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Air Trooping Arrangements

Volume 490: debated on Monday 30 March 2009

The capacity and reliability of our air trooping arrangements are kept under constant review. Our capacity is sufficient to support the force levels currently committed to operational deployments. Some 92 per cent. of all UK trooping aircraft to and from Iraq and Afghanistan now arrive within six hours of their scheduled time.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. Despite having committed us to two wars, the Government have failed miserably to ensure that our troops have proper aircraft to be able to do their jobs safely and efficiently. Will he kindly inform the House what plans he has to rectify the failing?

I do not accept the premise on which the hon. Gentleman’s question rests. We have made significant investment: last year, we purchased two new C-17 aircraft to support these arrangements, and we have plans for significant additional procurement of aircraft to sustain them into the future. Given that we are fighting on two fronts, it is obviously important to have sufficient capacity to support troops who are fighting in our name in those two theatres—and we do. The draw-down of forces in Iraq, along with other measures that we are taking, will also significantly contribute to easing the pressure on the air bridge.

Members of the armed forces would be very surprised at the Secretary of State’s response so far. It is a fact that other parts of the armed forces blame the Royal Air Force for delays and breakdowns in the air bridge, but is not the real truth of the matter that it is the Government’s fault for not providing sufficient modern aircraft? Would he like to take this opportunity to apologise to the brave men and women of the RAF for the Government’s incompetence?

Once again, I do not accept anything that the hon. Gentleman has said. It is quite unfair for blame to be attached to the Royal Air Force, which does an outstanding job in supplying our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with the kit and capabilities that they need to do their job properly. We have made a very significant investment in new aircraft, and we are committed to making further substantial improvements to ensure that we have the aircraft, and therefore the supply lines into Iraq and Afghanistan, that our troops need.

NATO’s 60th anniversary summit will take place in Strasbourg this week, and it seems probable that President Obama may ask Britain to participate in his planned surge by allocating a further 2,000 troops, thus taking our number to 10,000. How convinced is the Secretary of State that the present trooping arrangements are sufficiently robust, flexible and reliable to handle any such request in a smooth and effective fashion?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. We do keep force levels in Afghanistan under careful review. We have not yet received any request from anyone to supplement existing levels of UK forces in Afghanistan but, as I have said, we keep an open mind about all these matters.

Some real problems have been faced by returning service personnel who have had long onward journeys home from recent visits to Iraq and Afghanistan—constituents of mine from Buckie, Elgin and Forres have all said that this is a live issue. Will the Ministry of Defence look closely at the problems faced by returning service personnel who have long onward journeys and at the subsequent loss of their home leave? That leave is obviously very precious.

Yes, we will obviously do that. I am not standing here to say that there are no improvements that can be made—of course, there are some. We work very closely with the services to try to ensure that we make improvements where we can. I accept absolutely the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised—we are alert and alive to them, and we are trying to work our way through those problems.

Given the reported four-year delay in the delivery of the A400M, is now not the time to start rethinking our entire policy on transport aircraft? We could extend the life of the C-130Ks, we could buy some more C-17s and, above all, we could keep them at RAF Lyneham.

Again, I think that we need to keep all the options open. The delay in the A400M is a matter of extreme regret and it poses very serious questions about the sustainability of our air logistics services—we will not compromise on those. We are having discussions with the partner nations to the A400M contract and with Airbus Military. We have to find a pretty rapid solution to the problem that has presented itself to us, but one thing I can say to the House is that we will not be content with a gap in capabilities.

The Secretary of State will be aware that a fortnight ago I was with my old battalion, the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment, as it deployed to Afghanistan. The worries of the families clearly revolved around the possible death or injury of their husbands, boyfriends and so on, but, above and beyond that, on the regiment’s previous tour they deeply resented the delays caused to rest and recuperation flights back from Afghanistan and to the final trooping flight when the battalion returned from there. I cannot overestimate the resentment that this caused, so will the Secretary of State assure me that will not happen again to the battalion?

Sadly I cannot give a 100 per cent. assurance. When there are interruptions in the air trooping arrangements, the mistake that many people make is to assume that they are because the aircraft are not capable of flying, or there is some other problem, when the problems are often to do with the operational effectiveness of the defensive aid suites that are fitted to the aircraft. They are complicated systems and we will not compromise on safety. If something is not functioning in the defensive aid suites, the flights will be delayed until that can be rectified. I fully acknowledge the frustration that that causes for servicemen and women and their families, and I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that we do everything that we possibly can to minimise disruptions. But we will not compromise on safety.

I went to Afghanistan in February, courtesy of the MOD, and I thank the Secretary of State for an interesting and valuable—albeit short—visit. In my experience—borne out when we went to Afghanistan—the RAF air bridge does not work well. The delay was not important for Members of Parliament, but for the soldiers, some of whom we met at Brize Norton and who had been waiting for three days. Part of the problem was aircraft and part of it was weather, but overall it was poor organisation—and the Secretary of State should look into that.

I understand that the problem with the hon. Gentleman’s flight was weather, and it was delayed for several hours. I referred in my original answer to the figures on punctuality, and I accept that punctuality is an important issue. We all understand the consequences of serious delay, and the effect that it can have on morale and families. We do everything that we can to minimise that. Sometimes, unfortunately and for a variety of reasons, there will be delays, but 92 per cent. of flights arrive within six hours of their scheduled arrival time.

Is not the truth that the main problem is simply that the TriStars we are using are clapped out, with only 44 per cent. of the fleet fit for purpose? The future strategic tanker aircraft, which is the replacement aircraft for both troop transport and the re-fuelling tanker, was supposed to be in service in 2007 initially: we are now told that it will be at least 2011. On top of the Nimrod delay of 92 months, the Astute submarine delay of 47 months and the Type 45 destroyer delay of 42 months, is not defence procurement another fine mess Labour has got us into?

No, and the hon. Gentleman should be very careful citing those examples, because those were all contracts let by the former Government. They were not let on proper terms, and that is especially true for the Astute contract—and he should know that. We do supplement with commercial scheduled flights where we can, and that has taken some of the pressure off the air bridge, but we continue to look very carefully at ways in which we can improve the service that we provide to our servicemen and women.

Is not the prevarication that we have seen exactly what we are now seeing with the A400M military transport fiasco? If that project is cancelled, and we are the last to pull out, we may be at the end of the queue to buy the necessary alternative capabilities—losers yet again. Thomas Enders, the chief executive of Airbus, said:

“It is better to put an end to the horror than have horror without end.”

Leaving aside the obvious political parallels with this Government, when will Ministers make a decision?