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19 Jun 2008 : Column 1124

Mr. Ainsworth: We have to draw the review as broadly as possible. We must look at our whole spending programme, and look at it in the medium term, if we are to have good information that informs the next planning round. We want to draw those bounds as widely as possible and not exclude particular areas. That is not to say that any decisions have been taken that change our intentions towards Nimrod or towards any other programme.

While we carry out the examination, we remain committed to working with industry in line with the defence industrial strategy. We need clarity of purpose, an open working relationship with industry and to retain operational sovereignty where appropriate. We are well aware that over the past few months the uncertainty about our future equipment programme has been unsettling. The equipment examination is designed to give us the clarity we need to move forward with industry, confident that we are heading in the right direction.

There is no better example of how that relationship with industry can work successfully in practice than the naval sector. The maritime industrial strategy has allowed some very effective joint work between the Ministry of Defence and the UK shipbuilding industry, such as the alliance approach being used in the surface-ship support projects. That approach gives industry visibility of future workloads and allows it to plan ahead and adapt its capabilities to meet our requirements. It delivers value for money for defence, and at the same time it helps to ensure that we have a sustainable skills base in our country.

The most recent contract that we awarded was a £9 million contract to Babcock Marine for the standard support period for HMS Monmouth. It will deliver a number of important enhancements to the ship, including an upgrade of her torpedo defence system. There has been a sustained period of investment by the MOD in the UK shipbuilding industry, amounting to £14 billion over the next 10 to 15 years. The recent announcement about the carriers was only the latest in a series of significant naval procurements. We are also bringing into service new Astute submarines, a class of submarine to provide for the future nuclear deterrent, and we are scoping the next generation of surface combatants.

The future of our Navy, and of our naval industrial base, remains secure. But in reality, we do not have unlimited resources. We have to prioritise a range of competing requirements, focusing on the balance between current operations and future capability. That is why I can confirm that we have taken a decision not to take the option to order the seventh and eighth Type 45 destroyer.

The six destroyers that are already on contract will provide a formidable capability. Those ships will be far more capable than we first envisaged, helping to mitigate any shortfall in overall capability. To take one example, their air defence system includes a multi-function radar that is able to track multiple targets and direct high-velocity and exceptionally agile missiles at speeds of up to mach 4. Such technological advances mean that the Type 45 will play a key part in the future force protection package for our high-value ships, such as the carriers.

It has been a difficult decision, but to ensure our future naval capability and maintain the tempo of work for industry, we are bringing forward the future surface combatant programme, which is the long-term replacement
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programme for the Type 22 and Type 23 frigates. That decision will result in a steady rhythm of building in our yards—from the six Type 45s, through the future carrier programme and into the surface combatant programme.

Mark Pritchard: Although I agree with the Minister that the new Type 45s’ capabilities have been increased, they cannot be in two places at the same time. Given that we face an increased global threat, is he confident that we will have enough ships to do the job?

Mr. Ainsworth: I understand that point, but we have to tailor our resources to the neediest area. I am assured that we have sufficient capability to protect the carrier task force with the Type 45s and other assets. The issue is effectively about defence in depth in respect of deployments and the other available assets. Therefore, the Navy will continue to have the worldwide reach that it will need to project force in different parts of the world—wherever our requirements lead us.

One area where our procurement effort is already heavily shaped by current operations is protected patrol vehicles, whose importance has been brought home to us so tragically today. Through the urgent operational requirement process, we have spent more than £500 million on protected mobility since current operations began. That programme of upgrades has allowed us to ensure that our patrol vehicle package has kept pace with the rapidly evolving threat in both theatres. Our efforts have also been guided by the need to provide commanders with a range of vehicles with complementary capabilities. Commanders on operations face a variety of tasks—from combat to engagement with the local population—in a range of challenging environments, from urban areas, through lush vegetation to open desert and mountains. They need a range of vehicles in order to carry out those tasks effectively.

The new Jackal vehicles were procured under the UOR with the Afghan theatre specifically in mind. Those agile off-road vehicles are able to range effectively over the difficult terrain of southern Afghanistan, and they allow us to engage better with Taliban forces. They emphasise agility over protection; they could not fulfil their role otherwise. However, they complement other vehicles, such as the Mastiffs that we have already deployed, which are heavily armoured but less mobile.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I entirely take the point about a mix of vehicles being necessary for protection, accessibility and flexibility for the commander. The fact remains that I was involved in the procurement programme for Snatch some 15 or 16 years ago, and those vehicles were almost over-matched by the relatively benign circumstances of patrolling on asphalt in Northern Ireland. They are entirely unsuitable for operations in Afghanistan. They are there because they are all that the military—the Army, in particular—have got. I understand that this is a difficult equation, but could the Minister assure us that Snatch will be taken from service in Iraq and Afghanistan as soon as is humanly possible?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman has a great knowledge of military needs and capability and says that he has been involved with Snatch as a capability for a long time. We are seeking all the time to extend the
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range of vehicles that are available. That is why we announced the new Ridgback—a large, medium-protected vehicle—which we will bring into service as soon as possible. Whether we will be able to take away these small platforms without taking away a whole area of capability will need to be thought about very seriously. Snatch has suffered some considerable setbacks; we have lost lives in Snatch Land Rovers. However, I am being told by commanders on the ground that they still need Land Rover-based platforms—weapons-mounted installation kit, or WMIC, and Snatch—and will do for the foreseeable future. Ridgback will not entirely do that job, because it will not be able to get into the narrow, compounded urban areas in Helmand province, however much we would like it to.

Patrick Mercer: I was recently out in Afghanistan with my old regiment, 1st Battalion the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters—which the Government have chosen for some reason to rename—and people were cursing the Snatch Land Rover as wholly inadequate for those circumstances. I completely take the point about WMIC. Can we not therefore have more WMICs or WMIC variants but get rid of this wretchedly inadequate vehicle, which is a death trap to so many men and women?

Mr. Ainsworth: I listen to the same people to whom the hon. Gentleman listens—although I do not have the same personal relationships going back over time and perhaps am therefore not able to have the depth of conversation that he is able to have—so I am aware of some of the opinions about Snatch. However, I have to take military advice. If we were to try to take such decisions in this House rather than leaving them to people on operations trying to do the very arduous job that we have given them to do, that would be the wrong approach. I have to listen to that military advice, and I am sure that he accepts that in principle.

Mike Penning: As someone who was on operations many years ago—many years before my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer)—I would say that when people are on ops they will go with what they are given. The soldiers will do what they are told. Operational commanders in the field will use Snatch because that is all they have for that purpose, and that is costing lives. We should listen to what is happening on the ground—not so much from commanders but from servicemen and women, who are losing their lives because of Snatch, and their loved ones. They will use what they are given; take it away, and they will not use it.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman appears to be saying that there is no basis for a small, enclosed Land Rover-based capability and, in effect, that we will not be able to take vehicles into these kinds of enclosed spaces. We have continually to keep this under review. Mastiff cannot be taken everywhere. I saw that first-hand last time I was out in Afghanistan. I managed to get right out on to the front line to forward operating base Edinburgh and the district centre in Musa Qala, but I was not able to go into the town because the Mastiff vehicles that we were travelling in would have ripped up the roadways and presented a profile that was not in line with the message that we were trying to send to the local
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population at that time. However, our personnel have to be able to operate in the town and to engage with those people.

Mr. Kevan Jones: The conclusion to be drawn from the recent interventions is that my right hon. Friend should ignore what senior commanders say about day-to-day operations and listen to people on the ground. I have some sympathy with that, but I am sure that it would be opposed elsewhere. I have seen Mastiff work in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and it is a great vehicle, but does he agree that there will be situations in both places where people will not be able to have a vehicle that is completely, 100 per cent. survival-proof, because of the weight situation?

Mr. Ainsworth: There is only so much protection that can be built in given the weight ratio. The problem that we have is how to get that capability across the ground, and the only way that I know of is to take the military advice.

Mike Penning: I think that the Minister slightly misunderstood my point, so I will try again. In the 1970s, when I served in Northern Ireland, we had the Land Rover and bolted some protection on to it, and we lost lives. The MOD saw sense, and after a procurement programme we brought in Snatch. It was designed only for Northern Ireland, not for anywhere else. It was certainly not designed for what we are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq, so we need a vehicle that is designed for that. I accept his point that we need mobile vehicles within town structures, but not Snatch. It was not designed for this situation, and the Minister knows it. We must listen to what is happening on the ground, not to the so-called procurement experts in the MOD.

Mr. Ainsworth: We are not listening exclusively to the procurement experts in the MOD. We are listening to commanders on operations—the people who have to do the job that we have given them to do. Snatch was upgraded and refurbished in 2006. I am not decrying the Mastiff, which is a great vehicle. People who have suffered attacks while inside it have a huge amount of confidence in its capability. However, any level of armour can be overcome, potentially including the Mastiff’s, and Mastiff cannot go to certain places or do certain things. The hon. Gentleman is saying that we do not have vehicles designed for Afghanistan, but Mastiff was designed and procured specifically with Afghanistan in mind. Ridgback will be more capable than Mastiff—smaller and able to go to places that Mastiff cannot—but it will be considerably larger than a Land Rover-based vehicle.

Patrick Mercer: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. He is talking a great deal of common sense. There is absolutely no doubt that the sort of improvised explosive devices being deployed in these theatres will take out a tank, if that is what we choose to use. We cannot avoid that. Not wishing to teach the Minister to suck eggs, however, I should say that we had exactly that problem in the southern part of the county of Armagh in Northern Ireland for more than 30 years. Large IEDs were initially used against vehicles such as Saracen and Saladin, and were killing relatively large
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numbers of soldiers who were packed inside those vehicles. Our solution? We ceased to patrol on wheels or on tracks. We patrolled by helicopter or, more to the point, on good old Shanks’s pony. May I suggest to the Minister that there is a solution to this problem, albeit not a complete one? We need more troops and more aircraft.

Mr. Ainsworth: I know that the hon. Gentleman speaks a lot of common sense as well, and there are circumstances where foot patrols are not only far more effective for the job that we want to do, but far safer because of the situational awareness that people have when they are on foot patrol.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the Minister agree that the decisions outlined by the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) are for commanders on the ground, not politicians sat in the comfort of this Chamber? If my right hon. Friend or any other Minister in the Ministry of Defence were to intercede in these matters, would not Opposition Members be the first to criticise him?

Mr. Ainsworth: Fundamentally, I agree with my hon. Friend, and I have said that, but we cannot refuse to allow a debate to take place in this Chamber on such an important matter. There are Members here today with expertise that they are able to bring to bear on these important issues.

We provide commanders on the ground with a range of vehicles, which allows them to select the platform most suited to the immediate task in hand. The threat that we face on current operations is constantly evolving and we continue to keep our protected mobility requirements under review. That is why the Prime Minister announced in December that we will be procuring a new vehicle type, to be known as Ridgback, to provide 150 medium-protected patrol vehicles, which are lighter and able to access more areas than the Mastiff, but still with high levels of protection to continue to give commanders the choice of vehicles that they need.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): We have discussed at great length armoured vehicles and patrols. Are there any vehicles being used by our allies that would give our forces a better alternative and more protection, or are the vehicles we have the best we can manage, and the best in the world for the task they undertake?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend asks an important question. Through the urgent operational requirements process, we look not just at what we use and what we produce in this country, but at what is available throughout the world. The Ridgback is an up-armour of an American vehicle, doing precisely the sort of thing that my hon. Friend asks about. It is considered the best. Its potential is at the level of that of the Mastiff, but its capability, in terms of where it can get to, will be greater because of its smaller size.

Looking forward, the future rapid effect system programme will, in the words of General Dannatt,

The provisional selection of the Piranha 5 as the preferred design for the FRES utility vehicle is an important milestone and demonstrates our continued commitment to the FRES programme. The programme will deliver a
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fleet of medium vehicles capable of operating across a range of need. We will ensure that FRES variants are protected against the most likely threats, including mine blasts. That protection will be built into the requirement for the vehicle. The FRES programme will deliver a fleet of vehicles able to go to more places via more varied routes, and to fulfil a greater number of tasks than any protected vehicle currently in our inventory. It will be a truly versatile tool in a commander’s armoury. Let there be no doubt: FRES will have relevance to current operations.

We have increased the level of helicopter support that we provide to commanders on operations. Helicopters are, as was said, a key part of the force package, and essential for our forces’ in-theatre mobility. That is why, since March last year, we have increased the number of helicopter flying hours we provide in Afghanistan by more than 33 per cent., including increases in Chinook and Apache hours. That uplift has not just been achieved through an increase in the number of helicopters we have deployed. In some fleets, we have achieved the uplift in hours without an increase in the number of helicopters. By driving through efficiencies in our logistics support, capability is made up as much by the people who crew and maintain the platforms and the logistics chain, as it is by the platforms themselves.

I saw that myself during a recent visit to RAF Odiham, the home of the Chinook force. Chinooks are a proven battle-winning capability and have been heavily committed on operations for the past seven years. The men and women of the Chinook force are working as hard as anyone in the military to support our current operations. I was enormously impressed by the dedication of all the people I met, from the pilots who crew the helicopters to those who maintain and support them.

Working with Boeing and the integrated project team in Bristol, the Chinook force has totally transformed maintenance support. In the past three years, it has reduced the time that a Chinook spends in deep maintenance by 45 per cent. and the time for smaller repairs by 59 per cent., through a combination of improvements in working practice and operating with Boeing as closely as possible. Above all, it has kept a relentless focus on what is really important—in this case, the flying hours that we provide to commanders in Afghanistan. That is how it has given us a 33 per cent. increase in Chinook flying hours in the past three years.

That is the future for defence procurement and equipment support—a combination of innovation, focus on results and dedication to team working, hand in hand with our partners in industry. That is the only way in which we can make the improvement that we need in supporting the front line while delivering the best possible value for the taxpayer.

We hear a lot about the failings of defence procurement. With good reason, people home in on our shortcomings; effective public accountability demands exactly that. But let the whole House realise that many real gains are being made. The application of new methods and improved systems have allowed us to improve significantly the equipment that we provide to our troops on the front line. It is our people, often working in very difficult conditions, who must take the credit for those improvements. I hope that the whole House will join me in saluting their efforts.

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2.26 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): The tragic deaths of nine British servicemen and women in the past few days should serve to remind us of the critical importance of this, our annual review of the equipment programme for our armed forces. At the outset, I join the Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Sarah Bryant of the Intelligence Corps and to Corporal Sean Reeve, Lance Corporal Richard Larkin and Paul Stout for their sacrifice for our country. We remember today all those who have given their lives in the current conflicts, and we salute their comrades-in-arms, who, despite the loss of close friends and colleagues, do not flinch from continuing to take the fight to the enemy.

Today we are all greatly indebted also to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) and his colleagues on the Select Committee on Defence for their valuable contribution in their most recent report on defence equipment. I was privileged to be a member of the Committee, which manages on a cross-party basis to serve its purpose of finding out what is going on and reporting it to the House. It provides us with expert and considered advice, which is appreciated.

Last week in Westminster Hall we had a preliminary discussion, most ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton). As the Minister knows, she has made armoured vehicles her specialist subject. She would have liked to participate today, but she is on parliamentary duties in Westminster Hall as a member of the Chairmen’s Panel and therefore cannot be with us.

Although reference has been made to individual programmes, the whole issue of defence equipment procurement, including the process of acquisition itself, needs to be covered. Clearly, our immediate concern must be to ensure that we provide those on the front line in Afghanistan and Iraq with the kit that they need to fight today’s war. However, the task does not end there, nor can it. With the certainties of the cold war gone, we find ourselves in a much more complex world in which it is much harder to predict where conflicts will arise.

In my view—as the Minister knows, I expressed it last week in the Westminster Hall debate—it would be a foolish politician who chose to concentrate solely on the here and now and to close his eyes to threats that could arise in the future. We must remember that it is capabilities that count, not intentions. Intentions can change overnight, but capabilities, as we know to our cost, take time to be changed.

It is in that context that we should view, with concern, the Government’s relentless run-down of the Royal Navy’s surface fleet, from 35 to 22, and falling. In its report, the Defence Committee questioned

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