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Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) and I have three things in common, the first of which is our ability to watch the clock; I greatly admire the tremendous precision with which he did so. Our second thing in common is our less than slavish support for Government defence policy; despite what he said at the outset, he proved to be rather critical of it. Our third common factor is that we are very strong supporters of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I fear that I am something of an "anorak" on this subject, having completed undergraduate and postgraduate study on it. Most recently, I graduated from the Royal College of Defence Studies, having enjoyed the careful tending of Sir Neil Thorne, to whom we all pay tribute.

That experience from last year has been combined with two or three other, more recent experiences. I am a visiting parliamentary fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford, which discusses issues such as those before us. I am also chairman of the all-party group on the Army, and a member of the Court of Assistants of the Honourable Artillery Company, my former Territorial Army regiment. All those experiences have enabled me to put together a number of thoughts in recent months. A debate such as this is an occasion not only to talk about the detailed issues to which Members have referred, but to reflect a little more widely on what we are seeking to do in our defence policy, and how we intend to do it.

We have reached a very significant point in world history and defence history. We must consider not only the challenges that our defence forces face and the tasks that they must carry out, but the resources that they are given to enable them do so. It used to be easy: it was plain what our defence forces had to do. We had to defeat communism; to remove the Argentines from the Falkland Islands; to sort things out in Sierra Leone. Even as recently as the conflict in Afghanistan, it was perfectly plain that, post-9/11, we had to do something, and sorting out al-Qaeda in Afghanistan seemed like the right thing to do. I have to say, however, that I am one
 
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of those who are by no means convinced that we achieved that task. Equally, I was one of few voices in my party who were by no means convinced that we had justification under international law to do what we eventually did in Iraq. Again, I am by no means convinced that we achieved our aims.

Leaving those issues to one side, the reality is that we no longer have clear tasks, because we do not have such an enemy any more. The enemy of peace in the world today is not a person invading somewhere else; it is not Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait. Today's enemy is invisible, diverse and unknown. He is ready to sacrifice his own life in a way that we have never seen before in terrorist activities. It was reasonably easy to defeat the IRA. On pointing a weapon at an IRA soldier's head—I use the word "soldier" loosely—he laid down his weapons. On pointing a weapon at an al-Qaeda terrorist's head, the likelihood is that he will blow himself up, taking a lot of other people with him. That is an enemy very different from any that we have seen before.

Much fundamental thought needs to be given to how to defeat such a terrorist. Do we do so by shooting him? Can we defeat him through direct, conventional operations? To some degree, of course, we can. If we can shoot Saddam Hussein—sorry, I meant to say the terrorist—[Interruption.] I should point out, incidentally, in response to a sedentary observation from the Liberal Democrat Benches, that many people would have liked Saddam Hussein to be shot.

How do we fight terrorism? Terrorism is a many-headed Hydra: taking out a terrorist carries the risk that 10,000 more will be created. Sorting out international terrorism is a much more complicated business than our beloved Prime Minister and the President of the US have led us to believe in recent years. They have tended to say that the war against terrorism is a matter of fighting the bad guys, and that our forces will ride in like the sheriff on his horse and take them out. Not so long ago, I heard Richard Perle saying that people could join the President's posse if they wanted to. The notion is that we are the good guys, and thus entitled to take out the bad guys.

I, for one, do not believe that defence today is anything like so simple. It is a great deal more complicated, but I still have great faith in my former regiment's motto—"Arma pacis fulcra". It means, "Arms are the Balance of Peace", and I am sure that that is right.

The cold war demonstrated as much. Our independent nuclear deterrent won the cold war for us. For some 20 years, the Labour party wanted to get rid of it. If that had happened, the Russians and communism would have won. We would not be where we are today if we had done what Labour wanted and disarmed, and the same is true now. We cannot defeat al-Qaeda or international terrorism by laying down our arms, so we need a sensible military deterrence to sort out the terrorist threat.

How do we deploy our conventional military assets so that they deter terrorists? That is a key question, and we must be careful about how we answer it. The tragedy of the South American person killed in error by the police on the underground is a good demonstration of that.
 
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Should we have been using dum-dum bullets against someone who turned out to be perfectly innocent? What weapons should we use to deter terrorist activity?

I want to contemplate for a moment what we have done in Iraq. Is it right to build up our conventional forces and deploy them as we have in Iraq, given what might happen elsewhere in the world? Next year, we will seek to deploy a second Army group in Afghanistan, which will mean that we have two such groups deployed in the world. That exceeds what was foreseen in the strategic defence review, so what will happen to overstretch? I shudder to think of the consequences in that regard.

I have watched our armed forces at work over many years, and I know that service personnel will brace up, salute, turn to the right and march off and do whatever we ask of them. The people who talk incessantly about overstretch demean the capabilities and determination of our very professional armed services. There is no question but that they are up to any job they are given.

However, the more we ask our armed forces to do, the harder the task will be if we do not give them the appropriate resources. Our deployment in Afghanistan is due to be increased next year, but who knows what else might happen around the world. What will happen if there is another Sierra Leone or—God forbid!—an increase in violence in Northern Ireland? If anything like that arose, the elastic would be stretched to its maximum.

In that respect, I am more critical of the Government even than the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith). Our Army is close to being the smallest since the battle of Waterloo. A force with 100,000 people or fewer does not deserve the name "Army". At such a size, we are talking about a home defence force.

In that context, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), who spoke with great knowledge and expertise about the Territorial Army. The commanding officer of the Honourable Artillery Company, my own regiment, said only the other day that the Government were using the TA as cheap labour to bridge the gap in their defence budgets. The Government have made deep cuts in the Army and have used the TA to plaster over the gaps, but that cannot go on.

I have some experience of the TA, and can tell the House that its personnel will accept a deployment of six months or 12 months. However, if the law were to be changed to allow them to be required to accept another compulsory deployment, the boys would not do so. They are professional people, with jobs and families to think about. They are prepared to serve the nation once, but the possibility that they might do so more than once is remote.

I suspect that the crisis involving recruitment and retention in the TA is worse than it appears, because an awful lot of the people who have come back have not yet handed in their uniforms. They are not necessarily turning up at the drill halls, but are waiting to collect their bounties. If there were a huge crisis that demanded a substantial deployment of the Territorial Army, I suspect that the people would not be there. If that were the case, the regular Army would be left high and dry. The same situation arises in other areas owing to what
 
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the Government are doing on procurement and the provision of equipment, and the number of people who are on the ground.

The strategic defence review did not foresee the situation that we are in, and nor did the Government. They will not tell us in any detail how they would handle a significant increase in military threat throughout the world. They seem to be sitting on their hands and hoping like heck that that does not happen. There are significant signs that suggest that the elastic that is our highly professional armed forces is being stretched to its maximum. If there were a crisis—I hope that there will not be one—who knows what would happen to that elastic.

4.30 pm


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