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Joint Combat Aircraft

5. Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): If he will make a statement on the development of the joint combat aircraft. [53937]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Substantial progress has been made in the system development and demonstration phase of the joint strike fighter programme, with the recent completion of the critical design review for the short
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take-off and vertical landing variant. Progress in building development aircraft is also on schedule, with assembly of the first development aircraft largely complete, and first flight expected towards the end of this year. In conjunction with the United States and the other international partners in the joint strike fighter programme, we are negotiating the terms of the memorandum of understanding for the co-operative production, support and follow-on development phase. We expect to conclude these negotiations by the end of this year.

Mr. Francois: I thank the Minister for his reply, but the last of our few remaining Sea Harriers are now being withdrawn, no doubt to be flogged off abroad at a knockdown price. Given that we shall shortly have no maritime fighter aircraft to protect the fleet, what is the Government's plan B if, for any reason, the joint combat aircraft programme does not proceed?

Mr. Ingram: Indeed, I think that the Sea Harriers are being decommissioned today, and we should mark that event because they have provided great service. We have explored the reasons for this decision time and again in the House and I do not want to repeat them. We have also discussed our plan B. As ever, the Ministry of Defence has plans A to Z to deal with every eventuality—

Mr. Francois: Tell us what they are.

Mr. Ingram: Well, what we shall not do, when we are in the middle of negotiating the best option, is inform the hon. Gentleman what all the other options are, because I am sure that others would put that information to good use.

European Defence Agency

7. Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): If he will make a statement on the future of the European Defence Agency. [53939]

The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): The United Kingdom will play a leading role in the European Defence Agency to ensure that it continues to identify opportunities for co-operation, which will improve European member states' defence capabilities. In our view, the European Defence Agency is about co-operating with partners to leverage the maximum benefit from the money spent. It is not about creating a central budget to fund an EU defence force.

Mr. Atkinson: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Will he reassure the House, however, that when he meets his fellow European Ministers in a few days to fix the agency's budget, he will not accept the French Government's suggestion that there should be a common European defence budget?

John Reid: I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and the House on that point. My view of the matter is simple. First, the European Defence Agency should be an institution that brings member states together to collaborate on projects, not one that substitutes for national discernment and creates a further bureaucratic,
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central procurement agency. Secondly, it should walk before it tries to run, and any increase in budget should be commensurate with that approach. Therefore, the institution should be more in the form of a dating agency than one that will supplant all the other procurement agencies.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): On the subject of dating, when my right hon. Friend met his French opposite number recently—I think that it was at the Ritz or the Savoy hotel—did they discuss the proposal to spend more on research through the European Defence Agency? Bearing in mind the fact that Britain and France contribute two thirds of the entire EU research budget, surely this programme will mean that EU partners will collaborate and the results will be available to all EU partners, which is very much in the spirit of the St. Malo agreement.

John Reid: On the subject that my hon. Friend raises, I did not discuss that matter with my friend the French Defence Minister when I met her in Admiralty house, which, as he knows, is where Nelson planned the battle of Trafalgar, in Churchill's Cabinet rooms, which we visited together, or, as he correctly points out, when we had tea at the Ritz. I did, however, discuss the matter at the penultimate meeting of the European Defence Agency, where we considered the preliminary advance in the budget from €4 million. I felt that we should move to €5 million and the French felt that we should move to €70 million. We compromised on €6 million, which is the sort of compromise that I rather like.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): The Government's document presented to the House in January, "Prospects for the European Union in 2006", states:

It also states:

How far does the Secretary of State expect those activities to expand? What would be the full cost of that? Are we not seeing technology and procurement being used as a backdoor route to European defence integration?

John Reid: I think that I answered the hon. Gentleman's question just before he asked it. So far, we have agreed an increase in the budget from around €4 million to around €6 million, as opposed to the €70 million which some partners were looking for. We very much view the European Defence Agency—which is under the stewardship of chief executive Nick Witney, who is a former Ministry of Defence official—as an agency that brings together willing partners in collaboration. We do not envisage it as some central, major, new European procurement agency. In areas such as research and development and technology, however, we, the French and other major partners could get better value for money from collaboration. Those are precisely the areas in which we can work together constructively.
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8. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): If he will make a statement on British troop levels in Afghanistan. [53940]

The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): UK troop numbers in Afghanistan are currently around 1,600. They will increase in coming months, peaking at around 5,700, and reducing to around 4,700 by the autumn. They will be reduced further next year when NATO headquarters in Kabul is no longer under United Kingdom stewardship.

Mr. Gray: In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) a moment ago, the Secretary of State described the tasks faced by our troops as establishing democracy, ending terrorism, achieving security in the south of Afghanistan, helping the economy of Afghanistan and dealing with poppy destruction. Will he now tell us how he will judge when each of those tasks has been completed, how long that will take, and what our exit strategy is?

John Reid: We will make our judgment on the basis of changes on the ground: extension of central Government control, a reduction in insurgency, growth of the Afghan security forces and economic development. The exit strategy involves one of the entrance aims: the achievement of a degree of success in all those respects in a relatively short time—three years—in the south. As I have said many times, we do not expect the area to become Hampshire, or New Hampshire, but it will be in a significantly better state than it is now. On the security side, for instance, we expect training and capability to have been achieved for between 7,500 and 8,000 more Afghan security forces in the south in three years' time. That is roughly the number of soldiers who have been sent in by the International Security Assistance Force, and it forms the basis of a replacement of our presence by Afghan security forces and our withdrawal.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): May I hark back to the discussion on Question 1? I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree that if farmers are to be persuaded to give up producing a non-perishable product at a relatively high price and grow perishable goods which they can convey to a sizeable market, Afghanistan must have a good infrastructure. In particular, it must have good roads and bridges. Will the increased number of armed troops help the Afghans to build a better infrastructure?

John Reid: It is important for the House to understand why we are there and what our role is. We are there to prevent Afghanistan from slipping back to the status of a failed state, which would enable it to be used by terrorists as a Trojan horse. Our troops are not there to seek out and destroy the terrorists; that is being done, under Operation Enduring Freedom, by an American-led multinational coalition. We are there to ensure that, in the medium and longer term, there is a build-up not just of central Government and their own security forces but of economic development.

Our forces are in southern Afghanistan—along with the Dutch, the Danes, the Estonians, the Canadians and others—to provide a security umbrella under which the
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Afghans themselves, aided by other civilian authorities, can build not only a degree of infrastructure but the beginnings of economic development. I take my hon. Friend's point entirely.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Secretary of State has told us about the number of troops who are going to the Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, but the Americans found that reconstruction was difficult to achieve because the troops were so thinly spread. Can the Secretary of State confirm first, that non-governmental organisations are poised and ready to act, and secondly, that we will have enough troops to protect them so that that crucial work can be done?

John Reid: I can confirm both those points. If the hon. Gentleman wants an illustration, I can tell him that about 20 times as many British troops are going to Helmand as there are American troops there now. The number of American troops who are there, and in Urozgan to the north where the Dutch are going, is relatively small. It is precisely because we are there to act as a cover for many other social and civilian activities that we need more troops. Those 3,300 troops—together with about 800 engineers, who will return once the camps are built—are a significant force, and of the configuration for which the chiefs of staff asked. It is perfectly valid for hon. Members on both sides of the House to ask legitimate questions about the force configuration, rules of engagement and so on. It is perfectly legitimate, too, to point out the dangers, but we all ought to be careful not to cross the threshold into despondency and defeatism before we even arrive, because that does no one any good, particularly our very brave troops.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): Will the Secretary of State confirm that the British commander, who is also the NATO commander, will have at his disposal all the assets of NATO countries deployed in Afghanistan? When it comes to the deployment of American assets, will he have to go through the separate American command structure if those assets are to be made available to him?

John Reid: I confirm that the NATO commander to whom the hon. Gentleman referred is a British general, and is content with the arrangements both for the deployment to the south and to assist him in meeting the needs of the wider Afghan stage. Like everyone else, including hon. Members, he would no doubt like even more forces at his disposal, but he is content with the configuration that has been provided. I am not sure that I understood the hon. Gentleman's question about American forces operating under Operation Enduring Freedom.

Mr. Hancock: No. NATO.

John Reid: NATO forces—yes. As far as I am aware, the NATO commander who is taking over in theatre from May is content with the configuration. If I find for any reason that I need to qualify my statement about the American forces at the commander's disposal, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman, because I would not wish to mislead him.
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Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The Secretary of State should understand that the reason why the Opposition are questioning him and have made those points is that we very much want our deployment in Afghanistan to be successful. We want our troops to succeed, which is why we are questioning the Secretary of State about these matters. Following his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr.   Gray), is he satisfied that the spending by our US    allies and the Department for International Development on alternative livelihoods for Afghan poppy farmers is adequate given the scale of the illegal drugs trade? If not, we risk uniting the remnants of the Taliban, the warlords of the south and local populations in a lethal combination against our soldiers.

John Reid: On the first point, it is precisely because I recognised the legitimacy of his question that I accorded such status to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). I was simply warning that robust but illegitimate questioning can aid people who would wish us not to succeed in Afghanistan. However, I accept the sincerity with which questions have been asked—of course I do.

Secondly, I am satisfied that the allocation of resources both by the Department for International Development and by our American allies is significant, and will allow us to ensure the provision of interim incomes and eventually the development of alternative livelihoods for farmers to minimise the chances of their being forced into insurgency. Of course, I would always like more money—that is the case for almost every project—but we have a satisfactory amount. Indeed, that was the second criterion that I laid down when I said that we needed the configuration that our chiefs wanted, supplementary income to provide alternative livelihoods, and the required NATO configuration before we went in. I am satisfied that we have met that criterion.

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