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I would like to turn, as the Secretary of State did, to another part of the world that is a little closer to home. Many pages of European history have been written in the Balkans, which have always been vital to Europe’s geo-strategic interests, and there has been no shortage of armed conflict over its territory over the centuries. The images of the wars being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan mean that it is easy wrongly to assume that peacekeeping in Kosovo will be a more straightforward affair. Let us make no mistake: regardless of how benign things may appear in Kosovo, our troops there will still be at risk. That is why we found it extremely regrettable that we were not given an oral statement on the deployment of our forces there last week. I am
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pleased that some of the questions that we subsequently asked were answered by the Secretary of State today, although some remain.

In his written statement, the Secretary of State said that the troops would be deployed “until 30 June”. In his letter to me, he said that this “initial deployment” would be “reviewed with NATO” at the end of June. Exactly what does that mean? What are the chances that British troops will be in Kosovo beyond the end of June? This Government have a track record of raising expectations that troops will return only to dash them later. The House would expect to be given some clarity about why it was termed an “initial deployment” and exactly what “reviewed with NATO” will mean. Perhaps the Minister for the Armed Forces will deal with that question directly in his speech.

I was interested to hear that what happens in Kosovo will, again, be paid for entirely from the reserve, but that raises a basic issue that comes up again and again. Not only are we carrying the military burden through our troops, but our taxpayers are carrying the full burden, because there is no proper financial burden-sharing of what NATO does. As the Leader of the Opposition said recently, there needs to be far better financial burden-sharing in both NATO and the EU. Again, I hope that the Minister for the Armed Forces will answer some of those points.

I understand that in addition to sourcing the requirement for the operational reserve force that is now being deployed to Kosovo, the 2nd Battalion, The Rifles was also serving as our spearhead land element. Which unit will take over while that one is in Kosovo? Do we have the capability to react to the unexpected? Let me paint a picture of the wider political situation facing us in Kosovo. Serbia is trying to include northern parts of Kosovo in its general election later this month; there are unconfirmed reports that Serbia is massing troops and munitions along its border with Kosovo; and there are media accounts of tension along sections of the Macedonia-Kosovo border. Our troops are going to face many risks in a volatile environment and very challenging circumstances. There is no doubt that, as always, they will perform superbly. If we made a commitment to NATO to provide the operational reserve force for the Balkans, we have an obligation to the alliance that we must fulfil, but the problem with this mission goes beyond the obvious question of overstretch and touches on questions of Government planning.

As a country, we are more than fulfilling our obligations to the NATO alliance in Afghanistan, as one of my hon. Friends said in an intervention. Last year, once 10 December 2007 was established as the day that international mediators would submit their findings on the future of Kosovo to the United Nations Secretary-General, it became no secret that Kosovo would most likely declare independence sometime during the first quarter of 2008. Considering our high operational tempo in Iraq and Afghanistan and when our forces were so overstretched, why did the Government continue to make that commitment to the ORF during that time period in Kosovo? Did the Government try to persuade other countries to take on that responsibility at a time when the UK’s armed forces were doing so much elsewhere? I hope that the Minister will deal with that point directly.

Bearing in mind the Secretary of State’s response to another question, we will keep a close eye on this issue
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and table parliamentary questions on any potential impact that operations in Kosovo will have on the airbridge to Afghanistan and Iraq. The concern is not without justification. New figures show how regularly our troops are delayed returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. Given that they have to report to the flight line many hours before a flight, it is a huge issue when 11 per cent. of all flights from Afghanistan are delayed by more than six hours, leaving our troops often on the floor or losing days of leave. That can have a significant impact on morale, as anyone who has spoken to our forces there will attest. It is simply not good enough.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that if he were the Secretary of State for Defence he would not support the deployment in the Balkans at this time, or is he just sniping as usual at the Government to perpetuate the myth of overstretch?

Dr. Fox: I doubt whether many of those serving think that overstretch is a myth. The hon. Gentleman might want to think again about using those particular words. I have made it clear that where we have obligations we have to fulfil them, but I question whether it was sensible for the Government not to try to see whether others might have been able to carry a little more of the load.

We also need to look at the integration of the NATO and EU roles in Kosovo. Even though both aim to provide stability and security to Kosovo, NATO’s KFOR military mission and the EU’s rule of law civilian mission operate under two separate chains of command in Kosovo. As of last week, arrangements to facilitate co-ordination and mutual support between the two organisations were still under discussion. As we have learned from Afghanistan, where there are multiple military and civilian chains of command, it is vital that the security and reconstruction efforts are closely co-ordinated. In Kosovo, it will be no different. Perhaps the Minister of State will be able to update the House on the status of the agreement between KFOR and EULEX and what efforts the Government have made to ensure that operations will not be undermined by failure to integrate fully.

Future stability in the Balkans is in everyone’s interest and we must do all that we can to ensure a favourable outcome. The one thing that the region clearly needs as it passes through this difficult stage is united international support and a strong international presence. The international community has invested enormous effort and good will to help the people of the region recover from the ravages of war, shake off the legacy of nationalism and join Euro-Atlantic structures. Thanks to that, Slovenia has become a fully fledged member of the EU and NATO and Croatia is on track to join the EU and was formally invited to join NATO at Bucharest, along with Albania—to name but a few of the achievements of recent years.

Those hard-won successes are an example for the whole region. We cannot let Kosovo slip away. We understand that, the Americans understand that, NATO and the EU understand that, and Russia needs to understand that. The Balkans is one area where we have seen tensions with Russia, but there are others. Last summer, Russia announced its intention to annex a 460,000 sq m portion of ice-covered Arctic. Scientists
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claim that that area, on which Russia has audaciously set its sights, may contain 10 billion tonnes of gas and oil deposits. While that ridiculous claim has no legitimate legal basis, the west must take such threats from Russia seriously. With ice melting in the Arctic, and shipping passages and possible mineral exploitation becoming an increasing possibility, we may be witnessing a scramble for the resource-rich Arctic.

It has been argued by some that as the EU and NATO push eastward towards the Caspian region, Russia is looking towards the north. A scramble for Arctic resources will bring a new dynamic to international security and how we address threats. In the UK, with our focus on Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, it would be easy to ignore. The complexity of the Arctic question makes it too easy to look the other way and hope that someone else deals with some of the problems. But are we as a nation, or NATO as our collective security alliance, ready to deal with any threat that may emerge over the Arctic?

On a recent trip to Ottawa, I found that the issue of Arctic security is taken very seriously. Prime Minister Harper has stated that:

Canada will open a new army training centre for cold-weather fighting at Resolute bay, and a deepwater port on the northern tip of Baffin island. Canada is also beefing up its military presence in the far north by adding 900 Rangers to the 4,000 already there. Last July, Prime Minister Harper announced that six to eight new navy patrol ships would be built to guard the north-west passage sea route in the Arctic.

I am afraid that we have witnessed only the very beginning of the struggle for the Arctic, and it does not even appear to be on the radar here in the UK. Although there are several international institutions, such as the UN’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, that are able to deal with these issues in a multilateral way, we need to be prepared for anything.

The only icebreaker we have available is HMS Endurance. The United States is little better off with two active icebreakers in its coastguard. At the same time, Russia has a fleet of eight nuclear-powered icebreakers and has plans to build the world’s largest icebreaker. Because of ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, our helicopter pilots have had reduced training in Arctic conditions. In 2007, there were no Chinook or Apache helicopter training missions for Arctic conditions and only five Sea King, three Lynx, two Gazelle and three Puma helicopters received any sort of Arctic training at all.

We need to set all that against political developments in Russia. Yesterday, Mr. Medvedev officially became Russia’s Head of State, taking over from Mr. Putin, but a change of direction is unlikely. As Mr. Medvedev is the former chair of Gazprom’s board of directors, it can be assumed that Russia’s energy policy under its new president will stay consistent with that of Mr. Putin.

If military might and nuclear weapons formed the core of Soviet cold war power, Russian elites view its energy resources as the basis of its power now. Russia is rivalling Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer and is estimated to have the world’s largest
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natural gas supplies with 1,680 trillion cu ft—nearly twice the reserves of Iran, which has the next largest. Russia has demonstrated that it will use its energy resources to promote a broader foreign policy agenda. That was illustrated when Russia reduced gas supplies to Ukraine as part of a bilateral dispute and when it doubled the price of gas to Georgia in 2005.

Russia’s petrodollars are financing a $189 billion overhaul of its armed forces between now and 2015. They will purchase more than 1,000 new aircraft and helicopters, 4,000 new tanks and armoured vehicles and a new submarine fleet. New missiles will carry nuclear warheads. The great irony is that western addiction to oil and gas is funding Russia’s military build-up.

Mr. Hoyle: The hon. Gentleman is right about the security of energy supply, so does he agree that the time is now right to bring in the Falklands? We know that there is oil there, so will he support getting a rig out there to ensure our own security of supply?

Dr. Fox: When I recently visited the Falklands, there was an active interest in that, although whether those in the Falklands regard it as our oil or their oil is an interesting question. Perhaps we could address it with the legislative council of the Falklands islands.

The EU has an important role to play in the energy picture, especially in countering some of the difficulties posed by Russia. An end needs to be brought to the divide and rule that the Kremlin operates through single-nation sweetheart deals. The European Commission must act to remove protectionism and national monopolies, creating a genuine free market in energy.

Better interconnections will reduce the risk of supplies being cut off for those who displease the Kremlin, but the EU will not be a sufficiently strong vehicle. NATO, as was decided at Riga, must play a key role in ensuring energy security for the west. Any decision on energy security that excludes Norway and Turkey, neither of which are in the EU, would be flawed. In order to face 21st-century threats, it has been argued that NATO’s article 5 could be expanded to include energy security. We shall certainly have to consider that in the months and years ahead.

Mr. Keetch: Under the terms of the agreement, the Falkland Islands, an overseas territory, does not possess its mineral rights—the UK still does. On the question of the Arctic, is it now Conservative policy that the Royal Navy should be equipped with a fleet of icebreakers? That seemed to be the line of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. I can understand why that should be the case for Canada, which has thousands of miles of border with the Arctic, or for Russia, which has tens of thousands of miles of such a border, but is he suggesting that the UK armed forces should be somehow configured with a serious capability to fight Arctic warfare?

Dr. Fox: Of course we are not considering that that should be in any way a unique UK capability. My question is whether new types of threats are emerging, whether NATO is looking collectively at how to deal with the problem and whether we should raise the issues further up the agenda for public discussion. When one
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sits in the Canadian Parliament or talks to Canadian Ministers—or to the Danes or Norwegians—it is striking that they have a different view of how global warming might affect economic and strategic issues in the future.

NATO can play a key role in securing transport routes. Operation Active Endeavour, which has been patrolling the Mediterranean since 2001, is a good example of NATO co-operation on maritime security. Giving NATO a greater role in energy security would provide Turkey with added prestige and allow reformers a breathing space, given the short-sighted attitude taken to its EU membership by some of the EU’s more prominent members.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): May I clarify what my hon. Friend has just said, as it is absolutely crucial? I take it that he was referring to Greece. The mischief that Greece is carrying out in that part of south-east Europe is unsustainable. It is damaging relations between Turkey and the rest of Europe and between Turkey and NATO. It is damaging relations between Kosovo and Macedonia and Macedonia and Greece. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Greeks have to decide whether they are going to be serious players in NATO or whether they want to carry on their squabbling for their own interests rather than the wider interests of the organisation?

Dr. Fox: All members of NATO have to decide what to put first: their national interests and historical grievances or the collective alliance. I heard my hon. Friend’s point, but I was in fact referring to Germany and France.

Let me turn finally to Afghanistan and NATO. The recent Bucharest summit was disappointing on many fronts. For example, nothing was done to source the operational reserve force for the international security assistance force in Afghanistan. That requirement of NATO’s combined joint statement of requirements for Afghanistan has been unfilled since Romania last provided it in December 2006. It is inconceivable that 26 NATO members cannot find an extra battalion between them to provide an over-the-horizon reserve force for ISAF in Afghanistan. It illustrates a rather sad state of affairs.

It was reported in The New York Times last Saturday that the Pentagon is thinking about deploying 7,000 more troops to Afghanistan on top of the 3,200 Marines recently deployed to the south, because our NATO allies are not willing to provide the troops that the commanders on the ground need. That might or might not be correct—it was newspaper speculation—but the fact that it is being considered could lead to a dangerous shift in America’s perception of NATO.

We have more troops in Afghanistan now than at any other time. We are the second largest contributor of troops to ISAF after the US and sadly 95 of our brave servicemen and women did not make it back home to their families. That is a testament to the dedication and commitment of the British armed forces to bring stability and prosperity to the people of Afghanistan. Of course, it is about much more than that. As important as reconstruction and democratic development are, our forces are in Afghanistan primarily for our national security and to deny the forces determined to destroy our way of life a base from which to operate. It is for
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our security that those people have made their sacrifices, and we should perhaps be more explicit in saying so.

Our troops fought bravely this winter, retaking Musa Qala and restoring order. We have about 6,000 troops based in Helmand province, which is geographically twice the size of Wales. Some 700 of those troops—a large portion—are tied up in Musa Qala, left behind to maintain the security. When the Minister winds up the debate, will he report on the progress of the reconstruction effort in Musa Qala? When does he expect that the Afghan security forces will be able to take over some or all of the security responsibilities there in order to free up British forces to pursue the Taliban further in other parts of Helmand province?

The difficulties and shortages in Afghanistan are not limited to boots on the ground. We are still facing a shortage of tactical airlift in the form of helicopters. The Prime Minister, during his time as Chancellor, cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion in 2004 when we were already involved in two conflicts. In December, as the Secretary of State reminded us, the Prime Minister announced that NATO will start contracting civilian helicopters to reduce the burden on the military aircraft operating in Afghanistan. Although that move has sometimes been presented to us as some sort of panacea for the tactical airlift shortage in Afghanistan, the civilian contracted helicopters do not solve the main problem of freeing up helicopters for coalition use for combat operations.

I appreciate and respect the civilians who are placing their lives at risk by supporting British and coalition troops on the front lines in Afghanistan, but as with all announcements from this Government we have to examine the small print. Under the terms of the contract, only 13,000 kg can be airlifted a day, in comparison with a CH-47 Chinook helicopter that can carry up to 23,000 kg on one trip. To put it simply, we are getting two thirds of one sortie from one Chinook helicopter a day with the NATO civilian contract. We now know that the contract is for an airlift service provided by a mix of helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft, but fixed-wing aircraft have different capabilities. They require secure runways for take-off and landing and many of the forward operating bases in southern Afghanistan lack such facilities.

In addition, the terms of the contract do not allow troops to be carried in the civilian contracted aircraft. Helicopter airlift, in a country such as Afghanistan, is vital for conducting counter-insurgency operations. The problem is that if our troops need to be medivac’d or a quick reaction force needs to be sent behind enemy lines, not only are those civilian helicopters prohibited from conducting such missions, but they are failing to free up enough of our own helicopters to reduce the burden effectively.

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