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10 Jun 2008 : Column 20WH—continued

Those who have read Robert Gates’s speech will know that that is exactly the type of thinking that he is challenging. Let us have it spelled out exactly what sort of operations we are expecting in the future—or is this a case of next-war-itis?

General Dannatt, Lord Drayson—the former Minister with responsibility for procurement—and the Secretary of State himself have all stated that FRES, future rapid effect system, vehicles will play a dual role for high-intensity warfare and counter-insurgency. Although I believe that equipment that has been designed for counter-insurgency can be used successfully in high-intensity warfare, I do not believe that the reverse is necessarily the case, for reasons that I shall give.

Using Afghanistan as an example, it is not difficult to predict, in any counter-insurgency warfare, that if the insurgents are heavily defeated in straight-on conflicts, they will resort to other tactics such as the use of various explosive devices. The MOD has responded to that threat by purchasing Mastiff, Ridgeback and Bushmaster vehicles, and I pay due credit to the Secretary of State for taking such vital procurement decisions. There are now 282 Mastiffs, 157 Ridgebacks and 24 Bushmasters. In total, 463 such vehicles are ranged against 169 Vector Pinzgauers, which are fast cross-country vehicles but are not designed to protect soldiers from mines or improvised explosive devices. There are 180 mobility weapon mount installation kits, or MWMIKs—known as Jackals—and 2,000 proposed Piranha V vehicles. I emphasise that those vehicles are proposed, because they have not yet been built. That makes 2,349 vehicles in all. With the best will in the world, one could hardly say that that is a very balanced mixture, bearing it in mind that the whole future Army structure is geared to the latter type. I would hardly call that situation “making present operations the top priority”.

However, I take heart from a recent answer from the Minister that future requirements for the Mastiff and other vehicles of that type will be reviewed when operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have been completed. However, as we are likely to be in Afghanistan for the long term, that could realistically be at least 20 years down the road. How many more conflicts of that nature will the UK be engaged in or have been engaged in by then, with 2,349 vehicles that are not particularly suited to purpose—they are in storage or tying up manpower—compared with 463 vehicles that have a proven track record in counter-insurgency operations?

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on her impressive speech on this important topic. May I draw to her attention a recent answer that I received from the Minister about the impact of IEDs and mines on our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan? It is distressing, is it not, to learn that the

Ann Winterton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. That is an extremely distressing situation, about which I hope the MOD and the people of this country are highly exercised.

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Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I accept those statistics, but does the hon. Lady not agree that it is important to consider the period that those statistics cover? The last time I was in Basra, I saw a Mastiff vehicle that had driven over an IED, in which the crew had survived. The Mastiff was good news and has clearly led to a reduction in casualties from IEDs.

Ann Winterton: I am one of those who have pushed for V-shaped hull vehicles, knowing full well that the use of such vehicles in counter-insurgency operations saves lives. The Mastiff, which was designed by a British fellow who used to serve in the armed forces in this country, has been a tremendous success. The point that I was making, which the hon. Gentleman appears to have ignored, is that we have too few such vehicles for the present engagements in which British forces operate. That was the main point of what I was saying before my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) intervened.

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The hon. Lady is raising important issues to which I know she gives a lot of thought. She puts only three vehicles on the right side of the line by which she wishes to expose a lack of balance: the Mastiff, the Ridgeback and the Bushmaster; she puts all the rest on the wrong side. We cannot conduct effective operations in Afghanistan with only those three vehicles. No commander can do that.

Ann Winterton: I thank the Minister, but I was not in any way suggesting that we could do that. If he waits a little and lets me proceed with my speech, I think that he will see that my line of argument can be justified and should be considered. I have certainly painted a stark picture, and it has to be addressed as a matter of urgency, particularly by the top brass of the military.

The key to the dilemma lies in the Minister’s parliamentary answer in which he mentioned the Mastiff

There are two very different designs to cope with various explosive devices. As he knows, one is based on blast deflection and the other on blast absorption. The first type encompasses the 463 vehicles whose shell is part of their armour in a V-shaped hull. The designers and engineers use the principles of basic physics to allow the vehicle to deflect a blast. The downside is that the resulting vehicle is somewhat butch in looks and taller, but it is perfectly acceptable in today’s conflicts. The upside is that the vehicle can take punishment, as the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) said and as we know, that it can be easily repaired after massive explosions and that it is therefore quickly back in action. Very often, such vehicles are cheaper, more rugged and last for the long term.

Let it never be forgotten that the Mastiff is carrying out successful roles for which it was not initially designed or intended, and has become a front-line armoured attack vehicle. I understand that the Secretary of State himself was recently taken through Basra in one, and we know that his safety is of paramount importance.

The second group of vehicles to which I referred—all 2,349 of them—are designed for blast absorption. The Vector, which I understand from a recent parliamentary
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answer is due to be taken out of service by 2015, has the driver sitting right up over the front wheels and is a death trap in which lives have sadly been lost. The Jackal is a slight improvement, with the driver sitting inside the front wheels, but it has had to be armoured, adding 42 per cent. to its unladen weight at a cost of £83,000 a vehicle. That is similar to what happened with the Land Rover. Armour was added to the chassis, increasing its weight.

Finally, there is Piranha V, which is incredibly expensive. Its weight, with all the additions, will creep up from 27 tonnes to more than 30 tonnes. The Canadians have had problems with their Piranha III, a lighter version, becoming bogged down in Afghanistan. If the appliqué armour is penetrated, the vehicle is a write-off. That is acceptable in high-end warfare, but when it happens in counter-insurgency engagements, the ground has to be secured in order to try to salvage the vehicle. With nightfall, unless many troops are to be tied down, the vehicle has to be abandoned, with a subsequent massive write-off in value.

It has soon been forgotten that the original concept of FRES was a network-enabled system of vehicles that would engage the enemy at a distance. The new FRES does not meet those objectives. As I have pointed out on numerous occasions, in the kind of warfare that our troops are encountering now, the enemy is not at a distance and is often indistinguishable from the local population. The danger is all around them.

I imagine that the powers that be have noticed how many attacks occur either at a pinch point or near base, usually when a patrol is returning. I happen to agree with Robert Gates and believe that future conflicts in which the United Kingdom will be involved are likely to be similar to the present ones. I contend that UK troops will need considerably more of the type of vehicles of which we have 463, and perhaps considerably fewer of the others, if they are to be successful in future with minimum loss of life. I trust that the Minister will make an argument as to why the vehicles of which we have 2,349 are so numerous, when others are more suited to present day warfare. The case needs to be made by both the Government and the military. The morale of our troops is based to a great extent on having the right tools for the job, and at present the jury is well and truly out. The solution, which is staring us in the face, has not yet even been recognised.

The cost of the proposed 2,000 utility vehicles is £6 billion. It is time that someone in authority told us what the objective is for them to achieve, and in what type of conflict. Moreover, why are there only 463 of the vehicle type of which the first 108 Mastiffs have been hailed as an outstanding success?

Mr. Kevan Jones: I am listening carefully to what the hon. Lady is saying. Is it not the case that the commanders need a range of different vehicles? Anybody who has actually seen a Mastiff knows that it is quite a large beast that is perhaps not usable in some terrain in Afghanistan, for example. Commanders need a range of vehicles, including lightly armoured vehicles that, with the best will in the world, could not be armoured to a greater degree because the terrain that they cover means that they need to be quick. If they were armoured up, they might be unusable.

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Ann Winterton: The hon. Gentleman, who serves with distinction on the Select Committee on Defence, raises another old chestnut that is mentioned time and again. Of course there must be a range of vehicles. I thought that I was arguing that the range seems to be rather heavily biased on one side, and that there has not been strategic thinking by either the military or the Ministry of Defence about what may be required in future better to serve the interests of this country and our soldiers by preventing deaths in counter-insurgency operations.

What insurgents aim to achieve is to make us send home as many body bags as possible. Their main task is to defeat whom they would call the “invaders” and to make the “invader nation” withdraw its forces by having an impact on public opinion in its country, leaving them a better chance of taking over. As for the concept of vehicle design and construction, ask the drivers which vehicles they would prefer if they want to stay alive, not be crippled, and avoid being in a body bag and becoming yet another triumph for the insurgents to gloat about.

In order to defeat any insurgency, it is necessary to train the host country’s own military forces so that they can deal with the problem and protect their own people. That is happening successfully in Iraq and Afghanistan; their armies are doing a great job and allowing our forces gradually to be withdrawn. More often than not, the host country’s forces have the same vehicles as ours, and in some cases better ones. For example, Iraqi forces have a variant of the Cougar and armoured Humvees. The Afghani forces lag slightly behind, probably for good reasons; they use Toyota trucks. Such parity ensures that there is no feeling of inferiority and that the host country’s troops are on a par with the UK troops who are training them.

When we come to the Royal Air Force, I fear that the contrast is extreme and the situation nothing less than an unmitigated disaster. For Afghanistan to succeed after the withdrawal of UK and other troops, it must have sufficient air power. Yet can hon. Members see us training the Afghan air force to use the Eurofighter, an aircraft that was never designed for ground attack? We are using equipment that we have been landed with for the sake of using it and because the UK does not have anything more practical to use.

I have argued long and hard that in counter-insurgency situations, turboprop aircraft, which the host country’s pilots can be trained to use alongside our own pilots, are the most suitable aircraft. However, in a similar way to the arguments about vehicles, the powers that be compare single or double-prop aircraft with fast jets and do not consider the practical alternatives. Our pilots train on the Tucano, so what is wrong with a ground attack version?

Let me reinforce the point. Fast jets have to sit at suitable bases that are limited in number. It could take 20 to 30 minutes for them to get into the air and to reach the target, which they cannot see, given the speed they fly at, so they have to rely on a forward air controller. Obviously, they do not stay long over the conflict area. By way of contrast, a prop aircraft can loiter overhead giving surveillance cover, because it can see exactly what is happening on the ground. A prop aircraft can attack accurately within a minute or two and give genuine air cover. What an advantage that would have been over these last few years.

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Equally, reconnaissance operations should have their own aircraft, such as the Pilatus Porter PC-6, which can operate with the patrol being able to land and take off within very short distances indeed, acting as an evacuation carrier and a general supply vehicle. These aircraft should be operated by other ranks within the Army, and we should learn the lessons from other successful counter-insurgency forces such as the Rhodesians, whom I have referred to in the past and who were extremely successful.

There is a constant shortage of helicopters, yet the Merlin is a very good, if extremely expensive, helicopter. The RAF’s Mk 3 Merlins cost £19 million each, and the six Danish ones cost £29.3 million each and £34,000 an hour to run. I repeat that figure of £34,000 an hour to run to my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), who, judging by his expression, slightly doubted or queried what I said.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Not doubted, but queried.

Ann Winterton: Often, the attitude seems to be that the UK needs the best to cover every eventuality, and therefore the nation will cough up the funds for that. Once again, however, that is exactly the attitude to which Robert Gates referred and it is one of the reasons why we are so short of helicopters. Similarly, 12 Type 45 destroyers were ordered but only six are to be delivered, which is a direct consequence of high costs. The military are not living in the real world if they believe that they can have anything at any price, and that is one of the reasons why the UK is short of what it actually needs.

According to the Ministry of Defence, in February the serviceability of the Mk 3 Merlin was 50 per cent. against a target of 70 per cent., which was only beaten by the Navy Mk 1, the serviceability of which was 41 per cent. Similarly, the serviceability of the Sea King Mk 4/6 Navy version was 45 per cent. against a target of 65 per cent. I repeat: platforms are needed across the board for counter-insurgency that are simple, robust and will last in the long term. Yes, they must also carry the latest technology, but at the same time they must be as simple as possible to maintain. It is not practical to have overly complicated, highly technical platforms that require massive back-up to remain operational and are unsuitable for training the host nation’s forces. I sometimes think that the military have been seduced by the European Union agenda and the possibility of having gleaming, highly technical toys with which to fight a conventional all-out war.

I have not mentioned the Navy, Mr. Olner, because it is not a subject about which I have particular knowledge.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Afghanistan is a bit outside the reach of the Navy.

Ann Winterton: Yes, the Navy is outside Afghanistan, but I believe that it is worth mentioning en passant.

One must ask why we need the two aircraft carriers, including the accompanying aircraft, which will soak up so much of the budget. The only conclusion that I can arrive at is that they will pack a considerable punch and can act as a deterrent to prevent conflicts from breaking out and escalating into major warfare. However, the price seems to be very high in the reduction in the
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number of frigates and destroyers, and thereby in the UK’s ability to have a Navy presence around the world to guard our shipping routes. Should we not also be looking at the other end of the spectrum and procuring more inshore patrol craft?

I propose to finish by discussing two important subjects: finance and the benefit to the nation of a sound defence policy. Whichever party wins the next general election, some very large financial commitments have been made by this Government that will come into effect during the period from 2010 to 2015. If the military believe that they will get more money out of a Conservative Government, I think that they are deluding themselves. That extra money is not likely to be forthcoming, bearing it in mind that the country will probably be broke by then. I hasten to add that I speak, of course, as a Back Bencher and there may be those who disagree. However, I have always believed that it is best to face up to the worst-case scenario in order to plan for the future.

The mantra that our armed forces are underfunded is often repeated—indeed, there is some truth in it—but how the money for our forces is spent also needs to be challenged and I believe that it is a pertinent issue. I have pointed out in previous debates that the wastage in the defence budget has been enormous, mainly due to unclear or ulterior motives and objectives.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I have certainly been following closely what the hon. Lady has been saying. She seems to be making an important technical point about a lot of the equipment, and she is right to say that we should cut our cloth according to our means. Does she not think that an important feedback is that foreign policy should also be aware of the capability of our defence policy? If that were the case, we would not have walked away from Afghanistan too soon and moved on to Iraq without finishing the job that was to be done in Afghanistan, and without focusing our resources to see through the task that we had gone there to do.

Ann Winterton: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Of course foreign policy and defence policy must be intertwined at some stage; indeed, it is absolutely essential for the benefit of this country and for our ability to engage elsewhere in the world. I would add that it is very sad that it is the UK, the Canadians and others, including the Americans, who seem to play the major role in Afghanistan, while so many other countries within the European Union, for various reasons of their own, do not pull their weight. The time is fast coming when that balance will need to be changed.

If, as I believe is happening, we are funding “next war-itis”, present operations will either be starved of cash or denied the most suitable platforms in sufficient quantities at the time when they are most needed. I believe that the MOD is doing its best to learn from recent hard lessons, but it has not been much helped by certain factions within the military.

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