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UK Armed Forces (Operational Direction)

Volume 459: debated on Tuesday 1 May 2007

I have been applying for this debate for several months, so it is somewhat ironic that I have secured it so soon after Thursday’s debate in the House on defence in the United Kingdom. That is, however, extremely convenient, because it enables me to enlarge on what I have said previously about the war on terror and how the UK is dealing with insurgency. We should not doubt that our troops are engaged in two of the most difficult and deadly wars against ruthless enemies. We all regret the loss of life in those wars, but we support fully the people who serve in those theatres on the UK’s behalf.

It is a great pity that a debate on such an important issue should be held in Westminster Hall rather than in the main Chamber with many Members of Parliament present. However, as a Back Bencher, I have to use any means in my armoury to draw attention to these vital matters. It feels quite lonely to be standing here with just the Minister and his Parliamentary Private Secretary present, but, never mind; we shall fire on all cylinders none the less. Having been briefed twice by the Ministry of Defence in recent months, I know that the Minister and his team take these debates seriously.

In military procurement terms, the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union were not so very long ago. Much of our military hardware was designed for that era when the battleground was northern Europe and wars would be short, sharp and fought over limited distances, leaving our forces either defeated or victorious. Army vehicles, in particular, were never intended to travel vast distances in inhospitable conditions where constant maintenance is required, consequently imposing a heavy demand for spare parts.

Our troops today, particularly those in Afghanistan, operate with equipment that was designed for use in northern Europe in another age but that is now expected to fulfil a different—indeed, contrary—role to that for which it was originally destined. All the nations operating in Afghanistan are finding the maintenance of equipment and the supply of spares to be a nightmare. Surely, what is required is equipment that is not too technical, that can be maintained and repaired in the field and that can stand up to the rugged terrain and extreme temperatures. It is no good having manpower tied up in the field with equipment out of action because of problems with supply and spare parts.

With the future rapid effect system programme, about which I have serious misgivings, considering armoured vehicles, the powers that be should bear in mind that what is required is basic, practical, simple and rugged equipment for which maintenance costs will not be greater than acquisition costs. I trust, too, that European Union health and safety laws, emissions standards and the like will not apply to military vehicles. The authorities must understand that the Ministry of Defence is not social services, but has two wars on its hands that must be won.

In the past two decades, military thinking on procurement has been split between the integrationist European Union approach to defence and our link with the United States of America. As a result, billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money have been wasted by this and previous Governments on projects such as the joint US-UK TRACER-FSCS programme to develop a tracked armoured reconnaissance vehicle to replace the British Army’s ageing Scimitar. The MOD pulled out of that project in 2000, before the first prototype was ready, in order to pursue a European project, losing at least £131 million for absolutely no gain.

Another example of waste concerns the Italian-built future command and liaison vehicle, the Panther, which costs £413,000. Those vehicles were supposed to carry out some of the roles of the TRACER, but are useless for patrolling or undertaking other functions in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Their cost—£166 million for 401 vehicles—is therefore dead money.

The German-built Cobra anti-battery radar is high-tech equipment made to detect the source of artillery shells, mortars and rockets. Ten sets were procured at a cost of £17.8 million each, but US-built Firefinder systems could have been bought at less than £10 million each, which would have saved £82 million and would have given the Army a perfectly acceptable anti-artillery capability.

The TRIGAT projects on medium and long-range anti-tank missiles are yet another case in point. British participation in those European projects, which were appropriately developed by Euromissile, cost the UK more than £314 million before we had to pull out when the systems failed to deliver. That money was a total loss and the MOD had to make a rushed purchase of US-built Javelin missiles to equip the Army.

Another example is the multi-role armoured vehicle project, the Boxer. The MOD pulled out of that joint German, Dutch and British venture, which was managed as a European project, after the vehicle proved to be too big and heavy for the RAF’s fleet of Hercules transporters, with a total loss to the defence budget of £48 million.

The MOD has either spent or committed to spend £1.045 billion on developing unmanned aerial vehicles—first with the Phoenix, on which £345 million was lost, and now with the Watchkeeper, which is to be built by the French-owned company Thales. Despite that extraordinary expenditure, however, the MOD has no UAV capability in theatre other than the Desert Hawk, which is a mini-UAV, and is having to spend more than £60 million on buying or leasing US Predator UAVs. Had the UK bought that system in the first place, it might have saved more than £400 million.

The MOD has already bought 22 Westland-Agusta Merlin HC3 transport helicopters and will now buy another six. Working out their purchase price is well nigh impossible, but given that they are estimated to cost £30 million each, US equivalents would have been less than half price. Alternatively, the RAF could have bought Chinooks at £25 million each, thus saving £110 million and considerably more on maintenance. I am sure the Minister will know that the Merlins are currently exceeding expected maintenance costs by more than 200 per cent.

The Eurofighter aircraft, which cost more than £60 million each, are an acknowledged cold war relic. Although they are rated highly as interceptors, current versions have no ground-attack capability. The US-built F-16s are adequate fighters with proven ground-attack capability and would have cost about £20 million each. With 232 notionally on order, the MOD could have saved more than £10 billion.

Money has also been wasted on weapons. The European designed Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missiles cost an amazing £1 million each—yes £1 million—for what is effectively a 1,000 lb bomb. The MOD has bought 900 of them, but it could have saved more than £830 million if it had bought the US equivalent, the joint air-to-surface stand-off missile. The Eurofighter is also to be equipped with European-designed air-to-air missiles that are known as Meteor. Given the total costs of more than £1.4 billion, purchase of US-designed Raytheon missiles, which have been bought anyway as a stop gap until Meteor is ready, would have saved the MOD a cool £900 million.

Then, in the rush for harmonisation, the MOD joined the French and Italians on the Horizon programme for a common frigate, which was formalised in 1992. The UK eventually pulled out of it in April 1999 after failure to agree a common specification and amid complaints of “unfocused management”. The estimated loss was £537 million, and the French and Italians were left to continue with the project—I hope that they can afford it.

Co-operation did not end with the Horizon project. Although the MOD decided to go it alone, with the platform emerging as the Type 45 destroyer, the ship is largely equipped with European-designed missile launchers and missiles. They largely account for the huge cost of £1 billion per ship, which is some £400 million more that the Australians were considering paying for the more capable US-designed Arleigh Burke class missile destroyers. I understand that the Australians are now considering a version of the Spanish Fl00 air defence destroyer, thereby shaving another 1 billion Australian dollars off their projected costs. As five ships are planned for the Royal Navy, the UK could have saved at least £2 billion had it followed a similar path.

For the Type 23 anti-submarine frigates, the UK developed its Type 2087 sonar, at £9 million per set. The development costs were an additional £300 million, given virtually as a free gift to the French company that bought the UK manufacturer, leaving it free to sell cut-price versions to the French navy. Had the UK bought from the Americans, it could have saved that £300 million.

Finally, I turn to the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system. By the time that that is fully operational, the UK will have paid £400 million towards its development and commissioning costs. The system is then to be used to underpin the European rapid reaction force. However, the US Navstar global positioning system is already available and is totally free of charge, thus the £400 million is a total waste of money for what is merely a duplicate system.

Pulling together all these costs, excluding those of Eurofighter, which is a special case, the excess payments amount to £8.8 billion, and that, I repeat, for no gain whatsoever. That is considerably more than is spent in one year on procurement and, to put it in context, would buy 35,000 RG31 mine protected vehicles or 350 Chinook helicopters and goodness knows how many Hueys—the Bell 212 aircraft.

That is the measure of the waste of valuable resources on defence projects and those figures make a mockery of those who say that the military is underfunded. When the Prime Minister called for a debate on defence, like many others I welcomed the suggestion, because the direction in which the UK is heading clearly needs to be defined. It is, for example, simply no good having equipment to wage war in the future when that equipment is not compatible with that of the Americans. The UK as a nation has neither the financial nor the military capability to divorce itself from reality. If we believe that the war on terror is our most serious threat, the MOD should be planning to procure the right equipment for our troops, rather than throwing them into situations where they have not been best served by their kit.

In last Thursday’s debate, I tried to drive home the fact that technology can be of great assistance, but simple platforms are often the best for delivery. They are easy to maintain and they save on non-combatant manpower and spare parts, thereby proving not to be horrendously expensive. A good example of that is the Iraqi air force Sama light aircraft, which is doing the same job on surveillance as the Future Lynx helicopter will do. The RAF has as its trainer the Tucano T mark 1 aircraft, and there is now a ground attack version ideally suited for the extreme hot and cold conditions in Afghanistan. It could give all-round close air support to our troops, as opposed to the present situation in which an aircraft has to be called up, possibly even has to take off, arrives too late in theatre and then is unable to deliver because of the close proximity of insurgents. We should perhaps recall the hard-won lessons of Vietnam and Korea, and of even the second world war: it is a fact that the smaller the fixed-wing aircraft, the less likely it is to be shot down.

There should be a complete rethink about how we approach such operations. Overspending can create a problem by providing over-complicated pieces of equipment. The MOD and the military chiefs need to get back to the basics. To prove the point, I should ask, tongue in cheek, whether the Minister can tell me how many pack animals are being used in Afghanistan—after all, one cannot get more basic than that. It gives some idea of the type of terrain faced by our troops serving out there.

I welcome the recent announcement on, of all places, the European Defence Agency website, of 180 medium protected patrol vehicles for delivery in 2009, the contract value of which will be in the region of £20 million to £100 million. Will the Minister tell me when the actual order will be placed, and why the announcement was not made on the MOD website? It is not one of the most brilliant websites, but it would have been considerably enhanced by this news. Surely that is where any announcement should first be made; after all, the Minister is not trying to bury bad news, but to give some rather encouraging and welcome news for a change.

I am convinced that debates such as this one, poorly attended as it is, can have an influence on the direction of the MOD, and that the issues raised are being taken seriously because, slowly but surely, military thinking and direction is changing. However, I cannot make out whether the MOD, the defence chiefs and top civil servants are co-operating closely or as well as they could, and which constraints appear to be limiting their effectiveness. Unless change takes place quickly, the UK will fail to give its service personnel the proper support that they need to win the war on terror, and there will be little or no chance of winning insurgency wars either now or in the future.

Before I respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), may I regretfully announce that another soldier has died in Iraq since the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram) and I addressed the House last Thursday? On 29 April, Rifleman Paul Donnachie of the 2nd Battalion, The Rifles was killed by small-arms fire in Basra. I am sure that the hon. Lady will join me in sending our sympathies and condolences to his family and friends.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate on what she rightly says is an important subject, on which she has a great deal of knowledge, and as we heard last week, she gives a considered speech on the issues about which she feels passionate. I hope to respond to a number of those issues today, as well as to set out the wider context of the equipment programme and the operational direction of our armed forces.

I am sure that hon. Members will join me and the hon. Lady in paying tribute to our armed forces for the courage and professionalism that they show—day in, day out— in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. I welcome the opportunity to debate the direction in which we are taking our forces. The Government have a very clear vision for ensuring that we deal with today’s operational requirements and prepare for the future.

It is important to set out the context of two of our current operations—those in Iraq and Afghanistan—by talking about the challenges we face today. In both those places, our service personnel are performing outstandingly in the most difficult of conditions.

Our forces remain in Iraq under the authority of UN Security Council resolution 1723, as part of a 26-nation coalition and at the request of the democratically elected Government of Iraq. The situation remains difficult—we understand the issues and challenges that we face. The hon. Lady talked about the serious insurgency that is taking place, although it is lesser in Basra than in Baghdad. It is worth stating that, although the current level of violence in Baghdad and surrounding provinces is of grave concern, the security picture elsewhere in Iraq is not as bleak, with the majority of attacks—about 80 per cent.—confined to four of the 18 provinces.

Much progress has been made by our armed forces, working in partnership in Iraq. A new Iraqi Government and an ambitious programme of security sector reform are resulting in Iraqi forces increasingly taking the lead, with the handover of four provinces to Iraqi security control, most recently Maysan on 18 April.

Our commitment to Iraq is long term, and our goal remains an Iraq that can govern itself, with a functioning economy and capable security forces. Our forces will remain to provide support and training even after we have handed over security responsibility for all the provinces in the south-east, which we hope to do later this year.

I shall touch on Afghanistan before responding to the more substantive issues raised by the hon. Lady. In Afghanistan, we are part of an international effort, backed by the UN, to support the democratically-elected Afghan Government. Afghanistan was a base for international terrorism, and we cannot let it become that again. It is in our national interest to be there.

The campaign is not a traditional battle, and the hon. Lady made that point. Demonstrating progress is not as simple as being able to point to towns being liberated, ground being taken or enemy killed. Progress can be measured by milestones, such as democratic elections—there were successful ballots in 2004 and 2005—and social indicators, such as the increase in the number of girls attending school and the nearly 5 million refugees who have been able to return. When there is security, construction and development follows.

International assistance on security, governance, development, justice and economic reform has brought about great progress. The UK has, of course, played a central role, which we are rightly proud of. However, there is more to do, particularly in the south. Achieving our objectives in Afghanistan will take time, and we are committed to the task, but we must be patient. Our mission in Bosnia, which is a relatively prosperous and developed country, has taken 15 years, and there is still more to do.

We are under no illusions that, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we face difficult and dangerous insurgencies. The safety of our personnel on operations is a prime concern, but there is no such thing as perfect protection. Military operations are inherently risky, and if our troops are to fulfil their mission in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, they must expose themselves to danger, precisely because of which we treat the protection of our service men and women so seriously.

We have used the urgent operational requirement process to procure a fleet of new, protected patrol vehicles to supplement the vehicles already in theatre. Mastiff, Vector and Bulldog are already on the streets, saving lives and proving hugely popular with troops. We have invested hugely in new equipment to meet the specific circumstances and evolving threats of conflicts. About £6.6 billion has been provided for those theatres since 2001. That has been new money from the reserve; it has not come from the defence budget, or at the expense of spending on future needs and assets. It includes £700 million spent through the UOR process on new force protection equipment for those theatres on everything from body armour to electronic countermeasures. There is a whole range of issues, and we have made progress in force protection and support in our operations.

Those UORs complement the equipment programme, which is funded from the defence budget and is designed to deliver the long-term core capabilities that our forces need. Both the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have acknowledged how good the UOR process is at rapidly delivering to the front line the battle-winning capability required by our armed forces. However, equipment alone is not the answer to countering insurgency. Training, tactics and procedures are also most important. They are kept under constant review by the services to evolve and to meet changing needs.

I can reassure the hon. Lady that our service personnel in theatre are equipped and prepared for their current tasks. It is simply wrong to suggest that the Government would deploy our armed forces if they were unprepared for the threats that they might meet. We have introduced a range of new systems over the last few years that have significantly enhanced our forces’ capability to conduct counter-insurgency operations, including underslung grenade launchers, head-mounted night vision equipment, new light machine guns, ballistic eye protection, and a range of other offensive and defensive systems, including armoured vehicles and the helicopter uplift.

The hon. Lady spoke about equipment and support. We have delivered equipment valued at more than £10 billion to the armed forces in the past few years, and we have given priority to equipping our people. My experience from when I visited Afghanistan and Iraq and talked to many hundreds of service personnel is that they believe that their personal equipment is the best that they have ever had. Equipment and equipping people properly is a priority.

On procurement of equipment, the defence industrial strategy sets the framework for a better relationship between the Ministry of Defence and industry. It will help to deliver the capability that our armed forces need with best value for money for taxpayers. We have successfully merged the organisations that procure and support military equipment and create defence equipment and support. That establishes a unified approach to the procurement and through-life support of equipment from the factories to the front line, thus improving capability and reducing costs.

I remind the Minister gently of my two specific questions, to which I would like a reply before the end of the debate. First, why did the recent announcement appear on the European Defence Agency website and not the MOD website? Secondly and more importantly, when will the order for the 180 medium-protected patrol vehicles be placed?

I will write to the hon. Lady on those two specific points.

It is important, for the reasons expressed by the hon. Lady, to accept that there have been procurement mistakes, but we want to learn from those and to ensure that we develop and produce high-quality, battle-winning equipment at the forefront of technology. We continue to make progress, but when things go wrong, we acknowledge that and want to put them right.

Referring back to the title of the debate and operational direction, it is important to remember that our nation has a proud history of responding to the challenges of an uncertain world, and we must continue to do so. We recognise that the major security challenges are those posed by international terrorism, by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and by failed and failing states. Our armed forces are proving that they can meet those challenges. However, while our focus remains heavily on current operations in an uncertain world, we must also be ready to meet tomorrow’s threats and challenges. We cannot assume that they will be the same as those facing us today. Let us just look at the range of operations that our forces have faced in recent years. Sierra Leone, East Timor, Kosovo, Bosnia, Lebanon, disaster relief in Pakistan and the Indian ocean, and the early stages of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan had little or no counter-insurgency element, but there is no guarantee of whether the next ones will.

Other fast-accelerating trends are complicating the picture. Issues such as climate change, changing demographics and new technologies may further exacerbate existing security problems or present security challenges of their own. For example, changes in the geopolitical balance might even result in the re-emergence of state-on-state warfare in the longer term with an impact on our interests, especially in an increasingly globalised world. We cannot predict whether and how those developments will evolve and interact, or how they will affect us. It would be irresponsible not to maintain armed forces that are balanced, agile and adaptable. That provides some insurance against the inherent uncertainty of the future.

We need balanced forces capable of responding to a broad range of scenarios, and we must acknowledge that, once a capability is removed, it takes many years to get it back, if it can be restored at all. Nor can we rely on our allies to provide the capabilities that we need in the circumstances that we need them. However, I accept the hon. Lady’s important points about our relationship with the United States and our other partners.

Against that background, we must maintain the capability to undertake conventional hard-war fighting, counter-terrorism, intelligence gathering, peace-enforcement, peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. To prepare for the future, we must sometimes preserve capabilities that might be more likely to be used tomorrow than today. But we should not forget that major platforms, such as aircraft carriers, Typhoon and nuclear submarines, have a role to play in today’s operations.

Typhoon will provide the RAF with a world-class, multi-role aircraft for use on expeditionary operations. Our Astute class nuclear submarines, such as those currently in service, will be equipped with land attack missiles that are capable of delivering effect many hundreds of miles from the sea, as they did in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. New aircraft carriers allow us to project force across the world in a range of scenarios from diplomacy and persuasion to war fighting, just as their predecessors did in Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Iraq. We shall make an announcement on carriers when the time is right. We must continue rigorously to examine our relative priorities to allow focused investment in those that we need most, and we do so.

The hon. Lady was right to draw attention to the need to ensure that we have the balance right between meeting the very demanding operations that our forces face now and the less predictable challenges of the future.