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Since the Minister’s party came to power, about a fifth of the whole operational side of the Royal Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service’s total fleet has been cut. Furthermore, frigate and destroyer numbers have fallen from 35 to 25, which is way below what the strategic defence review said was the minimum requirement to carry out the standing tasks of the Royal Navy, and the number is due to fall to 23. The number of attack submarines has been cut from 12 to eight, and will fall to seven. That is a really catastrophic situation for a maritime power—an island—that is dependent on keeping
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the sea lanes open. If we faced a terrible difficulty, we would have to be able to secure our sea lanes, but the truth is that we could not secure anything. We are now a very minor sea power with some wonderful people and very good but very small ships. We also have some terrible gaps. There is a serious problem.

We have done what we have done throughout so much of our procurement—we have bought equipment that still lives in the cold war era. The Daring class radars are some of the most sophisticated and powerful in the world; they can enable a golf ball to be shot down at 700 miles or something. That is terribly useful, but it will not be necessary. We need many smaller ships capable of dealing with such events as the pirate operations in the lower gulf. There is no point in sending a Daring class destroyer to deal with Somali pirates—we could blow them out of the water with a .50 Browning. We would not need a fully gunned-up warship. The Danes have a good range of ships, which are much smaller and lightly armed. They carry good weapons and small crews and can operate pretty much anywhere in the world. We need such ships for the next generation of warfare.

We really need three or four HMS Oceans, and, if necessary, a bigger HMS Ocean to carry a short take-off/vertical landing version of whatever aeroplane is involved. We do not need enormous carriers. There is no point in having only two carriers; there have to be three if there is to be proper rotation. They will be a terrible drain on the existing surface vessels of the fleet, and we do not have enough submarines to protect them. The whole thing is geared towards a cold war concept, but all the planners will tell the Minister that, as he knows, the concept of warfare for the next 20 years will be very different from anything that went before.

We are going back to the arguments about the tank and the horse, when the British Army had to be persuaded that, sadly, the day of the horse in battle had gone and that it had to be replaced by the tank and armoured car. We are at that sort of moment now, and we are building a lot of the wrong kit. That is why the future rapid effects system, or FRES, order is so important; it contains all the things required to enable soldiers to operate in a more forward way, using all the relevant communications. However, my right hon. Friend is completely right: one has almost given up on FRES ever appearing.

Mr. Hoyle: I agree with a lot of what the hon. Gentleman has said, but now he seems to be arguing that we should go back to the horse rather than go forward with the tank. We do need big carriers because we need floating platforms. Even in Sierra Leone, we would need a platform to operate from. Carriers are useful, and we do not know what will be needed around the world. I would have thought that he would support modernisation, rather than going back to the horse.

Mr. Soames: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I know that I am not a very good speaker, but I have been doing my best to say that we need carriers, although not of the size that have been ordered. We need carriers such as HMS Ocean; if he has not seen it, I strongly recommend that he has a look. It is a very impressive operation. It can carry helicopters and commandoes; HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion, the commando carriers, are fantastic ships. We do not need to build monstrous leviathans in an age when we need to be light, agile and flexible.

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Actually, I am a horse—I am so in favour of them that I would certainly have been on the wrong side of the argument in 1939. However, the fact is that the cold war and the age of set-piece battles with nations have long gone. Of course we need to retain the ability to prosecute such a war, but in our own way. It is terrible to say, but we have to acknowledge that we are no longer a first-rate military power. We have one of the best armies in the world. The men and women of our armed forces are the benchmark by which, by and large, all other armed forces judge their people. Our equipment, however, is most definitely not such a benchmark.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is very knowledgeable; we always listen to what he says. Basically, he is saying that we need smaller carriers than the large ones that we are going to buy because he wants money to be moved elsewhere. However, how much money does he seriously think would be saved if we cut the size of the carriers? It is not their size that brings the cost, but the kit that goes into them, their capability and what flies off them. His proposal for smaller carriers would surely not release funding for spending elsewhere.

Mr. Soames: I am in the fortunate position of not being party to the sums, which is a great thing when one is speaking about defence. None of my argument in respect of the carriers is about saving money; it is about having the right kit. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) raises a fundamental point. In defence now, we have to do the right thing. If the uniforms in Chorley are not the right ones for the Army to buy, we must say, “Even though we all love the hon. Gentleman with a passion and think that he has a spiffing constituency and they are jolly good people who make the kit, we are going to give the contract to someone else—very sorry.” We need to make a whole lot of those decisions, which will be very uncomfortable for whoever comes into power.

Mr. Ellwood: My hon. Friend compares HMS Ocean with the aircraft carriers. Does he agree that our operations will not be in a cold war scenario, although that could come back, or necessarily in a modern-day counter-insurgency, but that whatever scenario we face, we are unlikely just to need to pack our bags and go home after the actual war fighting has finished? That has changed—we have to stay around and do the peacekeeping as well, and that is why we require the likes of HMS Ocean over the aircraft carriers.

Mr. Soames: I do not agree with my hon. Friend. I have made the point that war among the people is the way that things are going to go. Of course we have to stay on afterwards. We do not need aircraft carriers to have people hanging around—they can hang around on HMS Ocean. We do not need these vast ships, with all that it takes to keep them at sea and the tremendous amount of escort involved. The Daring class ships are for the purpose of air defence—they are built to defend an aircraft carrier, which is a tremendously limiting factor in their use. I am pleading on the Navy’s behalf, although the Navy always thought I was too hard on it. It must have more ships if it is to be able to do the simply wonderful work that it has always done all over
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the world. More credit attaches to this country through the work of the Royal Navy down the generations than anyone in this House could possibly imagine.

I want to ask the Minister what planning is going on to cover the eventualities that will arise in procurement over the next 20 to 30 years given the different conflicts that are likely to occur. The Government, whoever they are, will have to take a risk by working out what is the most likely type of conflict that we will have to undertake in the next 30 years. If my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) really believes that Britain is in a position to take part in every level of conflict, he is wrong—we can no longer do that. We will have to make some very difficult decisions about which particular specialities we are going to stick to, pay for and be a big part of.

I want to say a few words about Trident. The arguments on Trident are not yet settled. I voted to renew the deterrent because there must be some form of deterrent, but the arguments have not yet been had in public in nearly an adequate enough way to warrant the spending of this nation’s treasure on the scale that will be required. This is not a question of who is a member of CND or who is against CND. It is really difficult in these times to answer the question whether we need to renew the Trident system in some form or another. If the new system were to go ahead and I were a Defence Minister, I would absolutely insist that it came off the Ministry of Defence’s budget and went on to the Prime Minister’s budget—that the MOD paid not one penny towards building it and that it be paid for out of central Government funds and then handed over to be run by the Navy.

Mr. Gray: My hon. Friend is making an absolutely central point. It is interesting that the Government have not so far said how the replacement for Trident will be funded. The Minister—who is not listening—might like to intervene on him to let us know precisely what plans they have to fund it. If it comes out of the MOD’s budgets, the MOD will be even more overstretched than it is at the moment.

Mr. Soames: It will be one or the other; I am not making a political point. I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend. I do not know where the money is coming from. The Government have not worked it out yet, and we have no clue as to where it is going to come from, but the system will need to be paid for if we decide to have it. This is not just a straightforward yah-boo question of who is in favour of it and who is against. Some of the most important fighting men in this country are profoundly against a new Trident system. Some of the most thoughtful people are against it; some very good people are very much in favour of it. It is a very important, serious and expensive decision that will not be settled by having some sort of spat. The decision will have a profound effect on our status and role in the world and how we are perceived: if we were to give up the system, what impact would that have on all kinds of other things that we do?

I endorse what my very wise right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, said about defence science. I beg the Minister not to cut the defence science budget. We are now in a period where we are moving to a completely new type of warfare. Of course
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we have to keep our hand in as regards all the other aspects, but over the next 20 years we will be asked to fight not in nation-to-nation conflict but war among the people. I commend Rupert Smith’s book to anyone who has not read it—it is interesting, wise and profound. We need to remake the armed forces in light of the threats that we will have to encounter in future, not those that we have encountered in the past. The wars that we will fight will be more like Afghanistan than D-day, and we must equip ourselves for that. Our aeroplanes, helicopters, training, infantry and weaponry—everything that goes to make up the modern battlefield—have to be right. We do not have the money to have anything going spare. We are not like the Americans, who are refashioning their whole doctrine on the basis of lessons that they learned in Iraq in a way that one would not believe possible. I do not know whether the Minister has been invited to Fort Leavenworth to see it, but the way in which they retrain is absolutely astonishing. They used to take lectures from us about counter-insurgency operations, as if we knew the answers, but they have completely retrained the army that has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In conclusion—I am sorry for going on for so long, Mr. Deputy Speaker—the next Government will have to decide whether Britain wants to play a role in the world. The last defence review by Lord Robertson was a really excellent piece of work, in my view. I would be very surprised if many of its supporting documents have to be substantially rewritten for today; certainly, the stuff on deployability will not have to be. Britain has to decide if she wants to continue to play a real role in the world. If we are to do so, we will have to find the money and the will to fashion a new, less sophisticated approach—much of the equipment that we are buying is too sophisticated—with more specialist equipment to deal with the wars and conflicts that our people are going to take part in. I would not want to see Britain doing anything other than playing a very full role in the world—that is to say, retaining not only the ability to conduct a high-intensity land battle but the extraordinary gift that British soldiers have of being able to switch that off in moments and, 25 yd further along the street, indulge in some real, serious nation-building and peacekeeping. That is the great brilliance of the British soldier: the question is whether our armed forces will be given the money to be able to do it.

7.39 pm

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): I shall confine my remarks to my experience as a member of the European Security and Defence Assembly, which meets regularly and brings together representatives of all European countries, including the accession states, and visitors from Russia, Canada and Australia. We discuss a number of security and defence issues that pertain to the European context, and some of our discussions have been reflected in today’s debate. I wish to focus my comments on the papers that are currently being prepared on armoured personnel carriers, cyber warfare, the review of the Airbus A400M procurement and the Boxer armed personnel carrier.

I begin by saying that we should understand that the UK currently has 790,000 people engaged in the defence industry, supported this year alone by a £7.156 billion budget. It is an extremely big industry, and some of the comments and aspirations that I have heard today have
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been utopian given that we are dealing with the employment of 790,000 people. It is difficult to ask such a contingent of individuals to be fleet of foot, because that is not possible.

I have learned in the past couple of years that the industry is peculiar in terms of the gap between order placement and order delivery, simply because it is like no other industry in the size of orders and the size of the individual units purchased. Some colleagues might ask, “What about private aeronautics? What about the big air companies?” I shall come to them in a minute, because in fact it is a big private, commercial air company, Airbus, that is involved in the development of the A400M, and we know what difficulties it has run into. Those difficulties have arisen as a direct result of the company coming out of the private sector, which has very limited aeronautic requirements, and into the military sector, which has far more technically complex and demanding requirements.

I wish to comment on the work that is being done on armoured personnel carriers. I think that in the past six months, I have visited every armoured personnel carrier manufacturer operating in Europe. That means every one in the world, because the companies involved are either American with a European operational base or European with a significant presence in the US. What I have noted—it has surprised me and goes to the comments of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames)—is the tremendous number of vehicles available from which countries can choose.

Just 10 years ago there were a very limited number of models of armed personnel carriers, and I think that it is fair to take that one product as a typical example of what is now available in the defence catalogues. Defence armoured personnel carrier models then numbered not many more than three or four. Their procurement would be an ideal project for OCCAR to be involved in. We have not heard mention of OCCAR today, but it is the procurement agency that was established by European countries to purchase on a common platform. It failed at the first hurdle to tackle that task, simply because each army in each country has its own specification and requirements. One armoured personnel carrier may operate in exactly the same environment as another that is managed by a different country’s army, but that does not matter. Apparently, the specifications for operating in the same area are very different. That is great news for the producers of the carriers but very bad news for us, because there is no capitalising on general procurement and no opportunity to capitalise on the innovation that has been applied to a vehicle by mass purchasing it as a direct consequence of that.

My experience is, and I have been told, that the number of armoured personnel carriers will continue to grow. The carriers will diversify and there will be far more specialism, which is what armed services now want. Much of the debate has been about not only getting things right now but planning for the future. I have spoken to front-line staff, and I am afraid that they are not thinking very much about the future; they are dealing with the problems now. The industry is responding to the now and offering people exactly what they want, for which there is a price to be paid.

Mr. Soames: May I help the hon. Lady, who makes a very good point? The people she has been talking to are not paid to think about what is going to happen in
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future. They are there to do exactly as she describes—get on and get the kit out. All three services have the extraordinary single-service plan system, which we must dismantle because it clogs up the whole machine. There should be a purple operation that buys the right kit for the right service. An incoming Government will have to deal very toughly with the single-service structures to make them much more purple.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: The hon. Gentleman talks about the right kit, and that is what gives companies a great opportunity. Who defines what is the right kit at any moment? There is no ubiquitous environment in which that kit operates. A field commander in one area will say, “I want this specifically,” and a field commander in another area will say, “I want that specifically.” It is then a question of creating common platforms. The number of units of kit required in an area might be so small that the capital cost of developing the facility is far higher than it would be if there were common agreement by a number of countries about what they wanted.

On the procurement of the Boxer, the UK played a significant role in its development, but in the end we pulled out because it was not diversifying enough to meet our operational requirements. That said, the company responsible for manufacturing it has gone ahead and produced it. It has a product that sits on the shelf, and sales are growing. I have listened to arguments about letting the private sector have its head and produce far more products out of its own stables rather than being led by defence requirements. In fact, that is exactly where the private sector believes it ought to be. It does not want Governments to specify their own kit. It thinks that it is so knowledgeable that it can produce kit that meets the needs of an environment at significantly less cost.

I have listened keenly to the arguments and comments, but we have not reached a position of saying that the private sector should have a far greater role in defining the kit than the public sector, or of understanding where the public and private sectors sit.

Mr. Gray: I am listening carefully to the complicated argument that the hon. Lady is advancing, and I am little puzzled by it. Is she seriously saying that rather than ask the private sector to produce a variety of equipment of one sort or another and then seek to sell it to national Governments around the world, it would be better if somehow those Governments got together, agreed on a standardised specification and then asked the private sector to deliver it? Surely the former is better than the latter, although, as demonstrated amply by the Russian Republic, we should go no further than that.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: That is precisely what OCCAR has set out to do.

Mr. Gray: It has failed.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Yes, but against what criteria? The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) alluded to OCCAR’s role and its importance.
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Its role is to get consensus between countries on procuring specific pieces of kit. I hope that colleagues understand why that is such an attractive option. It means that one gets kit for less cost per unit because the cost of developing the unit is shared. Unless we can bite that bullet, we are back to making our own specifications at higher cost. That means that the holy grail of getting something cheaper will never be attainable for us. We might gain when the private sector produces vehicles based on the tremendous investment that we have put into those companies. The investment of successive Governments in the private sector, especially defence, is considerable, allowing it to have the competence that we would like in the public sector, but will never now gain.

Mr. Wallace: Does the hon. Lady recognise that one thing that makes our armed forces among the greatest in the world is our allowing them to lead and help shape need? That means configurations that suit our commanders and equipment that makes us better than our counterparts. We must let our armed forces be at the forefront of design, otherwise we will end up with standardised armed forces, which show little initiative and have little advantage over our opponents.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s arguments—I fully understand them. However, today I have heard a debate about costs, timely procurement and meeting forces’ expectations quickly, and the arguments that he has advanced militate against achieving those objectives. If we allow decisions about kit specifications to rest entirely with the armed forces, we will experience the problems about which we have heard, especially those that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex enunciated. Expectations change faster than the time that lags between placing an initial order and delivery.

There are great merits in a common European platform for standard core kit. One benefit of a standard core kit is supporting common European deployments. A good example of that is the humanitarian role that we played in Chad, where 26 countries were represented, all with their own pieces of kit— [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) made a sedentary comment, which I did not hear. Does he wish to intervene?

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I did not intend to intervene, but I thank the hon. Lady for the opportunity. What she describes sounds like a NATO stock number.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: It certainly does, but we heard again today the need to be able to plan for some eventualities. In EU/NATO-led peacekeeping operations, in which military capacity is fundamental to a successful intervention, and for which we could plan over a long period, procurement of common assets on a common platform is a genuine option. Indeed, it supports the greater benefits of European collaboration through, for example, OCCAR.

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