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The hon. Gentleman knows full well that the current size of the Army is not 108,000, but in the order of 102,000. The figures that we propose for the
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future will remain in that sort of area. Will he tell the House the size of the Army when he left his post as Minister of State for the Armed Forces in 1997?
Mr. Soames: Unfortunately, I was in office so long ago I cannot remember. However, the current trained establishment is set at 108,500 and the target is just over 102,000 by 2008. The strategic defence review, presented to Parliament in July 1998, said:
What exactly has happened since then to convince the Secretary of State not only to reverse that plan but to introduce further cuts, even in the light of a heightened threat and increased operational tempo?
Has the security situation changed for the better since the strategic defence review? Have Afghanistan, Iraq and Sierra Leone never happened? Are our armed forces today experiencing a smaller and less frequent range of operational demands than they did in the early 1990s? Has the average interval of 24 months between tours been achieved, or is it not the case that the actual intervals have been as low as three and five months in some cases?
At this time of considerable danger from terrorism at home and abroad and of major military deployments overseas, with no sign of any let-up, the cuts by amalgamation or disbandment of any battalion are wholly and utterly unjustified. The way in which the cuts have been handled shows the complete shambles to which the Government have been reduced. In the space of the last month, the position has changed on a daily basis.
First, the Defence Secretary said that the only option was the disbanding of the Scottish regiments and their merger into one or two super-regiments. Then the Prime Minister said that no decision had been made. The Secretary of State for Scotland told my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) that it was important to take account of public opinion. Scotland's First Minister said that he supported the retention of the regiments.
Downing street then told the Scottish press that four of our regiments would be saved in their current form, which lasted just long enough for the Prime Minister to have an interview without coffee with the Chief of the General Staff, who will have, I assume, put the Prime Minister firmly back in his place. That lasted all of 12 hours until the Prime Minister said once again that no final decision had been made. So who is making policy? Is it Downing street or the Ministry of Defence? The answer would be welcome, particularly by the regiments.
We welcome the acknowledgement of the absolute need to continue robust and collective military training at all levels. That is one of the issues that the Select Committee report "Lessons of Iraq" raised, saying:
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Does it concern my hon. Friend that a number of Norfolk farmers have said that they will withdraw permission for the MOD to train on their land as a protest against the Hunting Act 2004? Does he think that it would be much better if the Secretary of State had joined the Prime Minister and his Minister of State in the Lobby to vote for the licensing proposal?
Mr. Soames: I am always grateful to my hon. Friend for his helpful interventions. Some farmers and landowners have decided that they will no longer accord facilities to the armed forces for military training. Strongly though I and they feel, I hope very much that they will reconsider that, purely and solely because it is important that our armed forces have the best possible training facilities available to them; the general sense of what my hon. Friend says is, of course, correct.
Reductions in training have a progressively damaging effect on fighting power. At the highest leveljoint, combined-arms collective training at formation level and aboveit may take years to recover fully the standards and capabilities that have been degraded and in some cases even lost. As I explained earlier this year, although our armed forces continue to give a remarkable account of themselves, it is by general consent a profound worry that we are beginning to take risks which, if not dealt with, will lead to a disaster sooner or later.
I turn to the latest initiative of the European Union's involvement in defence matters, an involvement that will create complications and at the end of the day will be of little added value. In Brussels on Monday, there was further agreement on the battlegroups concept. I wish to make it clear, as I always have at the Opposition Dispatch Box, that we always will welcome initiatives that genuinely produce additional military capabilities from our European allies. However, what is proposed is something entirely different. The reality is that the European allies have not been able to meet the over-ambitious, grandiose targets for the so-called European rapid reaction force, which was supposed to generate a headline deployable capability of 60,000 troops by December 2003. You will not be surprised to hear, Mr. Speaker, that this did not materialise. It did not happen and it could not happen. I cannot say that any of us are remotely surprised. Indeed, it never could have happened because the capabilities of our European allies have, very regrettably, continued to decline.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Without taking specific issue with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, which I shall leave to others, will he accept that there is a degree of benefit, especially to some of the smaller countriessuch as, for example, Estonia, one of those countries which I know bestfrom joint working, if only to secure the border between ourselves and other countries that may become aggressive in future?
I unreservedly agree with the hon. Gentleman, but all that is perfectly possible and has been taking place for many years through NATO, through the partnership for peace operations and through those of its successor. These have been extremely successful operations. To go outside that will cause real confusion, and I propose to come on to that.
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The European countries are merely putting on the table military forcesin some instances, entirely inadequate military forcesthat already exist and are already, in theory, highly committed to other tasks. Britain, for example, already has a range of stand-by forces, including the Spearhead battalion. There is a limit to the number of different labels that can be put on the same forces that are already earmarked for a range of NATO and national tasks. I think that the Secretary of State should be more honest and straightforward in explaining this.
Nothing new is being created. Not one extra man, weapon, capability or other item of military use is being created, except the involvement of the European Union. This is a political gesture of the most dangerous sort and its consequences for NATO could well be serious and far-reaching. It will bring confusion and potentially dangerous complications. If the EU wants to command a military operation, it now has to establish complex arrangements within the NATO structures, which would be entirely unnecessary if NATO were to remain in control.
Operation Althea is due to start in Bosnia and Herzegovina on 2 December. The EU will take over from NATO. As a result, alongside the new EUFOR mission, NATO will remain with a small headquarters in Sarajevo. In the meantime, there are truly serious overlaps and real frictions between the two. Are the two missions meant to have a parallel or hierarchical relationship? Are they clearly separated? Will the new NATO mission hold a superior mission in relation to EUFOR? What are their respective responsibilities? Some would say that the motives of the EU have less to do with the real security situation in that country rather than with the EU's eagerness to bolster its credibility as a military player.
Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman raises a number of interesting issues about when EUFOR takes over from KFOR on 2 December. All these matters would be resolved for him if he had a word with General Leakey, who will be taking over on 2 December. All these matters are being resolved with the US commander of KFOR. Why is the hon. Gentleman raising issues that are in the course of being resolved?
Mr. Soames: I have the highest regard for General Leakey and I am sure he will do his very best to resolve these matters, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that in all military operations the single most important thing in command is clarity. The worry about these EU operations is the lack of clarity in the chain of command. General Leakey will, I am sure, do his best to resolve them, but there are great frictions and real difficulties; 2005 could see the conjunction of several potentially destabilising events in the Balkans. To test European defence ambitions as if Bosnia were some kind of laboratory is not a good idea.
To return to the subject of the battlegroups, I understand that the Dutch Defence Minister confirmed to the European Parliament two days ago that the battlegroups create no new troops, will use the same forces as are in service nowthey are already declared for use on a variety of tasks by the sovereign nations and by NATOand are already assigned many tasks. As
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has been the case throughout the whole of this dubious EU defence project, we are talking merely about a change in political command, without the will to carry it through in a serious and coherent manner.
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