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15 Mar 2010 : Column 621

Mr. Ainsworth: I am talking about next year. We cannot get a commitment about next year from the party to which the hon. Gentleman gives his allegiance, and we cannot get one from the hon. Member for Woodspring. I cannot go beyond next year, and I have never said that I would do so. There will be a strategic defence review. I will try to be in the Chamber to listen to the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) speak more widely on the matter later.

Mr. Jenkin: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I want to make some progress now.

The truth is that the shadow Chancellor will not let the hon. Member for Woodspring answer my question, because the Conservatives do not intend to increase the defence budget. They can argue all day about how much they cut the defence budget in the 1990s or how much Labour has increased it since-by they way, that increase was 10 per cent. in real terms since 1997, not including the £17 billion that has been spent from the reserve on operations and the £5 billion earmarked for Afghanistan next year-but the public want to know what the hon. Gentleman's plans for the future are. I bet that he does not come to that, because although there is plenty of rhetoric from him, it is matched by not a single extra commitment.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): The Minister of State announced today that 1 Signal Brigade and 102 Logistic Brigade are no longer coming to RAF Cosford in 2015, as planned; their arrival has been deferred by three years. Why has that happened, and what will happen to RAF Cosford during the five-year gap between the moving of the training operations to Wales and the much later arrival of the logistic brigades? That is what my constituents want to know.

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall come to that later.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept the suggestion by the Royal United Services Institute that over the next six years there will have to be a cut of up to 15 per cent. in defence expenditure? Does he accept the institute's premise, and if not, why not?

Mr. Ainsworth: Decisions about the long term have yet to be made. We have committed ourselves to a strategic defence review, I have done everything I can to try to get a defence debate up and running, and we have seen some good signs that part of that debate is indeed up and running ahead of the strategic defence review. The country will have to decide what role it wants to play in the world, and how much it is prepared to commit to the necessary defence expenditure that would underpin that role in the world. If RUSI thinks it can second-guess the answers to those questions ahead of the major decisions, it is wrong, but I am not sure that it actually said that. I have a lot of time for RUSI, and I think the hon. Gentleman may have misunderstood what it said.

The Opposition have suggested that announcing plans to proceed with major equipment programmes so close to a general election is wrong. I disagree. Last year, I
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published a Green Paper to pave the way for a strategic defence review. As part of that process, we will need to make decisions about the role we want the United Kingdom to play in the world and the capabilities the armed forces need to support that role. However, we will need to press ahead with decisions when they are required to maintain momentum on important projects that are integral to the future defence programme.

At the time of the Queen's Speech, I set out the approach that I would take to decisions ahead of a strategic defence review. First, each decision would be tested against its effect on operational requirements in Afghanistan, as the main effort in defence. Secondly, each decision would make a contribution to bringing the defence programme into balance in both the short and the long term. Thirdly, we would avoid, as far as possible, significant decisions on capability that should properly be made as part of a strategic defence review.

In December I announced plans to rebalance the defence programme, including the shifting of additional resources towards the campaign in Afghanistan. We have now worked through the details, and I shall be announcing decisions relating to several equipment programmes over the next few days. In each case I have been given detailed advice on the requirements, listened to the views of the service chiefs and considered the question of long-term affordability. The decisions I will announce are not being rushed through, but are being judged carefully against the tests I have set out. That is the right way to proceed.

Mr. Ellwood: The £5 billion figure is astonishing. If that amount is required, it is required, but it is bleeding our armed forces dry.

I ask the Secretary of State to think back to 2002-04. What a shame that we did not put in the right amount up front then to allow our armed forces' stabilisation projects to continue appropriately. That would probably have allowed us to expedite our exit from Afghanistan, rather than continuing on a prolonged course which, as I have said, is costing more and more each year. Five billion pounds is an astonishing amount to spend when we are seeing no exit strategy.

Mr. Ainsworth: I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstood what I just said. This year, according to our latest estimate, there will be an extra £4.5 billion-not just the £35 billion, approaching £36 billion, in the defence budget-for the Afghanistan operation. We estimate that next year there will be a requirement for an extra £5 billion. That will not come from the defence budget, and we will not be "bleeding our armed forces dry", as the hon. Gentleman suggested. An extra amount will be provided from the reserve, through the urgent operational requirements process. If the hon. Gentleman insists on looking backwards and flatly refuses to look forwards, let me tell him that by far the biggest cut in defence in modern times took place in 1995-96-a real-terms cut of 10.24 per cent. Who was in government at that time? It was the party that the hon. Gentleman supports.

Afghanistan is the main effort for defence but the armed forces continue to undertake their standing commitments, including defending UK airspace and waters, maintaining the continuous nuclear deterrent and, of course, defending the overseas territories. For
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instance, we currently have 1,200 personnel deployed in the Falkland Islands. The Government are fully committed to the defence of the south Atlantic overseas territories. We have made all the preparations necessary to make sure they are properly protected. Our deterrence force consists of a wide range of land, air and maritime assets and can be reinforced quickly should the need arise, but we do not judge that to be necessary at the current time.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): The military and maritime presence around the Turks and Caicos Islands, for instance, is wholly inadequate. More importantly, what response have the Government given to the US Secretary of State, who talked about having negotiations between Argentina and the United Kingdom about the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands? Have we told her unequivocally to mind her own business and that that is not negotiable?

Mr. Ainsworth: The Foreign Secretary has made our position clear: it is that our sovereignty of the Falklands is under no doubt, that we will take the appropriate measures to defend them and that we are entitled within those sovereign waters to explore for minerals. My hon. Friend needs to justify his point about the Turks and Caicos Islands. He might want to come and see me afterwards to do so, as I do not understand his point.

Mr. Davidson: May I take my right hon. Friend back to the question of programmes? There is already an enormous gulf of blue water between those on the Front Benches on the question of the aircraft carrier, but that should not mean that we have to stand still on naval ordering. When does my right hon. Friend expect to make an announcement about taking forward the next stage of the Type 26 order? Can he tell me how many I am likely to get of those?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend cannot expect me to make announcements ahead of making the announcements, but announcements to that effect on the future surface combatant will be made in the near future.

We also maintain significant forces in Cyprus, Brunei, Gibraltar and Germany, in addition to standing operational naval commitments worldwide. We have announced today the next phase of our programme to relocate to the UK three major military formations currently based in Germany: Headquarters, Allied Rapid Reaction Corps this summer; 1 Signal Brigade in 2015; and 102 Logistics Brigade in 2018. When the programme as a whole is complete, the UK force levels in Germany will have reduced from 22,000 to 15,000. With the agreement of the German Government, our plan remains to base HQ 1 UK Armoured Division, with most of its formations and supporting units, in Germany for the foreseeable future.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman knows that I have spent a fair bit of my 23 years here in Committee Rooms trying to wind him up; without succeeding, I hasten to add. I have waited a long time-it is a great pleasure to do so just before I leave this place-to say that I agree with the Government and with the Secretary of State. I wanted to get that on the record. What he has said about the Falklands is
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absolutely right. They are British and they need our defence. His assurance that the Government will renegotiate nothing with the Argentines is the best news I have heard for a long time, and I thank him.

Mr. Ainsworth: Our efforts to wind each other up have been mutual, and although they have probably been mutually unsuccessful, they have also been quite enjoyable on a personal level. I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has just said about the Government's policy on the Falklands.

Mark Pritchard: The Secretary of State referred to Operation Borona and the draw-down of British troops from Germany. As he will know, under the defence training review programme RAF personnel are due to leave Cosford in 2013 and relocate to Wales. That base was due to be backfilled with the British Army, but there is now to be a delay of five years. Will the Secretary of State put on the record, for the benefit of the people of Shropshire and the west midlands, what is going to happen to RAF Cosford in that five-year period?

Mr. Ainsworth: These decisions are not taken lightly, and they are not easy decisions, but prioritising Afghanistan and making it the main effort has consequences; there is no way around that. I know of nobody who genuinely and seriously thinks that that does not have to be our main effort at this time. Difficulties will arise and I am sorry for that, but there is no point in coming to the House and pretending, as the hon. Member for Woodspring does, that we can move the whole British Army back to the United Kingdom, and save money by so doing and do it without cost. The costs of doing this in the short term, on the kind of time scales the hon. Gentleman has pretended are a possibility, are monstrously out of kilter with the facts. That cannot be done.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I am sure the Secretary of State has at the forefront of his mind that an ideal location for the repatriation of many of the troops currently in Germany is the soon-to-be-vacated RAF Lyneham.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman has been bidding for a continued armed forces presence in his constituency for a very long time and with considerable tenacity. I do not blame him for that, and I welcome his support for the attempt to maintain our presence in Lyneham as the location of the Hercules planes changes.

The footprint of UK forces is global. That is because the interests of this country, and the threats against it, are global. I believe it is essential for the UK to remain in the premier league of military powers, and under this Government we will remain so. In every endeavour our armed forces perform, there is a dedicated professionalism that is humbling to see. They have the gratitude of this Government, this House and this country.

4.28 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): May I begin by paying tribute to all our service personnel who have made sacrifices for our safety since we last debated this subject? We extend our condolences to the families and friends of those killed, and we hope that their sadness
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may be diminished by the pride they take in the courage and commitment of our world-class forces. To those injured, not only do we offer our support, but we must all do everything possible to ease their paths in the future. We must also thank all our civilian personnel, whose efforts in theatre and in support often go unmentioned but are none the less invaluable to our national effort in Afghanistan.

The Secretary of State talked about recent developments in Helmand, and although his description of Operation Moshtarak sounds optimistic, the House might rightly ask why it has taken us so long to get an update. The operation has been taking place for more than a month and up to 4,000 British troops have been involved, but the House has not been given an update on it, or on Afghanistan generally, for some time. On 1 February, the Foreign Secretary made a statement to the House on Afghanistan, albeit in the context of the London conference, but the last statement on Afghanistan by the Prime Minister was in mid-December-almost three months ago. Since then, we have had the appointment of a new civilian representative-Mark Sedwill-as well as the launch of a major offensive in Helmand; speculation about a major offensive in Kandahar involving British forces; the relocation of British forces from Musa Qala to the area around Lashkar Gah; and visits by both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State. Surely that warrants more frequent oral statements to the House, so that hon. Members can question the Government on that specific issue, rather than on the wider issues that we are debating today, although they will understandably expect the debate to focus on Afghanistan to some extent.

On the broader issues in Afghanistan, counter-insurgency is about protecting the population, and it requires a better force-to-population ratio than we currently have in Helmand, as my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) mentioned in his intervention. That is why the expected uplift of American and Afghan troops by this summer is welcome. Most people agree that there needs to be a rebalance between United Kingdom and US areas of responsibility, even if that might mean concentrating Task Force Helmand's assets into a smaller geographical area in central Helmand, in a similar arrangement to the one that has been announced for Musa Qala.

British troops have fought gallantly in Musa Qala since 2006, and the move that the Government have announced should not be interpreted in any way as a downgrading of the UK effort. Rather, it represents a better match between our resources and our commitments. It is essential that the United Kingdom plays a full role in Afghanistan, including a full military role, but it must be proportionate to our force strength and configuration. The announcement that British troops will be transferring Musa Qala to American forces is a sensible one for this country. We are part of a coalition, and the Americans obviously have vastly superior levels of resources and troops. Our roles must be set out according to our relative strengths.

Let me turn to the main topic of our debate. Since the last strategic defence review in 1998, the world has become a more dangerous place. Transnational terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the battle for cyberspace and the effects of climate change are all playing a part in destabilising the equilibrium of global security. The
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terrorist attacks of 9/11 completely altered the western view of global security. It is worth pointing out that an attack that cost al-Qaeda only $250,000 to stage ended up costing the United States economy alone $80 billion. That is the scale of the change that we have seen. Transnational terrorism continues to pose a real threat. Although largely defeated in Iraq, al-Qaeda is threatening the stability of Pakistan, the horn of Africa, south-east Asia and the Arabian peninsula-notably Yemen. On a visit to Saudi Arabia only last week, I was struck by the seriousness with which the authorities there are focusing on that threat.

On proliferation, while countries such as Libya have seemingly given up their ambitions for weapons of mass destruction, North Korea has successfully tested two nuclear bombs. Iran is on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon, and continues to be a net exporter of terrorism and instability to its neighbours in the region and beyond. The nature and behaviour of the regime in Iran, and the risk of triggering a nuclear arms race in the middle east, are a cause of growing anxiety. In my view, this is the biggest emerging threat that we face. The possibility of state-on-state warfare-most recently demonstrated by the Russian invasion of Georgia and the subsequent occupation of 20 per cent. of its territory-cannot be ruled out, especially as the competition for scarce resources heats up in some of the world's most unstable regions.

Other threats might seem remote to the British public, but if they were to become a reality, they would have a devastating effect on our way of life. The proliferation of biological weapons and their use by terrorist organisations and other non-state actors are a real threat. Nuclear terrorism, including the use of dirty bombs, is another. The House should make no mistake: we are already living in the era of the dirty bomb. The first ever attempted dirty bomb attack was carried out in Moscow by a group of Chechen terrorists. The bomb was not detonated, and it was later found by the police, but neither the terrorists nor the source of the caesium has ever been identified. None the less, the terrorists successfully sowed the intended seeds of fear in the minds of both the populace and the authorities. Nuclear proliferation, particularly in the middle east, needs to be seen in the context of that type of threat.

Mark Pritchard: My hon. Friend makes a powerful case, as he always does. Does he share my concern that the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear capability of UK armed forces is being reconfigured and reduced by the Government?

Dr. Fox: I shall come to that. I think that we need to consider the full range of threats at home and abroad.

On top of the issues that I have mentioned to do with biological weapons and dirty bombs, the use of an electromagnetic pulse device that could destroy all electronic communications infrastructure over a distance of hundreds of miles is also being considered and researched, and possibly being tested. All those different things need strategies to deal with them in the wider context of our security in a dangerous world. Like it or not, cyber warfare is a modern-day reality and attacks are increasing in both frequency and seriousness-from the mass attack on Estonia to the targeted attacks on British companies and institutions.


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