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John Reid: Yes, I think that I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, with one little caveat. The people who are best placed to make the final decision about prioritisation of the recommendations are the Royal Air Force. I discussed the matter this morning with the Chief of the Air Staff, who will be handling all press inquiries today, as is appropriate on such a subject, rather than a politician. I know that he will give the matter the urgency that is required.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his tribute. We all recognise the effect of such an event on a local community, particularly RAF Lyneham. I had some experience of that when I went to the remembrance service, along with the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), who represents the area, and met some of the families there.
Finally, I join the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) in thanking our United States allies and the servicemen and women who, despite the risk to
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themselves, not only discovered but protected the site of the wreckage for sufficient time to allow us to collect at least sufficient to make judgments on these matters. The hostility of the area, which is in what is known as the Sunni triangle, was such that we could not stay as long as we would like to have done, and there was some looting afterwards, but we recovered what needed to be recovered for the respect of the families and for the purposes of the inquiry.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I had the privilege of standing on the windswept tarmac at RAF Lyneham as the 10 flag-draped coffins were brought off the Hercules. I spent the afternoon with the families and remain scarred by that experience. However, I know that the families will be glad that this announcement has been made before Christmas, which will be difficult for them, and I am sure that they will welcome the fact that the Secretary of State chose to brief them before today's statement, which was sensible and proper.
I am particularly grateful that the report entirely exonerates the crew. In particular, the family of Flight Lieutenant "Steady-Eddie", who was one of my constituents, will be glad that no blame has been attached to him. I am sure that the Secretary of State will join me in paying tribute not only to the bravery and professionalism of those who died, but the bravery and professionalism of all those at RAF Lyneham in my constituencythe first in and last out of every conflict.
John Reid: The hon. Gentleman's words are apposite. I know that he has provided assistance and support to families both in this specific case and over many years. I regret the fact that the board of inquiry had to report in the run-up to Christmas, which I know caused a great deal of pain. However, I also know that the families would not have had the board of inquiry unduly delayed and wanted their questions answered as openly and honestly as possible.
Finally, I thank the hon. Gentleman for reinforcing the point that the crewthe pilots, the co-pilots and the one passengerwere courageous, skilled, highly committed, highly dedicated professional people and that no scintilla of blame has been apportioned to them. Once the incident occurred, the aeroplane became uncontrollableit could not have been controlled once it was hit, and the wing was severed after the explosion. I thank the hon. Gentleman for reinforcing that point. I am more than happy to repeat the central point that we have lost grievously from the service of the nation the skill, determination and courage of those who died.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): It is wise that the RAF and the MOD have not prohibited this kind of flying. It is important that the response is measured and we should not introduce so much protection that people cannot do what is required. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the flow of intelligence continues to go upwards towards those in the air? Although one can understand why a particular flight path is not given to those on the ground, the flow of information should be faster when incidents occur.
In reviewing the consequences of the change to some of the responsibilities of ground defence from the RAF to the Army, will the Secretary of State consider the
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importance of "thinking air"? I hope that that is not a cliché. People on the ground who are linking in with the RAF and other air forces must understand what people in the air need to know. Whether or not the change is a good idea, people on the ground need to understand the air environment.
John Reid: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment and for both of his points. Although we are now aware of a nuance in the balance of risk, it does not mean that there is a risk-free route for such operations, which is why we have not reacted by immediately banning tactical low flying, even during the day. We are aware of the risk and will try to avoid low flying, but it is up to the commanders in theatre and the pilots themselves to decide whether they want to use that tactic. As I have said, there are risks in taking the normal trajectory on a short flight, which exposes people to greater risk for a greater part of such journeys.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point about intelligence flow and the appreciation of aspects of intelligence by those who fly. While maintaining a degree of security of information to protect the operations of those who fly, we are trying to bridge the gap between the collection and dissemination of information to people who will appreciate what it means for their flying and for the risks attached to their flying. We are trying to improve the bridge between the collection of information, whether by ourselves or by others, and its dissemination to those who can judge it appropriately. Those skilled and trained professionals had a pre-deployment briefing and considered all the aspects of the information that was at their disposal. For reasons that I have already explained, the aspect about incidents in the area was not at their disposal.
Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for today's statement. I pay tribute to our armed forces who are serving in Iraq and around the rest of the world for the fantastic professional work that they do on our behalf. Our love, best wishes, thoughts and prayers go to the families of the 10 servicemen whom we have sadly lost.
I had honour of flying into Baghdad and Basra with the RAF shortly after the crash. The professionalism shown by the RAF was unbelievable and the Americans stood back in amazement at how the RAF had taken such a disaster on the chin and got on with their work, although the personnel were clearly very upset.
I understand that we cannot discuss lots of details today for operational reasons and because of the sensitivities. Does the rest of the Hercules fleet, and particularly the C-130H and J aircraft, have fuel tank inerting systems, which would make our servicemen around the world safer? The Secretary of State may be considering fitting the C-130K with such a system.
The hon. Gentleman's remarks to the families will be much appreciated, as will his recognition of the dangers of flying, which he has experienced personally. Some of us have had the privilege of flying with the RAF in what is for them a day-to-day, risk-
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filled theatre, such as Basra or Baghdad. Those of us who have put on body armour, put out the lights and flown at night at an angle of descent that is calculated to terrify most people outside the RAF while swerving, understand the risks inherent in such operations. We often forget that such flights are daily occurrences. That particular crew had already flown perhaps four times between Balad and Baghdad before the tragic incident occurred, and they had flown day-in, day-out since their deployment two or three weeks before the incident. Most of the crew were very experienced: between them, they had 19 operational deployments, so they were people who got on with the job as a matter of course and took those risks.
The hon. Gentleman asked why a fire suppressant system was not fitted to the C-130 and what the position is on the other aircraft. As he knows, the K variant was first developed and built in the 1960s, when that technology was not available. Systems to upgrade the aircraft are now available and we are examining as a matter of urgency whether the technology can be successfully fitted to our aircraft. I must repeat my earlier point that, before the incident, the C-130 Hercules was not thought to be particularly vulnerable to that form of attack. We now know that it in certain circumstances it can be very vulnerable.
We shall examine this as a matter of urgency. I merely point out that it is not always an easy thing to do. A data recorder, for instance, can be fitted relatively easily into a modern digitised cockpit, but the C-130K was built in the 1960s. Although we can put in a lot of defensive aids, it is not that easy to put in a data recorder where there are multi-faceted, sometimes clockwork, indicators and no central terminal from which to draw the information. There may be difficulties, but we are considering it as a matter of urgency.
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