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Mr. Alan Clark: A short while ago, the Minister mentioned the integration of RAF personnel and naval personnel in combined operations in the Gulf. If he would throw a little light on that, it would be a great help to me and to some of my hon. Friends who might wish to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will the Minister elaborate a little on the command structure in that situation? Obviously, the relative service boundaries and their change of command are relevant in such a situation. How did the command structure work, and how did the levels of seniority interoperate, when those two services were integrated under those conditions?

Dr. Reid: As the right hon. Gentleman may know, the ultimate command structure runs through the permanent joint headquarters based at Northwood, so, instead of establishing, on an ad hoc basis, a temporary joint headquarters for each venture, for the vast majority of our overseas operations now--in fact, for the vast majority of our operations excluding Northern Ireland--the control and command system runs through the permanent joint headquarters. At the level beneath that, no blueprint is imposed irrespective of the circumstances. It depends on the objectives and on the combined weight of the various forces involved in terms of command structure and seniority.

The close-knit integration of land, air and sea forces is not only sensible but, in terms of effective fighting power and output, becoming essential in the modern world, with

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a three-dimensional battle space. I should have thought that the classic example of that for the future, in an area in which the right hon. Gentleman has had a particular interest historically and contemporaneously, is the aircraft carrier. The aircraft carrier is at heart a floating airfield, which is not just a naval asset but a defence asset and which requires the closest integration of the sea and air elements.

I mentioned those countries of central and eastern Europe with which we have been taking part in an exercise through "Partnership for Peace". That not only enhances military skills but is, obviously, a major political initiative. In July, two Tornado F3s will take part in a PFP exercise in the Slovak Republic--Exercise Co-operative Chance. That involves setting up a multinational NATO headquarters in an overseas operational environment and is aimed at practising command and control of the air component of a peace support operation. Later in the year, there will be a return visit to the United Kingdom by Slovakian Mig 29s.

In September, we shall provide a Nimrod to take part in a search and rescue exercise in the Baltic sea. More significantly, in the same month, the Royal Air Force will be hosting a major "Partnership for Peace" exercise, code-named Co-operative Bear 1998, in Cornwall. The scenario will be based on a humanitarian mission this time, including aeromedical evacuation and air-delivered emergency aid, and we expect at least 10 partner nations from central and eastern Europe to play an active part in the exercise. Others will participate by sending observers. That is a remarkable illustration of the extent to which things have changed in less than 10 years.

In addition to its multinational activities, the RAF is playing a major part in our own outreach programme. Activities range from expert exchanges on air defence with the Czech Republic to exchanges of junior officers with the Bulgarian air force; from seminars on aviation medicine with the Russian Federation air force to participation in the Kiev air show in Ukraine; and from joint helicopter exercises in Romania to joint fast jet activities with the Russians in Scotland. One cannot get more international than that.

That combination of confidence-building measures with activities aimed at improving our ability to operate alongside our partners wherever we may be called to do so not only enhances our air force operationally but is at the heart of defence diplomacy, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done so much to promote.

Looking to the future, the former Franco-British European air group has been aptly renamed the European air group to reflect the increasing diversity of the countries participating in it. Italy is in the process of acceding to full membership alongside France and Britain; Germany is an observer nation, and we hope that Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands will accept recent invitations to become observer members with the intention of acceding to full membership in the near term.

It would be inappropriate in the present circumstances if I did not mention Northern Ireland. The recent agreement in the multi-party talks represents a new beginning--a chance of putting behind us the violence of

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the past 30 years--but it is just a beginning. We hope that everyone will now look to the future--the verdict of the people will be given in the referendums on 22 May.

However, while we look forward to peace, we cannot afford to relax our guard prematurely. In that context, the RAF continues to play an important role in the support provided by all three services to the Royal Ulster Constabulary in combating terrorism and maintaining law and order.

There are just over 1,000 RAF personnel serving in Northern Ireland. They provide essential helicopter support, ensuring that troops can move quickly and easily to where they are required, together with a search and rescue capability. A field squadron of the RAF Regiment provides security for RAF Aldergrove, where two squadrons of helicopters are based. Force levels in Northern Ireland are reviewed continuously to ensure that the RUC has whatever support it requires to counter the terrorist threat.

In mainland UK also, RAF personnel and equipment are regularly called upon to provide support to civil authorities and emergency services. Twice in the past 12 months, the RAF and the Army have provided invaluable assistance to communities affected by flooding--first in Morayshire last July, and then just recently, over Easter, in the midlands. They provided the usual vital help in rescuing vulnerable stranded civilians from their homes, transporting the injured to hospital and filling sandbags.

Let me draw attention to the valuable work undertaken by the RAF in response to other civil emergencies. First, the whole House would wish to praise the courage of the dedicated personnel of the RAF's mountain rescue service, a volunteer force whose members brave the most atrocious weather conditions to bring assistance to those in difficulty in some of the country's most inhospitable terrain.

I shall say no more than a word or two about the search and rescue helicopter crews, because I am sure that their valour and effectiveness are known to all in the House. Together with Royal Navy crews, they provide emergency assistance to the military and civilians alike. During 1997, RAF search and rescue assets were called out on 1,769 occasions, providing assistance to 1,289 people. I have heard it estimated that between 6,000 and 8,000 people are now walking the streets of the United Kingdom who would not be were it not for the valour and effectiveness of the search and rescue forces.

It is not only British citizens who are assisted by the efforts of the search and rescue forces. Those rescued include the 10 crew members of the Spanish trawler the Sonia Nancy, which was adrift and sinking off the Scilly Isles in atrocious weather conditions in January. The rescue involved two Nimrod aircraft and a Sea King helicopter. The Nimrods attempted to release dinghies to the trawler, but the appalling weather inhibited their efforts, and the ferocious seas tore away those few dinghies that reached the vessel. It was clear that the fishermen's only chance of survival was rescue by a Sea King.

The severe head winds hampered progress and, despite two transit refuelling stops, by the time it reached the trawler, the aircraft was operating at the very limits of its range. The only possible winching area was the small and cluttered bow area, and the ship was rolling and pitching

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violently in the massive swell. As the sun was setting, an attempt to lower the winchman was made but aborted as the ship was hit by a freak wave. The winchman was injured and winched back into the helicopter where, despite his injuries, he continued to assist the winch operator.

In all, the operation lasted some nine hours, although all the fishermen were finally recovered within 20 minutes. I hope that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the crew of that Sea King, who performed such heroics while in peril of their lives, and provided us with a perfect illustration of why the forces of this country are held in such respect.

I shall deal briefly with personnel issues. Hon. Members will know that, over the past eight years, the number of people employed in the Royal Air Force has been reduced by almost 31,000. At the beginning of this month, the trained strength of the service was some 53,000. Although some reduction was warranted by the reduced direct threat to this country and its airspace, the RAF has continued to be committed to a wide range of operations. It reflects great credit on the personnel that those commitments have been met. There is still a manning shortfall--some 1,800 as at 1 April 1998--although that is expected to decrease in the coming year.

Recognising that the men and women of the Royal Air Force are its most precious asset, I can assure the House that the Government will ensure that the RAF can continue to recruit and retain the personnel whom it needs to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The retention of personnel in the RAF will become more difficult as the demand for pilots, particularly from the civil airlines, increases. That is a challenge to us. It does not make the position any easier, but the Government are prepared to confront the challenge. It is central to our consideration, and a key aspect of the strategic defence review.

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