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We rely on our armed services for the defence of the nation and of the people of the UK, whom we as MPs have the honour and responsibility to represent in Parliament. In my view, it is highly unlikely that any force will directly attack our shores; instead, the threat to us now is far more subtle and difficult to counter. The enemy is within and around us, and we cannot
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always differentiate between friend and foe. As the Paras have tragically experienced recently, terrorism is the greatest evil and we have to be better prepared to defeat it, not least because the United Kingdom needs a stable world for trade, which is the lifeblood of our economic survival.

I share the belief of Robert Gates that the top military and political priority should be the success of COIN, or counter-insurgency, operations, to ensure that the breeding grounds of instability in the world, which are the greatest danger to our people, are neutralised. It is within that sector that British forces could excel and, indeed, are excelling against the odds. It is up to the military to explain where their priorities will lie in future, from a basis of the Government of the day giving clear directional leadership.

The United Kingdom is no longer a global power and, unlike the Americans, we cannot afford two armies—one for counter-insurgency and the other for conventional warfare involving large-scale manoeuvres. I believe that we should concentrate on undertaking counter-insurgency and similar operations exceptionally well, rather than diluting our efforts and resources. We should face facts and recognise that the United Kingdom can no longer fulfil all its aspirations as far as defence is concerned, and that stretched resources and manpower will limit what we can achieve in the future.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. Two Members are standing to speak. I advise Members that I intend to start the winding-up speeches at 11.55, to give the two Opposition spokesmen 10 minutes each and the Minister 15 minutes. Could Members govern their speeches by that?

11.30 am

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve in a second debate this morning under your chairmanship, Mr. Olner.

I am always wary of politicians becoming armchair generals. It is clear that the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) sits at home at night going through statistics and, obviously, gaining a vast knowledge about various pieces of kit and then moving them around some fancy battlefield on her kitchen table. From my experience of visiting Iraq five times and Afghanistan on three occasions, I do not think that what she said is realistic or reflects what is happening on the ground.

We need to look at what has happened during the past 20 years, or even the past seven years. The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and I were elected in June 2001. I do not think that most people at that time would have foreseen that, seven years later, Britain would be in both Afghanistan and Iraq. There has been rapid change. Of course, I agree with the hon. Lady in one respect: we have to get our military and the Ministry of Defence moving at a quicker tempo.

Change will come. We have certainly seen it in the vehicle types used in Iraq and Afghanistan, where we have moved away from the lightly armoured vehicles used in the early days. We have had to respond to
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counter-insurgency improvised explosive devices and enemies that—let us be honest—are not stupid or foolish. They are developing not just tactics to attack our forces but technology. We should not think that, just because people live in the caves of Tora Bora, they are not also using the latest technologies and techniques of counter-insurgency. An aspect to which we do not pay enough attention—the hon. Lady mentioned this—is the way in which our enemies use the media and the internet to get their message across.

The hon. Lady is right about some of the equipment failures in the early days. There were questions to be asked, but we have responded to what was happening. As she and the Minister know, I am not afraid to criticise the MOD when it gets things wrong. In the past few years, vehicles such as the Mastiff and other urgent operational requirements have been put into theatre quickly, and lessons could be learned from that for other procurement processes. When we actually need pieces of kit, we can get them into the field quickly—industry is up to the challenge—so why can we not do it on other occasions?

On the future rapid effect system, the hon. Lady and I are the two anoraks in Parliament. We have both been asking questions about the process. Frankly, it is a farce of a programme. It has gone on far too long, and it has been chopped and changed. As the hon. Lady knows, I have asked several questions, as she has, about FRES. The MOD may wonder why those two anoraks are asking all those questions, but, to be honest, there are issues not just about delivering kit to our armed forces but about value for money, which she rightly raised.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me about this. When looking at FRES, the Defence Committee learned that the military could not make up their minds about their requirements. They continuously changed their minds, and pressure was created because nobody had a clear indication of what was actually needed. The Defence Committee should take some of the credit for getting the military to look differently at how they were assessing their requirements.

Mr. Jones: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who serves on the Defence Committee with me. The hon. Member for Congleton mentioned in her speech something that we should do. There is a tendency for the Army and others to hide behind politicians, but the hon. Gentleman is correct that, in respect of some decisions, they are not clear about their requirements. Things get changed. Alongside that, there is Abbey Wood, which, frankly, grows ever more and employs more and more people to evaluate things down to the finest point possible.

Patrick Mercer: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. He knows my background. I cannot help but feel that regular soldiers, professional officers and so on are sometimes far too close to the problem, and that things become more obscure the more knowledgeable one is. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is up to Ministers to give the firm smack of leadership and insert the toe of their boot into regular Army, Navy and Air Force officers where they do not like having boots inserted? Make them do their job, and make sure that taxpayers’ money is properly spent and that MOD
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uniformed officers and civil servants are not able to slope their shoulders and avoid responsibility. Ministers must start making them do their job correctly.

Mr. Jones: I agree, but I have to tell the hon. Gentleman—he knows that I have a great deal of affection for him—that we cannot then have his Front-Bench team attacking Labour Ministers for not understanding the military, or somehow not being in tune with the military ethos. There is a military ethos, and there is expertise, which we have to take on board and listen to, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that sometimes we also have to turn around and say that tough decisions need to be taken.

What the hon. Member for Congleton said about the defence budget was very interesting. I am one who would argue for more money to be spent on defence, and I am sure that she would as well, but whether we like it or not, we cannot take funds from the budgets of the entire Government—defence competes with other things. I sometimes think that some of the present debate about more money for the military is taking place in a vacuum, in that people are not realising that money would be taken from the health service and everywhere else. Would the public necessarily agree with that? Added to that, as the hon. Member for Newark rightly said, there will be criticism if the money is not well spent.

I should like to concentrate on FRES for a minute. We have now had the trials of truth. I am not quite clear where we are at with FRES. Last year, I went with the Chairman of the Defence Committee to the trials of truth for the three vehicles. The hon. Member for Congleton made a good point about one of the three vehicles, the Piranha V. There is no such vehicle; it does not exist. I get different views from industry and various people from the MOD and military whom I speak to, but I suspect that the reason why it is being promoted is that the Army wants it. That is its preference. We have had a coming together of various interests. Clearly, the Army wants the Piranha V, because it thinks that it is the best vehicle, which is fair enough. The Treasury is also behind it, knowing that it can take the bow wave of that procurement into the future.

This is where I come on to the Mastiff and other vehicles. The hon. Member for Congleton raised an important point. When I attended the trials of truth, I asked Lord Drayson, who was then the Minister, how the vehicles fit into the FRES requirement.

Mr. Hancock: They do not.

Mr. Jones: I am sorry, but they do; they are apparently now part of the FRES family of vehicles. The original concept was about wonderful all-singing, all-dancing vehicles, but I am not clear what it is now. That is why I tabled several questions last week specifically about weight and other things to which the hon. Lady referred.

I do not know why the MOD does not on occasion just put up its hands and say, “Look, the old days of FRES are finished. We have had to respond to counter-insurgency problems in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have procured urgent operational requirements and vehicles that are doing a great job.” Why can we not say that we cannot afford the next phase of procurement for a few
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more years, or that perhaps we do not actually need it? That would be more honest than the nonsense that we keep getting.

There have been three or four in-service dates for FRES. I found the most recent information that I was given funny. I was told that the MOD does not give in-service dates, even though the answers to parliamentary questions that I received a few years ago actually gave such dates and even though General Jackson, when giving evidence to the Defence Committee, gave a date for FRES. I think that a little bit of honesty needs to be brought into this debate.

Ann Winterton: I agree. It would be much more honest to say that FRES is not what was intended, that it has come to an end and that we are going to change the name of the future requirements programme. Doing so would give a clear indication that the Government were going in the right direction.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. Although we are hearing from eminent hon. Members who are well established in respect of the armed forces and military equipment, for the sake of the record, can the hon. Gentleman say what FRES is?

Mr. Jones: It is the future rapid effect system, Mr. Olner. That is a good question. [Interruption.] Yes, it is a mystery.

I pay credit to urgent operational requirements, because although there has been a lot of criticism of kit, I think that the kit has been delivered now. I saw a Mastiff vehicle that had run over a mine in Basra last time that I was there and spoke to the lads that were inside it at the time. Clearly, it saved their lives. Not only is that vehicle repairable, but it is popular with the personnel using it. That is one solution.

In respect of counter-insurgency, commanders need a suite of different vehicles—sometimes the press do not quite grasp that—and some of those vehicles cannot be heavily armoured, because of the terrain that they are working in. If we are not careful, we will have a vehicle that is so heavily armoured that it will not be able to move. We must recognise that counter-insurgency warfare is a dangerous business.

In conclusion, the MOD has a good track record. I should like more urgent operational requirements, because that would provide better value for money and cut the long delays and the sense of frustration, not necessarily on the part of some of the generals, but on the part of some of the men and women who are being asked to do a difficult job in some difficult parts of the world.

11.42 am

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), whose friendship I hold in high esteem. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on her success in securing this important debate. Most of all, I pay tribute to yet another three soldiers, from the 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, who have been killed in action. It is fashionable in the Army for soldiers to denigrate each other’s regiments and the Parachute Regiment was always a great rival of my former battalion. However, 2 Para has been hit hard
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throughout the years, from the massacres at Warrenpoint in 1979, right through to these three latest deaths. I pay tribute to that hard-fighting and hard-hit battalion.

Hon. Members’ contributions have been fascinating. My hon. Friend made some good points and the hon. Gentleman retorted well. I shall concentrate my remarks on what Ministers do. I hope that, if and when the Conservative party gets into power, it will take on board the many good points of the current crop of Ministers, including how they handle themselves, and I hope that we will put further pressure on the senior officers and senior civil servants in the Ministry of Defence to make our armed forces more effective.

I am not making a party political point. I am saying that many of the senior thought-formers inside the MOD do not have a wartime mentality and do not understand the fact that, rightly or wrongly, we have chosen to go to war on two fronts, where we are taking and inflicting serious casualties and doing great work for democracy, freedom and for the subject peoples of at least two nations, but for which we are horribly under-resourced and in respect of which the thinking is wrong.

I should like to illustrate my remarks further. Hon. Members may not be aware that I am probably the world’s greatest living bore on the Crimean campaign, so much of which is applicable today. For instance, I refer hon. Members to a cartoon in The Illustrated London News, shortly after the battle of Inkerman in November 1854, in which a tattered private soldier of the line is talking to a threadbare guardsman. The guardsman is saying to the linesman, in respect of Sevastopol and Inkerman,

and the private soldier from the line says,

We have all heard about the kit nonsense in the Crimea: the clothing was not warm enough, left boots turned up—although there is a sensible explanation for that—bayonets broke and some regiments went to war with smooth-bore weapons rather than rifles, and so on. Surely, the lessons of history are there.

Surely, when my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and I, with the hon. Members for North Durham and for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), visited exercise Saif Sareea with the Defence Committee in 2001, we knew that some thoughtful individual in the Ministry of Defence was saying, “Let us have a dress rehearsal for what is about to happen. We don’t know what is about to happen, but we know these are going to be some of the most seminal, thought-forming experiences for the next decade or so.” It was great that we had Saif Sareea and great that the armed forces understood that operations in hot climates would occur and that they would probably be of a counter-insurgency nature. But why did we not learn the lessons? Why are the lessons not being applied?

In my last job in the Army, as a full colonel in the Army Training and Recruiting Agency, I asked in 1999, “What are the war plans for the expansion either of specialist trades inside the recruiting and training cycle or for wholesale recruiting?” The answer came back:
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“We are never going to fight that sort of war again. Indeed, it is unlikely that we are going to fight wars.” The thinking then was not properly formed, and we are suffering from that lack of understanding of warfare today.

I was flattered to be invited to visit RAF Waddington last week, but I was surprised that the seventh aircraft of the Sentry programme, a strategic piece of equipment applicable to conventional warfare through to counter-insurgency warfare—I do not patronise the Minister; I know that he understands that—which was damaged in a storm several months ago was not operational. That is to do with how the contracted repair, which is complex, has been organised. But surely this is battle-winning and war-winning strategic equipment. A little extra resource for that specific piece of equipment will get it flying again quickly. That is important.

I can go on talking about equipment disasters, such as Bowman. I can talk to the Minister about the difficulties of equipment, such as FRES. As long ago as when I was a young infantry officer, we were asking for 2-inch mortars and rifle-launched grenades, saying, “Whenever the next war comes upon us, we will need the equipment that our fathers and grandfathers used in Flanders and Anzio. It is the same kit; we need it.” Yet we did not have it. Now, six or seven years after the start of the conflicts that we are talking about, that kit is in service. I can produce a litany of nonsense in that vein.

When I visited my old battalion, the 1st Battalion the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment, which has now, for reasons best known to the Minister, been scrapped—

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: Merged.

Patrick Mercer: It was scrapped.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot and I visited them in Helmand, where they took nine men dead and 37 injured, they told us, “The kit’s good. It’s not perfect, but it’s good. Compared with what we had the last time we were in Afghanistan and compared with what we had when we were in Bosnia, this kit is really excellent.” Yes, there are anomalies and problems, but we are realistic about such things. For instance, in relation to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, those soldiers told us that the WIMK vehicle, the converted armoured Land Rover, was not perfect, but, by golly, they needed vehicles that they felt that they could get on and off quickly. While there were certainly more heavily armoured vehicles in the pipeline, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the vehicle mix was important, and commanders had to be flexible. Yes, they pointed out that the armour plates were inadequate. Yes, there was a lot of find and fix going on by the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, but they accepted that because they were professional soldiers. The bottom line was that, although they had difficulties, which they understood, equipment was good on the whole and much better than it had been.

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