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Dr. Reid: I repeat what I said earlier. We are prepared at some future stage, if we are convinced that adequate, verifiable progress towards nuclear disarmament has been made, to play our part in it. I think that that answers the right hon. Gentleman's question.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): What the Minister said, both before and after the intervention of the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), does no more than reflect the obligations that this country has undertaken under article 6 of the non-proliferation treaty.

Dr. Reid: Indeed. While my remarks are important to the audience to which the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea referred, they are also an exact replica of what was in the Labour party's manifesto, on which we fought the general election.

Outside the Gulf, men and women of the RAF continue to operate with the British Army in the Balkans, sustaining SFOR and providing a visible, important symbol of our commitment to the peace process. The RAF has been supporting peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia since the international community's first involvement in the region. Between July 1992 and January 1996, the RAF flew some 25,000 tons of aid into Sarajevo airport. Air operations in the Balkans range from the daily flights of the RAF support helicopter force from bases in Bosnia and Croatia in support of our ground forces to the regular flights between the United Kingdom, Germany and the theatre made by the Royal Air Force transport fleet.

We should not forget our two E3D Sentry aircraft based in Italy, which form part of the NATO force maintaining airborne early warning and control over the theatre. Those operations underline the importance of joint or integrated operations, to which I referred earlier, and the crucial role of the RAF wherever and whenever United Kingdom military resources are deployed.

Mr. Hugh Bayley (City of York): May I pay special tribute to the detachment at Gioia and the E3D detachment at Aviano, which I visited a couple of years ago when I was a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme? Their involvement with the peacekeeping operation has contributed to changing the climate in Bosnia. Those who served in Italy as part of the RAF deployment shouldered some of the burden placed on the RAF by its increasing role in international peacekeeping missions. I pay tribute to RAF men and women out in Italy who contributed to that.

Dr. Reid: I am sure that my hon. Friend speaks for many hon. Members in paying that tribute to the E3D squadron and to the wider role of the RAF, not only in fulfilling our international obligations but in respect of the United Nations' contribution to world peace. The House will be aware that we have recently redeployed six

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Jaguars from Italy back to their bases in the United Kingdom as a result of the improving situation in Bosnia--a situation brought about in part by the commitment of our armed forces to the region. They will, however, remain at high readiness to move, along with two Tristar tankers, to provide air support to our troops on the ground in Bosnia if required.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: The Minister says that the aircraft have been deployed back to the United Kingdom but will be maintained at a high state of readiness. Will he tell the House exactly what he means by that? Does he mean that they will undergo a continuing programme of intensive training or is it just a buzz word meaning that they are ready to be deployed at the press of a button?

Dr. Reid: Members of the Royal Air Force, when not in operation, normally undergo intensive training. A state of high readiness means exactly what it says. The Jaguars are at a level of readiness that would, if the political decision were taken, enable them to move at extremely short notice. When the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) alluded to the early dispatch of Tornados during the first stages of the Gulf crisis, he gave an example of what high readiness means in practice.

I have said before that it is a great privilege to hold the post of Minister for the Armed Forces, a privilege that I share with my predecessors--one of whom, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton), is here. One of the great advantages of being Minister for the Armed Forces, of which the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, is having time to share and exchange views and involve oneself with, and to learn from, members of Her Majesty's armed forces on visits when they are on deployment and on exercises. In the 11 months that I have been Minister for the Armed Forces, I have been very proud to visit men and women of the RAF to learn a little of the work that they do and of the commitment that they give to it.

Only last month, I visited RAF Valley. Its role is to take young men and women who have already proved in basic training that they have the potential to make good pilots and turn them into first-rate pilots. I was deeply impressed by the skill and determination of the young people I met there and the professionalism of the instructors who ensured that the training that those young people received was second to none. I genuinely believe that what makes the difference between our Air Force and many other air forces is the skills and aptitude of the human beings who are part of the Royal Air Force.

Mr. Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): May I raise an issue relating to personnel that has been raised with me by the Dudley branch of the RAF Association? A real concern has been raised with me about the welfare of RAF veterans. Mike Houldershaw, the officer of the RAF Association in Dudley, has asked me to ask my hon. Friend whether he has had discussions with the British Legion, and with the RAF Association generally, about measures that might be taken in relation to the welfare of veterans.

Dr. Reid: It is not sufficient to consider merely the value and the contribution that is given to this country by service men and women while they are in the services. We have to meet a reciprocal obligation to bestow some

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form of benefit on them not only while they are in service but after they leave service. I have had a number of discussions on the issue, one of them with the British Legion, and we have very much in mind during the strategic defence the issue of veterans and some of the problems that they encounter.

I mentioned RAF Valley. I also had the chance recently to visit RAF St. Athan. Deep repair and overhaul of aviation equipment is a vital part of the support for the armed forces. For the RAF, this activity is currently managed through the RAF Maintenance Group Defence Agency at RAF St. Athan and RAF Sealand. The MOD has been considering the possibility of bringing this activity together with that conducted through the Naval Aircraft Repair Organisation defence agency at Fleetlands in Hampshire and Almondbank in Perth into one agency.

I have decided, subject to the outcome of consultation, to set up a defence aviation repair agency to manage the work as a whole. That will enable us to exploit the synergy between helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft repair and to implement best practice throughout aviation defence. It will be an important step in the development of joint organisations for the delivery of defence output, which is one of the key themes being progressed in the strategic defence review. I am setting work in hand to launch DARA as a new agency on 1 April 1999 with a view to moving the organisation to trading fund status as soon as possible thereafter. The agency will be overseen by an owners board, which will be chaired by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who is in his place today.

The Royal Air Force bears its responsibilities with the professionalism and resolve for which it is renowned. In addition to its operational duties, the RAF has been engaged in many exercises with our allies worldwide. From December 1997 to February of this year, Harrier GR7 aircraft were deployed to Yuma, Arizona, for Exercise Hammer Fist, which provided an opportunity for live weapons training, low-level and operational low-level and simulated air combat sorties with United States marine and air force aircraft.

In March, I was able to observe our forces participating in Exercise Strong Resolve. That was a live, dual exercise in military response to an evolving crisis. In the north, the exercise was conducted around Norway and simulated a war scenario. Concurrently in the south, off the coast of Spain, the exercise involved a multinational intervention force at a level of combat other than war. The immediate reaction force, the rapid reaction force and the main defence force units joined other NATO forces in those simulated crises.

Nineteen main exercise and training objectives were designed to test the activation, deployment, employment and integration of the various air and land forces, especially in the context of the interface between reaction forces and regional main defence forces. The exercise was also useful in enabling us to gauge the success in practice of host nation support agreements. I am glad to say that I was joined on that exercise by four new members of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. That scheme makes a marvellous contribution not only to our relationships with the forces but to an increase in knowledge in the House when we debate defence issues.

In June, the RAF will take part in a series of tactical training exercises that will be organised by our United States colleagues and the US air force. Tornado F3,

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Hercules and VC10 refuelling aircraft will train with US forces in combined air operations centred on Eilson air force base near Fairbanks, Alaska, in Exercise Cope Thunder 98-3. Later that month, Exercise Distant Frontier 98 will be held at the same location and will have a similar format. However, that exercise will be organised by the UK combined air operations centre, which will generate the scenario and plan and disseminate tasking. Its involvement will also serve to establish the basis for future participation in deployed exercises and will refine internal procedures and expose personnel to deployed exercises in a coalition environment. That is becoming an increasing feature of operations.

Hon. Members may have noticed a common thread in the exercises and in the operations of our armed forces. It is the thread of interoperability or inter-operations not only between our own armed services working closely side by side to achieve a desired aim in the most effective and efficient manner, but between nations. As clearly demonstrated by the deployment to the Gulf region, the RAF is able to integrate seamlessly into a royal naval task force, to provide that additional force needed to get the job done, and done well. As I speak, Exercise Head First--an Army exercise--is taking place in Wales and the west country, whereby RAF helicopters are lending their unique support to Army land forces.

In addition to such exercises, the RAF is playing a full part in our contacts with the countries of central and eastern Europe through NATO's "Partnership for Peace" initiative. Last June saw the first participation by RAF fast jets--Harrier GR7s--in a PFP exercise with Finland, the Baltic states, Hungary, Poland, Moldova, Romania and Slovakia. Given the situation in the mid-1990s, it is a testimony to how far we have moved in the past decade that that list of names should be enumerated to the House as our partners in peace and in exercises.


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