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Last night, we learned that the Prime Minister-in- waiting believes that the decision must be taken next year—although he seems to have made a decision, despite the fact that key facts have not been made
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public. Successive Defence Ministers have said only that a decision may be required in this Parliament. Why the sudden urgency? Has the Ministry of Defence changed its position and, if so, on what basis? The former Defence Secretary said in a written answer in March that Ministers had not yet begun to consider the position “in any detail”, so what new analysis has taken place since then? Exactly when will the “fullest possible parliamentary debate” that the Prime Minister promised begin? The truth is that the timetable for replacement seems to have more to do with political considerations than technical ones.

The Americans are proposing to extend the lifecycle of their Trident systems into the 2040s. I do not pretend that we could do that with ease, but it would certainly be possible. In that case, why does the Chancellor suddenly believe that a decision about replacement has to be made in the next few months?

Dr. Julian Lewis: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman very carefully, but I think that the problem is the life of the Trident missile submarines rather than the missiles themselves. The submarines’ lifespan will end between 2020 and 2025.

Nick Harvey: I agree that the problem lies with the submarines, which have a limited lifecycle, rather than with the warhead or the missile. However, the Americans are proposing to eke some extra life even out of their submarines. Although I do not see that we have a great deal of scope to do the same, I do not believe that final decisions need to be made by next spring. If we did everything that we could to extend Trident’s lifecycle, a number of years would certainly pass before it had absolutely had to be replaced.

A decision to replace Trident before all the options—as well as their costs, the strategic environment, proliferation implications and security requirements—are considered would be a dereliction of public duty. This is a matter of essential national debate, and all such factors need to be brought into the open. The decision should be taken only after an informed debate and a slow and careful consideration of the issues, not on a political whim.

In concluding, I welcome the announcement in the Minister’s statement that, before the end of the year, a future strategic context for defence policy will be published. That in itself may prove a useful step along the way in our discussions of the possible replacement of Trident. I did feel, however, that the Minister was at times in danger of painting a slightly rosy picture of the 21st century context. There are very great dangers; we live in a very uncertain world.

Climate change could prove a great threat to security, as many of the world’s cities are based on vulnerable coastlines. HIV/AIDS has been recognised by the UN Security Council as a security issue that threatens to destabilise parts of Africa. Competition for scarce resources is intensifying and the US, China and India should certainly rein in, sit down and participate in discussions about the problem. There is a growing poverty gap between wealthy parts of the world and the developing world, and trade barriers are being put in the way of the developing world as it tries to improve itself. In addition, there is the spread of
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weapons of mass destruction and the constant threat of terrorism. All of those are new challenges that require new policies. Talk of the peace dividend seems a long way behind us now.

It is welcome that we have a chance to debate the new security contexts later in the year, and I am glad that we have had the opportunity to look into the more current issues now. I very much hope that the Government will shortly give the House more information about the replacement of Trident so that we can begin a rational debate about it as soon as possible.

3.1 pm

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): Right hon. and hon. Members will know about the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I was delighted to be accepted into and to take part in it. For the benefit of anyone observing our debate or reading Hansard later, it is worth restating that the scheme was established to enable Members here and in the other place to gain a feel for, and understanding of, what our armed forces do. I venture to suggest that some who have already participated in today’s debate or who intend to later would do well to think about signing up to the scheme to widen their knowledge.

One important aspect of the scheme is the sharing with the House of any lessons learned. I would certainly recommend last year’s armed forces parliamentary scheme booklet to anyone who wanted to get an idea of what the scheme does and to get involved with it. Over the next few minutes or so, I would like to give the House some of the information that I have learned through participating in the scheme so far. I make no apology for the fact that it is a personal view based on what has been said to me and what I have learned. I also make no apology for the fact that my speech is Army-centred, because that is the armed force with which I worked. I make no apology either for failing to mention any names—it would be unfair for me to do so and it would send out the wrong message to people who want the opportunity to talk to parliamentarians when they are out and about with different units. People should not feel inhibited in any way about speaking to us.

Mr. Gray: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will make one exception to that honourable self-denying ordinance and join me in congratulating Sir Neil Thorne, the founder of the armed forces parliamentary scheme and its mentor for many years.

Mr. Flello: I would be delighted to do so. The scheme has been going for about 18 years and it has allowed something in the order of 170 or 180 Members to participate. In my relatively short period in the scheme, I have undertaken a few visits. I kick off with the Army presentation team. Again, I would recommend any interested Member to take the opportunity to get a flavour and overview from the team of what it does.

I also visited Headquarters Land Command and met the commander-in-chief of our land forces. The meeting was attended by three chiefs of staff, four assistant chiefs of staff, the Command secretary and his deputy and the director of Army infrastructure. Indeed, there were so many stars in the room that I thought I was in
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an episode of “The Sky at Night”. It was extremely informative. We talked about the organisation of the forces, the current operations, as have been mentioned in the debate, the major issues that the Army is addressing and the major challenges that it faces and, indeed, some of the issues that have been so eloquently spoken about already, such as the commitment of forces and the new equipment that is planned.

I also attended Pirbright, spoke to some of the new recruits on their phase 1 training and had an insightful briefing from the commander in charge of that facility. I saw at first hand the high-tech shooting range, where new recruits are taught how to use weapons in an extremely safe environment. They can get used to the equipment in a way that allows the trainers to correct any new recruit who needs some further guidance, in a way that would not be possible traditionally because of the accuracy of the training equipment that they have been given to use. Throughout my experience so far, the quality of the training comes through time and again. Perhaps other Departments could learn some lessons about the quality of the training that the Army is able to undertake. I stand in the House as a perhaps less-than-perfect example of someone at his peak physical fitness, but the effort that goes into, and the quality of, the physical training was also particularly notable.

I was fortunate to spend some time with 1 Royal Anglian on its training exercise. Give that yesterday was the longest day, the name of the exercise—Druids Dance—seemed somewhat appropriate on Salisbury plain. I also spent some time with a squadron of the King’s Royal Hussars. Again, that was insightful, and I hope in the next few minutes to develop some of the information that was provided to me during those three very informative days. Most recently, I visited the armoured centre at Bovington with the Royal Armoured Corps. Again, I gained first-hand experience of training and speaking to recruits and soldiers at various stages of their Army careers, as well as the leadership of those facilities.

Later in the year, I hope to visit Iraq to see it for myself. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) is not in his place, but if he got himself on to that visit, we could both see for ourselves what the reality of life is like for the troops in Iraq, by talking to serving soldiers about their experiences and perhaps not relying on—dare I say?—propaganda from possibly unreliable sources that cannot be corroborated.

I have had an opportunity to talk to soldiers at all levels, from a recruit who was only a few weeks into phase 1 training to the commander-in-chief of land forces. I spoke to soldiers all the way through: captains, majors, lieutenant-colonels, colonels and all the ranks. I had a particularly interesting conversation over a cup of tea in a deckchair on Salisbury plain with a brigadier, who very kindly hosted me at the headquarters of 12 Mechanised Brigade.

I want to get to the meat of the major issues that were expressed to me, but this is just a snapshot of some of them. The Bowman radio system has not been mentioned specifically in the debate, but it has been alluded to. I got very mixed views from professional soldiers—the signalmen—to whom I spoke, but the vast majority of them were impressed with the system. They said that it was fantastic and that the secure
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communications, the robustness and the whole set up was very good. Where the problems still lie—they are being resolved—is in rolling out the additional functionality of the Bowman system.

A number of outsiders have expressed concerns to me about the loss of some knowledge and the encryption ability in relation to the use of unsecured communications. Yet when I was with the Royal Armoured Corps at Bovington recently, I saw with my own eyes recruits being trained to use encryption if the secure communications system falls down. There is a lot of hype and myth about the loss of trained skills and abilities, but on seeing the situation for myself, it was clear that the reality is completely different.

Many people outside the military have expressed to me their views about equipment levels and availability. Being a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme has allowed me to see the situation for myself and to talk to serving soldiers. On doing so, it became clear—I hope that my Front-Bench colleagues will take note of this message, and the spirit in which it is intended; this was a learning experience—that the equipment provided on operational duty was excellent and of the highest quality. Soldiers had what they needed where and when they needed it, but time and again they expressed concerns about training. For example, although the sights provided on operation in Iraq were superb, they were not available in the UK training environment, so there was a delay in deployment and in getting up to speed in the use of that equipment. The thermal imaging sight for the Javelin 2 missile system is an extremely capable piece of kit, but it is not cheap. One sight was available for training use by a number of units, which was sufficient to meeting training needs; however, we could do better.

Some of the equipment used at the land warfare centre to train soldiers is incredible, and a lot of thought has gone into developing the training systems. One room there has desktop computers with training aids that soldiers can use as part of a lesson or in their own time, in order to get back up to speed. They can also take those aids back to their base units, so that they can continue to upgrade their knowledge. There are also gunners’ “cabinets”, which are used to train gunners, and a wide range of other training equipment. Yet again, the quality of training is absolutely superb.

Turning to the after-action review and my time spent with 12 Mechanised Brigade on Salisbury plain, the training facilities, tools and equipment provided there are absolutely superb. It is possible to identify whether individual soldiers are standing or lying down, and moving in the right or wrong direction. Such information can be gone through item by item in a replay after the training session, which is incredibly valuable.

On asset management of equipment, particularly the heavier equipment—the tanks—it would be remiss of me not to mention the robust session that I had with the King’s Royal Hussars in the major’s tent at the end of one Wednesday. They expressed their views in a forthright manner, pointing out that although central asset management of tanks such as Scimitars is in principle a good idea in practice, when on exercise troops have to spend a lot of time at the start bringing such equipment back up to standard. Because the unit that has used it previously does not own it and therefore has no personal pride in it, the various niggles
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are not sorted out before it is put back into storage. As a result, work often needs to be done to bring it back up to standard when it is taken out of storage. I hope that my colleagues on the Front Bench will take note of that information.

The KRH pointed out to me that most of their vehicles have been switched over from petrol to diesel, but my understanding—I hope that the Minister can correct me if I am wrong—is that the fuel used is virtually of the type to be found in the public garage down the road. It was duty-paid fuel, and it seemed odd to me to use that for those vehicles and that some arrangement has not been made. Perhaps more important, though, would be taking a lead in looking at biofuels and alternative fuels, to see whether there are ways for the services, and the Army in particular, to set an example on the environmental impact of having a Saxon armoured carrier sitting with its engine running so that tea can be boiled up in the brewing vessel. There is a need for alternative fuels.

A lot of comments have been made about soldiers having to buy their own kit, especially if they want anything decent. My experience is that that may have been the case a few years back, but the quality of kit is mighty fine now. It is good stuff. It is good kit. I was issued a pair of boots before going out to Salisbury plain, and only remembered them the day before. So, I had three days out in these brand new boots, but without a blister to speak of, and believe me that was not because I was sitting down, because I certainly had to do a lot of walking.

What came across to me was that soldiers do still buy some personal kit, but that is for personalisation reasons and not because there is anything wrong with the kit. One comment made to me was about a lightweight fleece jacket. Someone had bought one, but two months on they are being issued as standard, and he is looking for the receipt to try to take it back. The quality of food has also come a long way. Napoleon said that an army marches on its stomach, and the only comment made to me was that an awful lot of soldiers carry their own bottles of Tabasco sauce to spice things up a little.

Safety was absolutely paramount on the exercise. Someone twisted an ankle and the whole exercise on the plain was closed down while that was attended to. The quality of the safety, like the training, was phenomenal. Loader training at the Royal Armoured centre involved teaching loaders to get away from the recoil of the Challenger 2 breech. Almost everything seemed to be done, too, in terms of risk assessment. I started slightly cynically, as a Member of Parliament, thinking that things might be being talked about and done for my benefit. But when I sat back in the middle of the exercise and could see things happening for real, I started to realise that risk assessment is well and truly embedded.

Pay is never too far from most people’s minds, and soldiers are no exception. One thing mentioned was that overseas troops tend to have tax-free pay. What was not mentioned was levels of pay and how well troops are paid now in comparison with some time ago.

I pay tribute to the soldiers I met. Finally, I ask that veterans day should be not just about ex-service personnel and that we should celebrate our current, serving personnel, who do a tremendous job.

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3.17 pm

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): I declare an interest in regard to what I wish to say later about Afghanistan.

I have some sympathy with the problems of the Minister of State and the Ministry of Defence. I know as well as anyone that although the Ministry has what appear to be vast resources—£32 billion a year or whatever it is—that does not enable it to do more than a proportion of what it would like to achieve. The Ministry of Defence is always treated with a lot of jealousy by other home Departments. I recall Margaret Thatcher once saying to me that the problem with the Ministry of Defence is that it has no friends. I suggested that the Foreign Office was perhaps a friend, and she said, “The Foreign Office? They’re not wet; they’re drenched!” And so was the conversation brought to a premature end.

I hope that the Minister of State will forgive me for saying that our discussion so far illustrates why the Leader of the House was quite wrong to suggest that a debate such as this one meets the Government’s responsibilities with regard to the House having an opportunity to debate Iraq or other fundamental issues of defence policy. We have just heard from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) and from others about many important topics, and we cannot go through dozens of relevant issues, which just happen to include Iraq and Afghanistan, and then say that the House of Commons has fulfilled its responsibilities and that Parliament has been able to agree or disagree with the Government’s policy. That is not acceptable. The United States Congress has had many opportunities to debate Iraq and Afghanistan, and I suggest to the Minister that his Department, and, I hope, the Foreign Office, will impress upon the Leader of the House, who ought to know better than most, why such a debate would be timely and necessary in the wider public interest if the Government wish to try to win back some support for their policy.

I shall not detain the House long, but I want to make two kinds of comment. First, I shall deal with the argument that the Government try to make, either intentionally or subliminally, that the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan—the problems, opportunities and tasks—are broadly the same, and that they are pursuing a single strategy and should have the support of the House and the country. Secondly, I want to make specific comments about Afghanistan.

I support what the Government are doing in Afghanistan; it is absolutely right. The starting point was quite different. Al-Qaeda may be present in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is in Iraq as a result of the British and American invasion of that country. Before then, there was a secular despot who had no more time for al-Qaeda than do the British Government. Al-Qaeda has identified a big vacuum in Iraq and is there in a big way, but the situation in Afghanistan is fundamentally different. The British, American and other Governments were right to intervene in that country.

The second consideration is that the United States had genuine global support. A few years on, it is easy to forget how unanimous that support and sympathy was around the world; there was also recognition of the
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need to take swift action against the Taliban, because they were giving al-Qaeda practical support. Another consideration is that there is not the insurgency in Afghanistan that there is in Iraq. People express great pessimism about Afghanistan going the wrong way, and talk about mission creep and our being sucked into something insoluble. There are indeed major problems, but they are of a quite different order. For practical purposes, the whole of Iraq—certainly in the areas where the population is concentrated, in Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere—is convulsed by the insurgency. In Afghanistan the Government’s remit is relatively limited. However, that is not because there is general insurgency, but because warlords and others control individual provinces and deny respect for the central Government. The situation is not comparable.

Furthermore, 40,000 Iraqis and others have died since the insurgency began. There have been fatalities in Afghanistan, but they are of a different order.

Mr. Gray: My right hon. and learned Friend is right: there is as yet no general insurgency in Afghanistan. Is he not concerned, however, that the unpleasant coalition against us of poppy growers, the Taliban, local warlords and local people, together with al-Qaeda and others coming from Iraq and Iran, may lead to a more general insurgency in the country if we do not do something about it?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: My hon. Friend is correct; the situation could deteriorate significantly, but at present there is no evidence of such an unholy alliance materialising. There have been no major military incidents of a comparable kind in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, there is not the sectarian split that has so dominated the Iraqi issue. Afghanistan is overwhelmingly a Sunni country and no one suggests that that situation is likely to change in any meaningful way. There is no equivalent of the Kurdish dimension; no part of Afghanistan has aspirations to the total independence that would fragment the country. Nor does Afghanistan have what is in one respect the curse of oil, to create further division in that state. However, there are big problems and we must look frankly at why the coalition forces of NATO and others, including the Afghan Government, are finding it so difficult to cope.

Part of the problem is that the Taliban were never defeated in the conventional sense; they simply faded away. They realised the overwhelming strength of the United States, in particular, and its allies, and withdrew to their villages, to the hill areas and the frontier where they could regroup and continue, which creates a very different situation. In addition, there is the inability of the western forces to act in a coherent and united fashion.

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