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House of Commons

Monday 3 March 2003

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State for Defence was asked—

Armed Forces Deployment (Gulf)

1. Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly): What the level of preparedness is of British armed forces deployed in the Gulf region. [99846]

2. Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): If he will make a statement on the deployment of troops in the Gulf. [99847]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): In three previous statements I have detailed the composition and deployment of United Kingdom forces from all three services to the Gulf region, presenting a significant and credible threat of force in support of United Nations Security Council resolution 1441 and the disarmament of Iraq.

In addition, our forces continue to enforce the no-fly zones, which has lately involved more frequent patrols and a broader range of aircraft.

Detailed planning will continue to evolve, but we currently envisage the total deployment of around 45,000 armed forces personnel. The UK presence in theatre is rapidly building to form a highly capable force. Approaching 30,000 UK armed forces personnel are now deployed in theatre, making a significant contribution to the flexible and balanced range of coalition capabilities that would be used in the event of military action.

Mr. David : I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. He will be aware of various accusations, not least in the press, about the alleged inadequacies of the clothing, food and equipment that is being provided to our forces in the Gulf. Can he give a commitment that the necessary logistical support is being given so that any problems may be ironed out? Moreover, can he give a cast-iron commitment that our troops will be fully equipped and ready to meet any action that they have to take in the Gulf?

Mr. Hoon: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. There have been a number of particularly ill-informed media reports, including, in one newspaper yesterday,

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the complaint that our soldiers were getting three meals a day. I assure my hon. Friend and other hon. Members who may be concerned that our forces are being properly supported. The deployment and sustained supply of our forces in the Gulf is a vast undertaking. The Defence Logistics Organisation estimates that the same volume of equipment and stores has been deployed in half the time that was taken in the 1990–91 Gulf conflict. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the thousands of personnel, military as well as civilian, who have accomplished that.

Mr. Goodman: Is there any reason why the Secretary of State cannot confirm that the command and control arrangements for British forces will be the same as they were during the Gulf war, and can he confirm reports this morning that American marines may be placed under British command?

Mr. Hoon: The command and control arrangements will not differ significantly from those that operated in the course of the Gulf war. It is not sensible to talk at this stage about who may be commanding which different forces in the Gulf, but this is certainly a significant coalition operation.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): Have contingency plans been made for the stationing of our troops over the next few months if it is decided to continue with intrusive inspections, or were the repeated promises by the Prime Minister that war would be regarded only as a last resort worthless?

Mr. Hoon: I have made it clear to the House on several occasions that the size and composition of the forces that are being deployed to the Gulf are flexible to allow for any number of eventualities. Clearly, that involves the continuing possibility that Saddam Hussein might, even at this late stage, accept the will of the international community and disarm in accordance with resolution 1441.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Would it not assist the British troops enormously in their preparedness if the Secretary of State had some clear idea of what weapons they are likely to face? Can he say, in view of the excellent new relationship with the United States, whether the Americans are prepared to make public to him, or indeed to the general public, the extent and the size of the weapons of mass destruction that were provided to Iraq at the time when it was a friend of the United States?

Mr. Hoon: The US Defence Secretary has categorically denied making those kinds of equipment available to Iraq. I underscore the fact that it is for this House to judge the contents of the dossier that the Government published as long ago as last September, which clearly set out the details of the weapons of mass destruction that we judge that Iraq has continued to develop and continues to possess.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey): Will my right hon. Friend provide some reassurance in responding to today's press

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coverage suggesting that the increased activities in the no-fly zones are a precursor to, or a beginning of, action in the Gulf? Will he comment on that?

Mr. Hoon: As I said a few moments ago, our forces have been undertaking more frequent patrols in the no-fly zones with a broader range of aircraft. However, I assure my hon. Friend that they do that in response to efforts to attack them and act entirely in self-defence, in accordance with international law.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to forces that have been involved in logistics. I am sure that all hon. Members, regardless of our anxieties about the conflict, would tell him that if he can sort out the supply problems about which our constituents tell us, he will have the support of the House and the country.

I want to ask about the RAF. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned northern and southern no-fly zones. Have United Kingdom aircraft been involved in recent weeks in targeting Iraqi ground positions that posed no threat to the northern or southern no-fly zones? When I asked him in February whether the United Kingdom had changed the rules of engagement for our aircraft, he declined to comment. Will he answer that question today?

Mr. Hoon: On the hon. Gentleman's first observation, may I just say in passing that several comments have been made about the way in which he has "unreasonably fuelled" the criticism of the logistics arrangements? I simply report that to hon. Members. Perhaps if the hon. Gentleman concentrated on the generality rather than the occasional difficulty that inevitably arises in such an operation, we might all be better off today.

On the rules of engagement, the hon. Gentleman is again somewhat misleading. He knows full well that Ministers never comment on them in detail. I assure him that the arrangements for patrolling the southern and northern no-fly zones remain unchanged. As he would expect, our forces are authorised to deal with any threats that Iraqi forces pose to them.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): In the event of hostilities breaking out, does my right hon. Friend anticipate that Iraq will use chemical, biological and nuclear weapons?

Mr. Hoon: That must be one of the factors that military planners take into account when preparing for any military conflict, not least in this case because continued development of those appalling weapons forms the essence of our complaint against Iraq.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): Having returned this morning from Kuwait with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, I join the Secretary of State in congratulating all those involved with the British military build-up there. Although there are inevitably some short-term frustrations for our soldiers, sailors and air men, we found them well prepared, in good spirits, with high morale and fully deserving much wider recognition for the success of a major deployment over a great distance so quickly.

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I take issue with the Secretary of State's insistence that nothing has changed in the no-fly zone operations over southern Iraq. Is it not clear that US and UK aircraft are now pre-empting threats to allied ground forces in Kuwait that are preparing to invade? Although we continue to hope that diplomacy will avoid the need for the last resort of war, have we not already seen the opening shots of the second Gulf war?

Mr. Hoon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his observations, especially those about our forces and civilians who are engaged in logistics. Although it is not always the most glamorous part of armed forces' activity, it is indispensable. Without the superb work of those forces and civilians, the fighting forces would not be able to get into and remain in position.

I repeat the point that there has been no substantial change in the arrangements for the northern and southern no-fly zones. Clearly, those forces have always been entitled to deal with any threats, whether directly to aircraft that fly above the northern and southern no-fly zones or to forces on the ground in places such as Kuwait.

Mr. Jenkin: But the tactics are no longer simply to enforce the no-fly zones. They reflect the Government's decision to help clear the way for the invasion of Iraq, which requires the protection of British and American ground forces that are now massing to cross the Iraqi border. The B-52s that arrived at Fairford this morning are not intended to support enforcement of the no-fly zones. We are on the cusp of great events. Would not Ministers' honesty and openness about what is going on help to win the hearts and minds of the British people?

Mr. Hoon: I am sorry about the hon. Gentleman's final observation— Ministers have been as honest and open as is consistent, clearly, with the security requirements of the situation. I emphasise to the House that no decision has been taken about the use of military force, and I repeat that there is no substantial change in the operation of the northern or southern no-fly zones.

Since the hon. Gentleman has mentioned this—I intended to deal with it later in questions—may I tell the House that I have agreed to a United States request to deploy 14 US Air Force B-52 bomber aircraft to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, together with their extra support personnel? Those aircraft began to arrive at the base today. That is part of our continuing contingency preparations—no decision to commence military action has been made.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): We cannot keep 30,000 troops in the desert indefinitely, so will the Secretary of State tell the House what arrangements are being made to rotate the troops?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right to the extent that, obviously, the same forces cannot be kept indefinitely in the desert or, indeed, in any other theatre. That is certainly not part of our intention and, as is happening already with some United States forces, arrangements will be made to rotate them when and if that is necessary.

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