Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): First, I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in allowing us sight of the White Paper earlier. I join him in the tribute that he paid to the remarkable and distinguished work of Lord Robertson at NATO. Together with Lord Robertson, Conservative Members remain extremely anxious about the Government's plans for European defence and look forward, after the conclusion of the negotiations this weekend, to hearing a rational and sensible plan that will continue to anchor America to Europe.

Despite the lack of detail, we agree with the fundamental thrust of the White Paper. It does, indeed, foretell considerable change for the conduct of the armed forces business across the board. The House must not forget that the strategic defence review—its predecessor—was never properly costed or funded, and

11 Dec 2003 : Column 1212

the same must not be allowed to happen this time. For our part, we generally accept the Secretary of State's assessment of the strategic environment and the difficulties that flow from it. Indeed, it is clear that we have come to a decisive moment in history when a new and diverse constellation of threats have appeared that are not nearly as obvious as were their relatively certain predecessors. We assert that since the end of the cold war, the world has never been as dangerous and unpredictable, nor the threats so serious. An era of invulnerability is over and our adversary has changed.

Terrorism is not a technique, an ideology or a political philosophy, let alone an enemy state, but a fiendishly difficult threat with which to deal. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them represents a major threat. We welcome the Government's decision to continue to examine missile defence. We are in a position, as the Secretary of State rightly said, in which we must be prepared for the wholly unexpected as well as being able to deal with conventional military tasks.

We have learned, and continue to learn, from the recent experiences of our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are most profound lessons for us on preparedness, logistics, deployability, jointness, precision, speed and agility, but there are also clearly situations in which light forces are not the best solution. We look forward to studying in more detail today's Ministry of Defence publication, "Operations in Iraq: Lessons for the Future". While we welcome the National Audit Office report on Operation Telic, it rightly makes the point that although it is clear that British troops performed quite brilliantly, there were some serious shortcomings in the supply of nuclear, biological and chemical protection and other vital lifesaving kit, as well as more mundane yet important kit such as combat clothing. That cannot be allowed to happen again, and we look forward to hearing a detailed response to that from the Secretary of State and the Ministry.

Unlike the Secretary of State and what is said in the White Paper, we believe that measuring the capability of our armed forces by the number of units and platforms and the extent of manpower remains significant, because the same unit or platform obviously cannot be in two places at the same time. A combination of capabilities and numbers will thus continue to be critical in any assessment of the potential effectiveness of our armed forces. Infantry and armour on the ground can be augmented by technological wizardry but cannot be replaced by it. The peace in Basra today is being kept by some 10,000 soldiers on the ground. We underestimate at our peril the importance of the foot soldier and all that he can do in both combat and, equally importantly, humanitarian terms.

We welcome the intention to enhance the strategic enablers of communication, logistics and intelligence, but as a former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, pointed out last week,

We believe that such principles are of the first importance. Indeed, the histories furnish the most

11 Dec 2003 : Column 1213

excellent lessons in that respect and we should, and must, learn from them.

We welcome the acknowledgement of the absolute need to continue robust and collective military training at all levels. We consider that it is vital to underpin the new doctrines with the single-service ethos and the remarkable fighting spirit that have done our forces so well over the years, to move to improve arrangements for families and general harmony, and to rebalance key support elements toward brigades from the divisional level.

Current events provide a sombre background to this important White Paper, for today there is a crisis in the Government's Defence budget. Frankly, Conservative Members and many serving and retired military have the gravest reservations about the Government's ability to sustain their current ambitions and equipment programmes. It is reported that the Defence budget is deeply in the red. Is it not a fact that the equipment budget is overspent in excess of £1 billion per annum and that this year's personnel budget is overspent by £600 million? Is it true that the Secretary of State has ordered cuts of £1 billion a year for four years? An internal MOD memo on the White Paper and departmental finances has warned that much of the so-called new money from last year's spending review—£3.5 billion—has already been earmarked for the new weapons programmes.

The reality is that even to balance today's books, let alone fund the new equipment, the MOD will have to defer or cancel elements of major equipment programmes and possibly even freeze recruiting. Is it correct that the programmes earmarked for cuts include Eurofighter, Nimrod, nuclear submarines, Type 42 frigates and heavy armour, in addition to existing assets? Given that there are so few hard facts in the White Paper, however, we are concerned that a whole raft of decisions on cuts in both manpower and equipment will start to leach out later, and we look to the Secretary of State to report back to the House in detail on the substance of his proposals.

May I ask the Secretary of State to answer the following questions? First, the new battlefield technologies will have to be paid for. Where is the funding for that to come from? Secondly, is he aware that the defence research budget has been cut by 10 per cent.? How can the Government be serious about the digitised battlespace and all the other associated technologies, and yet continue with defence research cuts? Indeed, it seems astonishing that, at a time of extraordinary pace in technological advance, military research and development has been so drastically reduced.

While paying the warmest tribute to the remarkable achievements of our Territorial Army and other reserve forces in Iraq and elsewhere, we welcome the chapter on developing the reserves and the acknowledgement in the White Paper of the urgent need to improve support for reservists and their families and employers. Will the Secretary of State give the House some idea of the future manning levels of the TA and other reserves?

11 Dec 2003 : Column 1214

In the light of the reference to home capability, will the Secretary of State comment on his thinking on the present timing in respect of future force levels in Northern Ireland, and the possible consequences for manpower of the rumoured peace dividend?

Although Conservative Members recognise the demands for the new technologies and the need wholeheartedly to embrace them, we remain deeply concerned about the consequences that flow from the financial crisis in the Ministry of Defence at a time of severe overstretch. We look forward to the Secretary of State announcing his detailed intentions to the House and thus, we hope, removing the understandable anxieties of many of our loyal servicemen and women and their families.

The British armed forces have a reputation for excellence and skill at arms that is unrivalled throughout the world; indeed, they are the benchmark by which all other armed forces are judged. I am not in the least bit afraid for their ability to cope with change. Indeed, of all the great institutions in this country they have proved time and again at all levels to be the most adaptable and flexible, and certainly the most successful. But it is of the first importance that the Government and Parliament recognise, when addressing these profound changes, that whatever the technological advances, the fundamental character and nature of war will remain unchanged.

For the soldier of today and tomorrow, as it was for his ancestors, warfare will continue to represent the ultimate physical and moral challenge, where these young men and women will encounter extreme danger in rapidly changing circumstances amid conditions of chaos and great uncertainty. They have never let us down, and the Secretary of State must see to it that nothing is done that compromises the astonishing success of our armed forces. The fact is that they are too small for the tasks already laid on them. There is a great deal of work to be done, and the greatest possible thought and care needs to be taken in implementing these future programmes and the profound changes that they foretell if we are not to unbalance something that is truly excellent.

Mr. Hoon: I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) for the general tone of his observations and congratulate him on his rapid reabsorption of some of the more difficult issues that he faces when coming to grips with the profound changes that have happened since he served with such distinction as Minister of State for the Armed Forces. His observations today demonstrate that he has already reached a long way round that steep learning curve. I am particularly grateful to him for recognising the importance of the need for change.

If I can echo the hon. Gentleman's observations about the armed forces, I cannot imagine that there is a single organisation in the country that has had to face so much change in recent times. The profound point that we all need to recognise is that unless those changes continue, our armed forces will not be equipped to deal, or be capable of dealing, with the threats that they face in a modern world. Since we cannot anticipate each and every one of those threats and the crises that they may

11 Dec 2003 : Column 1215

produce, the key to those changes will be flexibility—a flexibility that, as I indicated, requires us to be able to conduct not only large-scale operations of the kind that we have seen this year in Iraq but a number of smaller operations.

That is the answer that I would give to Lord Guthrie. I read his observations carefully. We are not concentrating our efforts in one particular area; we are not making the mistake of fighting the last conflict, albeit one against terrorism. We are ensuring that we have the flexibility to be able to take on a number of different kinds of operations whenever they present themselves, as inevitably they must.

There is no crisis in the defence budget. What we have is more than £3 billion of extra resources to spend over and above what was previously available. That is the largest sustained increase in defence spending in more than 20 years—not something that, with the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex, he was ever able to say when he occupied a position in the Ministry of Defence. That money will have to be spent on ensuring that our armed forces have the right capabilities and equipment for the future.

I shall attempt to deal with the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised. Certainly, new technology will have to be paid for, but right hon. and hon. Members need to recognise that it will deliver ever greater effect. I cited a statistic drawn from the "lessons learned" report about the number of smart weapons used. The more our weapons are smart—the more accurate those weapons—the fewer we require. That is a simple statement of fact. If we can deliver, as was done in Iraq, 85 per cent. smart weapons, all hitting their targets, as far as I am aware, that obviously means that the effect is far more dramatic and significant, in military terms, than 25 per cent. smart weapons, which we had as recently as 1999. That is a huge change in our ability to be successful in high-intensity warfare.

I accept the comment about the defence research budget. We certainly need to consider improvements in that area, but we also need to ensure that we maintain our existing equipment programme and our running costs from month to month and year to year. Inevitably, I have to take some difficult decisions, and unfortunately that is one of them.

Turning to reserves, who, like our regular forces, are volunteers, I anticipate and hope that we will maintain the present numbers. If there are more willing to volunteer, I am confident that we can absorb them into our existing organisations.

There has been a good deal of misplaced speculation about the consequences of a peace settlement in Northern Ireland. We all look forward to a peace settlement and to the prospect of reducing the presence of our armed forces back to the level that existed before 1969—to a normal peacetime situation for the Province. I look forward to that as a means of using those soldiers currently engaged in operations in Northern Ireland elsewhere in the tasks undertaken by Britain's armed forces. I want to make that clear. I want to emphasise the opportunity that that will give to relieve some of the current pressures on the men and women of the Britain's armed services.

11 Dec 2003 : Column 1216

That probably deals with all the points that have been raised. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, and I look forward to responding to other questions.

Next Section

IndexHome Page