Previous Section Index Home Page

I want to consider the Typhoon—the Eurofighter. The first tranche is due now—I believe that there are 55 aircraft, but I stand to be corrected if that is not the case. However, they were procured during the cold war
22 Jun 2006 : Column 1559
and they are air-to-air combat aircraft. I do not know with how many nations we shall have dogfights. Again, the technology has moved on, as has the enemy. We need to be ready for any scenario—for any development or future threat—but to devise an aircraft that has only air-to-air capability limits our ability to defend our nation.

The Typhoon has great missile capability: ASRAAM and AMRAAM are medium-range and short-range missiles but, again, they are air-to-air. We need them, especially to deal with threats such as 9/11, but we also need the capability to support our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, where there is a ground threat. We therefore need to be able to take out ground targets.

The armoury of the missiles in our portfolio is not compatible with all our aircraft. Storm Shadow, Maverick, Brimstone and Paveway are our ground attack missiles, but none of them can be used on the Eurofighter. I wrote to the Secretary of State to ask what air-to-ground missile system the Eurofighter would employ. The reply was:

That is not good enough. We simply cannot spend millions of pounds on 230 aircraft that are unable to share the array of missiles that we need because the technology and the way in which we conduct warfare have changed. Our Jaguars are disappearing, our Harriers are being sold off and our Tornadoes are coming to the end of their shelf life, but there is no sign of the joint strike fighter coming on line. Our ground attack capability is therefore questionable, yet that is the very capability that we need in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Afghanistan has been the focus of many hon. Members’ contributions today. I had the honour to visit Afghanistan last week, and it was quite an eye-opening experience. The openness of the country was the first thing that struck me. Of course, there is a handful of major cities, but beyond them much of the mountain and desert terrain is inhospitable. Every so often, there is a river basin—such as that of the Helmand river—that is heavily concentrated with villages and towns. Such places are widely spread apart. A tiny village in Helmand province, for example, is extremely remote from what is happening in Kandahar or Kabul. That means that the people there do not hear the advice, the directions or the words of support that are coming from the Afghan Government. They are very much looking after themselves. These villages consist of tribal communities, and their loyalties are to the families and to the tribes of which they are part, rather than to the country of Afghanistan as a whole. Indeed, the word “country” should perhaps be used advisedly in that location. It is clear that, in that atmosphere, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are able to dominate and to work almost without feeling a threat from the NATO or ISAF forces.

While I was in Afghanistan, I had the opportunity to visit the ISAF headquarters and see the co-ordination between the Department for International Development and other international organisations. I am pleased to
22 Jun 2006 : Column 1560
say that our operations are working very closely together. There is no doubt about that. However, we are now spending about £45 million a year from the DFID budget and about £50 million from the military budget. Where is the accountability? Where is the co-ordination? I called for more than just one Minister to come to the debate today to explain what is happening in that regard.

I also had the opportunity to meet General Jones, the NATO commander, and Sir David Richards, the general in charge of ISAF. Both expressed concern that mission creep was taking place in Afghanistan. On page 25 of its report, the Defence Committee states:

That call has been echoed by other hon. Members today, and I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify where the line is to be drawn and what our involvement with that strategy will be. Will he explain how the division of labour is to be determined and who will take responsibility for these matters? If we do not solve these problems now, the move from stage 3, which involves taking over three quarters of NATO’s responsibilities, will be threatened when we move into the final stage to take over all responsibility for co-ordination in Afghanistan.

Caveats have been mentioned, in which the Governments of countries providing NATO troops say that their troops cannot go into combat, for example. Too many countries are doing that and, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said, many countries are limiting themselves simply to providing troops in non-combat roles. That is not good enough if we want Afghanistan to work as a nation.

I was impressed by what ISAF is doing. Unfortunately, the footprint that it is creating is extremely limited. It cannot cover the entire country. We have spent a lot of time focusing on Helmand, but it is only one of 30 provinces. The neighbouring province of Nimroz does not contain one international soldier. Where does a member of the Taliban go if things start to get hot in one province? Obviously, he moves next door to the other. Unless there is a larger commitment on the part of other NATO countries, we shall not be able to fulfil our mission.

The mission is likely to come under more question—not because of what we are doing with NATO but because of what is being done under the umbrella of security that we are creating in the reconstruction and development programmes. As I told the Minister during our debate in Westminster Hall yesterday or the day before, there is clearly no co-ordination between the myriad international organisations—the United Nations, the European Union, the non-governmental organisations, and all the counter-narcotics agencies that have gone into Afghanistan. Their hearts are in the right place, but unfortunately the money is being spent as those agencies compete with their overlapping projects, and the lack of co-ordination means that a great deal of money is wasted. Although more than $400 million has been spent on challenging the narcotics trade, last year saw the biggest bumper crop ever: 400,000 tonnes of poppies were produced. That shows that our international effort is failing, and unless
22 Jun 2006 : Column 1561
we do something about it our mission in Afghanistan will be brought into question.

Our debate has been far reaching and useful, but there are many questions that I should like the Minister to answer. We have not really talked about the Sea Harriers, and the gap that will be created in air cover. We have not talked about the F-35 and the limitations imposed by the United States Government—or, to be fair, a corner of Capitol Hill—on the repair and upgrade of that project, which threatens our purchase of the joint strike fighter in the long term. We have not really touched on what will happen to the aircraft carriers, although there seems to be delay after delay with the announcements. We have not discussed the future rapid effect system. We have not even discussed the A400M, which was once called the future large aircraft, but now that it is so far in the future that we are not going to see it, that name has been dropped. We have certainly not discussed the NATO deterrent to the extent that the nation would wish.

The Minister mentioned policy and I was pleased to hear about some of it, but we could do with an entire debate on the overlap of the EU mission, from a military perspective, with what is happening with NATO. A clash will come, if it has not come already. We need a debate on the procurement of equipment in general. There are also concerns about the future, on a wider and more serious note—

Mr. Deputy Speaker(Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order.

5.22 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I begin with a question that is not entirely rhetorical. Which Labour politician has described the Trident programme as

Which Labour politician supported

—and therefore presumably no longer a member of NATO? Was it the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen), who believes in such things, and has for many years? Was it the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), or perhaps the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)? I have to say that it was none of those. It was, in fact, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Admittedly that was some years ago, at a time when we faced an extremely visible nuclear threat from the then Soviet Union. I am delighted to note that although the imminence of the threat has declined, appreciation of the issues—at least as far as the Chancellor is concerned—has clearly increased.

It is not every day of the week that defence features on the front pages of the newspapers. One would like to think that such an achievement would cause joy and rejoicing, and the ringing of bells in the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. Robathan: A sinner repents!

Dr. Lewis: A sinner has indeed repented. The only question is: what is the nature of the repentance? The headlines make that quite clear. The Daily Mail says “Brown pledges £25 billion to new Trident”. The Financial
22 Jun 2006 : Column 1562
says “Brown in promise to replace Trident”. The Daily Telegraph headline is “Brown in favour of updating Trident”, while the headlines in The Times are “Brown ready to call the shots by replacing Trident missiles”, and “Britain to buy new nuclear deterrent”. The headline list would be incomplete without the trusty old Daily Mirror’s “Nukey Brown” and “Gordon: I will back £25bn A-bomb”.

The irrepressible Minister for the Armed Forces has claimed that the Chancellor said nothing new but was merely repeating what was in the Labour general election manifesto. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, but nevertheless I detected a straw in the wind in the words that the Chancellor used last night. He talked about retaining our nuclear deterrent, but he also used the words

It is hard to see how the phrase “the long term also” could apply if he was talking only about retaining the present deterrent.

However, we do not have to rely on that exegesis, as The Guardian—which knows about these things—reports:

That is a clear answer to the question that my colleagues and I have asked Ministers on many occasions: are they talking only about retaining the existing deterrent, or about a decision to replace it?

If the Minister’s interpretation of the Chancellor’s comments is correct, why has the Chancellor not been rushing to the media today to say, “Chaps, sorry, you’ve got it all wrong. All those headlines are wrong, and I was merely saying what we’ve said all along—that we’re not going to scrap the weapons that we already have. I have no thought in my mind about replacement.”

The Prime Minister’s spokesman has been doing his best to clarify matters—not in respect of replacement, but on whether there will be a vote on the issue. Much to the satisfaction of people like the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen)—

Harry Cohen indicated assent.

Dr. Lewis: I see that the hon. Gentleman is nodding enthusiastically, because the Opposition have ensured—even if we have to use one of our days—that hon. Members of all parties will have an opportunity to vote on the matter, whether the Government want that or not.

The Lobby briefing document states that, on Trident, the spokesman

Defence Ministers have said today that no decision has been taken, either in detail or in principle, but I believe that they are trying to plug the hole in the dam that the Chancellor has opened up. There is no real
22 Jun 2006 : Column 1563
excuse for a delay in making a decision in principle. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State outlined with his customary elegance and eloquence exactly why there is a need for a nuclear deterrent in the 21st century. It hinges on one simple concept: the unpredictability of any outbreak of war in the future—and I think that I detect the Minister nodding in some form of agreement with that proposition.

However, we are talking about having a nuclear deterrent between 2020 and 2050. Given that the real justification for that is that we cannot anticipate what threats might materialise from countries armed with weapons of mass destruction, why delay deciding the question of principle? The principle will be unaffected in a year, six months or three months from now. If we are going to decide then that we need to keep a nuclear deterrent because of the unpredictability of future threats, we might as well as do so now. It is interesting that the Chancellor has decided on it now, even though the Secretary of State for Defence and his colleagues who are at least here today are still trying to pretend that he has not.

If I had to summarise the themes that have primarily emerged in the debate, I would say that they are three: Trident and the principles behind it; Afghanistan and the tactics involved in dealing with that issue; and Iraq and what is best described as the political will to win. I have already addressed the first of those issues, and I want to say a word or two about Afghanistan.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) mentioned in passing the practice of reading out at Prime Minister’s Question Time condolences for individual members of the armed forces who have lost their lives. That is honourably motivated, but it is worth remembering that it would have been quite impracticable in most of the wars that we have fought in the past, because there were many more casualties in those wars than are being incurred among British service personnel in the campaigns today.

In a strange way, therefore, the country has perhaps lost sight of the fact that when we engage in armed conflict, there are very heavy prices indeed to be paid. One of the reasons why the country has lost sight of that is that the longest war that we successfully fought and concluded in recent times was the 50 years of the cold war, and it ended without a shot being fired. All those countries that had been held under dictatorship and suppression were able to come out into the sunlight and pick up the reins of democratic practice. That was an exception to the rule of history, and we delude ourselves if we think that we can engage in conflicts, such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq, and expect that they will be as simple as that involved in substituting a democracy for a dictatorship.

We must look back to the successful counter-insurgency campaign—I have made this point from the Dispatch Box before—that was waged over 12 years in Malaya. That is how long it took. Whether that campaign, which has been widely taken as the model of winning hearts and minds, could be fought to a successful outcome today, with legalistic supervision and 24-hour media coverage, is open to question. As well as winning hearts and minds, the tactics involved
22 Jun 2006 : Column 1564
were to send armed patrols out to find the enemy and eliminate them ruthlessly, while isolating them from the population at large.

I am relieved that the new Secretary of State for Defence seems to have consigned to the wastepaper bin the absolutely nonsensical description and distinction that his predecessor, whom I much admire—I make no secret of that, but I did not admire him for doing this—tried to draw between counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. In any such campaign, if we wait for terrorists or insurgents to come to our armed forces before we react, we will lose. The only way in which such a campaign can succeed is to follow the aggressive strategy against the insurgents that is now being followed, and in which British forces are clearly engaged, whereby they are seeking out the enemy. As a commanding officer, Brigadier Nick Pope, has just said:

That is what must be done, and I welcome the fact that the politicians are catching up with the military—in so far as they are doing so.

I will come to Iraq in my final remarks, but I now wish to turn briefly to the contributions that hon. Members have made from the Back Benches. There were 10 of them—three from Government Back Benchers and seven from Opposition Back Benchers. All of the latter contributions were, for some reason, from Conservative Members, rather than from Members of the self-styled “real” Opposition: the Liberal Democrats.

The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead, to whom I have already referred a couple of times, made a consistent speech in which he talked thoughtfully about the dangers of failed states. He also made a remark that should give all of us pause for thought when, in speaking about the situation in Somalia, he said that one must not react intrinsically against any new Muslim administration without being absolutely certain that they intend to ally themselves with militant Islamism that is hostile to freedom. Such a group might be a potential enemy of that sort, but we must be very careful before we decide that; otherwise, we are playing the game of the terrorists and creating allies for them.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) is a living example of the value of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I am delighted to say that I am on my fourth incarnation in that scheme. I pay tribute to the patience and hospitality of the commandant at the Royal College of Defence Studies, Sir Ian Garnett, and his colleagues, in welcoming me and several other Members on to this year’s course. It is greatly to the credit of the hon. Gentleman that so soon in his parliamentary career, he decided to undertake the major commitment of doing the AFPS course. His contribution made clear the great benefit that he has derived from it.

Next Section Index Home Page