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8 May 2008 : Column 875

Defence in the World

[ Relevant documents : Thirteenth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2006-07, on UK Operations in Afghanistan, HC 408 and the Government’s response (Thirteenth Special Report, Session 2006-07, HC 1024); First Report from the Committee, Session 2007-08, on UK land operations in Iraq 2007, HC 110, and the Government’s response (Second Special Report, Session 2007-08, HC 352); and the Ninth Report, Session 2007-08, on the future of NATO and European defence, HC111.]

12.54 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I beg to move,

I welcome this opportunity to debate the role of defence in the world. Given the limits that we have imposed on ourselves for these debates, I do not have time to go into detail about how all our assets are working together to prevent and resolve conflicts around the world. I will therefore focus my comments on those areas that are most pressing and which have rightly attracted the attention of many hon. Members—namely, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Time and interventions permitting, I shall also address directly the issue of ballistic missile defence.

In his leadership campaign, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) promised to drag me to the Dispatch Box—that may be a paraphrase, but I do not think that it does him an injustice—to discuss ballistic missile defence. I have waited and waited, however, but he has done no such thing. Then again, the Liberal Democrats have been promising to do that for the best part of two years now, and the issue has warranted only one or two interventions from them in any debate, so I suppose that a Liberal Democrat promise is made to be broken.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): We had two particular objections to the ballistic missile defence programme proposed by the Americans—it did not have the blessing or support of fellow NATO members, and there did not appear to be any meaningful dialogue with the Russians about what was being proposed. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), my colleagues and I have been delighted to note that both those substantive misgivings have faded away materially in recent months. NATO has now embraced the programme, which can no longer be portrayed as a simply American initiative, and a much more productive dialogue appears to be taking place with the Russians about the nature of the defence. I notice some surprise on the Secretary of State’s face, and he may want to elaborate on those points. In a sense, however, much of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam was saying has been overtaken by events.

Des Browne: I am glad to have been able to drag the hon. Gentleman to his feet, and I shall deal in more detail with the ballistic missile defence programme later in my speech, but none of what he said is new to those of us who are involved in discussing the matter with the US, our NATO allies and Russia. The process has been
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going on for a considerable time. If the developments that have been happening quite overtly have come to the attention of the Liberal Democrats and allayed their concerns, I shall be pleased to hear that they now support the position in relation to ballistic missile defence that NATO has adopted for a long time.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Des Browne: I shall not give way any more on this matter, as I shall deal with it specifically in my speech. I am absolutely certain that my speech will pre-empt the point that the hon. Gentleman wants to make. I am sure that, in his closing remarks, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces will seek to address any concerns that go beyond the ones that I raise in the debate.

The Government’s collective aim is to shape the international environment to protect our citizens, promote our economy and defend our values. The global context in which we operate to achieve that has already been well documented, in the strategic defence review and its supplementary documents and annexes, and most recently in the national security strategy. Those documents identify the threats arising from terrorism, failed and failing states, weapons proliferation and competition for natural resources. Now, other factors such as competition for food and water and a global economic slowdown add to the complexity of that environment. We recognise those challenges, which surpass political borders. They are collective challenges, and occasionally they generate individual threats.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Is not the context of this debate the fact that although the United Kingdom has, pro rata, the best armed forces in the world and we regularly punch above our weight in international conflicts, all too often our allies, who should know better, do not give us, and the United States, the support that we deserve?

Des Browne: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for, in an early intervention, putting his finger on an issue that we need to address in the context of this debate. The simplistic answer is to agree with him, but it is not as simple as that, as he knows. The ability of our allies to punch their weight or to step up to the plate, to use two of the phrases that are constantly used in this debate, is a function of political will, capability and capacity. In the whole history of this debate, and in the comparatively short period for which I have been Secretary of State for Defence, I have seen dramatic improvements in that regard. Certain countries have gone from being renowned for being able to contribute to peacekeeping missions to being war-fighting countries that are now able to deploy their forces with effect in very difficult circumstances. Many countries punch above their weight in relation to the size of their armed forces. Other countries have used their engagement in NATO, particularly in Afghanistan, to transform their armed forces in the way that I have described.

Without going into the detail of all those countries—there are many good examples—I would say two things about what is often the litmus test: namely, which NATO countries are in the difficult parts of Afghanistan. First,
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when NATO met in Riga last year there were, if I recollect correctly, about 32,000 ISAF—international security assistance force—forces there, predominantly NATO forces. When it met in Bucharest, there were 47,000. That is a significant increase, and there have been additional forces since then. Secondly, of the countries that are members of NATO, whether newer or long-standing members, slightly less than 50 per cent. are represented in the south or the east of the country. Those two broad statistics generally indicate the direction of travel. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is right, but our allies are aware of it and they are making progress.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Can the Secretary of State clarify how many countries have deployed troops to southern Afghanistan? Before the President of France’s recent visit to this country, it was widely trailed that France would be deploying troops to southern Afghanistan. Have there been any developments in that direction?

Des Browne: There have been significant developments in that direction in the sense that the French have agreed to deploy troops to the east of Afghanistan and, in turn, the United States of America has deployed troops to Kandahar to fulfil what have become known as the Manley conditions, which were the conditions attached to the report on the Canadians’ commitment to southern Afghanistan. I have figures in my head but I am not entirely sure if I remember them accurately. If the hon. Gentleman wants those figures, I am happy to provide them, but they are already in the public domain. NATO has a website that makes available to the public the specific figures relating to which countries have deployed what resources to where. They are not in any sense kept under wraps. If right hon. and hon. Members wish to have access to that information, it might be less expensive to the British Exchequer if they checked on the NATO website instead of constantly asking questions of me. I am happy to be asked about those figures—I am making a slightly facetious point—but they are in the public domain.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Is it not fair to say that the weight has been on the few and our NATO allies have been shy in coming forward, but now NATO is showing a greater commitment and the countries that have shied away in the past are beginning to come forward, and that that is the matter of fact and the basis on which we must proceed?

Des Browne: I agree with my hon. Friend. We have repeatedly debated and discussed this matter, and I have repeatedly answered questions on it from the Dispatch Box. I have always had a realistic approach to it. It is a function of capacity, appropriate capability and political will. An increasing number of nations are showing the political will and developing their capacity and capability to deploy. Let me take the example of helicopters, which exercises this House. There are many thousands of helicopters throughout the world. It is debatable whether they are all well equipped enough to be capable of safe deployment into the environment of southern Afghanistan, for example, where helicopters are now flown routinely in a way in which, in the recent past,
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they would have been flown only by people with very special skills. That is why, in the context of the NATO summit, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced an initiative to enable the equipping and training of the pilots of those helicopters to allow their deployment. It is not just a question of saying, “That country doesn’t have people there”—we have to ask ourselves, “Does that country have the deployable capability, and would we want those resources to be deployed alongside our own forces in that environment?” We are improving in all those respects in the international community and with our allies daily. That is reflected in my hon. Friend’s comments.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State, as indeed we all are, for his giving way. He mentions the importance of helicopters, which we all accept are doing a fantastic job in Afghanistan and in Iraq. However, the current version of the Lynx helicopter is not up to speed in those conditions. What is the score on the future Lynx programme, given the persistent press reports that the contract is about to be scrapped, leaving the United Kingdom with inadequate helicopter forces?

Des Browne: It is well known that the Department goes through a process of regularly reviewing its equipment programme; it would be irresponsible not to do so. Every time that process is gone through, there is speculation. The Lynx contract is extant—it is part of the procurement programme. I have made it perfectly clear that while that process is going on I will not get engaged in giving answers to people by identifying and salami-slicing elements of the programme. With respect to the hon. Gentleman—I understand why he asks—I am not prepared to respond to every piece of speculation. I give the House the assurance that if any decisions are made to change the status quo in relation to any part or planned part of our programme, I will make an announcement to the House.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con) rose—

Des Browne: I do not intend to get diverted into a debate about procurement or equipment issues. I have a number of points to make, and I am conscious of a sense in the House that Front Benchers should not dominate these debates and there should be time for Back Benchers to contribute.

Currently, British forces are operational across more than 12 nations, whether patrolling the South Atlantic, policing international borders in Cyprus or capacity- building in Sierra Leone, to name but three of the tasks that they take on. Our troops are all working towards a common aim—international stability.

With the operational focus often on Iraq and Afghanistan, we should not forget our commitments to Kosovo. The UK contributes around 200 troops to the NATO operation in Kosovo and continues to support security sector reform throughout the region. We should not forget our achievements there. Where once there was sectarian violence and bloodshed, there is now economic development, stability and functioning democracy. In February, the Government of Kosovo declared independence. At the time, they made it clear that Kosovo would be a democratic, secular and multi-ethnic
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republic and that its leaders would promote the rights and participation of all communities there. Since then, there has been steady progress by the Government of Kosovo and international authorities in meeting the obligations contained in the United Nations comprehensive proposal for a status settlement in Kosovo. The security situation has remained calm, albeit tense, and there have been sporadic incidents of violence. There is no place for violence in Kosovo, now or in the future, and the UK remains committed to promoting a stable, secure and prosperous Balkan region moving towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

As the House is aware, we are preparing to send 2nd Battalion, The Rifles to Kosovo in its role as the NATO Balkans operational reserve force. The UK ORF battalion will play an important role by reassuring all parties to the situation in Kosovo that the international community and the UK will maintain their commitment to preserving peace and stability in the region. We are well prepared to meet that long-standing commitment, which we share with our NATO allies. By planning ahead, we have ensured that the UK ORF battalion has been properly force-generated and that the impact on other operations will be minimal.

The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has quite properly raised a number of questions about that deployment. Let me take the opportunity to address the points that he has put into the public domain. First, he asked why we made the announcement on 29 April rather than on 28 April at Defence questions. The reason for that is quite simple. The decision to commit the ORF was not taken on the 28th—it was taken on the morning of 29 April at the Cabinet meeting that morning. Consequently, we announced the deployment to the House as soon as practicable thereafter, at 2 o’clock that same afternoon.

The hon. Gentleman asked how much the deployment would cost and where the money would come from. We estimate the cost to be around £6 million and it will be met in full from the reserve, bringing our estimated costs for our deployments to Kosovo to £28.5 million during 2008-09. It is interesting to note that the cost of our deployment there in 2003-04 was £186 million. As conditions have improved in Kosovo, the costs to the UK of our presence have fallen significantly. He asked about the impact that the ORF deployment would have on our strategic airlift capability and whether it would undermine our air bridge to Iraq and Afghanistan. Since we forward-based the heavy equipment in Kosovo at the start of our commitment to the ORF and since we will be deploying the personnel to Kosovo by civilian charter, the answers to those questions are respectively none and no.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman suggested that the Government did not have the courage to come to the House to debate the issues behind the ORF deployment. As every hon. Member can see, that is not true. I am here now, and we have not yet deployed one of those members of the ORF to Kosovo. Let me point out that we are talking not about a new commitment, but about the deployment of a standing commitment, which does not in fact deploy until the end of this month. I am here now to debate the issues and will happily debate the ORF with the hon. Gentleman and any other Member for as long as I am permitted to do so.

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Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): The 2nd Battalion, The Rifles is the battalion with which I served and I hope that the House wishes it well in its deployment to Kosovo. However, the regiment has just returned from Iraq, so I ask the Secretary of State: has enough time been given for the battalion to re-engage with families and to retrain before it takes up that other commitment? The biggest question Britons will be asking is why it is yet again the British who are stepping forward when there is so much pressure on our armed services and while the rest of Europe seems to turn a blind eye to the problems in Kosovo.

Des Browne: First, the hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to those forces whom he served with, and as he would expect, they are greatly looking forward to going. They are confident that they will do an excellent job there, just as they did in Iraq, and that they will do so in future, if they are ever deployed again. There are 18,000 troops from the international community in Kosovo, so it is not right to say that other countries are not bearing their share of the burden of peacekeeping there. Sometimes when I consider the number of troops there, in an area the size of Wales, I draw another conclusion with regard to the number of troops we are able to deploy to other theatres. The hon. Gentleman’s point is worth making as a debating point, but it is not factually correct.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Following on from my right hon. Friend’s point about the number of troops in Kosovo, many of us were delighted when we were able to say that we no longer needed to have a presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For many of us it therefore seems distressing that we now have to send another set of troops to operate out of Pristina. How long does he think that European troops will have to be there in the sort of numbers there at present? If he is not able to answer that question, how will he know, and how will Europe know, when we no longer need to be present?

Des Browne: Broadly, although the situation in Kosovo has to be nurtured and encouraged step by step, most people think that progress is being made. Progress is evident throughout the Balkans.

First, we should not see the deployment of the operational reserve force, which is being done after careful consideration by the commander of NATO forces of the appearance he needs to present to give security on the ground, as an indication of regression. It is an indication of progress. Secondly, we have been committed for some time, with other countries, to provide the ORF to Kosovo—I think that the commitment goes back to 2003, but if I am incorrect, I shall correct the record. We have been on standby, as it were, at various stages of readiness to take action along with other countries. Other countries have fulfilled this role. We are at the highest state of readiness at this time, and it is right that we should fulfil our commitment.

We are not expected to do something in Kosovo that others are not prepared to do, as some have suggested. I repeat the point I made earlier: there are 18,000 troops from countries throughout the world in Kosovo. We are able to see the progress that is taking place because of that level of commitment. If the commanders who
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achieved that, working with others and the broader international community, suggest that something needs to be done and make a request, it is entirely appropriate that we respond. Of course, we need to take into account the effect on our troops and their families. We would not send the battalion if we felt we were affecting its ability to recuperate from operational deployment to Iraq or its ability to retrain and be ready for further deployment, should that be necessary in the future.

Mr. Keetch: Would the Secretary of State reflect on the fact that we are talking not about European troops deployed elsewhere, but about European troops in Europe? The achievement of British and European troops in Kosovo—indeed, throughout the former Yugoslav republics—has a direct impact on the security of the UK and the livelihoods of all our constituents. We should be congratulating the Government on taking responsibility for making a short-term deployment at this time. It is better that we do it now, in a measured and careful way, than find ourselves having to make a much larger commitment in six months or so. The long-term good and prosperity of Kosovo is good for all of our nations, not just the people of that region.

Des Browne: I am always happy to accept congratulations for the Government, no matter where they come from— [ Laughter. ] I should be more gracious to the hon. Gentleman; he made a very good point. I am reluctant to accede to it, however, lest that be interpreted to mean that I think that the borders of Europe define where the borders of our security lie. The reality of the modern world suggests that the front line of our security can be quite far away from the borders of Europe, or indeed our own borders. His point is absolutely correct, however, and instead of interpreting every move, particularly a military move, as a function of failure, we should understand that it is our ability to change the levels of our forces as we have in the Balkans, and to use them to give a degree of security and stability to allow complementary civil work to take place, that has resulted in the painstaking progress made over more than a decade to bring that region its current stability. It also allows us to welcome the component elements of the former Yugoslavia into not only Europe but a Euro-Atlantic relationship, which reinforces what we have achieved. Indeed, we should congratulate ourselves—hon. Members of all parties, this country and our wider alliances—on our achievements, because it did not look as though we could piece things back together in that way.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the steps he has taken on Kosovo, which is a function of our ability to recruit people to our armed forces. Has he taken the opportunity to talk to the National Union of Teachers about its policy of making it increasingly difficult for our armed forces to speak to young people who might want to pursue a military career? Will he say now that it is important to have armed forces that undertake peacekeeping and that the NUT should understand that?

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