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Mr. Davies: As my hon. Friend probably recognised, many of the vehicles that I listed earlier are new generation. Mastiff 2 will follow Mastiff 1, Jackal 2 will follow Jackal 1 within the next couple of months, and Snatch Vixen will follow Snatch. Each of those developments involves a considerable enhancement in the survivability and protection afforded by the vehicles concerned. It is clear that there is no way in which a vehicle can be
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protected against absolutely any level of blast—and, sadly, that there is no way in which we can engage in armed conflict without losing troops. That is a tragic but, I am afraid, inescapable fact. We make continual efforts to improve our game, re-examining our tactics and counter-measures and trying to make them more effective, and we are succeeding—although, as I have said, I will not talk about that in public for obvious reasons. We are providing a new and ever-enhanced series of armoured vehicles and other forms of protection, and I look forward to reporting to the House on further improvements in future.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): In the light of reports that American-fired enhanced-blast munitions may have caused 140 civilian deaths in an air strike on 4 May, can the Minister guarantee that British munitions, which have been used 43 times in the last year, have not killed civilians in Afghanistan? What precautions are we taking to ensure that they do not? Can pilots really see whether civilians are in target buildings? Does the Minister understand the fear that the use of such indiscriminate weapons might undermine the popular civilian support that is so essential to NATO’s operation?

Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great regard and who I know to be a considerable expert on military matters, uses terms that I am surprised to hear him use in this context. He knows that none of the NATO forces involved operate indiscriminately in any way. The word is completely inappropriate.

I cannot comment on the specific American operation to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. Obviously I know nothing about it, because it does not fall within my direct responsibility. I can, however, tell him that enormous attention is paid by British forces to the need to avoid collateral damage and civilian deaths. In an armed conflict, as ever in the whole of human history, that can never be achieved 100 per cent., but we make great efforts. It is a difficult and serious trade-off—particularly given that someone may put their own personnel at risk by not taking action that they might otherwise have taken in defence of our own operations, or our own troops, because of a fear of civilian deaths or collateral damage.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Does the Minister agree with the former Secretary of State, who described the Pinzgauer Vector as

or does he now accept that, at a cost of more than £100 million, it was a massive defence acquisition fiasco—as some of us on the Conservative Benches have pointed out, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton)? If so, what has he done to improve the technical evaluation process to restore our troops’ confidence in the acquisition process? That is the very least that they should expect from the Government.

Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman should wake up a bit, get with it and start to look at the realities of life. The fact of the matter is that those who invest in a portfolio of armoured vehicles, as we are doing—or, indeed, in a range of equipment for any purpose in this world—will want to ensure that they have the best, in terms of meeting different mobility, capability, fire power,
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protection and other requirements. We will inevitably have some vehicles that are less effective than others; we will inevitably have some successes and some failures— that is what a portfolio policy is all about, by the way. Vector was not a success and it is being withdrawn. Its problem has been its “operationability”: it has great difficulty carrying some of the loads that it is required to carry on the Afghan terrain. It has not been able to live up to expectations there, and we will be replacing it with the new tactical support vehicles that we have ordered—the Coyote, the Husky and the Wolfhound—which I have mentioned in the House in different contexts. That is one more example of this steady process of flexibility, improvement and enhancement, which is the policy to which we are committed.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

5. Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): What contribution the Government are making to the MONUC peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. [277537]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): We are making a valuable contribution to the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—MONUC—by deploying experienced officers into key posts, with their agreement. We will shortly be increasing our contribution to seven officers with the addition of a two-star deputy force commander.

Mary Creagh: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. The all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention recently met Alan Doss, the new head of MONUC forces in the DRC. One of the issues that he raised with us was the need for US and UK security services to share intelligence with MONUC better if we are to track down the dissident groups operating in the east of the country. It is imperative that that intelligence is shared if security is to be restored in the east of the DRC, where Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, the CNDP, and the Hutu militia force, the FDLR, are still causing chaos and huge humanitarian disruption.

Mr. Ainsworth: Obviously, we share my hon. Friend’s desire to see the disruption in the DRC brought to an end and the humanitarian crisis that has flowed from it reduced and stopped. I am not aware of difficulties in the sharing of appropriate intelligence. If she has any information in that regard that she wishes to pass on to me, I will look into it and try to ensure that, where appropriate, we give people any information that we have that would be useful to that end.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): It is good news that we are giving money to the Conflict Prevention Pool, and a certain number of key people and a certain amount of funding to MONUC; I believe that it is nearly 10 per cent. of its funding. Does the Minister agree that unless other UN member states with reasonable lift capacity are willing to contribute, with a degree of leadership, to initiatives, be it MONUC in the DRC or those in Darfur, we simply will not make progress? These peacekeeping operations appear to be just marking time: we are not making progress and there is not the required grip, because member states that could give that grip of leadership are not participating.

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Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the vast spaces involved in conducting operations in Africa mean that the need for strategic and tactical lift and helicopter capability in theatre is of particular importance, and that those are restricting factors in terms of our ability to have sufficient impact in places such as Darfur and the DRC. I hope to discourage him from suggesting that we, with the commitments that our people have at the moment, can provide that capability ourselves, but we will obviously do what we can to encourage others to do so.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Does the Minister recognise that one of the problems is that the militia groups and the armed forces operating in the eastern DRC are, in effect, funded by illicit mining operations? Huge sums flow tax-free out of the Congo, and then flow back in for the purpose of buying arms that kill and maim people. I realise that this is slightly beyond his remit, but can he speak to trade Ministers and Foreign Office Ministers to see what can be done to close off that flow?

Mr. Ainsworth: I agree with my hon. Friend that there is no doubt that one of the motives for people to get involved in the area is the exploitation of minerals and other natural resources. We must all do everything that we can to prevent that from happening and to ensure that the regulations make that exploitation—and the humanitarian catastrophe that flows from it—not profitable as it has been in the past. I will do as my hon. Friend asks and see to it that we do all that we can in that regard.


6. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet his EU and NATO counterparts to discuss the conflict in Afghanistan. [277538]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): I regularly discuss Afghanistan with my European Union and NATO counterparts. On 10 June, I shall attend a meeting of nations that are contributing to operations in Regional Command (South). On 11-12 June, I shall attend a meeting of NATO Defence Ministers.

Mr. Bellingham: I understand that at the recent NATO Defence Ministers meeting in Poland in February, the Secretary of State said that it was crucial that as many European NATO members as possible sent more helicopters to Afghanistan. He said at the time that he was confident that that would happen. How many extra helicopters have now been sent?

Mr. Hutton: I think that there are only three, from the Czech Republic, which is making available some of its helicopters under the helicopter initiative. As the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) has said, it is important to recognise that we are deploying more helicopters to Afghanistan later this year to support our troops, and that is right and proper. On a wider level it is imperative—as I have made clear many times—that NATO do more in Afghanistan. I was very pleased that at the Strasbourg meeting Poland, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany and
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Australia—our true friend and ally—said that they would support operations in Afghanistan with more troops. That has to be good news for the success of the operation.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Does not the Secretary of State understand the gravity of this singular failure of NATO? This was supposed to be an article 5 operation, and people were supposed to step up to the plate with mutual assistance, but that has not happened. That is the case against the backdrop of the House of Commons never giving a mandate for our commitment in Helmand. My right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) made the announcement in a statement one day, and most of us had never even heard of Helmand. We have had drift on this matter and it is now time that the commitment made by Tony Blair and the present Prime Minister—that we commit our armed forces only after a conscious decision by this House—was respected. That has not happened, and there is no mandate for this operation to go on.

Mr. Hutton: I agree with the first part of my hon. Friend’s question. NATO needs to do more and we have made that clear. I am glad that NATO is responding to President Obama’s request for more military assistance to the Afghan Government, as that is long overdue, but better late than never. Can we do more? Yes, of course we should, and we will continue to argue for that.

On my hon. Friend’s latter point, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made his views very clear on how we should proceed in the future.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Is it not the case that the vital currency of our reputation has been undermined by the Prime Minister not accepting the recommendation by the Chief of the Defence Staff that 4,000 extra troops should be sent to Helmand if we are to do the job properly? Does that not affect our credibility when dealing with the Americans and other NATO allies?

Mr. Hutton: I agree very strongly with the hon. Gentleman that our reputation matters a great deal to us, and it is with great reluctance that I contradict what he says. I assure him that there was no suggestion that we send 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The Chief of the Defence Staff—who is my principal military adviser, as he is the Prime Minister’s— is content with the decisions that the Prime Minister has made, and we are now busy operationalising that in the most effective way possible.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend has had a chance to read The New York Times today, but it contains an important article by a distinguished correspondent entitled “U.S. Gives Absolution to its Allies”. The article makes the argument that the US no longer wants to open a second front against European allies who are not engaging in fighting and killing, but instead wants a team effort. It is changing the nature of its operations in Afghanistan, not to step up a huge kinetic war, but to find political as much as military solutions, and Britain is playing a leading part in that. Can we therefore have an end to the European bashing and an understanding—as was evident at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly—that the US and its European allies are talking and working as one?

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Mr. Hutton: The strategy that we are pursuing in Afghanistan is not a purely military one. It is a comprehensive approach that has a necessary military component to it, because there cannot be greater security, and therefore the opportunity for the Afghan Government to deliver to greater effect in Afghanistan, unless there is improved security. As my right hon. Friend has correctly said, that military component is combined with an approach that emphasises the development of civilian capabilities and capacity, too. The Europeans are making a significant contribution to that. My criticism of the NATO effort so far is a matter of record and I do not resile from a word that I have said, but I am glad and pleased that the NATO military effort in Afghanistan has now increased, which I consider to be absolutely essential if we are to achieve the wider goals of peace and security in that troubled country.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Will the Secretary of State list the countries in the European Union that have deployed ground forces to southern Afghanistan?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, I will: Romania, the Netherlands, Denmark, Estonia and Belgium, and France is flying fast jets in the south of Afghanistan.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): As things stand today, does the Secretary of State believe that British forces in Afghanistan have an adequate number of troops, adequate funding and the right equipment to succeed in the mission that they have been given? In particular, is he happy that when we take territory we can hold it and initiate reconstruction quickly and successfully enough?

Mr. Hutton: I believe that we have sufficient troops; I believe that we have sufficient equipment; and I believe that we have sufficient resources. That is not just my view; it is view of the chiefs of staff.

Dr. Fox: A large number of the military seem to take a different view. Compared with this time last year, there has been a 55 per cent. increase in coalition deaths, including those of British soldiers, and a 90 per cent. increase in attacks on the Afghan Government. Since January, there have been more than twice as many insurgent-initiated attacks in Helmand as next door in Kandahar. In the light of a clearly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and the challenges in Pakistan, is it not time that we undertook a full and comprehensive review of the strategy we are pursuing with our NATO allies and the regional players to determine a way forward? Do they all understand that failure in Afghanistan would both damage NATO and provide a shot in the arm for every extremist across the globe? Why is NATO not working?

Mr. Hutton: I agree with the hon. Gentleman: failure in Afghanistan is not an option. Our military effort in Afghanistan must succeed, as must our wider comprehensive approach in Afghanistan. We regularly review the strategy—the Prime Minister has made that clear—and we published a recent review of it. We remain committed to reviewing constantly the military and the wider civil and political campaigns in which we are involved in Afghanistan, and I take it from the hon. Gentleman’s question that he wants significantly to enhance military deployment to Afghanistan.

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Training (New Equipment)

7. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What procedures are in place to provide that troops receive training on new equipment before deployment to theatre with such equipment. [277539]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): All business cases, including urgent operational requirements, are structured to provide equipment to meet our training needs. However, urgent theatre equipment needs sometimes rightly take priority over training requirements. We have made improvements in providing theatre-standard equipment for pre-deployment training and have always provided in-theatre training where that has not been possible.

Mr. Evennett: I note the Minister’s comments, but is he not concerned that the number of cancelled military training exercises has increased since 2005 from 58 in 2005-06 to 80 in 2008-09? Is that not unacceptable, and what more can the Government do to ensure that the training is given before the equipment is used?

Mr. Ainsworth: Current operations will always have to be the priority. Given the operations in which people are involved, the structure of our training has changed significantly over the past couple of years. Of course, pre-deployment training takes priority, which sometimes has an impact on other training opportunities. We have to do our best to ensure that we maintain all the skills that are necessary for both other contingent liabilities and the operations in which we are involved in places such as Afghanistan.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): What steps are being taken to ensure that those personnel returning from theatre can pass on their up-to-date and latest experience of equipment and counter-insurgency to those who are having pre-deployment training so that the latest information and experiences are passed on to troops before they go into theatre?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend hits on an important point, of which all the services are fully seized: people who are about to be deployed into a changing situation, with changing threats, need to be brought up to date as completely as possible by those with the latest information. We, and the Army, Navy and Air Force, try to ensure that training is structured in such a way that all those lessons are learned to the maximum possible degree.

Sir Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): When short-term gaps in equipment emerge, they are met by urgent operational requirements—UORs—which can mean that although equipment is put in place, which is welcome, troops do not have the proper training on working with that equipment. Would not a better long-term plan be a strategic review to assess more accurately equipment needs against operational requirements?

Mr. Ainsworth: In an ideal world, we would have a proper full-blown procurement system that would be able, for example, to bring vehicles such as Mastiff into use within the 19-week time that elapsed from its first planning to deployment in theatre. However, that will never be possible. When the nature of threat changes—
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in Afghanistan, the situation has changed from overwhelmingly a shooting war to one in which the improvised explosive device, or the roadside bomb, became our enemies’ tactic of choice—we have to get new equipment into theatre quickly. Of course, we must follow that through with capability so that training on the equipment can take place as quickly as possible thereafter. When lives are at risk, it is essential that theatre needs come first. However, we have improved the way in which we are getting theatre-level equipment into the training establishment, because it is no good deploying equipment if we are not deploying capability, which means people capable of using the equipment with which we have provided them.

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