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4.42 pm

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): I start by adding my congratulations to the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) on her maiden

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speech. As one who also made his maiden speech in this Parliament, I can say that she comfortably put mine in the shade and that she will clearly be a great asset to the House.

It is, as always, a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). He has a wonderfully lucid and informed style and made his customary considerable contribution to the debate.

The Queen's Speech debate on international affairs takes place, once again, against a backdrop that can only be described as challenging. The past year has witnessed the war in Iraq and the ongoing post-conflict situation; the continuation of the fight against international terrorism, particularly in Afghanistan; concerns about weapons of mass destruction in places such as Iran and North Korea; the ongoing middle east crisis; and, lest we forget, problems in sub-Saharan Africa, in countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo and Zimbabwe. I fear that there is little to suggest that the coming year will be any less turbulent. However, those of us who are interested in defence await the publication of the defence White Paper, due next month, and I shall address my remarks today to the background to that review.

Our world has seldom been more dangerous. For more than 45 years after world war two, defence policy was governed by the certainties of the cold war. With the collapse of the Berlin wall, all that changed. There was talk of peace dividends and brave new worlds, but instead, freed from the straitjacket of communism, the world became a radically more dangerous place. Sir Anthony Parsons, our former ambassador at the United Nations, brilliantly summed up the position with the phrase:

The indications of that new and dangerous terrorist threat were evident throughout the 90s, from the World Trade Centre to the USS Cole and the embassy bombings in Africa. They finally reached fruition in the attacks on the twin towers on 9/11, with the loss of more than 3,500 lives including, lest we forget, the single largest loss of British lives to a terrorist action.

This is a new and utterly lethal enemy, which wants not simply to occupy our country, as others have in the past, but to destroy our entire way of life. Our response to that enemy must be more proactive, wide-ranging and co-ordinated. International institutions have a large part to play. The modern world needs strong international institutions. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), the shadow Foreign Secretary, has talked at length about the need to repair the fractured institutions of NATO, the United Nations and the EU. It is a tragedy that they are weakened and divided at the very time when the need for them is so great. NATO needs to be reformed and refocused so that an institution that won the cold war can be turned into one that can meet the challenges of the 21st century. It is vital that it remains the cornerstone of our defence.

The United Nations also needs to be reformed. In an excellent debate in the House three weeks ago, a number of areas requiring reform were highlighted, including structure, financing and staff recruitment. There was widely held admiration across the House for the UN's work in many areas. As a number of

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Members said, the glass is half full rather than half empty. However, there was recognition across the House that the UN must change and reform. With the entry of accession states into the EU, existing practices must change. In future, there may well be ways in which EU countries can work together in the spheres of defence and foreign policy, but the track record thus far is not encouraging. In Bosnia in the early 90s, there was a ridiculous situation in which the French backed the Serbs, the Germans backed the Croats, we were sitting in the middle, and the Americans backed the Bosnian Muslims. The lessons were clearly not learned, as those divisions were present again in the recent Iraq crisis. I suspect that the countries of the EU have their own historical links and attachments, which it is unrealistic to expect them to drop in a new and untested system.

Three practical issues cause me concern, the first of which is overstretching. The European security and defence policy can only be an extra commitment for our already overstretched armed forces. New headquarters will have to be manned and employed. Where on earth will the manpower come from to meet that new commitment? There is also the technology gap. The United States is the world's only hyperpower, and Britain is unlikely to mount a full-scale war without it. Better, surely, to ally ourselves with it in a tried and tested alliance such as NATO than to open up a new front.

There is also a huge cultural difference between NATO and the EU, because as an organisation the EU tends to concentrate on inward matters. The current international threat requires outward-looking solutions and an outward-reaching focus, but I wonder whether the EU in this day and age is capable of delivering that. International institutions are only one aspect of defence policy. We need to broaden the scope of defence policy to react to the new and increasingly complex political and military environment. Asymmetric threats demand responses that are not purely military but are often political, humanitarian, economic and legal. Iraq is an extremely good example. The military response—the fighting of the war—was an outstanding success, but the political preparations were clearly inadequate, and we are paying the price for that now. I am not alone in thinking so. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), the former Secretary of State for International Development, said that

That must never happen again.

The build-up to the war in Iraq also highlighted the inadequacies of the international legal system. As somebody put it to me at the time, "You can get international law to prove almost anything." International law must be updated to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

A number of lessons must be learned and the relevant structures put in place, but there are also lessons to be learned at political, strategic and military levels. On the political front, if ever the importance of a clear aim, a fundamental military principle, was shown, it was during the current Iraq crisis. The 1991 Gulf war had a clear, simple and achievable aim. By

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contrast, in this conflict we moved from weapons of mass destruction to international terrorism to regime change, with huge implications for the military. The constant shifting of the war aim is directly linked to many of the difficulties that we have seen in the post-conflict environment.

At a strategic level, the conflict in Iraq also showed the need for reliable intelligence. I fear that the Iraq war may go down as one of the greatest intelligence failures of modern time. That is evident not only in the case of weapons of mass destruction but in the failure to predict that the Iraqi army would fade in the early stages of the war and that urban guerrilla warfare would predominate afterwards. The Government must examine the reasons for that failure and do everything to ensure that it never happens again.

A number of military lessons can also be learned directly from the crisis in Iraq. Before I come to that however, two points are worth making. First, the fighting of the war in Iraq was an outstanding success. I suspect that the campaign will be studied in staff colleges across the world for many years to come as a classic of its type. It is right that we in this House should record our gratitude not only to the men and women of the armed forces who did the fighting but to all those at the Ministry of Defence, at Permanent Joint Headquarters and at other defence establishments who were involved in the planning and execution. I hope that the Foreign Secretary, whom I am delighted to see back in his place, and other Ministers feel proud of their achievements in that regard.

One other wholly extraordinary feature of the conflict is not so much that the operation demanded so many different phases of war, from the delivery of humanitarian aid to the actual war fighting, but that it demanded so many of them simultaneously. I do not believe that that has ever happened before, and to pull it off was a remarkable achievement.

However, there are lessons that can be learned. I think that all would agree that there was a lack of an adequate strategic deployment force. A heavy strategic lift capability based on aircraft will be vital in the years ahead. There was also a lack of a strategic and operational intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance concept. I am told that unmanned aerial vehicles flew 3 per cent. of the sorties but acquired 55 per cent. of the targets. If that is true, our forces must plan now for the integration and manning of the new Watchkeeper equipment, because that will be a vital area of the modern battlefield.

There is also the perennial problem of communications, which is vital for network-centric warfare. A recent visit that I made to HMS Marlborough highlighted that problem. We looked at the desk at which the principal warfare officer sat, and there were his computers in front of him and the American one behind him. The two systems were wholly unintegrated. That clearly cannot work in future.

There is also the question of the identification of friendly forces. My own regiment suffered in that regard during the Iraq war. The development of an electronic identification system must be a top technical priority for the Ministry of Defence.

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Finally, I should like to mention a few of the issues concerning equipment. The carriers are clearly a topic of the moment. Last week during a cross-party group visit, the flag officer sea training made the point clearly that the new carriers must be as big as possible to generate the maximum number of sorties.

There is also and will always be a need for heavy war-fighting equipment. Challenger 2, Warrior and AS90 have all proved themselves in recent years to be battle-winning assets. As recently as this summer, one of the brigade commanders in Iraq described the Challenger 2 battle tank to me as the man of the match. I would wholly welcome moves to develop a medium armoured force, based around the future rapid effects system concept, but it must not be at the expense of our heavy capability.

This year, the debate on the Queen's Speech once again takes place against a difficult and dangerous international backdrop. Our response to the threats must be more proactive, more co-ordinated and more wide-ranging than ever before. The defence White Paper, due out next month, must take into account the need to strengthen our international institutions and to anchor our defence policy in NATO. It must develop the formal mechanisms to integrate political, military, economic and humanitarian responses to the threats of modern warfare. It must review the organisation of our armed forces, which must be driven by a current threat assessment, not by the Treasury.

We certainly need to develop and support the modern equipment necessary to fight network-centric warfare, but that must not be at the expense of manpower. Even in a modern battlefield, we still need men, women and equipment "to take and hold the ground", in military terms. It is hard to imagine any strategic analysis, especially after five wars in six years, that could possibly justify a reduction in manpower.

Finally, the most important thing is that the defence review recognises that the men and women of our armed forces are our most important assets. They are feeling overstretched and unappreciated at present, and we must correct that. Without them, nothing is possible.

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