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I am very anxious about the issue of helicopters, which is frequently raised in the House. I was alarmed to see some projected figures that were elicited by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) for the helicopter fleet that the MOD anticipates sustaining every year from now until 2020. If one looks forward five years to 2013, it is expected that 50 per cent. of our already reduced and undersized helicopter fleet will have gone out of service. By 2020, there will have been a
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60 per cent. reduction in the number of helicopters, even if the future Lynx programme comes about as anticipated according to the time scale.

We have to do everything we can to ensure that our troops are equipped with an adequate number of helicopters. Almost whatever the outcome of a strategic defence review, and the decisions that it might make about the size and shape of the Army, Air Force and Navy that we will need in the future, we can predict with certainty that we will need helicopters. They are fundamental to our success, not only in current operations, but in the long-term future. The number of helicopters that we can get into theatre is critical, as is their operational effectiveness in hot and high conditions, such as those in Afghanistan. In that country, it is clear that, given the increasing threat from roadside improvised explosive devices, we have to think afresh about the safe movement of our forces as they do their work. I welcome all that has been said about the new protective vehicles, but the quickest and safest way to travel is by air. New helicopters have many capabilities that old ones did not, but however highly equipped they are, they do not come with the ability to be in two places at once. Foremost among all the procurement headaches with which the new ministerial team will have to grapple will be ensuring an adequate number of helicopters in the future.

Battlefield helicopters provide the agility and comparative security that we must have. We need a mix, a balanced force of helicopters, some for large lift operations and some that are small and agile, and can move effectively around operating areas. In summary, we simply need more helicopters.

Mr. Arbuthnot: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the number of helicopters that our armed forces will have in the future, but I am concerned by his remarks about moving everybody around by air. As General Petraeus said last week, in order to persuade the hearts and minds of people in Afghanistan and Iraq, we need a presence permanently on the ground, with soldiers from different forces living among the populations they are trying to help to move towards their own governance.

Nick Harvey: The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I am not suggesting abandoning completely movements on the ground or the broader role on the ground that he describes. I welcome the new vehicles that are going out and anticipate that there will probably need to be more in the future, but as part of the overall mix we need more helicopters. We need the best equipped and protected helicopters. We need to ensure that they are of the highest possible standard. We need to meet new crashworthiness requirements and we need a balanced mix. Above all, we need those helicopters quickly. Looking forward to 2013 and 2020, decisions will need to be made very soon if we are not to have a situation in the future that is even worse than the situation now.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) made some points about communications. He was right to touch on some of the difficulties arising from some of the statements that have been reported about the situation in Afghanistan. Attention is increasingly turning to Afghanistan as our role diminishes in Iraq.

As the hon. Gentleman said, in the past week or two we have heard two interesting contributions from very well-placed people, one of whom was the most senior
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British commander in Afghanistan in recent months, who made the comments as he finished his time there. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that the British commander was not really saying anything very new, anything very different or anything particularly shocking. However, the way that his comments have been written up in the media is bound to confuse members of the public, who, regrettably, have not bought into what we are doing in Afghanistan as I would have liked them to do. That will not have been assisted in any way by those reports.

Similarly, the British ambassador in Kabul seems to have made some very interesting observations. Whether he had anticipated their being quite so widely circulated, I am not sure, but he has made some interesting observations about the difference between our approach and that of the Americans. In particular, I am thinking of the American actions within Pakistan’s border regions, which are clearly causing a great deal of trouble in Pakistan and, probably, a fair few headaches in Afghanistan, too.

Again, the Government have a real challenge on their hands. They must come out and explain afresh what we are doing in Afghanistan and clarify some of the confusions that will have grown up in the public mind. I say that in the knowledge that marines from the west country, including 1,000 or so from Chivenor in my constituency, have gone out to Afghanistan, taking over from the Paras. I worry about what their families understand to be the purpose, the challenge and the state of what we are doing in Afghanistan in the light of the reports that they must be reading in their newspapers. We wish them well, but I believe that the Government need to restate the case for what we are doing out there. I fear that we need to hear what exactly the British view of the new American strategy is. We need to join up defence and reconstruction, as has been said, to ensure that we can create a long-term picture of a viable state able to survive on its own.

The biggest problem for the new ministerial team remains that of overstretch. We could begin to address that if we were to get out of Iraq entirely. The sooner we do that, the sooner the team will be able to make any meaningful headway in tackling overstretch.

Finally, I pay tribute to all those in the armed forces at home and abroad, to those who have come back from their tour of duty and to those who are preparing to go, and to all who train, support and equip them. It is vital that they understand that in this House everybody very much appreciates what they are doing. There is a duty on us all to try to explain to the public what the troops are doing and to ensure that they succeed in these very necessary tasks, which they are carrying out in our national interests.

3.49 pm

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab): I start by welcoming the new Front-Bench team. I have known the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), for a long time in the House. He has great knowledge of foreign affairs and defence, which will stand him in great stead as he faces up to the difficult task before him. I am sure that hon. Members will give him our full support.


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I have probably known the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), for longer than any Member of this House—with the exception of the Chief Whip. We know what he is really like. His first deployment in my constituency involved homeland security in Newcastle upon Tyne, North, where he had to secure a bridgehead against an internal enemy at the time. He secured the bridgehead very effectively with great steadfastness under enemy fire, which will stand him in great stead in carrying out his tasks in his new post. We all welcome him to the Front Bench.

The subject of today’s debate is defence in the UK. The global world in which we now live is not new in terms of defence, because international inter-linkages have existed for hundreds of years. To consider defence in one’s own country, one must consider the impact of foreign policy and defence policy on a much wider scale throughout the world, and we must assess how well equipped we are to defend our own nation in that context.

I was involved in drawing up the final stages of the strategic defence review in 1998. When I refreshed my memory of what we put to the House and the country at the time, I found that paragraph 2 included a telling sentence:

We crowed a little bit in saying that “the review is radical”—all Governments say that—but it was radical. When that report was drawn up, we assumed that America was strong economically and a leader in foreign policy, that Russia was a weakened nation which had not rebuilt itself after the break-up of the Soviet Union and that China was relatively isolationist and very much concerned with its own internal affairs and economic development. None of us could assess India, although we knew about its economic failures over a number of decades, which began to turn around at the end of the 20th century. We used those assumptions in considering the strategic defence review.

I wonder how many of those assumptions are now valid. There has been the further development of the international terrorism of the early 21st century, but how many of those criteria still apply? Is Russia still weakened and passive in its approach to international affairs? Is China still looking internally? Is it still establishing economic power, or has it established significant economic power? Is India establishing itself as a main player in both economic terms and foreign policy terms? Is America as economically strong and influential in foreign affairs as it was then? If those assumptions do not hold, we need to look again at how our foreign policy affects the world, and how we draw up our defence strategy.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I agree that the questions that the hon. Gentleman poses are extremely important. I would add that we do not yet know what the consequences will be of what is happening in the global financial markets, and what it will mean to the real economies of countries across the world. Those consequences will affect our consideration of the issue. My recollection is that the strategic defence review was seen by many outside commentators largely as an endorsement of the policy that was inherited. Perhaps
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he might confirm that the strategic defence review took £500 million a year out of the defence budget—and that figure would have been £1 billion a year, had not the then Chief of the Defence Staff remonstrated with the Prime Minister.

Mr. Henderson: I understand why the hon. Gentleman wants to get involved in party political points, but I have no intention of engaging in party political bickering on this issue. One could look at the Conservative Government’s expenditure patterns up until 1997, but I do not want to go into that. There are much bigger issues facing the nation and the defence estate than minor differences of view among the political parties. It is the bigger issues that we have to address if we are to have a secure nation in future, and are to get our foreign and defence policy right.

Mark Pritchard: The hon. Gentleman mentions Russia; is he aware of comments made by President Medvedev in the past 48 hours suggesting that Russia should be part of some new security pact with Europe? Does he share my concern that that would destabilise the Euro-Atlantic alliance and the NATO alliance, which, albeit imperfectly, has ensured peace in Europe and further afield for many years? Does he agree that we should continue to support NATO and try to reform it from within, and that there can be no moral equivalence between the Administrations in Washington DC and in Moscow as long as Moscow continues to stamp out democracy, freedom of speech and religion, and the independence of the judiciary?

Mr. Henderson: I do not quite take the same view as the hon. Gentleman. I do not know how much of my speech I will get through in my 15 minutes, but the view that the American Government took in the middle east was, “We can establish western democracy, over a period, in the middle east, and then these guys will know how to play the game; they’ll be on our side and everything will be stable.” America argued that that should be the case in Russia, but what it predicted did not take place. If that argument were successful, the logic would be that the Russians should be part of the NATO pact. That is the ultimate logic of that foreign policy doctrine. We—and the hon. Gentleman—need to be clear in our mind whether we agree with that doctrine. He needs to be clear whether he accepts my view that there is a logical conclusion to the argument. If he does not accept that, and he thinks that Russia will always be on the other side, and therefore not linked up with our interests, other aspects of defence policy will need to be considered. I want to come back to that point later in my speech, assuming that I have enough time.

I shall have to speed up a bit to try to make my points. The question is whether one believes that the world has changed. I think that there is a need for another review of defence policy; the main thrust of that work should be done after the next general election, but in the interim, all of us have to do a bit of thinking on the subject. I completely agree with the view expressed by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), on that point. I am sure that many other colleagues, on both sides of the Chamber, see the need for such a review.

Let me set out some of the issues that arise from the changing international picture. Have we got the emphasis right when it comes to counter-terrorism? Should counter-terrorism be the main thrust of British defence and
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foreign policy? It is clearly a very important issue, and we must counter terrorism wherever we can, in whatever way is most effective, both militarily and in the civil sphere; civil action is needed too, as I think is widely recognised. However, is that the main issue? In 10 or 20 years, will that be the main priority for the nation? That question has to be examined, whatever our view. My view is that the world has changed, that new power groups are emerging and that an assessment of the impact of those groups must be a key part of British foreign and defence policy.

The second question that I want to address relates back to the point made by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) about NATO policy in relation to Russia. The Cheney doctrine, which was adopted in the middle east, could never be successful—in a sense, it was the absence of a doctrine after the end of the cold war. The doctrine during the cold war was that we had to have sufficient political and military power to make sure that potential enemies did not do anything stupid and that they recognised that. There had to be a balance of power to achieve that. That doctrine achieved relative stability for 30 or 40 years after the end of the second world war.

After the fall of communism and the end of the cold war, what was the doctrine? What was NATO’s purpose? A lot of us were asking that question, but we never successfully addressed it. That is why when there was a proliferation of terrorist attacks in different parts of the world over a period of 10 years, culminating in the attacks in New York and followed through by the attacks in Spain, Britain and elsewhere, we said that we must focus on countering those atrocities, but forgot about the doctrine of foreign policy and defence policy beyond that. We must return to those now, as we again see the emergence of major power blocks. That is a key issue.

We cannot persuade Russia, the middle east, the Indian subcontinent, China or other Asian countries to be like western Europe or north America. What can we persuade them to do? We can persuade them to co-exist, and it is in everybody’s interest that that stability is re-established. That should be the central part of our foreign policy; it follows that defence policy must reinforce that. I may be wrong on the issue. Some say that my view is over-pessimistic. However, I do not believe that in 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years’ time, China, Russia and the Indian subcontinent will look anything like what Marxists used to call “bourgeois democracy” in western Europe and north America. The danger is that those countries will end up in the hands of aggressive dictators; it is also possible that they will divide into different groupings. Our policies must be capable of dealing with that issue.

Are our current alliances appropriate to deal with those threats? Any review needs to consider these different issues. I am absolutely clear that NATO needs to move forward and change to adapt to new circumstances, but it has to be the cornerstone of British, European and north American defence. However, I also think that the European Union will play an ever-increasing role. I know that there are differences of view in the House about this, but I am thinking from a military point of view.

As a member of the Defence Committee of the European Security and Defence Assembly, also known as the Western European Union, I frequently meet
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military commanders. It is amazing—even military commanders who are broadly hostile to the European Union want more linkage with their colleagues and the organisations in Europe with which they associate. The EU needs a better defined defence policy and to work more closely with NATO. NATO and the EU need to know how they can get the best out of their strengths and eliminate their weaknesses. That has to be the core of the structure of future political organisation to counter the other power groups emerging in the world. NATO member countries must, under article 5, come to the assistance of another member country that is under threat, but the European Union does not have that provision—at least constitutionally, although it does have it implicitly in many other ways. That is inconsistent, and the extent to which the EU provides such cover needs to be clarified over the period ahead. If we all have the same values, we should have the same protection.

Then we need to consider the more practical questions as to whether we are properly equipped to face this situation. Intelligence—the foundation of successful military operations—is one of the key areas where there will be a need for a wide debate. There has recently been a move away from our intelligence services being focused on knowing what opponents—or enemies in the cold war era—are up to towards what terrorist organisations are up to. The ultimate conclusion must be that we need more resources and expenditure to defend the nation, and we might well end up in that position in the years ahead. The key issue is the need to decide on the allocation and direction of our intelligence forces.

We need to re-examine our sea power, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), as well as our air power. We need to think about our lift. Is it realistic for each country within Europe to have its own lift? Are we to be dependent on private sector contractors from Ukraine in that respect, and if so for how long? What are the implications of any changes in the relationship between Russia and the UK? What about our ground troops capability? We have already heard about the dilemma between air cover from helicopters and forward movements on the ground where local populations are closer.

Then there is the role of nuclear weapons. I support the modernisation of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, which must be considered in this context as well.

Let me conclude with two points. First, I am a rapporteur at the ESDA on the question of how European operations should be headquartered, where there is a need for less duplication. Secondly, we need to examine the whole issue of aircraft carriers, including cover in the air and frigate defence. Can France and Britain continue to try to provide everything? Can some of the other countries in Europe help to contribute to the European capability? How does that link into the United States, where it is a NATO operation?

The new Front Benchers will be very busy dealing with day-to-day matters, but I hope that they will have a little time to reflect on some of the issues that I have mentioned. I agree that after the next general election there will inevitably be a defence review. Given the consensus in the House on that, progress should be made.


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