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Exercise Fire Focus

Volume 130: debated on Thursday 31 March 1988

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2 pm

I am grateful for this opportunity to initiate a debate on exercise Fire Focus and, in particular, on its diplomatic consequences. I was present when the Minister of State for the Armed Forces told the House on 11 February during the debate on the Royal Air Force:

"Next month we intend to hold the first full-scale reinforcement exercise, known as Fire Focus. The exercise will be directed by HQ RAF Strike Command at High Wycombe, and will take place between 7 and 31 March. It will involve the reinforcement of the garrison's air defences and an airlift of troops to the Falklands, followed by unit exercises to take advantage of the excellent training facilities in the islands." —[Official Report, 11 February 1988; Vol. 127, c. 532.]
It is possible that the phrase "full-scale" gave the impression that the exercise was to be bigger than was in fact intended. The Ministry of Defence press release mentioned
"significant numbers of troops and quantities of equipment."
As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, the announcement caused a considerable diplomatic flurry — greater, I suspect, than had been envisaged by the Foreign Office. Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Harding, no less, told an international press conference on 8 March that the announcement had created
"enormous ructions around the world."
In the Argentine, according to the Financial Times of 9 March,
"Political groups from the far-right and far-left held separate demonstrations in the capital, condemning not only `British imperialism', but also the Argentine Government for its supposed weak posture and its seeming lack of clear military contingency plans."
That Government, in a statement put out on 3 March, said of the exercise:
"In addition to violating the sovereign rights of Argentina, such action is in direct contradiction to the United Nations and OAS resolution on this question … In case of need the relevant defence plans shall be put in operation."
The armed forces were put on what was described
"defensive alert".
On 17 March Senor Dante Caputo, the Argentine Foreign Minister, told a special meeting of the United Nations Security Council that the exercise created tension and insecurity and threatened international peace. The Organisation of American States officially condemned the exercise, as did the Andean foreign ministers. The Group of 8 — the Contadora group — called for it to be cancelled. Brazil asked my hon. Friend the Minister to postpone his visit. A Foreign Office spokesman described bilateral relations with this increasingly important country as "awkward". United States' concern was clear. The Latin American editor of The Independent wrote on 18 February:
"The British exercises have caused a diplomatic flurry in Latin America, and irritation in the US State Department, where officials make no secret at their annoyance with what they see as Mrs. Thatcher's intransigence over the Falklands. The United States has been anxious to reduce tensions in the South Atlantic and restore its relationship with Argentina. Their frustration with Britain is exacerbated by specific differences of policy and interests between the two countries. Some US officials, for instance, wish to help Argentina to reequip its armed forces".
Other countries saw the exercise as a demonstration of force. In Britain, there was a surprising number of hostile comments in the press, and not just in The Guardian.The Times said that the Foreign Office was left
"with some catching up to do—and at a time when Britain is anxious to raise its trading profile on the South American continent. One must question therefore whether the ground was well enough prepared through Britain's embassies in Argentina's Latin neighbours … Britain should act to repair this damage quickly."
The Daily Telegraph headlined its editorial, "Act of Folly". It described Fire Focus as
"an insensitive piece of sabre-rattling".
It went too far. The exercise has undoubtedly restored the issue of the Falklands to international prominence and a number of points and questions arise from that fact.

I have no hesitation in saying that exercise Fire Focus, which finishes today, was a sensible and legitimate military measure and that there was an over-reaction in Argentina and some other Latin American countries.

The garrison in the islands has been reduced from some 5,000 to about 1,500—the figures are not made public. The other side of the coin is that rapid reinforcement by long-haul troop transport aircraft must be possible, and be seen to be possible, through practice. If such exercises do not take place, the Chief of Defence Staff would be right to call for a larger garrison. That is clearly not in the interests of Britain or of Argentina and certainly not in the interests of the islanders.

Exercise Fire Focus, which had been planned by the Ministry of Defence for several months and which involved a battalion of my old regiment — the Light Infantry—and did not involve the Royal Navy, had, I presume, been timed to coincide with the islands' summer, such as it is. In diplomatic terms, however, the timing was unfortunate. The United States has been mediating to try to avoid incidents between fisheries patrol vessels of Argentina and the United Kingdom and, it is hoped, perhaps to obtain a multinational fisheries agreement.

In Argentina, twice in the past year President Alfonsin has had serious problems with elements of the Argentine military which, according to today's papers, are still not completely over. Without doubt, the impression has been given at home and abroad that our Foreign Office played an insufficient part in the planning stages of the exercise. Perhaps its views were not sufficiently pressed home and taken into account. It had inadequately prepared the ground in Latin America—that is clear.

What advance notice was given to the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs by the Swiss ambassador acting on our behalf? We have complained in the past that Argentina has not given us sufficient notice of important developments. How much discussion took place with the United States' State Department beforehand? We clearly had a duty to keep our allies well briefed, and one wonders why it was necessary for the US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Latin American Affairs to make an unscheduled visit to Argentina after our official announcement. I trust that the exercise was a success in defence terms.

What is my hon. Friend doing to repair that diplomatic damage and to tidy up the diplomatic debris? Has a new date been agreed for his visit to Brazil? Where does that leave United States mediation on the fisheries regime? Are there draft plans for any such exercises in the future and, if so, how will the Foreign Office improve its performance next time around?

The events of the past few weeks also remind us, if any reminder is needed, that, although the guns stopped firing in the south Atlantic one cold morning almost six years ago, depressingly little progress has been made in patching up our historic quarrel with Argentina, a democratic pro-Western, potentially friendly nation. The Government have not yet achieved the restoration of diplomatic links, even at the most lowly level. How right was a previous Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which had a Conservative majority and Chairman, when it told the House, following a visit to the islands in January 1983:
"Your Committee do not believe that present policy, however necessary it may be in the short term, offers a stable future for the Islands. Not only are its material and political costs burdensome, but the policy itself is reactive and inflexible, and carries with it unfortunate implications for the wider conduct of foreign policy both now and for the future."
The passage of time has made the shortcomings of that policy even more apparent. Starting from a position of real moral and military strength, we are now on the defensive and find ourselves over this exercise — and, for that matter, every year in the United Nations General Assembly—widely criticised, even by our European and Commonwealth partners. The world does not support us over the question of the islands. It votes against us. The diplomatic initiative has been passed to the Argentine, which has also been inflexible.

The total cost for the financial years 1983–84 to 1987–88 is about £3,340 million, or about £160 per taxpayer. To put it another way, over four years, £3·3 billion was spent on behalf of the 400 families who make up the islands' population, when expatriates and their families are discounted. That was during a time of financial restraint at home.

Some 8 per cent. of the total efforts of the Royal Navy's dwindling number of destroyers and frigates is committed to the south Atlantic. In this country, the opinion polls suggest that, even among Conservative voters, the Government's policy is out of step with public attitudes. The public clearly want to see diplomatic relations restored and do not have a hang-up over the future of the region.

That part of the world is crying out for the diplomatic skills that the Government have been able to deploy and display over Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and Hong Kong and over negotiations with Spain on Gibraltar. That part of the world is well suited to a timely, vigorous and well-prepared intervention by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister so that we can move on in this Parliament to a new, profitable and, above all, peaceful period of cooperation with all the countries and people concerned with the future of the south Atlantic.

Order. Does the hon. Gentleman have the consent of the hon. Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) and the Minister to speak?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Tim Eggar)

indicated assent.

2.14 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) considerably overrates the damage that the exercise has done to Britain's relationship with Latin America. It is well known that Latin American solidarity is based on a different scale of priorities in considering its diplomatic position.

The only real tangible reaction that we have seen to the exercise has been the postponement of my hon. Friend the Minister's visit to Brazil. We should note carefully the reaction in Brazil to that decision to postpone his visit. The three major Brazilian newspapers based in Rio de Janeiro strongly criticised the cancellation of that visit and referred to what Brazilians and the Brazilian business community felt was the powerful relationship between Britain and Brazil.

My experience of Latin America is that the solidarity between Latin American countries is as wide as the River Plate, but it is only ankle-deep. Far more important to the individual countries of Latin America is their relationships as individual countries with Britain as one of the leading economies of the western world.

2.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Tim Eggar)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) for raising this subject and to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) for joining in.

A great deal has been said in the press and in international fora about exercise Fire Focus. Sadly, much of the speculation about its purpose and scope has been inaccurate and exaggerated. Perhaps, as a result, some of the international reaction has been ill-judged and inappropriate. Therefore, I particularly welcome this opportunity once again to set the record straight.

Let me begin by putting the exercise firmly in context. The Government are pledged to the defence of the Falkland Islands. Everybody recognises that. It is not a pledge that we take lightly. Our strategy for the defence of the islands depends crucially, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath has said, on an ability rapidly to reinforce our military presence there. We made that strategy absolutely clear in the White Paper in 1982.

Mount Pleasant airport was completed in 1985, allowing wide-bodied transport aircraft to land in the islands. Since then we have halved—I repeat halved— the size of the garrison. The garrison is now at the lowest minimum level consonant with a realistic defence capability.

Of course, that major reduction in force levels has been possible only because of the knowledge that we could, and would, be able to fly in reinforcements at short notice. But we cannot take that reinforcement capability on trust. We have to test it regularly. We hope never to have to reinforce the garrison in earnest, but that is an eventuality that no responsable Government can lightly leave to chance.

Many other nations conduct similar, routine reinforcement exercises. Those exercises are accepted as a normal part of the process by which we work to maintain our security. That is well understood. No one can seriously suggest that the holding of such exercises brings us somehow to the brink of hostilities.

Accordingly, let me emphasise that exercise Fire Focus was not in any way a response to an increase in tension in the area. It was not conceived abruptly, or with any provocative intent. On the contrary, as I have already said, we made it clear in 1982 in a White Paper on the Falklands campaign that reinforcement exercises would be carried out as and when necessary—a fact which, I have to say, some commentators, and even hon. Members, seem conveniently to overlook. I exempt my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath from that.

Following the completion of Mount Pleasant airport, the austral summer of 1988 was timely for operational, logistical and weather reasons. As my hon. Friend has said, my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces announced the exercise in the House on 11 February. He made it plain that the exercise was routine. He also pointed out that, by its very nature, it contributed to an overall lowering of tension in the region as an integral part of a policy of maintaining a reinforcement capability, and, hence, only a minimum permanent garrison in the island.

My hon. Friend has claimed that a decision to hold the exercise shows a lack of co-ordination at the very least between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. I want to assure my hon. Friend that the Foreign Office was consulted about the exercise at an early stage. I cannot for one moment agree that the responsibility for maintaining our commitment to the Falkland Islands is incompatible with maintaining and developing our good relationships in the region as a whole.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath asked whether we had informed the Argentine Government in advance about the exercise. The Swiss ambassador informed the Argentine authorities on the morning of 12 February, the announcement having been made in the House the previous evening. My hon. Friend would have been surprised if the Argentine Government had been informed before the House of the decision to hold the exercise. We must remember that the Argentines have been aware for many years of our policy of practising exercises for the reinforcement of the garrison.

Fire Focus was conducted deliberately with the smallest number of troops and aircraft required to provide a realistic test of reinforcement capability. Fewer than 1,000 men and only a small number of aircraft were involved. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath said, the exercise was concluded today. The garrison has now returned to its former size. There has been no permanent increase in force levels. I am happy to say that Fire Focus has been a success and we have shown that we can and will honour our commitments to the Falkland islanders.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath referred to the reaction in Argentina to the reinforcement exercise. Following its announcement, the Argentine Government called for the cancellation of the exercise. They sought to apply pressure in the international ora and through third countries. They tabled a resolution before the Organisation of American States and called for a debate in the Security Council. That was a quite unjustified reaction to a purely routine and defensive exercise. The exaggerated nature of the Argentine response was reflected in their public statements. The Argentines spoke of the involvement of 5,000 troops and large numbers of aircraft, figures which frankly were simply plucked out of thin air and did not bear any relation to reality.

Accusations were also made that the exercise was contrary to the spirit of the United Nation's resolution creating a south Atlantic zone of peace. That resolution was instigated by Brazil and we, of course, supported it. Yet the resolution in no way limits the right of states to take adequate precautions to defend their territory.

The exercise was not the result of any increase in tension in the area. We welcome statements by the Argentine Government that they will seek to resolve differences between Britain and Argentina only by peaceful means. We wish Argentina's democratic Government well. We look forward to the day when the Argentine Government will recognise the democratic right of the Falkland islanders to live in peace and security under a Government of their own choosing. However—and this is a very important point—we must recognise that the Argentine Government do not recognise that democratic right at present. So long as the Argentines maintain their claim to the Falklands, we shall have to retain a capacity to deal with the unexpected. The House would rightly criticise us if we shirked that clear national responsibility.

We fully recognised that exercise Fire Focus would arouse interest and perhaps concern in Latin America, even though our policy of carrying out such exercises was already well known. We took considerable care to explain our position to some Governments most closely concerned with the exercise. If some of the public statements from the Organisation of American States failed to reflect what we said to it, of course we regret that. However, I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath that some of the speeches came as no surprise to us.

My hon. Friends referred to the decision by the Brazilian Government to postpone my visit to Brazil. We have already made clear our attitude to that postponement. Personally, I very much regret the postponement, especially in view of our good bilateral relations and because I wished Brazil to be the country of my first visit to Latin America. It was unfortunate that I was denied an opportunity to explain clearly and to discuss our policies on the Falklands and a wide range of other issues, but I am confident that the overall quality of our relations with the countries of Latin America will not be affected. Other opportunities for interchange will be found in the not-too-distant future.

Looking back on it, does my hon. Friend agree that it would have been better if the initial statement had spelt out the small size of the force taking part?

Of course, my hon. Friend has the benefit of hindsight. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces made it clear in his statement that it was a limited, routine exercise, and there was an overreaction to that statement. I believe that my hon. Friend recognises that.

Finally, since 1982, we have sought ways of restoring more normal relations with Argentina. We see no contradiction between improving our bilateral relations with Argentina and defending the rights of the Falkland islanders to decide their future. To the Argentines, negotiations on sovereignty mean simply the transfer of the islands to Argentina, irrespective of the wishes of the islanders. But the search for more normal relations with Argentina has always been our aim, and it will remain so. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has repeatedly made it clear that the desk of the Argentine Foreign Minister is groaning under the weight of our proposals. I regret that the Argentine Government's response has been so disappointing.

Let us consider the facts. In September 1982, we agreed with Argentina to abolish the financial restrictions that both sides had introduced at the time of the conflict. We honoured our undertaking immediately and in full. Argentina has implemented that undertaking only partly, and there are still restrictions against British companies in Argentina. In 1983, we proposed the resumption of air links, but the Argentine Government have yet to reply. The Argentines have failed to respond to our frequent demonstrations of readiness to return Argentine military dead to Argentina. Nor have they taken up our offer to accept a bona fide visit to the islands by Argentine next-of-kin. Further, in 1985, we unilaterally lifted all trade restrictions on Argentina. Once again there has been no reply.

If my hon. Friend wishes to effect an improvement in Anglo-Argentine relations—that has been his objective for several years and he has pursued it assiduously—he should direct his efforts to encouraging a more positive attitude in the Argentine Government. They must respond to the many initiatives that we have taken.

I end on a more positive note. My hon. Friend mentioned the exchanges that have taken place, via the Americans, on fisheries. He knows that more than a year ago we began to exchange ideas with Argentina on how both countries could co-operate on fisheries conservation in the south Atlantic. That exchange stemmed directly from an initiative that we took at the Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome because we were concerned about the conservation of fish stocks in the south Atlantic. I am happy to say that that exchange on fisheries with Argentina continues. I can assure the House and my hon. Friend that we shall do all we can to help that exchange succeed. We very much hope that the Argentine Government will respond positively.

We hope that six years after the Falklands conflict the Argentines will recognise that the only realistic way to improve relations is through co-operation on practical measures of benefit to both our countries.