|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
There is a great deal of evidence of a lack of determination on the part of the Government. For instance, for many years the RAF has been required to operate the flying scrapheaps known as Tristar and VC-10 aircraft for strategic air trooping, for getting our troops to and from the United Kingdom to theatre. Surely the Nimrod disaster demonstrates the difficulties and danger of using obsolete aircraft that our technical people do not fully understand. Can the Minister, or any other noble Lord, name any airline in the northern hemisphere which is still operating Tristar or VC10 aircraft for moving passengers?
I hope that the Minister will not use the red herring of the defensive aid suite as it would only take six months to fit it at Marshall Aerospace. FSTA will not come into operation for several years. Can the Minister say when the initial operating capability and full operating capability of FSTA will be in place for these aircraft, and can he remind us how long the procurement process took? Replacing these obsolete aircraft with modern, reliable ones would confer several advantages: first, the morale of troops would be improved because they would feel that the Government cared; secondly, operational efficiency would be improved; and, thirdly, it would demonstrate that the Government were serious about Afghanistan. The Minister must surely have asked for a cost-benefit analysis of using, say, A330s temporarily. Perhaps he could put a copy of that in the Library.
Many noble Lords have referred to the cuts in TA training and few did a better job in that regard than my noble friend Lord De Mauley. Many noble Lords, including the Minister, consider that the TA support to current operations has not been, and will not be, adversely affected, but what about the insurance against unexpected operations? We must not stop paying our insurance premiums. The TA soldiers who were mobilised for operations in Iraq in 2003 received minimal pre-deployment training. The reason for that was very good; there was simply not the time. But a big job is always a come-as-you-are party; there is no time for significant amounts of training. The recent cuts were very unwise but also symptomatic of the fact that the MoD has been bled dry. My noble friend Lord Astor of Hever posed a very telling supplementary question this week when he asked: "Crucially, what message does this send to the Taliban?"
No doubt the Minister will remind your Lordships that previous Conservative Governments reduced the size of the TA. I think that the TA had a strength of about 85,000 in 1984. However, immediately after the end of the Cold War, I do not recall the Labour Party strongly opposing these reductions. Even more telling is the fact that it made further reductions itself. For instance, under the SDR, the numbers were reduced but also the capability in that TA battalions were no longer designed to be deployable; they were purely training organisations.
The cuts to the TA were made necessary because there was a £176 million hole in the Land Command top-level budget. This was not necessarily Land's fault as there were exchange rate variations for costs in Germany; rising fuel costs and an unexpected increase in manning. I also understand that the cuts to the ACF and the CCF are still in place. That point was made by my noble friend Lady Seccombe. Am I correct? But in any case, in times of social stress, should we not increase expenditure on the ACF as it is a brilliant youth service?
Lord Addington: My Lords, this debate is one of those where a summing-up is either a joy because you have so much to go for, or a complete nightmare because there is so much to talk about. I pay the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, yet another career-damaging compliment when I say that he started with a worryingly fair and even-handed speech. Indeed, it was reassuring and relaxing to hear something that did not have too much electioneering in it. Of course, his noble friend Lord Foulkes was on hand to correct the balance.
This is a difficult subject and we have to make some very unpleasant choices. Two themes have emerged from today's speeches: we must be ready for the unexpected and we must deal with the matter at hand. Those two themes have run through this debate. Which is the most important? It is up to us to give anybody who aspires to sit on the Treasury bench that leadership because the military cannot and should not be allowed to take this decision. We have to decide what we expect our military to do and give them the right equipment. It is fair to say that we are in desperate need of a defence review, because the situation we have got into was not foreseen or planned for and we have been operating from crisis to crisis. The Gray report, which stands in the background-preparing for this debate was the first time that I had read it in any depth-suggests that the procurement process can best be described as a bugger's muddle. Projects are allowed to carry on and take money despite the fact that they are not working and are unlikely to deliver. I hope that this will give power to the Minister's elbow when he deals with the problem, as well as to anybody else who fulfils his role in the future. Without tackling this kind of waste, we will never properly make sure that our troops have adequate equipment to do the jobs we ask of them.
What are the jobs we ask of them? If we are to have a review, we must make a judgment on what our target is. If we are going to have to surrender some forms of capacity to enable us to do other things better-that is
6 Nov 2009 : Column 563
We need also to ask what the price will be of pulling out and failing in Afghanistan. Let us be absolutely clear: it may well be the total destabilisation of a huge part of Asia and a possible change of leadership in Pakistan, drawing India into an ever more heated conflict with its neighbour. Are we prepared to take that risk? Are we prepared to risk the consequences for our streets of having that conflict playing out?
Let us be very clear about our decisions. If we are not prepared to spend more money-and in the current environment, I do not think that anybody is suggesting a huge increase in defence expenditure-can we have the overall capacity to respond properly to every conceivable event? The answer is that we probably cannot. Does that mean that somebody is going to be annoyed and upset because something will be taken from them? Yes, it does. We must embrace this properly. The Gray report's reference to various chiefs of staff fighting over not only who has which piece of the pie but what is in it is very worrying. Gilbert and Sullivan-like images came to mind of gorgeously uniformed people complaining, "I want my particular little project" and browbeating Ministers. I am sure that it is not like that-at least, I hope that it is not-but that is the image that started to come to me. Unless we are prepared to say to people, "You will take the back seat at the next review", and make sure they understand that, this confusion will carry on.
We do not have to limit ourselves to one review. We should have frequent reviews, reflecting the fact that the world changes. We have the capacity to change our military strategy over X number of years. If it is necessary to buy in the technology and support to do it, so be it. If we are dealing with the world as it is, and not the way we have planned for it, which is half the problem with the military at the moment, we will have to look frequently at the situation and have the leadership to tell those in our military structures-and other politicians, who have nailed their colours to various masts-that, "The world has changed, that is no longer relevant, we are moving on". That will mean that other people will be upset frequently.
As I promised that I would not take up all the time allowed for the wind-up, as my noble friend used it, I come to one last area that has been mentioned. When I first started speaking on defence matters a few years ago, one of the first meetings that I went to was at the Royal British Legion to discuss its idea about the covenant for servicemen. It has been frequently pointed
6 Nov 2009 : Column 564
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I start by sending my condolences, and those of my party, to the families and friends of Warrant Officer Chant, Sergeant Telford and Guardsman Major of the Grenadier Guards, as well as Corporals Boote and Webster-Smith of the RMP. I also pay my respects to the soldier from the 3rd Battalion, The Rifles, who tragically died yesterday.
Along with other noble Lords, I pay tribute to the outstanding men and women serving in our Armed Forces, particularly those in Afghanistan. I should also like to say something of our close allies, embedded with us out in Afghanistan-those from the UAE, the Danes and the Estonians-who have fought alongside us. Despite what is said about some of our NATO allies, they have really got stuck in and have taken some serious casualties. I was privileged to go to Afghanistan, with the noble Lords, Lord Soley and Lord Dubs, earlier this year, and there is no doubt our troops are enormously grateful for their contribution.
This is a really important debate, which takes place at the end of an awful week for British forces in Afghanistan, and the departure, one hopes only temporarily, of the 600 UN staff from Kabul. Understandably, the speeches of most noble Lords and most noble and gallant Lords have been focused on Afghanistan. My noble friend, in an excellent opening speech, pointed out that the situation there is very grave and that the Government need to do much more at this critical time. My noble friend Lord Sterling asked where the political will was to win and where the leadership was. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, said that we needed clear direction and not hesitant leadership. The Government need to set realistic objectives and have a coherent narrative about why we are there. Why have they on two occasions appeared to agree to lower troop increases than initially requested? Have the three conditions that the Prime Minister set before sending the 500 more troops been met? The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, pointed out the vacuum that these 500 soldiers and their families are in while the Government dither.
The Minister touched on the Strategic Defence Review in his opening speech. We welcome the Green Paper; the SDR debate needs to be conducted properly. We should start off by asking, "What are the UK's foreign policy interests?", and then start thinking about capabilities. He mentioned three options that we have; to spend more, do less or do better with what we have. In the light of that, I would be grateful if the Minister could say a little more on what the Government expect from SDR. Given the critical state of finances, what update can he give on the implementation of the policy changes recommended by the Gray report?
My noble friends Lord Freeman, Lord Onslow and Lady Park all spoke passionately about the long-term effects on soldiers who have witnessed mentally stressful experiences, and the human and social cost. I shall echo the question from my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury: what are the Government doing to better advertise the help available to veterans and to GPs? Also, has the decompression programme in Cyprus, where troops go before returning to this country, been successful in cutting down on the immediate acts of aggression that my noble friend Lord Onslow mentioned?
Many noble Lords mentioned the TA, and I declare an interest as the honorary colonel of a TA regiment. My noble friend Lord King was rightly appalled that we are not getting the full commitment of reserves at a time when we are at war. The original announcement of cuts well and truly breached the military covenant. Indeed, my noble friend Lord De Mauley, a former CO of a TA regiment, said that it had not just been broken but smashed. My noble friend Lord Sheikh pointed out that if it had gone ahead, it would have been disastrous for TA morale. That was a worrying sign that the Government are prepared to do away with the "one army" concept that has worked so well during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is now commonplace for regular battle groups to deploy on operations with formed sub-units provided by the TA. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and I spoke to a number of reserves when we were in Afghanistan. All that is apart from the many specialists such as surgeons and nurses who deploy as individual augmentees. My noble friend Lord Marlesford, in an excellent speech, mentioned the trauma treatment at Bastion Hospital, where a lot of those people are based, and which certainly impressed me enormously when I visited it.
Can the Government reassure the House that they will, in future, consider the TA and reservists as an essential part of the order of battle, as they have shown themselves to be, not just an optional extra? I very much look forward to the Minister answering the question from my noble friend Lady Seccombe about university OTCs and cadet training instructors. Does he agree that these cuts are all the more disappointing when set against public announcements by the Prime Minister, by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and by other members of the Cabinet of plans to expand the cadets to increase opportunities for children of all backgrounds?
A number of noble Lords were concerned about helicopter shortages. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, said that there is a clear need for more
6 Nov 2009 : Column 566
Lord Astor of Hever: Well, my Lords, the HCDC report on helicopter capability in July this year showed that the UK Armed Forces helicopter fleet will lose 105 aircraft by 2020. The present force of 467 will be reduced to 365, a drop of 22 per cent. The MoD does not seem to understand the link between numbers and capability. When Britain's Armed Forces are likely to engage in operations for the foreseeable future, is this the best response?
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, and the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, pointed out the importance for this country of the free movement of maritime trade and a strong Royal Navy. In the light of that, can the Minister reassure the House that the "Queen Elizabeth"-class carriers will enter service as planned? The "Queen Elizabeth" is due in service in 2015 and the "Prince of Wales" in 2018. The present class of carriers are due out of service by 2016. How certain can the Minister be about this timetable? Are the Government satisfied with the progress of the Joint Strike Fighter?
The existing class of carriers have all undergone refits. HMS "Illustrious" is due out of service in 2016 as the last of the class of ships serving. She underwent a refit in 2005. Will the Minister clarify when "Illustrious" will next undergo a refit, or are we to assume that she will leave service in 2016 without having had a refit for 10 years? If this is the case, what effect will it have on her operational readiness?
The Navy has suffered from a shortage of personnel in some specialist areas, leading to ships going to sea with "gapped" posts remaining unfilled. Given the requirement to crew these two ships, will the Minister assure the House that the personnel budget for the Navy will not be reduced?
I was sorry to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Lee, said about the Trident replacement-we agree on many things-but was delighted to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, said. By 2024, two of the four Vanguard-class submarines will have gone out of service, and the first of the future submarines will need to be in service. The current critical path of the future deterrent programme is, therefore, the delivery of the
6 Nov 2009 : Column 567
We have all asked the Minister many questions today. If he cannot respond to them all today, I am sure that he will do so by letter. However, bearing in mind the critical situation in Afghanistan, and the serious problems that have been raised over procurement today, I would be grateful if he could say a bit more, in his wind-up, about the Government's thinking on the SDR.
Lord Drayson: My Lords, we have heard many thoughtful and wise contributions in the House today. I truly expected nothing less, given the expertise on defence that there is in the House. I will be taking noble Lords' ideas and recommendations back with me to the Ministry of Defence, and I will ensure that the MoD reflects carefully on them. I will read Hansard and ensure that all noble Lords' questions are answered fully if I do not answer them today.
The support that our Armed Forces receive in this House is abundantly clear today. The respect and esteem in which they are held is also clear. In summing up this debate, I reprise my opening position. The national security strategy provides the wider strategic policy and the context in the short to medium term. However, defence capabilities take far longer to build. As my noble friend Lord Soley said, these matters are complex and long-term. If we make judgments based only on a short-term view, we are bound to make changes that would not only be wrong but difficult to reverse further down the line. That is why I set out our current thinking on what strategic challenges this country is likely to face over the next 30 years.
However, I accept, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, and others have said, that the conduct of the operations in Afghanistan is uppermost in the public's mind. That is rightly so. Our people are putting their lives on the line. These are men and women who are committed to the fight. A number of noble Lords-the noble Lords, Lord King and Lord Lee, among them-have made the point that we are at war. We are. Afghanistan must be our top priority and it is.
The post-Strategic Defence Review funding of defence has been raised by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, and others. At the heart of this debate is the question of balancing ends and means. I have noted that several noble Lords have called for an increase in the defence budget. It is important for the public to know what the Conservative and Liberal Democrat policies on the defence budget are as we go into the general election. I think the noble Lord, Lord Lee, asked about the reserve and the funding of operations. The noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, also asked specific
6 Nov 2009 : Column 568
I said in opening that our conclusion from the strategic review is that Afghanistan gives us a hard insight into the nature of the future operations that our Armed Forces will have to contend with. It is also important that our society understands counterinsurgency operations to the same extent as it understands conventional warfare. Only by achieving that understanding will we get the full support of the general public for what our Armed Forces have to do. As my noble friends Lord Foulkes and Lord Soley, and the noble Baronesses, Lady D'Souza and Lady Falkner, have said, these operations are vital to our national security. Three-quarters of the most serious terror plots against the UK have roots in the border and mountain areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
We have a clear and focused objective: to prevent al-Qaeda launching attacks on our streets and threatening legitimate Governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan. To do that, we need to build the capability of the forces in Afghanistan and the capacity to deal with terrorism and extremism among the people themselves. The Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan threatens that capacity and the Afghan Government alone are not strong enough to maintain its security.
A peaceful and stable Afghanistan would be a strategic failure for al-Qaeda. Conversely, failure in Afghanistan would be a boost for terrorists and violent extremists in every part of the world. The bottom line is that success in Afghanistan is achievable, by which I mean Afghans themselves holding on to ground won from the insurgency and achieving lasting stability.
No matter the difficulties involved in building the capacity of the Afghan security forces-and this week's atrocity has brutally highlighted the risks involved-we cannot be diverted. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, described what were incorrect pre-reports of what the Prime Minister said in his speech this morning. If the House will allow me, I shall repeat what he actually said:
"It is well known that President Obama is considering his response to General McChrystal's report. It is clear that he sees that the response must come from the international coalition as a whole. For as we consider the nature of the threat we face, it is not just the US that is being tested in Afghanistan, nor is it just Britain; it is the whole international community. We entered together, more than forty nations, eight years ago. We must persist together; in our different ways we must all contribute. In the end, we will succeed or fail together, and we will succeed".
The Earl of Onslow: If that is the case-and I completely accept that it is-why on earth was the speech leaked? It was leaked, because it was in all the newspapers. A leak is just as damaging as what he said.
Lord Drayson: Having been on the receiving end of a leak earlier this week, I know exactly what the noble Earl means, but it is important that the general public and this House are aware of exactly what the Prime Minister said.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|