to fund the provision for which she asks? Are we to cut social expenditure, or increase taxes?

Lady Olga Maitland: We should be taking a flexible attitude, and preparing for the fact that in the end we shall have to spend more on defence. As our economy is steadily improving--and I have no doubt that it will continue to improve--there will eventually be room for manoeuvre; it depends very much on where the political will exists. We should bear it in mind that one day we may have to rise to a serious challenge that would threaten all that we hold dear, for which we fought so fiercely not only in the second world war--which we commemorate--but in wars since then. Unless we bear that in mind, we shall have great cause for regret. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure me that he will bear that seriously in mind and start preparing for a flexible and more realistic approach. It would not be appropriate for me to enter into a debate on defence without paying some attention to Opposition policies. I have expressed some genuine concerns about future capability, but it must be admitted that I am much more confident that this Government will be able to respond satisfactorily. That cannot be said of the Opposition.

For the past two years, we have been hearing of the Opposition's robust call for more active intervention in Bosnia. I have sympathised with the spirit of it. However, the past performance of the Labour party should give no comfort to anyone that it is capable of real action. History tells us that it is a lot of words. For a start, fiery words have blinded the public to the fact that massive defence cuts, ignoring strategic need and pandering to social prejudice, are on Labour's agenda. The socialist manifesto demands that Governments "spend less on arms". For six years running, the Labour party conference has called for cuts worth £6 billion a year. That would represent the annual budget for any of our services. Which one will the Opposition cut--the Army, the Navy, or the Air Force? It is all totally unrealistic.

I note that the Labour defence spokesman tried to wriggle out of that embarrassing commitment, weaving and dodging the issue when challenged. The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) has used Labour's proposed "defence review" as an escape clause, as did the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) earlier. When challenged on what they expected the so-called review to


Next Section

  Home Page