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We have provided our forces with capabilities to improve interoperability with allies who are also engaged in the fight against international terrorism, and we have provided forces deployed to Afghanistan with the necessary communications assets to ensure maximum operational flexibility in a particularly demanding environment.
Mr. Bryant: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. As he will know, many historians argue that during the second world war Britain's superior communications systems proved decisive in winning victory. Will he do everything in his power to ensure that British troops, many of whom are deployed 3,500 miles away in Afghanistan and many thousands of miles away in other places, still have that competitive edge?
Dr. Moonie: Looking in some detail at what we have done for troops in Afghanistan, we have improved our secure speech assets for deployed aircraft, improved our secure fixed communications links with allies, increased the number of tactical data links fitted to aircraft, undertaken improvements to our intelligence networks and expanded our operational level command information systems. We have procured additional lightweight tactical satellite systems, and 45 Commando now has several of those systems deployed in Afghanistan. We have also taken action to ensure that all those deployed in Afghanistan have the new personal role radio at their disposal.
Looking to the future, our ability to respond to urgent equipment requirements in support of specific operations is backed by a comprehensive programme of investment in military communications that will be progressively delivered over the next few years: Bowman, the new tactical communications system, in 2004; Skynet 5, the next generation of ground terminals, in 2005; and Falcon, the operational level communications infrastructure, in 2006.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): I welcome those improvements, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that however supportive one may be of European defence co-operation, especially within the ambit of NATO, it is important that strategic communications are not duplicated? What improvements are planned for NATO's strategic communications within the overall context of the fight against terrorism?
Dr. Moonie: I admire the hon. Gentleman's ingenuity in working that into a question on communications in Afghanistan. Communications requirements at the highest level in NATO are kept under constant review. Should any changes be planned, I am sure that he will be one of the first to be told.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): The shopping list of items that the Minister announced was extremely welcome, but will he confirm that even on his own schedule most of the British Army will be left with communications that are well behind those of many third world countries?
On the battle against terrorism, what steps are the MOD and its sister Departments taking to provide some form of intercommunication between our armed forces and the various civilian agencies that will be used in the event of terrorist attack in this country?
Dr. Moonie: If the previous Administration had worked a little faster on developing communications, we might have been in a better situation today. I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that interoperability with civilian capabilities and communications receives a high priority in our planning and will figure strongly in any future action that we take.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): We recognise the role that missile defence systems can play as one element of a comprehensive strategy to tackle the potential threat posed by weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery. However, we believe that it is currently premature for the United Kingdom to make decisions on acquiring active missile defences. It remains the case that we have received no requests from the United States for the use of facilities in the UK for missile defence purposes as part of its plans.
Mr. Prisk: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that somewhat familiar answer. Last Friday, the American Missile Defence Agency reported that it had received several specific expressions of interest in collaboration from Germany, Spain and Holland, among others. Given that the technologies represent a wonderful opportunity for British science and industry, have the British Government also registered an interest in them? If not, why not?
Mr. Hoon: I understand that those expressions of interest were from commercial private sector companies, which suggested that they were willing to participate in scientific opportunities for developing such equipment. I am sure that similar opportunities will be available to British commercial interests.
Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): The focus of such debates has been strategic missile defenceindeed, Conservative Members made that pointbut much shorter-range missiles are in widespread use, including by smaller forces and even militia. We have forces operating throughout the world without area protection from missiles. What are the Government doing about that?
Mr. Hoon: I entirely accept the force of my hon. Friend's point. We are considering the matter, and have a programme in hand to examine ways of protecting our deployed forces. We must have regard to that, although we anticipate no current threat to them. We acknowledge that the ultimate means of protecting deployed forces are similar to methods of dealing with the strategic threats that my hon. Friend describes. Current thinking suggests
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Does the Secretary of State recall that more than 200 of his own Back Benchers do not wish the Government to have anything to do with missile defence? Given that it is unreliable against a country with many weapons of mass destruction, will he remind those Back Benchers that it can be decisive against countries with few such weapons?
Mr. Hoon: United States' thinking has always been that missile defence is designed to deal with a small number of incoming missiles from relatively few states of concern. That remains its position. As I said earlier, it has not yet made a request of the United Kingdom. Until it does, the UK is not in a position to say whether we would respond.
Mr. Hoon: In the past, the Ministry of Defence has accepted the normal rules of planning for acquiring new facilities. However, it is important to draw my hon. Friend's attention to the full range of planning rules and their effect on Departments.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): One of the gravest ballistic threats that faces the world comes from Saddam Hussein. Perhaps the Prime Minister had that in mind when he talked about the "first Gulf war" last Wednesday at column 331 of Hansard. That clearly implies that he expects a second one. Perhaps that is also what General Tommy Franks had in mind when he spoke of Desert Storm 2.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) had tabled a question about Iraq. Indeed, it would have been the first question, but she withdrew it, although she is present. If the Secretary of State is nervous about talking to his Back Benchers about ballistic missile defence, will he be bolder in speaking to them about his plans for Iraq?
Mr. Hoon: That was an interesting set of assumptions, but I do not accept many of them. The Prime Minister and the Government have made it clear that no decisions have been made about any military action that involves Iraq. In those circumstances, most of the hon. Gentleman's comments were highly speculative and theoretical. It is important to say, however, as the Prime Minister has made clear, that the events of 11 September demonstrated the need to take seriously threats to international and regional stabilityin particular, threats by states of concern that might be seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction. In the light of 11 September, it is important that we do not overlook those developments, but, as I said earlier, no decisions whatever have been taken about military action in relation to Iraq.