Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  Q20  Mr Jones: I have to concur with your view about the media's interpretation of events happening in Iraq. I have been there three times now and I was in a Basra police station with a journalist from a well known national newspaper. Having seen the report when we got back, it was completely different to the meeting that took place with myself and other colleagues, but that is an aside. Some of this Committee first went to Iraq in July 2003. The situation is complex in the south because there are provinces that have always had problems, even under Saddam's regime. The situation has deteriorated. To what extent is that holding up the work that you have outlined in terms of reconstruction? Is there any truth in the rumour that troops are now not to go by road or patrols but are moving around the south by air?

  John Reid: I do not think the situation in general is worse in Basra than it was. It has had peaks and troughs and one of them was 19 September. On the question of policing in Basra and elsewhere, policing is slower in terms of its training and capability than the Army is. There appears to be a greater problem among the police of split loyalties which would range from a natural affinity of support for your local ethnic or religious group through to, at the other extreme, some attempt to enter the policing from militias in order to get authority and arms. Although this reared its ugly head on 19 September, I do not think we should assume that all Iraqi police are like that. I would like to place on record my appreciation—and hopefully yours—for the courage of many Iraqis who, from the day they stand in a queue for recruitment through to the day that they put on the uniform and go out, are countenancing and facing death and mutilation by the terrorists. Many, many of them have died in the fighting both as soldiers and as police. In terms of the general situation there, I do not think it is generally worse. I am going to ask General Sir Rob Fry, if you will allow me, about the general situation in terms of transportation and travel down there. I know that on several occasions we have had lock down because it can get difficult. Anyone, like you or I, who has flown into Basra or Baghdad at night with the lights off, manoeuvring lest there be a welcome from the terrorists knows how the level of adrenaline and concern runs. I am not pretending for a moment that this is a normal day trip to Blackpool. It is not. This is pretty dangerous stuff. However, I do not think it is getting a lot worse in general.

  Lieutenant General Sir Rob Fry: If you went to Basra today—and maybe if you went there a short while ago—you would have seen British troops operating on their feet, operating from vehicles and also deploying by air. That is exactly the way it is now and it is the way we see it going into the immediate future. You would also have seen a lot of British troops operating with Iraqi counterparts, both in the Army and the police. We cannot give the collective protection that we might want, under certain circumstances, to give to British troops to an entire Iraqi division, so clearly recourse simply to travel by air is not part of our plan at all. You would also, had you visited Northern Ireland at any time over the last 20 years, have seen exactly the same mix of techniques there that you see in Basra at the present time. The answer to your question is that there are well worn, well worked procedures for this and the British Army is merely building on the experience it has had for a very long time.

  Q21  Mr Jones: It was very interesting. The last time we were there we went for a walk in downtown Basra and the journalist did not come with us. He preferred to stay in his armoured car. Can I ask about two specific issues around the threat that troops are facing? One is about the improvised explosive device and what measures are being taken to counteract that. In terms of protection for our troops travelling around, particularly for example the snatch Land Rovers and the Saxon armoured vehicles, is there a need for an upgrade or a new type of vehicle in terms of the threat they are now facing in the south, which was not there when we first went there in July 2003?

  John Reid: First of all, can I say how much I appreciate the efforts which are made by Members of your Committee like Mr Jones to go there, to meet with our troops? We want informed opinion to see things as they are. When people go there, it is not a burden. Our troops like the fact that somebody seems to be interested and supportive of them because what they read does not always suggest that. Can I exempt from that several of the newspapers in this country who have gone out of their way to try and show the other side, the bravery and fortitude, of our soldiers there. On IEDs, you are right. There is a particular worry about the development of IEDs. I will not rehearse here what I have said in other places but one of those worries is where they come from because they seem to be using a technology associated with Hezbollah or elements of Iranian background. That would be very worrying if that was being given any succour or comfort by the Iranian Government. Of course they say it is not and we certainly hope that is the case. There has been an increase of those types of IEDs, improvised explosive devices or bombs to the layman. Secondly, the nature of them is particularly sophisticated. We would need a particularly sophisticated response. I would ask for your understanding that we do not particularly want to get into any greater detail of that other than to say we are doing all that we can as quickly as we can. Very often these things are a race between us and the terrorists for us to employ our skills, expertise, different training routines, different ways of approaching not just the question of IEDs but how we patrol and so on. I do not want to go into excessive detail on that but it is among my very highest priorities to see that this issue is addressed and that we keep ahead of this rather terrible terrorist game. The other question you asked was about protection in vehicles. I think I am correct in saying that we upped the number of armoured vehicles in January of last year, around the time of the elections. We have retained them there and they will be handed over to the new roulement troops who are going in at present.

  Lieutenant General Sir Rob Fry: As the Secretary of State has said, this is a constant, technological race. There is nothing new in this. Look at the bomber offensive between 1942 and 1944. Exactly the same thing took place. The best protection we have against these sorts of attacks is the quality of our tactics, techniques and procedures. That is what really defends you rather than any technological, magical solution.

  John Reid: These have been developed alongside the technological and manufacturing side of things.

  Q22  Derek Conway: I have considerable sympathy with the Secretary of State's view on how the media reports things. For those of us who have not visited Iraq, what I find difficult to square with the comments we have just heard are the statements that we then read from the commanding officer serving in Iraq who had very different views on the sort of vehicles that were available to his infantrymen. I am sure the Secretary of State will understand that I completely share his scepticism about some of the media reports but they do seem at odds with the reported observations of a serving commanding officer of an infantry unit. I find it a bit confusing relating the two when it comes to the protection that infantrymen have on the ground.

  John Reid: It might be helpful if we identify who we are talking about.

  Q23  Derek Conway: It was the commanding officer of the Coldstream Guards. It was reported a fortnight ago.

  John Reid: Is this the report that said that the commanding officer had taken early retirement because he had made a request and had it turned down? It is a completely inaccurate report. It was some considerable time ago and certainly before the improvised explosive devices had been come across that the chance of early retirement had been extended to quite a large number of officers. That particular officer had accepted it then. That was later portrayed, unfortunately—and it is part of the problem Mr Key was talking about—in a newspaper wrongly, misleadingly, one hopes not maliciously, as a decision that had been taken at a later date to resign because he had had a request refused. The officer in question is on the record as denying that report so I hope that explains how you should read these things, I think with a degree of scepticism.

  Q24  Derek Conway: It is good to have that sorted out. The Secretary of State is assuring the Committee that those who are in operational command on the ground have no concerns about the protection vehicles available for our infantrymen?

  John Reid: I beg your pardon. I did not say that. I have concerns. I am sure every serving soldier and every officer has concerns. Certainly General Fry has concerns. We are concerned to make sure that the new threats as they develop are adequately countered. Sometimes that is by existing equipment, which is the point you make about armoured vehicles. Sometimes it is by developing new technology and responses. Sometimes the best method is different techniques which we do not particularly want to go into, but it just means you carry out your operations in a different fashion to minimise the chances. I would not want to say for a moment that we go home at night without a huge deal of concern. I believe we are doing everything physically and humanly possible to meet those concerns which I share along with others. It is among my very highest priorities, with regard to anything that needs to be done to protect and safeguard the lives of our troops.

  Q25  Chairman: There were two issues in those newspaper reports. One was that the commanding officer might have taken early retirement as a result of this. I think you have told the Committee that, completely and satisfactorily, there is no question of that. The second issue was that he had asked for Warriors and had not been given them. That is the important issue that we need to look into. Was that the case?

  John Reid: Yes. I thought I had answered that. I thought that the additional Warriors which had been asked for had been deployed earlier in January of this year for the elections and, after the elections, had not been returned and had been maintained there. For instance, in the present roulement where the mechanised brigade is coming out and the armoured brigade is going in, the Warriors are not coming back with the soldiers. The Warriors are staying there and will be taken over by the incoming troops. That is my understanding of it. Because it is an important issue, I will ask General Fry to confirm my understanding of this position because I did ask about it at the time this story appeared.

  Lieutenant General Sir Rob Fry: What the Secretary of State has said is entirely correct. What we in the Ministry of Defence and also the chief of joint operations at Northwood do is constantly look at the mix of different capabilities that exists across all theatres but particularly in Iraq at the present time. There is a process which we title internally a force level review which looks at the level of troops and the equipment that they have. That is an infinitely variable mix. We did leave some Warriors in Iraq during one of our roulements. We have recently sent out some more Warriors and we have also sent out additional Warrior crews which allows the tempo of operations to be maintained at a greater level. None of this was in response to the views of a single commanding officer. It was as a result of the synthesis of all of the advice and views of both those on the grounds and those who regulate operations here in order to bring about the best tactical effects on the ground.

  John Reid: I can quite understand the concern that has been raised by Members. I read the day before yesterday in the papers, at the end of one story, there was another item tucked in that said I had had a request for 2,000 extra troops and had turned it down for political reasons and General Casey and the Americans were upset. It was one sentence that contained three untruths. To the best of my knowledge—and I checked in case I had had a request for 2,000 extra troops and forgotten about it—that never happened. I did not turn it down for reasons political or otherwise. The Americans are not worried about something that did not happen. Constantly we read these things and I understand that people will be concerned. They are perfectly legitimate questions to ask. As far as I am aware, we have given what was asked for and will continue to do so.

  Q26  Mr Havard: Can I talk about Afghanistan and the ISAF move to the south? If we deal with the politics of it, one of the suggestions is that this move is coming about really as a trigger for a rundown of the Americans out of Afghanistan as opposed to its motivation being something else.

  John Reid: No, it is not.

  Q27  Mr Havard: I was there about 12 months ago and even at that point the suggestion was that there was going to be a change because the Americans wanted to come out of Afghanistan; and since that period there has been a process put in place in order to allow that.

  John Reid: It just is not true. Let us recall why we are in Afghanistan. We are in Afghanistan to deny the terrorists a Trojan horse, an empty state in which they can shelter for attacks on the west, potentially us. Secondly, if we are gong to do that in the longer term as well as in the short term, we have to do more than expel the terrorists which has been largely the job of the Americans. The Americans have been involved in counter-terrorism lead-up but we have to do more than that because, if that is all we do, we leave Afghanistan as an unviable state and the terrorists will come back. Therefore, alongside the American mission of counter-terrorism, we have had a reconstruction mission through NATO which has been building democracy, the Afghanistan security forces and the infrastructure. If we are going to do that, we have to do it for the whole of Afghanistan. At present we are in the north and the west and it was always envisaged that phase three would take us to the south. There are three things that are likely to happen next year; though I have not made final decisions on all of them, I have made final decisions on some of them. The first is we the British will go in, as head of the ISAF forces there through the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps and take over the role of the Italians. The second is that we will be part of phase three in the south if we can satisfy ourselves that we will have the resources, the necessary social, economic and humanitarian back-up and the multinational allies. Subject to those caveats, we would like to extend phase three so that we are on three-quarters of the Afghanistan map. The Americans will still be countering terrorism which is mainly in the eastern province, the province which is bordering Pakistan next to their north-west provinces. The third thing that is liable to happen is that the two operations will come closer together.

  Q28  Mr Havard: Specifically in relation to that, one of the things said to me was that what was the one star NATO coordinator—I think he was a Brit—came back from that and it has not been continued. If the description is that the Americans will still be there operating together with NATO, how are the coordination arrangements going to happen? What is this relationship between the coalition and ISAF? Is the British commander of the ARRC, for example, going to become the commander of both of these operations? If not, how is the coordination going to work?

  John Reid: ISAF will expand geographically and in numbers. The American counter-terrorism effort will probably be concentrated more in a smaller area and they will probably reduce in numbers, but they will not be going away and leave us taking over alone. The operations will have a greater degree of synergy. We are still discussing exactly what the mechanisms for that might be but the Supreme Allied Commander has put forward a proposition which would enable us to bring the operations, the American one and ISAF, closer together ultimately under a double-hatted general at the top but two chains of command which would lead to him. Technically you would still have two chains of command but you would have a double hatted deputy SAC for instance who would be at the head of both of those operations. That is the structural problem addressed. Personally, I do not think the structural problem is the main problem. The problem is the political problem and that is how do you bring together a counter-terrorist operation where the Americans do not have all the caveats, qualifications and restrictions on their rules of engagement and activity, with a reconstruction mission of ISAF where there are varying degrees of caveats, restrictions and some people would say handcuffs on what the various multinational contingents could do in a way that allows both to be comfortable. That is partly a job of politics for people like us to do, particularly if it starts at a time when we are leaving the headquarters. Op plan 10304 is now under discussion in NATO so that is one of the matters we are discussing I think I am accurate in the description of the Supreme Allied Commander's potential resolution of this.

  Chairman: As you know, we will be doing a full inquiry into Afghanistan starting in two weeks' time.

  Q29  Mr Havard: There is a lot of speculation in the press about who is going to go for the British as part of the ARRC. There is talk about the 16th Air Assault Brigade, the 19th Light Brigade and all the rest of it. Can you say anything today about what that formation is going to look like?

  John Reid: I do not think there is a great deal of speculation about the ARRC, the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps headquarters, that are going in. The speculation is about the second element of that and that is the move to the south. How many Brits will there be? What will be the configuration? What will be the tasks? Where will the Dutch and Australians be and so on? I am not in a position to say that today other than what I have said. That is that we would like to go in there but I am not committing us to going there until I am satisfied that we have our own configuration, the multinational allies, the capabilities and resources that we need and, very importantly, that we have the humanitarian aid and so on. DFID has plans which we are working with them on now. There is a very constructive relationship because it is no good going in, attempting to counter narcotics, for instance, in the south which is corrupting all the politics and commerce in Afghanistan and saying to the farmers, "We will either prohibit or dissuade you from producing poppies" unless there are some alternative, economic livelihoods for the farmers, some other source of income. That is an essential element of it. It will also need a political drive from the centre. I was in Kabul recently. I met with both Minister Wardak and President Karzai. They say it will be there. They are very keen for the British troops to be staying. They want us to play a greater role there. We will do it but only if the conditions are right and the configuration is right.

  Q30  Mr Havard: I agree with you. To stop narcotics, there is a lead on that. There is the military and all these different civil support activities. This narcotic, as you will know, is ending up in the veins of some of my constituents so I have a particular interest. The declared intention, as I understand it though, is by sending the ARRC in the way that it is going and doing what is being planned in some ways will make a step change. The move to the south and so on will make a step change in the process. As I understand it, that is only planned to be there for nine months. I agree with the general intention, which is to make that step change, to stop the narcotics and so on but is all of that achievable within the plan that is being set out here? The Brits are the lead for stopping narcotics but we have to do the stabilisation. Apparently there is a declared intention to move something in there for a nine month period. Is that going to work in that sort of time frame?

  John Reid: You are right about the heroin in this country. The reason we went in there was to counter terrorism and the threat to this country but it also raises almost incidentally but importantly this question of the production of opium. Ninety per cent of the heroin taken in the streets of this country originates in Afghanistan. That is important for people as well. No one believes that this is going to be finished within the period of the British leadership of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.

  Q31  Mr Havard: Is it going to provide the stability for it to happen, for the criminal justice system to develop and do all the other things you describe?

  John Reid: Where we look upon this as a step change is that it is possible for three things to happen around the middle of next year, possibly. The first is that we take over from the Italians as leaders and therefore we are in a better position to shape the overall theatre, operations and politics. The second is that we may be going into the south which means that we cover three-quarters of the country. The Americans to the east mean all of the country is then getting covered because we are close up to the Americans on that. Thirdly, that might be the time to try and get closer synergy between the two operations which would give us a more effective drive throughout the country. The confluence of those three things allows the possibility of reinvigorating, I believe, the complementary assets to counter-terrorism, to counter narcotics, the judicial system, the training of the police and so on. I do not think any of us have ever suggested that that would be completed by the time we pass on the leadership of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. We are saying that that is a window of opportunity to start this thing again, reinvigorate it, but it is going to take a lot, lot longer than nine months before we get some of these here. We are dealing with a society there which is the third poorest country outside sub-Saharan Africa so the idea that in a very short period you are going to build democratic institutions out of what was essentially a pre-feudal society or that you are going to get massive economic growth out of a society that is as poor as that very quickly is not going to happen.

  Q32  Mr Crausby: In your opening remarks you said that the Ministry of Defence must produce a fighting power and yet UK forces are increasingly being asked to carry out very different roles from war fighting with an emphasis more on peacekeeping and peacemaking. I know we have lots of experience from Northern Ireland which is hopefully fading into the distance but what are we doing to ensure that our troops are properly trained in these roles and that we continue to retain the skills that we have so effectively gained with our experience in Northern Ireland?

  John Reid: In the post Cold War period the nature and range of the threats we faced to our security were far greater than when we had the old Cold War together. It is almost as if the two great glaciers have shifted apart, one of them has melted and there is a torrent of problems. You are right. We have to keep a range of attributes inside the military configuration and capabilities and also outside. I mentioned some of those and I have tried to say why encouraging free and fair trade, giving aid, diplomatic, financial and political elements are all part of addressing underlying security problems. You are right. Within defence, which is one of those elements, you have to have a range of attributes as well. The point I made is that the starting point for the British armed forces and the Ministry of Defence is the production of fighting power. That is what we do. Everything else comes out of that. The humanitarian interventions, the disarmament, the reconstruction, the training of Iraqi forces, all of that at what you would call the lighter end of the spectrum, is absolutely essential and we train for it but it cannot be a substitute for retaining the capacity to fight at the heavy end of the spectrum as well. That is why we need not only those trained skills but we also need, in my view, the best equipment on land, sea and air in order to retain us as combat forces.

  Q33  Mr Crausby: What about equipment? Do we need very different equipment from the point of view of our forces? Are we turning ourselves into a super police force? Is that advisable? I remember when we first went to America prior to the Iraq war the Americans said, "We do war fighting, not peacekeeping." They have learnt quite a serious lesson on that eventually, that peacekeeping is very important in the long run, as has been demonstrated. How prepared are we to maintain the peace?

  John Reid: We do both. We do war fighting. Touch wood, we do it well. Pound for pound, I happen to think we have the best, most capable forces in the world. We also do defence diplomacy, peacekeeping, peace promotion, disarmament, and just about everything else in between. In the combat role, do we need to change in terms of the strategy and the threat we face? Yes. That is what the Strategic Defence Review was about. Does that have implications for the type of equipment we get? Yes. We go from being a static Army which has massed tank regiments through to a high readiness, deployable, expeditionary force and a more great use of the traditional type of activity that General Fry did in the Marines; Reach in terms of sustainability; carriers, agility—not only the air to ground attack precision—hence Typhoons; the special forces against terrorism—hence the new reconnaissance regiment. The answer is yes. In terms of deployment, configuration and our equipment, we need to change to keep ahead of the game. Did we get it right, the direction in the Strategic Defence Review? I declare an interest since I presided over it for George Robertson. Yes, I think we did get it right. I think the direction is right. Did we get the pace of the change right? No. I think it was even more dramatically shifting than we thought, which is why after I had done the Strategic Defence Review Geoff Hoon and the military carried out the new chapter. We did not envisage that terrorism would get to this scale and so on. Yes is the answer to the question do we need to keep changing equipment and do we need to have a range of skills that goes from war fighting through to peacekeeping.

  Lieutenant General Sir Rob Fry: Can I give Mr Crausby a reassurance on this? One of the things we spend a great deal of time doing is constantly trying to intellectually reduce the changes that are taking place. In the Joint Doctrine and Concept Centre, we probably have a world leader in this. Perhaps it would be of some assistance if I send the Committee some of the publications that it produces. In particular work on peace support operations is widely regarded as the best there is and widely emulated by most of our other allies. Having intellectually defined it, we then try and make all the necessary preparations in terms of the training and equipping of our people so there is an internal process that constantly looks at the shifting patterns of warfare and constantly tries to bring about an appropriate response.

  John Reid: Wherever possible, I try to commend our services. We often hear about their bravery, not often enough, their sacrifices, heroism and so on, physically and that is true but never underestimate the intellectual integrity and the intellectual rigour of the British armed forces. In terms of doctrine, analysis and so on I think they are absolutely superb. Part of this is a willingness to constantly have a permanent revision questioning the world and the posture we have at present. I spend a lot of time with the generals and my policy advisers like Desmond Bowen talking about these very things. Are we getting this right? Is the world changing faster than we are? That goes from IEDs right up to the biggest piece of equipment but including doctrine from war fighting right through to peacekeeping.

  Q34  Mr Crausby: What about our relationship with other government departments and NGOs? Are you satisfied that there is enough cooperation there? I was disappointed when we visited Afghanistan to hear some of our troops say that NGOs in particular were reluctant to completely cooperate with the military because they thought that was not a field that they wanted to get involved in. It seems to me that there needs to be absolute cooperation with some of the absolutely excellent work that our troops are doing in peacekeeping.

  John Reid: I agree with you. Complex threats need complex responses. A complex response runs from aid, trade, politics, diplomacy, finance, right through military capability, warfare and down to peacekeeping. If that is going to work, we have to work together inside government. Jack Straw and I and Hilary Benn work very closely together indeed. Kim Howells will be speaking to me this afternoon. He has just returned from discussions with some of our European colleagues. I spoke to Jack twice at the weekend before he went off to New York. That is because inside government we are trying to get that whole range of security responses working together. Sometimes it will need to be at the heavy end with combat. Sometimes it will depend on the diplomacy at the United Nations. Sometimes it will be aid. Sometimes different parties will take the lead, for instance, in Pakistan and the tragedy there. What you are saying is absolutely right. It is also true we have to get better cooperation with the NGOs outside of government. What ought to be very effective I think sometimes is less effective than it ought to be.

  Q35  Chairman: We still have the major issues of recruitment, retention and overstretch to cover. The answers you were giving before in relation to Iraq which suggested that we would be unlikely to have withdrawn from Iraq by 2006—possibly not even by 2007—and the deployment to Afghanistan suggest that there might be a degree of overstretch on the armed forces that might put pressures on that they would find it very difficult to sustain. What would be your answer to that?

  John Reid: The assumptions of the timescales are yours. You are entitled to make them. I have not indicated a timescale. I have been assured—and I have asked several times—that our deployment, if we were to go ahead with it in the way that we would like to, to Afghanistan does not require the drawing in of forces in Iraq. I have also been assured by those who advise me on these things, which includes the chiefs of staff, that the current running level, the foot on the accelerator, the capacity versus the commitments, is something that we can sustain. Thirdly, notwithstanding the assurance that it is within our planning assumptions and the present level of sustainability, it is very challenging and very taxing for the men and women who serve in our armed forces. In terms of where we are compared to trained strength requirements versus trained strength, we are at the moment at 99% of our training requirements in terms of our trained strength. In the Army, for instance, if you compare the identified requirements for troop numbers against the trained strength of our Army as of 1 September this year, they are almost identical. There are about 80 short out of 101,720, so there are 101,650 or thereabouts.

  Q36  Chairman: Concentrating you on overstretch, do you think the harmony that is required within the intervals of service is acceptable at the moment?

  John Reid: Nothing less than perfection is ultimately acceptable. Do I think it is tolerable? The changes that have been brought about in the Army will ease the challenges which soldiers face at present and ease the question of harmony by making a more efficient and flexible system. That is large regiments of multi-battalions. I will stand corrected on this if it is incorrect but I think the position of harmony in the Navy is better now than it was when I was Armed Forces Minister some seven years ago. I think the position in the RAF is probably similar. I gave the figure for the training requirements against trained strength as an indication of manning and personnel, which is one indicator of overstretch. We are just about precisely matching requirements to trained strength. In the Navy it has eased harmony; in the RAF it is about the same. In the Army, we have gone through a difficult period. I think it is going to get less taxing after the next couple of years in terms of the tour intervals and certainly the reformation, reconstruction and reconfiguration of the Army in the future Army structure with the large regiments and battalions should ease that further. I think that is an accurate position.

  Q37  Chairman: What about airlift and rotary aircraft. If we have Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time, is that going to be sustainable?

  John Reid: I think it is. On heavy airlift we now have a greater range than ever before. One of the successes of the SDR incidentally was the purchase of the C17, the subject of great debate at the time. The C17 has turned out to be a large success. The C130J transport planes are fulfilling continually their role in a satisfactory fashion. In terms of fixed wing and in terms of air mobile attack, Apaches and so on, if you are asking me whether or not we would have the cover necessary if we went into the south in Afghanistan, the answer is I would not go in there unless we had it. The answer is yes. We have been discussing that recently. I do not want to go into further details at the moment about the configuration of rotary and fixed wing on the deployment to the south in Afghanistan because if I do I will give the impression that we have reached a final decision. We have not. One of my concerns has been to see that, if we were to do that, we would have both the air mobility for the troops and the air cover that was necessary in both rotary and fixed wing.

  Q38  Derek Conway: On the point about the harmony guidelines, the government's response to the previous Committee's report on future capabilities identified and accepted that there was a problem with the department's methodology for monitoring specialisms. I wonder if you have some advice for the Committee on overstretch so far as it relates to the individuals, people like the medics, the linguists and those sorts of sole traders who move within the units. Is that now resolved or is it still an issue?

  John Reid: There are certainly some skills in some pinch points. The overall figures which I gave earlier on would conceal some difficulties we have and some particular recruitment challenges we face. As regards your general question, perhaps I can ask Mr Andrews and General Fry from the military and the administrative perspective to give you as succinct an answer as we can.

  Lieutenant General Sir Rob Fry: To a certain extent I am in double jeopardy here. When the Secretary of State turns to advice, it is clearly me and others in the Ministry of Defence he turns to. I feel I have to answer a certain degree of parliamentary scrutiny but also, just as important, perhaps more important for me, is to answer to the constituency that I represent which is the soldiers, sailors and airmen who are currently serving. We look at the harmony guidelines. We also look at the assumptions which the department makes about the scales of its deployment. This is a complicated equation and in general terms what the Secretary of State has said is exactly correct. Your question on the specific issue of small population trades is not completely addressed but is on the way to being addressed. One of the reasons why it is not completely addressed is that, for example, to produce Pashtu linguists or a greater number of Arabists or to produce those who have the requisite skills in order to lead a field HUMIT team is not done overnight. Therefore, the capacity building that we have to create to go through that process is underway. Those measures are in place and my judgment is that we will be able to reach an equitable level of deployment and employment at home for particularly those areas over the next couple of years.

  Q39  Mr Hancock: You mentioned the Navy right at the beginning today. Congratulations to the ship's company in the Caribbean on the drug bust. As there is not a problem in the Navy relating to harmony, are the Ministry of Defence going to reconsider the decision of not having that ship available there for much longer periods of time?

  John Reid: In agreeing with you and joining with you in congratulating the Navy on that particular operation, it does illustrate that you do not have to be there all the time in order to score big hits. We keep these things under constant review but we have no intention at present of changing that. We constantly look at what is needed. For instance in helicopters, there is some £4 billion available over the next 10 years. On pinch points, one of the reasons why we are reconfiguring the infantry is to free up manpower to address the pinch points and we will continue to look at the Navy as well.

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