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If the British Government are serious about their long-term commitment to Afghanistan, Ministers must leave all parties in absolutely no doubt. The suggestion floated in the press that Tornado squadrons might be withdrawn would be a very dangerous signal. I urge the Minister to give good signals by retaining the Tornado front-line squadrons—I hope that she will reassure us about that today—and by making it quite clear that in future the job of the Secretary of State for Defence will be full time. It must be entirely wrong that at a time of conflict and serious casualties, defence responsibility should be combined with another post.

I should like to ask the Minister a question about Nimrods that has not been raised today. Can she reassure us about the manning levels required, the serviceability and safety of Nimrod flying requirements at present and about the future of Nimrods?

In 2003, Geoff Hoon said that the Government have effectively been conducting continuous concurrent operations, deploying further fighters, to more places, more frequently and with a greater variety of missions than set out in the Strategic Defence Review planning estimates. He was correct. The review of 1998 stated that,

In other words, that review recognised the importance of matching resources to necessary and required operational activities.

It is a matter of very grave concern that the Chief of the Defence Staff has said that the Armed Forces are very stretched. I remind the Minister that if a piece of elastic is stretched too far, it loses its elasticity and eventually will snap. Frankly, none of us wants that to happen to the armed services under any circumstances. I urge Ministers, and the Minister here today, to recognise the inescapable duty to honour the

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spirit of the military covenant and to ensure that Her Majesty’s armed services will receive the necessary back-up support as they put their lives on the line on behalf of our nation on a daily basis.

1.45 pm

Lord Inge: My Lords, like other noble Lords I thank the noble Baroness and congratulate her on securing this very important debate. She is very knowledgeable about the serious and dangerous challenges that face our Armed Forces, and I know that they have huge affection and respect for her. I only wish that Her Majesty’s Government shared that understanding and were prepared to take positive action to fund properly some of the problems that have been so clearly highlighted in our speeches.

Like other noble Lords I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Drayson. He not only mastered his brief here but began to understand what makes the Armed Forces tick. I am afraid that his sudden disappearance sent a terrible message to the Armed Forces.

It is common knowledge that as a result of the Comprehensive Spending Review some very tough decisions will have to be made, which is mandarin-speak for further major cuts. Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, I attended the Chief of the General Staff’s excellent briefing the other day. I talked about the problems of funding with a soldier there; he raised the subject, not me. He said, “Sometimes, I think that I would have been better off working for Northern Rock”.

Despite the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan dominating the media, you are left with the very clear impression that defence is not a major issue for the Government and that they do not really seem to understand the challenges which our Armed Forces are facing and the long-term damage, if they are not careful, that could be done to our Armed Forces. They seem more interested in managing the media than facing the problems which the Armed Forces are facing.

The Government pay great tribute to the bravery and professionalism of our Armed Forces but they seem to hide behind that praise and the Prime Minister and the Government are not prepared to recognise what those challenges mean in terms of funding, not least for the future equipment programme, in order that the three fighting services—and they are fighting services—are properly equipped to meet the challenges that lie ahead. Nor are they prepared to provide the funding to meet what we now call the covenant. That was starkly illustrated by the Royal British Legion’s campaign about the nation’s responsibility to honour the covenant under the banner headline, “We count on him. Can they count on us?” It is extraordinary that the Royal British Legion felt that it was necessary to mount that campaign.

As other noble Lords have said, the defence planning assumptions made in 1997 bear little reality to the intensity of operations and war fighting that our Armed Forces are now engaged in. Indeed, our track record of predicting what would happen in the future was never particularly good. That means that

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you have to be prepared for the unexpected. We were not really prepared for Northern Ireland or the Falkland Islands; we underestimated the challenge of the Balkans; we did not predict the first Iraq war and are having to learn the hard way in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lesson that I draw from this is that you have to be prepared for the unexpected not only as regards equipment, but much more importantly, making sure that you have adequate manpower to cope with high-intensity conflicts and low-intensity operations. You have to be able to sustain those operations over much longer periods than we ever planned for. Such capabilities do not come cheap. It is a sad fact that the defence budget has been underfunded over many years. In 1982-83, it was 5.1 per cent of GDP. In 1991-92, it was 4.1 per cent of GDP. At the present level, it is 2.5 per cent, and it has stayed around that level.

In a short debate such as this it is not possible to make specific recommendations, but in a brief look at some of the capabilities of the three Armed Forces, I will highlight one recommendation for each service.

The cost for the Royal Navy of having two carriers has meant significant cuts in the surface fleet, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, said. In this uncertain world, does it really make sense to have a Royal Navy that cannot meet a wide range of unexpected operational commitments? Certainly we could not do the Falkland Islands now as we did then. I also strongly support the independent deterrent, but the fact that that must come out of the defence budget must raise huge questions. While talking about the Royal Navy, I pay huge tribute to the Royal Marines, who have conducted themselves so gallantly and effectively in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are a first-rate fighting force.

It is also clear that the Army is too small by a number of thousands of men. When I talk about the Army, I am talking about not only the Regular Army but the Territorial Army. It is difficult to recommend where that additional manpower is most needed. I caution the Conservative Party about saying that there is an immediate need to resurrect the three battalions that were removed as a result of the reorganisation and restructuring of the infantry. We need to see some of the established ones made much more robust. I would be interested to know what percentage of GDP they plan to allocate to defence.

Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord raises an interesting point. Is it true that only one battalion is at present at full strength and that 14 battalions are more than 100 under strength?

Lord Inge: My Lords, I cannot answer the noble Lord specifically. It is a fact that a number of battalions are under strength and that without the Territorial Army they would be in very serious trouble.

The RAF strategic transport fleet needs replacement, and there is a shortage of helicopters. It is hard to envisage any operations in the future when there will not be significant demands on the helicopter fleets of the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the Army.

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Most importantly, the three fighting services are about people. They are a priceless asset. If they do not feel valued, if they do not feel that their families are getting a fair deal or that they are being properly looked after, if they do not feel that they are being adequately trained and equipped and if they feel that Her Majesty’s Government do not really care, morale will suffer. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, mentioned that. It is particularly so when the forces are heavily committed on operations. I am not saying that morale is bad. I have been to Afghanistan, and when you go round you see that morale is high, but morale can go very quickly, and they need to feel that the Government are really behind them. If morale does go, it takes a lot of money and time to restore it.

In conclusion, I will say something about the important relationship between the Armed Forces, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister. That relationship is more important than they might realise. As many noble Lords have mentioned, the fact that at this time the Secretary of State has a second job is extraordinary. He is known to some in the military as “Two jobs Des”. It is a very bad message to send to the Armed Forces. The relationship is hugely important and should not be underestimated. Where there is trust, that relationship works really well. It is interesting to talk about trust, given the Prime Minister’s writing about heroes. These are the very people that we are talking about. Trust is a powerful asset. When it runs deep, it strengthens any relationship. When there is no trust or, even worse, when trust is broken, co-operation becomes much more difficult to sustain. The Prime Minister needs to think very hard about that.

1.55 pm

Lord Luke: My Lords, like other noble Lords, I first thank my noble friend Lady Park for introducing this important debate. Anyone who has been listening to the first part of the debate and the very interesting, pertinent and robust speeches made by many noble Lords who really know about this subject will be most grateful to my noble friend.

It will come as no surprise that I intend to speak briefly on the subject of the Royal Navy. I shall ask a number of questions that I hope will be answered. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, said, the British people are as dependent as ever they were on maritime trade, but because most of them have no personal links to seafaring, they have become much less aware of that. It is a pity that there seem to be very few efforts to acquaint the public with the Navy and its mission. However, we are now becoming more and more aware of the enormous explosion of economic activity in the Far East. That will put increasing pressure on energy resources, food supplies and maritime traffic to supply and safeguard both. Then there are our commitments to NATO. Are the Government truly happy that the United Kingdom’s maritime security can be assured?

The Indian and the Chinese navies are growing quickly. In India, I understand that a new aircraft carrier is being built, together with 30 other warships.

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China is rebuilding and adding to its significant fleet of submarines. It is therefore essential for Britain to continue to maintain its power projection resources to underpin sovereign and coalition actions and to bear our proper share of the communal burden. To do so, we must at all costs resist further reductions in the size of the fleet. It has been said that one modern unit is the equivalent of several of an older design and that therefore it is safe to cut numbers because improvements in capability more than offset the cuts in numbers. The fallacy is to believe that the most capable ship in the world can be in more than one place at a time.

Therefore, further cuts in the active and future fleet should simply not be entertained. The age of the fleet is also a vital factor, as the building rate since 1997 has been unprecedented since well before World War I. By the end of 2007, no operational frigates or destroyers will have been fewer than five years in commission, and 14 ships will have been commissioned for more than 15 years. We will be told that 28 ships have joined the fleet since 1997. However, since that date only eight ships have been ordered and only four of those are destroyers or frigates. To sustain a force of 25 destroyers/frigates, as was announced in 2004, requires a minimum build rate of at least one new ship per year. Current plans seem to show only five more destroyers or frigates entering service before 2017; that is assuming that the eight Type 45 destroyers are all eventually built. During the same period since 1997, 13 destroyers or frigates were disposed of.

“Ah”, the Minister may say, “We will have the first carrier in service in 2014”. The Minister’s predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, deserves our thanks for pushing through and finally confirming the orders for the “Queen Elizabeth” and the “Prince of Wales”. Today, I read that contractors have now signed an agreement to co-operate with the Akers yard where the new French carrier will be built. Apparently, it is also associated with this agreement. I should be interested to know how much the French will be involved in the building of our carriers. We know that they have bought the design.

Returning for a moment to the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, who has been mentioned a great deal in this debate, I wish to say from the opposition Benches that I know very well how he established a great rapport with the industry and his reorganisation of procurement arrangements will be his lasting legacy.

However, many questions remain and here are some. For example, is the expected total order for the T45 destroyer to remain at the six ships currently contracted? Including the cost of design, each ship costs some £1 billion. Considering the huge resources devoted to the development and design, is this production run of six large enough to amortise the design costs efficiently? What are the Minister’s plans for further utilising the investment already made in this design? What effort is being made to sell it to allied navies? What scope exists to make use of the design for future frigate projects? This seems to strike at the heart of the issues concerning the running costs of the Royal Navy.

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One of the most important issues in the development of new naval forces is timing. Can the Minister confirm the timescale for concluding the negotiations for the purchase of the JSF for the Royal Navy and the RAF? Will the conjunction of the in-service date of the first carrier and the availability of the first squadron of JSFs be maintained? Can the Minister comment on the latest report that first delivery of the JSF will not be before 2017? If that is correct, it is most unsatisfactory. The design of the new carriers and in particular the type of launch system has of course a direct bearing on the JSF order. Can the Minister confirm that the STOVL variant is still the preferred choice of fighter for the carriers? Is there any truth in the rumour that one will constructed with a steam catapult? What other aircraft launch systems are being considered? As noble Lords can see, there are many unanswered questions regarding the progress of the Royal Navy. Perhaps I might ask something more general, but just as pressing. Can Minister tell the House with what degree of confidence we might expect a proper contract to be signed for the new carriers during the next six months?

It is important in these sorts of deliberations to try to appreciate the broader effects of naval projects and acquisitions. Can the Minister outline the expected benefits to employment in the UK aircraft industry of the JSF programme? Considering that the JSF is the only new aircraft in the UK’s forward defence programme, what chance is there for UK industry to gain so-called “noble work”' on cockpits, wings, and technical systems?

A carrier group comprising one or both of the great carriers escorted by T45 destroyers and submarines will be a very potent force in keeping the peace in conjunction with our American allies. It will also project our power and influence in the world for many years to come. We are at last making progress in this great design, which we have consistently supported for a long time on this side of the House. It is a welcome return to a maritime-focused strategy that is more in keeping with the traditional British way of war.

2.04 pm

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I join all noble Lords who have thanked the noble Baroness, Lady Park, for, and congratulated her on, obtaining this important and timely debate. I say it is timely, because if there is any time of the year when the nation focuses on its Armed Forces it is, sadly, this time of year marked by festivals and ceremonies of remembrance. It is interesting this year, more than in any other year I can remember, that in addition to remembering the sacrifice of people in the past, attention has been drawn to the sacrifice of the young men and women currently fighting in two wars whose fierceness is far greater than any war that I and my noble and gallant colleagues—other than the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall—have had to face.

The noble Baroness, in introducing her speech, used two phrases about which I have been thinking ever since. She said that she spoke with a heavy heart, but with indignation. I was reflecting on that because, as noble Lords have spoken, there has been a heavy heart certainly among my noble and gallant friends;

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in our careers in the Armed Forces we faced neither the challenges that are currently being faced, nor the same challenges of deprivation of what we needed to do the job. My indignation is that this has been unnoticed and should not have been, given the frequent speeches, articles and attention drawn by serving, retired and other people to something that should be glaringly obvious and appears to have been ignored.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, mentioned two other words that noble Lords have picked up on—morale and pride. I shall leave pride to the end, but, following what my noble and gallant friend Lord Inge said, morale in the front line is special and unique. I cannot remember anything quite like the feeling at the time I was serving in an operational unit. It is indescribable and intangible, but, my word, it is powerful. We are concerned not just with morale in the front line of people who have a job to do, but about the morale in the whole structure of the Armed Forces. My warning to the Government is that while I would not say that morale is in imminent danger of breaking, it is fragile. I have used that word many times. It is fragile, and morale must not be taken for granted. Woe betide you if you do.

Two weeks ago I attended the annual briefing of senior Army officers at which, by tradition, someone comes from an operational sector and briefs us on what it was like. This year we had the commanding officer of the Mercian group, mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew. The officer was full of praise for the equipment with which his group had been provided—the Bulldog, the Mastiff, the multi-barrelled grenade launcher, the heavy machine gun and so on. But, he said, it was unfortunate that the equipment was available only in Afghanistan and they could not train on it. That is extremely short-sighted. I remember being sent to Borneo in 1965; the day before we left Malaya we were equipped with the Armalite rifle bought from the Americans. I refused to equip my whole company with it. I said that we would go half with what we had trained on and half with the new one and that we would change over in Borneo. You must have people properly trained and confident in their equipment before they go on operations, because when they arrive they have to hit the ground running on day one.

At that briefing two stark statistics were given to us. The first was that the Royal Anglian battle group had 135 battle casualties evacuated during its time in Afghanistan—a huge number. I was interested in the exchange between my noble and gallant friend Lord Inge and the noble Lord, Lord King, on numbers or size. One of the lessons of the first Gulf War was that our individual organisations are too small. That is what needs to be put right. If they are to sustain that level of casualties and remain operational, they will have to be bigger—or they will have to borrow from other organisations which will then not be ready to do their task when the time comes. The second statistic was that every non-commissioned officer in that battalion was involved in 60 shooting incidents during the six-month tour. That is a tremendous intensity of operations.

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Two nights ago at a friend’s 80th birthday party I had the great pleasure of meeting his grandson who had returned the night before from a six-month tour of duty in Iraq with the Irish Guards. I cannot say how much pleasure it gave me to talk to that fit, confident, proud young man about what he and his men had achieved. But everything that I have heard in this debate makes me concerned that we are in danger of undermining those sorts of people and the contribution that they make to the nation.

The CSR has already been mentioned. At the briefing I mentioned, the reckoning was that the CSR amounted to a reduction or at best to a zero per cent increase because of all the resulting commitments. However, those present were very angry that the Treasury was clawing back the £2 billion spent on the urgent operational requirements which have been placed on the battle group in Afghanistan and for which it has been so highly praised—and it is outrageous. If you send people to war without the kit they need and you then give it to them, then well done. But if you demand that they pay for it out of what they have already been given, then you are undermining everything that is good about the operation.

Of course the only alternative in this case is to take the £2 billion from other areas. Other noble Lords have addressed that point. Will it come from long-term requirements? I agree entirely with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, when he questions whether the strategic nuclear deterrent should come out of the defence budget. It is a political weapon. It should be paid for separately and the Navy should not have to suffer. Noble Lords have mentioned the aircraft carriers and the Joint Strike Fighter that will accompany them, the Astute submarine and the Eurofighter. Those are the big spenders in the budget—are they to go? Are requirements such as the family of vehicles for the Army and the other equipment to go? Or is the covenant to be further endangered by the failure to meet all the requirements mentioned so frequently in this debate?

The programme as published is simply not affordable. There are two criteria in the definition of affordable: can you afford it, or can you afford to give up what you have to give up in order to afford it? The Government have never tackled the second question. All we have had is endless promises—you will have this, you will have that and you will have the other—but we know that it cannot happen because the funding is not there. Now we have the stark message that, on top of everything else, £2 billion is being clawed back to pay for what our soldiers need to protect them on operations to which they have been committed by this Government.

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