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Peter Viggers: The hon. Gentleman is arguing very effectively, as he always does. Has he seen the Ministry of Defence's response to recommendation 38, which is about how the RAF will handle surge workloads? It says:

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Is the hon. Gentleman as completely unreassured by that as I am?

John Smith: Absolutely, partly because I, like the hon. Gentleman, have had military experience. We know, to use a good old-fashioned military term, that it is bull, and we are going to get a lot more of it.

The Minister is told that the turnaround time for the Harrier at Cottesmore has been reduced from 200 days to 45 days. So he writes to everybody in good faith—he is a good friend of mine who is absolutely committed to our front-line forces—saying that this is working wonderfully. What he does not say, possibly because he is not aware of it, is that it is achieved by a few commanders on the front-line station telling people to work seven days a week on double shifts for a few weeks, so two shifts of six work endless hours with no breaks because under Queen's regulations they are obliged to do so. The turnaround time of 60 days at DARA St. Athan would be achieved by six workers in a team working a 37-hour week on a single shift.

I am not reassured by the Ministry's response to recommendation 38, and I am certainly not reassured by its other responses. On recommendation 37, it says:

that is, about the adverse impact on operational effectiveness—but

Surprise, surprise—one of the prime contractors, BAE Systems, will move in, without any competition, with a joint upgrade and maintenance programme to do the work of the RAF and oversee the work that is carried out.

This is a dangerous step, and I would prefer that the Government did not take it. They should sit back, take a deep breath, and carefully and independently review what they have already done before taking this huge step into the unknown. We owe that to our brave servicemen and women in Her Majesty's Royal Air Force. The Secretary of State said—I agree with him 100 per cent., in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon)—that when we consider such matters our prime consideration is to ensure that our military personnel have the equipment that they want, when they want it, in the place they want it: in other words, that they can depend on those support facilities at a cost that is acceptable to the British taxpayer. I have no doubt that applying the criteria of military importance and value for money will expose the policy to be the utter nonsense that it is. I am afraid that waiting five years to see the effect of the decision will mean that it is too late to do anything about it.

I am a friend of the Government, and an ardent supporter of their defence policy. They started very well in respect of logistical support for front-line troops, and offered what might be called a new Labour interpretation of the "Frontline First" approach.
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I support them entirely, but hope that they will think again about this matter; otherwise, they could undermine the RAF's future capability.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before I call the next speaker, many hon. Members are seeking catch my eye this afternoon. Unless contributions are reasonably concise, I am afraid that quite a few are going to be disappointed.

3.45 pm

Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): Today's events have reminded all of us that our defence forces include all the emergency services. I join in paying tribute to them.

This debate gives us an opportunity to take a strategic look at the threats that exist around the world. I shall not speak about the work of the armed forces in areas such as Darfur, or in other places where there are problems with famine or welfare, but I will consider the nature of the threats that exist world wide. The armed forces define threat as military capacity combined with hostile intent. I shall examine those areas from which threat may emerge. After all, on the whole we can choose our friends, but our enemies tend to choose us. I believe that the intelligence services still regard the IRA as a more immediate threat in this country than al-Qaeda. However, the ground in Northern Ireland has been well harrowed, so I shall not speak about the experience there.

Both world wars started in Europe. Those who criticise aspects of the EU may forget that the way in which European countries have drawn together has made it impossible for another war to start in Europe. Trade, travel, the media and inter-marriage have all contributed to that. These days, we talk less about manufacturing than about assembly, and car manufacturers get components from all over Europe and the world. That globalisation means that there is no longer a risk of war starting in Europe.

Similarly, the cold war has moved on. The Soviet Union is no more. Russia remains a former imperial power with enormous resources, but its economy is roughly the same size as Belgium's or Denmark's. Ukraine has shown how Russia may evolve in due course. The forces of democracy triumphed there and we wish that country well. The old attitudes are still evident in Russia and visitors who talk to politicians there will hear as much. A member of the Duma told me recently that Russia has the most free press in the world. Many people there continue to delude themselves in that respect. The old attitudes exist side by side with new ones, and the oligarchs take advantage of both.

I think that we can tick the box in respect of Japan. We are able to maintain a dialogue with that country and its strong links with the US mean that there is no problem there. China has a population of 1.3 billion people—a fifth of the world's total of 6.4 billion. It is, of course, a nuclear power and it is growing at a dizzy speed, with internal stresses as a result. It is stretching out to Taiwan and has massively increased the size of its armed forces. There is a great need for an understanding of China, and I regret very much the fact that the BBC did not replace the programme "Letter from America"
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after Alistair Cooke died with a weekly programme called "Letter from China". I can think of no better way of promoting an understanding of that country. I pay tribute, in a small way, to the parliamentary group on China, which encourages understanding of that country. We must develop that understanding lest China fails to understand our own aspirations. Korea—which I suspect may well be a nuclear power already—is not permeable to western information channels. Our entry to Korea is through China, which acts as an intermediary, and it is clear that there are serious problems there.

I want to talk about Islam. Islamic society has a devotion and a commitment that we in this country do not have. The five pillars of Islam—the shahadah, the creed:

the salat, the five obligatory prayers each day; the zakat, the alms to the poor; the sawm, the fasting from sunrise to sunset during the period of Ramadan; and the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca by those who are physically and financially capable of undertaking it—mean that there is in the fabric of Islamic society a strength that western civilisation does not have.

Islam is a different kind of religion from Christianity. A Muslim has to redeem history. That means that state affairs are not a distraction from spirituality, but the stuff of religion itself. I quote from a book on Islam:

We have here the background fabric from which extreme views and determination can flow. Muslims look around the world and some see in the west people who do not live up to their own beliefs and ideals. In particular, in the United States and Europe we are lacking in the standards that they have; we are not devout, as they are; we eat food that they think unclean; we drink alcohol; we allow our women to walk around in a manner that they regard as half-naked; and many of us support the Zionist cause, which is their ultimate enemy.

There are two extreme elements within Islam, the first of which is Wahhabism, which derives from the Hambali school of jurisprudence. The strength of Wahhabism derives from the agreement between Abd al Wahhab and Mohammed ibn Saud, the leader of Saudi Arabia. It was an alliance that unified the disparate tribes on the Arabian peninsula and it means that the Saudi royal family is indebted to Wahhabism and linked to it. The royal family is pledged to return to the fundamentals of Islam and regards others as dissident heretics. The Saudi Arabian royal family significantly funds Wahhabism.

The other sect of significance is Hezbollah, which derives from the teaching of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and the Shi'ites, who make up 10 to 15 per cent. of Muslims. Many known acts of terror can be attributed to the sect and its alliance with Iran. It is thought by some to be a greater threat than al-Qaeda because Hezbollah is more sophisticated.
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So much for the people who might pose a threat. The way to deal with it is through diplomatic and political review, promoting understanding and democracy. It poses difficult problems when we as a democracy face a nation such as Uzbekistan, where democracy is not invoked at all. We sometimes find ourselves with strange allies.

The possibility of intent exists in some people. As to the means, globalisation has meant that chemical, biological and nuclear weapons are so much more readily available and so much easier to deliver. Since 9/11, the introduction of the concept of the suicide bomber has completely changed the nature of terrorism and the manner in which we deal with the threat of terrorism. We need to wage a war on terrorism, but we also need understanding and mutual respect. There is not enough emphasis on hearts and minds. The United Kingdom, with a strong tradition in the greater middle east, has a great role to play. Earlier, we heard criticism of the CIA. My own experience of the CIA does not lead me to believe that it is an entirely reliable body.

How are we shaping ourselves to cope with these random threats? I turn to the practical and the immediate, and matters relating to the Ministry of Defence. Our reserve forces have always had two roles. One is to reinforce the regular forces when the regular forces need that reinforcement. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) argued that the use and overuse of reserve forces had placed a tremendous strain on the reserve Army, Air Force and Navy, especially the reserve Army and the Territorial Army. People simply will not volunteer if they think that they will be called up on a regular basis. The reinforcement element represented by the reserves is being overstretched.

The second main role of the reserve forces is as a framework for regeneration and expansion of the armed forces. During the last war, units formed from reserve units were hugely superior in quality to units formed without that framework. We may need to expand our armed forces with reserves, not to repel an invasion in the traditional sense but to provide a structure for civil defence. I think that the Government are letting us down by not placing enough emphasis on reserve forces.

The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) referred to the Select Committee report published on 17 March, which made a number of trenchant criticisms of Government defence policy. I wonder whether I am carrying cynicism too far if I say that I was a little surprised that the Government's response to the report was embargoed:

46 minutes before the announcement of the Olympic bid. It could perhaps say that the Government's response was buried.

In recommendation 2, the Select Committee said that we must have flexibility, and criticised

In recommendation 5, the Government are severely criticised for reducing the naval presence. There were six naval standing commitments, but that was reduced to   four. The commitment to the north Atlantic and
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Caribbean area by a frigate or destroyer is now to be confined to the period between July and October. My question to the Minister is this: if the destroyer or frigate on patrol in the Caribbean area, which plays a significant part in combating the drugs trade in that area, has been useful in the past, why can we spare it now?

There have been two ships, one in the Arabian gulf and the other in the Indian ocean. The plan now is to have just one ship combining the two roles. As with boots on the ground, we really do need ships on the site. It is wrong to think that the roles of two ships in disparate areas can be combined.

Recommendation 6 deals with the purchase of aircraft carriers. The Committee was critical of the manner in which the orders were dealt with. I cannot think of a worse way to organise anything than to arrange a competition to appoint the builder of the carriers, to force the competitors to merge and work together, to form a troika with the Ministry of Defence as the third partner, and on top of all that to appoint a fiscal integrator. It worries me that although ever since their announcement of the purchase of the two aircraft carriers the Government have been boasting about the size of their aircraft-carrier and other surface ship procurement programmes, seven years later the order has still not been placed and is now seriously behind time.

Recommendation 13 says:

It goes on to say that the operational and training cycle is so intense that it is

There is also a capability gap. Recommendation 44 says:

When we went to war in Iraq, the armed forces were seriously short of much equipment, which had to be      obtained through UORs—urgent operational requirements. An example is the Minimi submachine gun, which was acquired as needed by the armed forces, but they did not have time to practise with the guns. They had never fired the guns before they went into action. That is deplorable.

We face serious threats world wide. I urge the Government to give a high priority to defence and ensure that the gaps identified by the Defence Committee are met.

4 pm

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