Previous Section Index Home Page

26 Feb 2007 : Column 614

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): I accept that we have experienced difficulties with the movement of personnel into and out of operational theatres. This has been due to a number of factors, not least the availability of the RAF fleet. The air bridges are under review and improvements are being made, including use of air charter and improvements to infrastructure and passenger-handling processes.

Mr. Lancaster: The tri-service planning process for the delivery of the air bridge is understandably complex. It is effectively a triumvirate of Permanent Joint Headquarters, Defence Supply Chain Operations and Movements and 2 Group RAF, but crucially, no single organisation is in control. Will the Minister consider appointing an appropriately ranked senior officer to be responsible for the delivery of the air bridge in its entirely, and perhaps most importantly, will he ensure that that senior officer is empowered to make the decisions necessary to ensure that it is an effective air bridge?

Mr. Ingram: I thank the hon. Gentleman for all of his input into this matter. He has been fierce in raising a range of issues, not least because of his personal experience in returning from Afghanistan, where he served with distinction. I understand also that his argument has been listened to and a new facility is to be opened at Cyprus air base, which will be named Lancaster house. Perhaps peace will break out between us if we can talk at that facility.

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious and interesting point. There is currently an end-to-end review under way to look at all the different aspects of those who make a contribution to the air bridge. One such issue being considered is his very request for a senior officer to be responsible for the air bridge. First, we have to identify the component parts, where the weaknesses are, how they are to be addressed and who then takes ownership of that process. I am most sympathetic to his point.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): An absolutely central part of the air bridge, of course, is the C-130 Hercules aircraft based at Lyneham in my constituency. We saw another of them crashing in the past two weeks, thankfully with no serious casualties, although it was eerily reminiscent of the loss of the Hercules in Iraq two years ago, with the loss of 10 airmen. Will the Minister reconfirm to the House his intention to fit foam suppressant into the wing tanks of the Hercules fleet? I know that that has been completed in two or three planes, but will he recommit the Government to fit suppressant as soon as possible in all those planes that are in any area of risk?

Mr. Ingram: That is another matter that we are looking at with great urgency. It is not only a question of suppressant foam but an improved defensive aid suite fit across the fleet where that is practicable and required. Clearly, that process takes time: aircraft have to come out of the rota, and they then have to be worked up. We are making very good progress on the Hercules fleet, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that, again, this is an operational security
26 Feb 2007 : Column 615
issue. I do not think that it is appropriate to talk about absolute numbers, but all the aircraft will have the necessary fit to meet the operational requirements.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I entirely endorse the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) about the need to review the operation of the air bridge. I wrote to the Secretary of State about that, and he kindly wrote back recently. There is considerable anecdotal evidence that there are severe delays in getting troops back to the UK. That is not only affecting the morale of the troops who will have to return to theatre but, in the medium term, having a serious effect on retention. May I urge Ministers to take this seriously and to come up with a solution that is worthy of our troops?

Mr. Ingram: The short answer is yes. As I said, we are urgently considering the situation because we understand only too well the impact that it has on our personnel both coming out of theatre and going into theatre. That is why one of the remedies that we have adopted is the purchase of charter aircraft. Some people have criticised us for so doing, but it is part of the solution and it has made a considerable improvement to what we are doing. More needs to be done, and we are on the case. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): But do not the very well-informed questions of my colleagues underline the wide public perception that we are giving our armed forces a world role, for which they are well suited, but not giving them the back-up that they richly deserve?

Mr. Ingram: That is one of those general questions that members of Her Majesty’s armed forces have asked of every Government down the decades, and perhaps even the centuries. The reality is that we are having to deal with legacy issues, which is why we have major procurement programmes across all three services. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman needs to look at what we are doing to upgrade the Royal Navy, which we will debate later, what we are seeking to do through the new future rapid effects system for the Army, and the major and significant investment that we are making in the RAF, not only in fast jets but in other elements of the service. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s perceptions, and I ask him to share with me the realities.

Missile Defence

10. Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): How much has been allocated in 2007 for the prevention of missile attacks on the UK. [122589]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): That is a very broad question, although I suspect that the hon. Gentleman may not have intended it to be so wide. The Government undertake a range of activities to help to prevent missile attacks, ranging from diplomacy and counter-proliferation to counter-terrorism measures and active defences, many of which have wide applications beyond missile attacks. It would
26 Feb 2007 : Column 616
therefore be inappropriate to attempt separately to identify a proportion of the costs for this purpose. To be specific, however, the UK Missile Defence Centre was established in 2003 to provide advice on strategic missile defence issues, and its budget for 2007-08 is £5 million.

Dr. Pugh: I thank the Minister for that response, but star wars aside, can he indicate the broad balance of expenditure between purely defensive and retaliatory systems and say how far future expenditure on defensive systems depends on the USA?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman’s follow-up question is about as broad as his original one. I do not, candidly, have the detail to be able to answer it. I suspect that what underlies it is an attempt to get me to concede or to imply that our defence system will be dependent on what the United States of America does. As I went to some lengths to make clear in response to an earlier question in this House, we in Government assess that any responsible Government would explore with the United States and NATO allies the implications of a ballistic missile defence system and what that might offer the security of the United Kingdom. We have been doing that for some years, and we are assessing it. The system is designed to develop progressively. No decisions have been made as to how we will proceed in this context; when they have, we will inform the House.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is right to identify all the agencies that work hard 24/7 every year to protect this country from a possible attack from a missile. However, does he agree that if indeed there was such an attack on the UK, it is highly unlikely that any missile would recognise the borders of the four nations?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend is perfectly correct. My responsibility is to concentrate on the security of the United Kingdom, and that means all the nations that make up the United Kingdom. I intend to ensure that any decisions that we make in future recognise the integrity of that Union, which I look forward to seeing continue and flourish.

Vehicle Identification Markings

11. Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): What assessment he has made of the adequacy of vehicle and military transport markings in conflict zones identifying them as British. [122590]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The primary concern in a conflict zone is a combat identification system that is interoperable between all coalition partners: British identity is of secondary importance. For all coalition operations, specific combat identification measures are agreed with allies. Vehicle markings are the last layer in a multi-layered approach to recognising friendly forces, but there is no foolproof way to prevent the misidentification of units in a highly complex and stressful battlefield. Every system ultimately relies on human judgment, training and procedures.

26 Feb 2007 : Column 617

Mark Hunter: In the light of events surrounding the death of Lance Corporal Matty Hull in March 2003—video footage clearly showed that American soldiers had fired on the British convoy, despite orange markings on armoured military vehicles to indicate that they were friendly forces—will the Minister explain what measures he plans to take to ensure that our troops are safe not only from insurgents, but from allied forces, and that there is increased co-operation with the US in improving accountability and releasing vital—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am going to send out a circular about this matter, but reading out a supplementary is not expected of hon. Members. The general election was two years ago and I have given some leeway to new Members, but two years into a Parliament, I do not expect long drawn-out supplementary questions to be read out to the House.

Mr. Ingram: I would suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he study the matter in greater detail. I do not want to go into the case to which he referred, which is the subject of a coroner’s inquest at the present time—it is better to wait and see what comes out of that inquest. We also have our own board of inquiry processes, so when an incident happens, we try to establish what the ground truth is. We then try to learn the lessons and fix the problem, if it can be fixed. As I said a moment ago, no matter what technical mechanisms are put in place, no matter what training is put in place and no matter how much situational awareness there may be, human error can occur in a stressful battlefield. That applies to our personnel as much as it does to the personnel in other armed forces working alongside us. We are trying to improve all those aspects at all times, so I suggest that the hon. Gentleman study a bit more, before he comes to easy conclusions.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): While accepting the Minister’s point about the organisation and training of our own troops, what guarantee is there that the organisation and training of our allies will be up to a sufficiently high standard? In particular, the incident to which the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) referred indicated a certain gung-ho attitude, which undoubtedly places our troops at risk. Will the Minister make sure that that is dealt with?

Mr. Ingram: I do not know what my hon. Friend means when he says “dealt with”. We could find ourselves in a set of circumstances in which our personnel perpetrate similar actions in a stressful battlefield. If right hon. and hon. Members think that we can remove the human aspect of the problem, they are simply wrong. What we are trying to do through all the NATO processes—we are working with our NATO allies on this—is improve the technological solutions and get the best fit possible. We are investing heavily in all the new equipment to make it compatible with any new fit that may be developed for the purpose of combat ID. Training is increasingly tri-service within the UK and, of course, we train comprehensively with our allies. One of the aspects of such training is to try to minimise the bit of risk that my hon. Friend has identified.

26 Feb 2007 : Column 618

Equipment (Improvements)

12. Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): What improvements have been made since the strategic defence review in personal equipment, protective equipment and light weapons. [122591]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Since the 1998 strategic defence review, there have been tremendous improvements in each of those areas. To give just a few examples, we have introduced nearly 40 items of new and improved personal clothing; we have developed a range of new body armour for troops on operations, which has transformed the level of protection available to our personnel; and we have provided highly capable light weapons, such as the light machine gun and the grenade machine gun.

Mr. Wright: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, and I understand that improvements to defence equipment provision and procurement have been made, as highlighted in the Defence Select Committee’s report on this matter in November last year. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how much has been spent on urgent operational requirements in the past few years? Will he reassure me that this spend is now being better married up to what the troops on the ground actually need?

Mr. Ingram: That is a very good question. The figure that we are currently quoting is in the region of £500 million, which has been spent both in Iraq and Afghanistan. That amount is increasing regularly as new urgent operational requirements are identified and committed to. Going back to an earlier answer that I gave, we seek to identify what lessons have to be learned about issues that have to be addressed on equipment. We then identify what needs to be done, and get industry committed to delivering it. We are making a sizeable and major delivery, and we have made it clear that, when an urgent operational requirement is needed, it will be met.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I merely seek reassurance from the Minister. Many of us have received representations relatively recently from service personnel serving in operational theatres telling us that they have had to buy personal equipment to enable them to do their job. Will he give the House an assurance that our military personnel serving abroad and representing this country in critical areas of the world will no longer have to buy personal equipment to enable them to undertake their difficult job in comfort?

Mr. Ingram: I can give the hon. Gentleman an almost absolute guarantee on that. The one item with which we have a recurring problem is boots. Because of some of the existing problems, we are, once again, trying to find the answer, although there might not be one. It might just be that the conditions are such that anything that we put in is going to wear and tear very quickly. If we talk to any member of Her Majesty’s armed forces who has served on the front line, we find that they do not need to buy equipment, although they might want to do so out of personal choice. The quality and standard of their personal kit is now higher than it has ever been in relation to what we ask of them, and that applies across all three services.

26 Feb 2007 : Column 619

Afghanistan (Force Levels)

3.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): On 1 February, I announced the forthcoming rotation of our troops in Afghanistan. At that time, I undertook, once I had spoken with my fellow NATO Defence Ministers at Seville, to update the House on any further changes to our force structure. That is what I am here to do today.

I want begin by highlighting the progress and achievements in Afghanistan during 2006. NATO has continued its expansion of responsibility for this vital campaign into the more challenging south and east of the country. We have faced down the Taliban in their own back yard, delivering security and bringing the reach of the Afghan Government to places that have hardly seen it before. We have unified the military mission under the leadership of General Richards and the British-led allied rapid reaction corps. Across Afghanistan, we have built schools, mosques, roads, wells and markets. We have defended and reinforced five years of progress, including the first elections in decades, remarkable improvements in education, and the return of 5 million refugees.

I say this because, before we talk about what more we must do, we should understand what is at risk if we do not continue to live up to the collective commitment we have made to Afghanistan and its people. I am not here to herald this as a job done. I am not painting a glossy picture; our mission in Afghanistan faces serious challenges and the country faces serious problems. But I am here to explain why we must keep working to meet these challenges and to secure Afghanistan’s future.

I have said many times from this Dispatch Box that there is no purely military solution to Afghanistan’s problems. What military forces can do, as has been shown right across the country, is increase security. But unless we can help the Afghan Government to bring security to all their people, and convince them that they and NATO are going to defeat the Taliban and others who try to block or destroy progress, everything else that we have achieved in Afghanistan will remain at risk.

At Seville, NATO’s senior military commander— the Supreme Allied Commander Europe—reminded NATO members that it is in the south and east that the security challenge is most acute. He identified a further need for robust, flexible, manoeuvrable combat forces to strengthen NATO commanders’ ability to tackle the challenge across those regions.

We believe that every NATO partner should be prepared to do more to meet that need. At Seville, some announced that they would do so. America promised an additional 3,000 troops. France has offered more close air support. Germany has pledged six reconnaissance Tornadoes. Lithuania has pledged additional troops. All those contributions are welcome. They build on earlier commitments made at Riga in the autumn, principally by Poland, which committed a battalion to the east, but we must be realistic about how many nations have the ability to take on the tasks facing NATO in the south and the east.

26 Feb 2007 : Column 620

I have lobbied our partners consistently for more help in those regions and I will continue to do so, but it is increasingly clear that at present, when it comes to the most demanding tasks in the more challenging parts of Afghanistan, only we and a small number of key allies are prepared to step forward. That is why we have decided to commit additional forces to Afghanistan. Put simply, the alternative is unacceptable—it would place too great a risk on the progress we have made so far. That is a risk we simply cannot afford to take, for the sake of Afghanistan and of our own security. We may be shouldering a greater share of the burden than we might like, but so are others, and we do so in the knowledge that this is a vital mission and one that is directly in our national interest.

I turn now to the details of what this decision means in practice. The UK has decided to fill one of SACEUR’s most pressing requirements—a manoeuvre battalion for Regional Command (South), which is an area that covers Helmand—the base and responsibility of the existing UK taskforce—but also the strategically vital neighbouring provinces of Kandahar, Oruzgan, Zabul, Nimruz and Daykondi.

We propose to deploy a battlegroup comprising elements of an infantry battalion, the 1st Battalion, the Royal Welsh, which will be augmented with a company of Warrior infantry fighting vehicles from the 1st Battalion, the Scots Guards. It will include additional artillery, including a regimental HQ and a battery of light guns from the 19th Regiment, Royal Artillery; a brigade surveillance group drawn from the 5th Regiment, Royal Artillery; and a troop of guided multiple launch rocket systems from the 39th Regiment, Royal Artillery.

We shall also deploy additional reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities, four more Harrier GR9s to provide close air support, four Sea King helicopters from 846 Naval Air Squadron to increase our support helicopter capacity, and another C-130 Hercules. Some of the forces deployed will be reservists, although I am not yet in a position to inform the House of how many. I will write to confirm that.

In terms of overall numbers, that adds up to nearly 1,400 additional personnel. Some will deploy from the roulement in May, but the majority will deploy over the summer. They will be based mostly in Helmand, with some at Kandahar airfield, although they will provide NATO commanders in RC (South) with a flexible capability for use across the southern region. In total, our forces in Afghanistan will increase from around 6,300 to settle at about 7,700 personnel. The current planning assumption remains that those forces are committed until 2009.

I am well aware of the pressure that this will continue to put our armed forces under. I have made it clear in the past that this Government fully recognise how much we are asking of them. I want to take this opportunity to say again on behalf of the Government how much we admire the professionalism, skill and bravery with which they do the hard and dangerous work that we ask of them. I repeat that ensuring that they have the support and equipment that they need remains my highest priority, but I also want to make it clear that we would not make this decision to commit extra forces unless it was in accordance with unequivocal military advice. I and the chiefs of staff agree that this additional commitment is manageable.

Next Section Index Home Page