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Afghanistan

Volume 493: debated on Monday 1 June 2009

4. What plans he has for the future provision of military equipment to service personnel in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (277536)

We plan to continue to supply our troops in Afghanistan with the best possible equipment: personal equipment, weapons and communication systems, as well as intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—ISTAR—assets, armoured vehicles, helicopters, electronic countermeasures and all the rest. Highlights this year so far have been the delivery to theatre of Mastiff 2, Ridgback and Panther. I hope that in the next couple of months we shall deliver Jackal 2, and in the course of the year we shall make more Chinooks available for deployment in Afghanistan, as well as the first Merlins to be used there. Early next year, the new upgraded Lynxes will be delivered.

I thank my hon. Friend for that extensive answer. He will be aware of the comments by Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the Army, who said that he was worried about the distant future and the need to “muddle through” that might arise in respect of the weapons that are to be sent to the Army. He also said that the weapons were not up to the standard required, and that they arrived too late. Has my hon. Friend had any discussions with Sir Richard, and if so, what was the outcome?

I have regular discussions with Sir Richard Dannatt, a man for whom I have the greatest admiration and regard. He is a very fine officer—and I have to say that I think that he has been misquoted by my hon. Friend. I am quite certain that he did not say those things about the weapons that we are delivering to Afghanistan being inappropriate. As for their being too late, I have just given an example of how we are delivering weapons systems and other equipment remarkably rapidly, sometimes within six months of the order going out to the supplier.

May I ask a question about helicopters? Incidentally, I am delighted that RAF Odiham in my constituency has been reprieved, and I hope that it now faces a long period of stability and investment. I want to ask about helicopters in the coming period. In the next three or four years, as old helicopters are phased out and before new ones have come on stream, there is likely to be a reduction in the availability of helicopters. What do the Government propose to do about that gap?

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his advocacy of RAF Odiham, for which he is famous in the House, and I am glad that he is happy with the news of the latest developments. As for helicopters, I look forward to discussing that matter in greater detail with the Defence Committee, to which I have been invited, tomorrow. As I think he knows, we are looking at a series of possible upgrades and life extension programmes for our existing fleet of helicopters, as well as focusing on the need for the future medium helicopter. Decisions on all these matters will be taken in the coming months. It will give me great pleasure to go through some of the issues with the right hon. Gentleman tomorrow, if he so wishes. As I frequently say—internally and, increasingly, externally—when it comes to helicopters, I am interested in outputs rather than inputs. Since November 2006—if I have the figures absolutely correct—we have succeeded in achieving an 80 per cent. increase in the helicopter hours available to commanders in Afghanistan. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman regards that, as I do, as a fine achievement and a positive step in the right direction.

Can the Minister confirm that the problems experienced with rucksacks that are ill-fitting with the body armour that we supply to our armed forces in Afghanistan have now been resolved? Does he agree that in dealing with problems like this, it is imperative to act quickly?

I am totally with my hon. Friend on that latter point. Yes, we have looked into issues surrounding the burden of rucksacks in relation to the armour and so forth. It is an enormously important issue, because our troops have to carry enormous weights in very hot conditions, and I am concerned to ensure that we do everything possible continually to improve their personal equipment. The whole procurement function, as I see it, is one of managing continuing improvement. We have to remain flexible, we have to remain alert, and we have to ensure that everything we do gets better all the time. That has indeed been the story of our recent achievement, and we will continue it further. In the course of the next couple of months I shall be in Afghanistan again, and I shall talk, as I have before, individually to many people in all ranks about their issues with equipment, including the personal equipment to which my hon. Friend referred, and what they feel about all aspects of it.

The Minister will be well aware of the considerable overstretch that our troops face in Afghanistan, so can he update the House and tell us whether he has had any success in persuading other European members of NATO to supply more military equipment for our forces out there?

I do not accept the hon. Lady’s characterisation of the situation as one of overstretch. Of course, our forces have been under considerable stretch recently—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] “Overstretch” implies that our troops are being asked to undertake tasks that they are not able to undertake, which has not been the situation. The distinction between stretch and overstretch is very important, and I hope that she recognises it. Furthermore, with the end of our operations in Iraq, the stretch and the stress have been reduced. The hon. Lady will know that our last combat troops came back from Iraq just last week—indeed, I was privileged to be at RAF Honington when the RAF Regiment returned after a gallant deployment—so she is looking at the issue from the wrong angle. That said, yes, we have made considerable progress in persuading our NATO allies to make further contributions. The French, for example, have doubled theirs from 2,000 to 4,000 troops.

I was very glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) mentioning the weight of the personal equipment that our service personnel have to carry. Will the Minister tell the House a little more, particularly about body armour and the personal electronic countermeasures equipment, which seem to be the two main sources of the problem? What is being done to try to reduce the weight of those particular items?

A great deal of work is being done to improve the armour. I believe that our Osprey armour is the best armour available to anyone in the world today. We would like to improve it further and make it more effective; at the same time—there are obviously trade-offs to be made here—we would like to make it lighter if we can. We are making a continuing effort on electronic counter-measures, but I hope that my hon. Friend recognises that it would be in nobody’s interest—least of all that of our troops deployed in Afghanistan—for me to go into the details in public.

We are indeed looking forward to seeing the Minister before the Select Committee tomorrow. We just hope that he will allow time for us to ask the questions.

Apart from the helicopters, what equipment is being reassigned from Iraq to Afghanistan?

I may say to the hon. Gentleman that when I appear before a Select Committee, I regard the time involved as a matter for the Committee. I shall be there for as long as the Committee requires me to be there.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, probably the most important asset to be reassigned from Iraq to Afghanistan immediately—or at least within a few months, after some maintenance and upgrade work—will be the Merlins. A number of other individual items of equipment may go to Afghanistan, but no precise decisions have been made about that yet.

Concerns remain about the loss of lives as a result of improvised explosive devices. Can my hon. Friend say any more about the urgency that he attaches to the provision of greater armour for vehicles to protect our troops from explosions of that kind?

As my hon. Friend probably recognised, many of the vehicles that I listed earlier are new generation. Mastiff 2 will follow Mastiff 1, Jackal 2 will follow Jackal 1 within the next couple of months, and Snatch Vixen will follow Snatch. Each of those developments involves a considerable enhancement in the survivability and protection afforded by the vehicles concerned. It is clear that there is no way in which a vehicle can be protected against absolutely any level of blast—and, sadly, that there is no way in which we can engage in armed conflict without losing troops. That is a tragic but, I am afraid, inescapable fact. We make continual efforts to improve our game, re-examining our tactics and counter-measures and trying to make them more effective, and we are succeeding—although, as I have said, I will not talk about that in public for obvious reasons. We are providing a new and ever-enhanced series of armoured vehicles and other forms of protection, and I look forward to reporting to the House on further improvements in future.

In the light of reports that American-fired enhanced-blast munitions may have caused 140 civilian deaths in an air strike on 4 May, can the Minister guarantee that British munitions, which have been used 43 times in the last year, have not killed civilians in Afghanistan? What precautions are we taking to ensure that they do not? Can pilots really see whether civilians are in target buildings? Does the Minister understand the fear that the use of such indiscriminate weapons might undermine the popular civilian support that is so essential to NATO’s operation?

The hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great regard and who I know to be a considerable expert on military matters, uses terms that I am surprised to hear him use in this context. He knows that none of the NATO forces involved operate indiscriminately in any way. The word is completely inappropriate.

I cannot comment on the specific American operation to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. Obviously I know nothing about it, because it does not fall within my direct responsibility. I can, however, tell him that enormous attention is paid by British forces to the need to avoid collateral damage and civilian deaths. In an armed conflict, as ever in the whole of human history, that can never be achieved 100 per cent., but we make great efforts. It is a difficult and serious trade-off—particularly given that someone may put their own personnel at risk by not taking action that they might otherwise have taken in defence of our own operations, or our own troops, because of a fear of civilian deaths or collateral damage.

Does the Minister agree with the former Secretary of State, who described the Pinzgauer Vector as

“an excellent solution to our soldiers’ requirements”,

or does he now accept that, at a cost of more than £100 million, it was a massive defence acquisition fiasco—as some of us on the Conservative Benches have pointed out, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton)? If so, what has he done to improve the technical evaluation process to restore our troops’ confidence in the acquisition process? That is the very least that they should expect from the Government.

The hon. Gentleman should wake up a bit, get with it and start to look at the realities of life. The fact of the matter is that those who invest in a portfolio of armoured vehicles, as we are doing—or, indeed, in a range of equipment for any purpose in this world—will want to ensure that they have the best, in terms of meeting different mobility, capability, fire power, protection and other requirements. We will inevitably have some vehicles that are less effective than others; we will inevitably have some successes and some failures— that is what a portfolio policy is all about, by the way. Vector was not a success and it is being withdrawn. Its problem has been its “operationability”: it has great difficulty carrying some of the loads that it is required to carry on the Afghan terrain. It has not been able to live up to expectations there, and we will be replacing it with the new tactical support vehicles that we have ordered—the Coyote, the Husky and the Wolfhound—which I have mentioned in the House in different contexts. That is one more example of this steady process of flexibility, improvement and enhancement, which is the policy to which we are committed.