Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. We welcome the results of the inquiry and its thorough nature. We will study its conclusions in great detail. On behalf of the Opposition, may I again send our sympathy and condolences to the family and friends of those who were killed in this tragic incident?
It is true that such tragedies are unavoidable in warfare, so we pay tribute to the bravery and professionalism of all our armed forces involved in the Iraq conflict. It is worth reiterating and remembering why they are there, and why they are making those sacrifices. They are doing so to help the people of Iraq
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achieve freedom, escape tyranny, develop the rule of law and live in a country that respects human rights. Those are noble ideals to fight or die for.
I agree that it is not appropriate for the House to ask detailed operational questions that could compromise the safety of our troops, but the families of the crew, Hercules passengers and the British public more widely will have concerns with which the Secretary of State may wish to deal.
There are four specific areas of concern. How many similar incidents were identified before this particular one involving British or American forces in Iraq or Afghanistan, and what changes were implemented as a result? On alterations to aircraft, the Secretary of State said that the fitting of a fuel tank inerting system was being looked at as a matter of urgency. What time scale does that involve? I entirely understand and agree that it would be inappropriatein fact, dangerousto speculate on the type of weaponry involved but, without giving details that might compromise the safety of our forces, can he tell us how widespread is the availability of such weaponry and what is its origin?
Finally, the Secretary of State said that the flow of intelligence information on ground-to-air fire was not as robust as it could be. Does that mean that, on that occasion, intelligence about the specific threat in the area was available but not passed to the flight crew? That would indeed be a tragedy. Fatalities are inevitable in armed conflict, but the House looks to the Government to minimise the risk to our brave and professional armed forces.
John Reid: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and congratulate him on his new post. This is not the first time that we have shared views across the Dispatch Box, but I know of his commitment to his country and I am sure that that will be reflected in his commitment to the armed forces. I only regret that his first appearance at the Dispatch Box is marked by such a sombre subject. I thank him for the way in which he phrased his questions and for his recognition that we cannot be as open about everything as we are required to be on other subjects. I thank him, too, for the tributes that he paid to the armed forces and for his reminder of the purpose that brings us to Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas, as well as the high ideals that motivate that purpose.
The hon. Gentleman asked several legitimate and important questions, including how many similar incidents had taken place. Ground-to-air fire incidents are quite frequent. In the previous 18 months or so in Iraq, there were over 800 such incidents, none of which resulted in a tragedy of these proportions. In a sense, therefore, there was an element of chance or bad luck on this occasion. That casts light on other questions, such as why an inerting system was not fitted to the C-130K. Until relatively recently, the Hercules was not routinely deployed to areas of such danger. It has been used on specific occasions, but it has not been routinely deployed as a transport plane, although that has become more frequent after 11 September and the events in Afghanistan and Iraq. There has been a wide range of incidents in which Hercules and other planes have been fired on, but never with this result until now. That is one of the reasons that we carry out such investigations. I will comment on two local incidents in the context of the hon. Gentleman's important last question.
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On the time scale for reviewing whether we should have a new system that would have assisted, that will be done as urgently as is possible. I discussed matters this morning with the Chief of the Air Staff and I know that some recommendations about the tactics have already been put in place and that urgent consideration will be given to whether measures should be fitted to the wings and fuel tanks to suppress the possibility of such an incident happening again.
The RAF goes to great lengths to fit defensive suites of arrangements. The C-130K is the older version of the Hercules, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that it has been updated already with such defensive suites as directional infrared counter-measures, missile approach warning systems, radar warning receivers, counter-measures dispensing systems, flight deck armour and a series of other modifications. I would not want anyone to believe that sufficient attention was not paid to these matters. A considerable range of defensive suites have been added, but this is the first example of such an incident happening. The RAF will therefore consider the matter urgently.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether I could give any indication of the ground-to-air weaponry, without being specific. The indications are that a range of weaponry may have been used against the aircraft. That is precisely why I do not want to be specific about which one might have caused the explosion. Given that a range of weaponry was apparently used, the answer to his question about how widely available such weapons are in Iraq is that they are pretty widely availablethe types of weapon that were used, though not necessarily the type of weapon, which I do not want to indicate, that may perchance have been successful.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the flow of information. What appears to have happened is that there were two attacks in roughly the same area that day against United States helicopters. They occurred within 1 km and 3 km of where the attack on the Hercules took place. This informationwhich was collated within about three hours of the flight, so there was not a great deal of time in any case to pass such information to the pilots and crew of the Herculesnevertheless did not reach them because the route of the Hercules was not known to the Americans. There was a compartmentalisation of information as regards the Hercules precisely for security reasons. On a need-to-know basis, there was no need for the multinational forces outside our own preparations for the deployment of the Hercules to know of that.
That was done for security reasons. With the benefit of hindsight, it would have been better in terms of risk had that compartmentalisation not taken place on that occasion. However, the House should understand why it was done at the time. Even if the information had been available to the crew and pilots before they took off, it may not have changed their decision to proceed. It may or may not have affected the route that they took, but in any case the balance of risk involved was such that, in general terms, the fewer people who know about a particular route, the smaller the risk is considered to be.
It is obvious that the compartmentalisation meant to reduce the risk involves a risk. That is why one of the recommendations has already been acted upon. We have inserted extra British armed forces personnel into the flow of information in order to try to ensure that
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in future, while any such information is compartmentalised to the British, there will be a structure to convey it in circumstances similar to those in question.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman referred to the tactic of low flying. As I said in my statement, that is being reviewed. Daylight low flying is not being prohibited, because there is a balance of risk. On a short journey, if the normal trajectory rising to a given height and then coming down constitutes almost all the activity, the exposure to certain types of ground-to-air fire becomes greater and far riskier than if the aircraft were flying at a low level, which is why on that occasion that method of travellow level covering flat groundwas chosen. Nevertheless, that can open up another risk, as we have seen. It re-emphasises the singular point that in an operational theatre such as Iraq, there is no risk-free flying, which is a testimony to the courage of our soldiers.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches join him in his expressions of sympathy and condolence to the families of those who lost their lives in this tragic incident. The loss of any life in conflict is to be regretted, but he will know, as I do from my constituents' interests, that when several people from one military base die in a single incident the impact is much greater. I also join him in paying tribute to the military authorities in the UK for all the support they are giving to the families of those who lost their lives, and also to the American personnel in Iraq for all their support and bravery at the scene of the crash.
The Secretary of State drew attention to the fact that the board of inquiry undertook an exhaustive analysis and produced a comprehensive report containing a number of recommendations. He mentioned that some of those had already been acted upon. It would not be appropriate to press any of those issues too strongly todaythere should be other ways of doing that away from the full glare of publicitybut can he give an assurance that, bearing in mind how exhaustive the analysis has been and how comprehensive the report is, all those recommendations will be implemented as soon as possible?