The Secretary of State was asked—
I start by paying tribute to the 15 brave men who tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan over the past 13 days. We have now lost 184 lives in the conflict, and each and every one of them is a terrible loss. The last week has been a hard week for those serving in theatre, but their resolve is incredible. In these tough times, they are determined to get on with their mission, and in the teeth of heavy resistance they are making progress. I urge colleagues in all parts of the House to be unfailing in our support for them. They deserve no less.
Progress is being made, but the insurgency remains resilient. The majority of people can go about their daily lives, but in certain areas of the country, in particular in the south and east, significant security challenges remain. In Helmand, British, Afghan, Danish, Estonian and American troops are currently engaged in major offensive operations to secure key population centres in the run-up to the Afghan presidential elections.
I join the Secretary of State and the whole House in paying tribute to the service personnel who lost their lives in recent days. They died serving their country and, to use those immortal words, for our tomorrows they gave their today.
Some of the greatest security threats that our service personnel face in Afghanistan are on the ground. Can the Secretary of State explain why he believes that the current provision of, and support for, helicopter cover is sufficient, particularly in the context of recent changes in policy and in the approach to operations in theatre, which put our troops’ lives at greater risk?
As we have said repeatedly, we have seen a huge uplift in the helicopter frames available to commanders, and also in helicopter hours: over the past two years, there has been an 84 per cent. increase. There will be more: by the end of the year, we will have the Merlin in theatre, and we will get some of the eight Chinooks out into theatre in 2010. The issue that the hon. Gentleman raises points up the problem; changes in how operations are being conducted have led to more ground operations, which cannot be conducted from helicopters. At the moment, troops involved in Operation Panchai Palang are clearing compounds and taking on the Taliban in one of their heartland areas. There has been hand-to-hand fighting, which, sadly, resulted in some of the deaths that took place over the past week or so. That cannot be conducted from inside a highly armoured vehicle or a helicopter.
May I put it to my right hon. Friend that, tragic though all the deaths are, and although we must do as much as we can to minimise casualties, it is irresponsible and dishonest to pretend that if only the Government had provided this piece of equipment or that piece of equipment, all those lives could have been saved? That only serves to upset unnecessarily the grieving relatives.
My hon. Friend is right. In the Sangin area, we have lost five people who were conducting a security patrol. Such patrols are vital, and are done from time to time. There was a pretty well-planned ambush set for our people. One cannot conduct those security patrols other than on foot. We lost a member of 4 Rifles who had just dismounted from a Mastiff vehicle. It is the most heavily armoured vehicle that we have in theatre, but our troops have to get out to engage with people and to deal with the insurgency. Our troops have to take those risks; they understand that. I think that the British public understand that, too. I appeal to Members of the House to accept that that is inevitable. It is our duty to supply the kit and equipment needed to keep people as safe as we can, but we cannot remove risk from that kind of operation.
I agree with what the Secretary of State just said, but when the Chancellor of the Exchequer said over the weekend that the Treasury would ensure that the Ministry of Defence was not short of money, what, in practice, did he mean? What new actions will the Secretary of State take to take the Chancellor up on his promise?
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor meant, for example, that the Treasury has lifted the urgent operational requirements ceiling of £635 million, which was announced in December, to include another £101 million, so that we get the latest capability into theatre. Everything that we need for that theatre of operations, we will present, and we will make sure that we get what is needed to keep our troops as safe as they can be. At a time when we are involved in the most serious operations in theatre—not only ourselves, but the Americans—people are contrasting the kit and equipment that we have with the Americans’, but our colleagues have lost more people over the past couple of weeks than we have, despite their great inventory.
I was in Afghanistan earlier this year and, talking to ordinary soldiers who have been on several tours of duty, I was struck by the fact that they were forming the view that we were losing the battle of hearts and minds, and that we had gone from being seen as a force liberating the Afghan people from the Taliban to being seen as an occupying force. Does the Secretary of State agree that vital to our winning the battle, however we define winning, is keeping the support of ordinary Afghan people?
Absolutely. I have not personally come across that opinion out there, but I would not deny that there will be Afghans who hold that view. My hon. Friend is right. This operation will not be won by killing Taliban. It will be won by winning over the people—by protecting the people, and by the people accepting that we and the Afghan Government are on their side. That is the absolute priority of the new commander, General McChrystal, in the instructions that he is giving to forces of all nations in Afghanistan.
If we are told, as we are now, that Helmand province contains Taliban heartlands, on what basis was it said on behalf of the Government before we deployed that it was hoped that not a shot would be fired? Was this not the beginning of a really serious misreading of the situation in Helmand, which is still continuing today and for which our armed forces are paying a heavy price?
It never was said that there was hope of not a shot being fired. What was said—it was said from the Dispatch Box and elsewhere, and I remember that I was sat in that chair along there at the time—by the then Secretary of State was that we would be happy if not a shot were fired. He was responding to a question. He was expressing a desire, but he would not have been putting 16 Air Assault Brigade into a theatre of war if he thought that there would not be a little bit of trouble in the area.
May I confirm what the Defence Secretary has just said? May I tell the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) that, no doubt inadvertently, he has just misled the House? I never at any stage expressed the hope, expectation, promise or pledge that we would leave Afghanistan without firing a shot. I did, however, insist that we would not be aggressors. We did not seek war. We did not go there as part of an invasion. For our part, we would be happy to go and work with the Afghan Government and leave without firing a shot. It was clearly in that sense that it was said, and I would be extremely obliged if that could be confirmed again from the Front Bench, and that Opposition Members would stop the misrepresentation of what was said when we went in.
No one denies that these are difficult and dangerous operations, but surely that does not absolve us of the responsibility to do everything in our power to minimise casualties. Is not the fundamental problem for the Government the fact that there is no comprehensive strategy to deal with the military, political, economic and narcotics issues, and that until a comprehensive strategy is agreed and implemented, we will continue to struggle in Afghanistan?
I would say two things to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. First, I keep hearing that there is no strategy. If people want to disagree with the strategy, that is fair enough, but please let no one deny that there is one. The strategy is about building up Afghan capability, both in security and in governance, so that the Afghans can get to a point where they are able to defend their own country from the insurgency and provide the basics for their own people. It will be a long time before they can do that. Afghan tax revenues doubled in the past year, but the Afghans will be dependent on international donations for a long time yet.
Secondly, there is a strategy, but let us not pretend that its existence will get us out of a situation where our people must take on a very ingrained insurgency right in the heartland. They know how important it is that they maintain control of those central Helmand belts. Our people are going in there and clearing the insurgency from that heartland. That is why our people are fighting. They know how important it is—how utterly important it is—to hang on. Sadly, we have lost some people. The insurgency has lost a lot of people—
We are, I believe, winning the war in Afghanistan, but if we do not work together in political partnership, we will certainly lose the argument with the British people for the justification of the conflict. So does my right hon. Friend agree that any attempt to play politics or point score while our troops are laying down their lives is beneath contempt?
I agree with my hon. Friend that we are making progress and going forward. The operations that are currently being conducted are at our instigation; they are offensive operations to clear the Taliban from a very important area, and we need to back our troops at this time.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the objective in Afghanistan is ultimately political, and that the military battle is a precondition for achieving that? Eight years in, the Taliban have been contained to a terrorist insurgency and no longer fight as a standing army. How does the Secretary of State believe that the international community can shift from a predominantly military battle to a political battle? Is not the lesson of all other terrorist insurgencies that, ultimately, they have to have a political solution, alongside the military one, and that that is what is needed if we are to avoid General McChrystal’s warning about winning tactical victories but suffering a strategic defeat?
I think the hon. Gentleman is right. The military side of things can go as well as it likes, but unless we can make progress on those other strands, all will be for nought. There is not a single member of our armed forces who does not understand that, right down the chain of command. There is an election on 20 August, and it is important that it is credible; that it goes on to improve governance; that it goes on to provide better for the Afghan people; and that it goes on from a position not of weakness but of strength to hold out a hand to those parts of the insurgency that are prepared to come across, give up the armed struggle and involve themselves in politics.
It is a very great shame that we are currently engaged in an unseemly media row about airlift in Afghanistan. The defence world will know what that is about. It will expect my right hon. Friend—I hope he agrees—to commit in future to put pressure on a Chancellor to maintain funding for defence; and it will expect the Opposition Front-Bench team to commit the current shadow Chancellor to end his shameful refusal not to commit even to existing defence spending.
We need to maintain our support for our armed forces in the field. We need to do that through the core defence budget and through the UOR process, and we need to continue to get more protective vehicles and more helicopters into the field as soon as we are able to. I give my absolute assurance that I will do everything that I can to bring those dates as far forward as possible.
On behalf of the Opposition, may I add my condolences to the families of the servicemen killed in the past week? Every single death is an individual tragedy, and our thoughts and prayers are with all the families and friends involved.
When the Government cut the helicopter budget in 2004 by £1.4 billion, was it a mistake?
The hon. Gentleman goes back to a decision that was taken some time ago. We have made great strides to increase helicopter availability and capability, with a large degree of success over the past two years in Afghanistan. There are now 60 per cent. more helicopter frames and 80 per cent. more helicopter hours. Merlin is yet to be moved into theatre, and enhancements are possible both to Lynx and Chinook. That would make them better helicopters, more capable of dealing with a very difficult theatre.
I shall take that as a yes, shall I? People in this country understand the security need for our mission in Afghanistan and they understand that in wars there are casualties and fatalities. What they do not understand is why we are not doing everything we can to reduce the risks to our forces. We do need more and better armoured vehicles and we do need better ways of countering improvised explosive devices, but if we cannot move our forces by air, they will be more vulnerable on the ground. As Lord Guthrie, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, said:
“of course they need more helicopters. If there had been more, it is very likely that fewer soldiers would have been killed by roadside bombs”.
Why is it that in Helmand, as Lord King pointed out, American forces have eight times as many helicopters for the number of personnel? How on earth did we get into such an unacceptable position? Who is to blame and how are we going to get out of this situation?
I have heard the hon. Gentleman for a period of time, but I have yet to hear how he thinks we can get more helicopters into theatre. [Interruption.] Well, he is saying from the Dispatch Box that we ought to get as many helicopters into theatre as quickly as possible, yet I have heard him say nothing that indicates he could do that any quicker than we plan to.
I understand that on the radio this morning the hon. Gentleman said that we should look to our allies, and that is true. We are part of a coalition; it would be nonsense for anybody to suggest that we ought to be down on the fact that our American allies are assisting in Helmand. The hon. Gentleman cannot do the impossible; we will do everything possible to enhance the whole of the protective capability in Helmand province.
Defence Information Infrastructure
We have a contract with EDS, which, in turn, has set up a consortium called ATLAS. It consists of EDS itself, Fujitsu, General Dynamics UK, EADS and Logica. Beyond that, there is a range of subcontractors with defined tasks, sometimes for limited periods of time. The selection and identity of those subcontractors are a matter for the consortium.
The delayed agreement and sign-off of defence information infrastructure stage 3 is but the latest debacle for a benighted project that has already more than tripled in cost to more than £7 billion. A tight review of defence spending is imminent. Why are civil servants and politicians so obsessed with outsourcing public sector IT contracts, given that the logic and economics of extra costs and complexity point in precisely the opposite direction?
My hon. Friend is factually wrong on a number of those points. The budgeted costs certainly have not increased by 300 per cent., as he suggests; there has been a much more limited increase of about £180 million out of the £7.1 billion. I have to say to my hon. Friend that this project is going to save money in comparison with legacy methods of fulfilling the same role. That is very important. Also, it is an absolutely essential part of modern warfare that we should have effective, secure communications, linking all aspects of our armed forces, at home and abroad in theatre. That is part of the network-enabled capability to which we are committed.
A pilot mentoring scheme is in place at Catterick garrison to provide light-touch mentoring to early service leavers judged to be vulnerable; it is designed to help them to transition to and cope with civilian life. In addition to the normal support given when leaving the service, the pilot scheme provided additional telephone support, guidance and encouragement for six months, post-service termination. Early indications are that a number of leavers have found that helpful.
On the subject of training, the Public Accounts Committee was told last week that 48 per cent. of soldiers and Royal Marines receive only a five-day pre-deployment training for Afghanistan, rather than the full training with their units. Is it right to send soldiers into Afghanistan with so little training?
The mentoring service must also be available for the young men who do not make it through their initial training. Earlier this year, Professor Nav Kapur published his study of more than 230,000 young people who left the service over a 10-year period, and discovered that those most vulnerable, particularly to suicide, were those who had not finished their initial training or had served only for a very short period. Can we be assured that within initial training and within the mentoring service there will be a focus on advising young men, especially, of the need to seek help, advice and support should they suffer any mental health problems?
Certainly through our recruitment and training procedures we seek to ensure that all the appropriate advice, support and training are available. The pilot scheme is targeting service personnel who leave early and who are deemed to be vulnerable, and the initial indications are that it is proving successful. We need to get the end of the pilot scheme and see how it could be rolled forward.
The estimated financial cost of operations in Afghanistan for this financial year is £3.5 billion, as recently published for the first time in the MOD’s main estimates. The cost of military operations is dependent on a number of variable factors that are difficult to predict, including changes to operational tempo and the conditions in theatre at the time. We do not, therefore, attempt to project costs for the subsequent two years.
Following the Chancellor’s pledge over the weekend that our forces will have whatever they need, how does the Secretary of State anticipate funding future operational requirements, given that in future years his ministry will have to pay back every penny over £635 million that it spends on urgent operational requirements? Is that not a case of robbing the future to pay for the military today?
We have not gone over those limits, and therefore there is no need for a repayment. I have just announced to the House that the £635 million limit has been raised by a further £101 million; that is some indication that the Chancellor is trying to assist.
But in assessing those costs, does the Minister acknowledge that there are real, understandable doubts among the general public, not about our being in Afghanistan but about whether we have the required number of troops and the right sort of equipment to let them carry out their tasks? Could he respond to the public’s concerns?
My hon. Friend will recognise that the number of troops and the costs of the Afghan mission have gone up considerably in the past three years. However, I get the opportunity, which many others in the House do not, to go out to theatre on a regular basis, and I meet troops back here, and I hear repeatedly that the equipment that they have has been improved massively over the past couple of years.
The Secretary of State said a moment ago that Merlin and Lynx Mk 9 helicopters are being prepared for use in Afghanistan, but what further steps is the Department considering to ensure that helicopter needs in Afghanistan are met in future?
We are planning a spend of about £6 billion on helicopters over the coming years. We need to try to spend that as wisely as we can to ensure that we have no capability gap, particularly when our people are involved in the operations that they are today.
The Secretary of State rightly says that it is difficult to anticipate the precise costs, but airlift is clearly one of the areas where we have capacity constraint. Given that Germany currently provides 70 per cent. of ISAF’s airlift capacity but is severely constrained by the national caveats, is he having discussions with the Germans to try to lift them?
We try on every occasion to encourage our NATO allies to do the absolute maximum. There is little doubt that we are pulling our weight in the Afghan theatre or that the operation is absolutely vital to our safety back here in the UK and to NATO’s credibility, so we hope and press all the time for our allies to do whatever they can to ensure success.
Some 0.1 per cent. of regular service personnel are discharged annually for mental health reasons of whatever cause. The King’s Centre for Military Health Research is undertaking an MOD-funded study of mental health disorders in both the serving and veteran community. The results will be available towards the beginning of next year and will inform mental health policies. In addition, evaluation of the six community-based NHS mental health pilot schemes will help to define the population at risk, the levels of need and the support required for those communities.
As the Minister is aware, post-traumatic stress disorder is as debilitating and as distressing as any physical injury, and many of our troops are returning with PTSD. According to a recent survey, only 71 per cent. of GPs are even aware of the MOD’s medical assessment programme. What are the Government doing to improve on that shocking statistic?
I am very grateful for that question. I stress that the number of individuals suffering from PTSD is very small, but I am on record as saying that each case is a personal tragedy for that individual. I am working on two levels, first to ensure that GPs know about the mental health pilots and secondly, with the Department of Health, to consider a veterans tracking system so that we can track veterans through the health system. If the hon. Lady or any other Members would like to visit one of the mental health pilots or the medical assessment programme at St. Thomas’s hospital, I would be quite willing to arrange that.
My hon. Friend is aware that it often takes ex-service personnel up to 13 years to present themselves for treatment under a mental health programme. What can we do to take away the attitude, which is not unusual among the military in this country, that presenting themselves for some form of mental health treatment is in some way a disgrace? Every single military serviceman who needs our help should present themselves and have a check before they go into civilian life.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Unfortunately men, especially young men, are terrible at recognising mental health problems. I pay tribute, however, to all three services for raising the matter of mental health in-service. TRiM—trauma risk management—is a system of self-assessment pioneered by the Royal Marines, and it is ensuring that mental health problems do not carry a stigma and that people are not ashamed of reporting them. Working with veterans organisations and the NHS on six mental health pilots, we can ensure that there is help for veterans whenever mental health affects individuals.
The US Administration have put in place a $900 million PTSD programme, including comprehensive mental health screening for the operational military. Our Government have not. One could be forgiven for supposing that British combat stress and American combat stress were completely different disorders. Can the Minister say how much we have spent on PTSD, why clinical awareness of it continues to flatline and why there is no mental health screening programme for our returning veterans?
I do not accept that there is no mental health screening for our returning veterans. It is important to recognise that the King’s Centre has undertaken much research, as have the Americans. One thing that it indicates is that mental health screening pre-deployment is not effective and may actually cause more problems than it solves in the population in question. That goes right back to the second world war.
A small number present with PTSD. On the number who present with it in the US, there are question marks over how the operational tempo of the United States is different from ours. I know that our US counterparts and the Surgeon General are working together to examine comparative data. Recently, a team was over from the US to look at how we treat mental health in the armed forces and in our veterans community.
The Government are committed to the current nuclear deterrent and to the development of a replacement system. Good progress is being made in completing the actions set out in the 2006 White Paper “The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent”.
The Secretary of State mentions the 2006 White Paper, but Tony Blair told the House in December 2006 that Britain could maintain its minimum strategic deterrent while reducing the number of warheads from 200 to 160. Less than three years later, the current Prime Minister seems to be offering to reduce that number to below 160 warheads. How can he do that while maintaining a minimum level of deterrence?
The Prime Minister also made it clear that he was committed to maintaining the nuclear deterrent. We need to try to make an appropriate contribution to any multilateral nuclear proposition, while at the same time ensuring that we have a credible minimum nuclear deterrent. The entire Government—not only the defence team—are committed to doing that.
In view of the impact of the recession and of President Obama’s meeting last week with the President of Russia, when they committed themselves to reducing their nuclear warheads by 500 each, is it not about time we publicly stated that we are not going to upgrade Trident?
No, it is not. If my hon. Friend wants to look at the record since we came to power, he will see that we have made significant reductions in our deployable nuclear capability. We have made a significant contribution to the reduction of nuclear weapons and we will obviously seek to be constructive when any propositions are made, but within the parameters of maintaining the British nuclear deterrent.
Can the Secretary of State confirm whether any future nuclear deterrent that involved reliance on nuclear-armed Cruise missiles, as some recommend, would be compatible with the provisions of the 1987 intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we considered different methods of maintaining the nuclear deterrent during the White Paper process. We decided—I think for good reasons of invulnerability—to stick with the ballistic missile system based on submarines. That is what we intend to do.
Does the Secretary of State think it a good idea to commit ourselves to expenditure, during the lifetime of a new Trident, of £76 billion, ahead of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference next year and in the face of a declared aspiration by President Obama, which is shared by the Government, of a nuclear-free world? Would not a better contribution be not replacing Trident?
We keep our procedures under constant review, and are currently introducing further improvements.
I thank the Under-Secretary for his answer, but the main investment decisions on Terrier, Soothsayer and the new naval satellite communications terminals were made in 2001, on the introduction of smart acquisition, yet those very projects suffered the greatest slippage in 2007-08. Why?
As the hon. Lady knows, we have a substantial defence procurement programme, which we keep under constant review. One of the improvements to which I alluded is a more robust attitude to failure. The hon. Lady will see the results of that before too long.
Procuring the right up-to-date equipment is vital for our troops, but it can also provide skilled work for British workers, not least in my constituency at BAE Systems in Scotswood road in Newcastle. What prospect is there of an announcement early in 2010 on the future rapid effect system—FRES—the Warrior upgrade and the Scout and AFV support vehicles?
Just a week ago we issued draft invitations to tender for two important land vehicle projects. One is for the Scout vehicle and the other is for the Warrior upgrade. I remain hopeful that we can sign contracts for those two vehicles early next year, following the invitations to tender, the responses to those, which we have asked for by October, and our evaluation of those bids.
Good procurement depends, of course, on maintaining the best test centres. Some 6,500 defence-related jobs have gone in Scotland since 1997. No other political party supports the Government’s pondering of cutting 125 jobs at the Hebrides range in Uist. Will the Minister banish the uncertainty and tell us that those jobs, at Europe’s best missile testing centre, are safe? This Government will not be forgiven in Scotland if they go.
There is no question of degrading our testing facilities. The issue is whether it is more efficient to control all those ranges from one place, which modern IT makes a feasible possibility, and we would be irresponsible not to consider that. I have received a number of representations from Scotland that I greatly respect, and I have agreed to look at them. I have also agreed to visit the sites and to talk to local employees. We will not take any decisions until that has been completed.
Two years ago, the current Secretary of State said that all six ex-Danish Merlin helicopters would be operational by 2008, yet it now seems that they will not be available until the end of this year at the earliest. Given the widespread criticism of the Government’s failure to provide sufficient helicopters, how does the Minister justify yet another 12-month delay in a critical programme?
I do not accept that we have failed in producing helicopter capability in Afghanistan. The Secretary—[Interruption.] No, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just set out some of the figures, including an 80 per cent. increase in the availability of helicopter hours over the past two and a half years. We also have an enormous programme of procurement of new helicopters: there are the Danish Merlins and the—[Interruption.] I am coming to that in a second. There are the Merlins that are coming back from Iraq and being fitted up to theatre-entry standard for Afghanistan, as well as the prospect of the eight Mk 3 Chinooks, which will be available for operations again by the end of this year. There is also the re-engining of the Lynx helicopters and the prospect of Wildcat, which is being manufactured. That is a very good record. As for the Merlins from Denmark, they are being upgraded to theatre-entry standard as rapidly as possible. I cannot responsibly force through such procedures more rapidly than the experts can deliver them. Indeed, that would be an extremely dangerous thing to do.
We currently expect to consider initial gate later this year.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. However, given that a number of people, including retired military officers, former Defence Secretaries and academics, are now saying that Trident is both irrelevant and unaffordable, will the Secretary of State defer the initial gate process and the hundreds of millions of pounds that it would commit us to spending until a further, full debate in this place that takes into account the new financial and strategic circumstances?
The available resources for defence expenditure are set during spending rounds. The most recent comprehensive spending review set the Department’s budget for the financial years 2008 to 2011. The Department’s expenditure plans after 2010-11 are not yet agreed. We review the detailed allocation of the defence budget during regular planning rounds to ensure that we match available resources to defence priorities and commitments.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. We recently found that the carriers would require an extra £1 billion. Can he tell us whether the Government are fully committed in all circumstances to a like-for-like replacement for Trident and to two new aircraft carriers and, if they are, what their strategy is for ensuring over the next 20 years that the Ministry of Defence can provide the resources required to ensure that our troops are fully equipped for all the challenges that they face?
Indeed, and this is not unusual.
As I have just said, we are committed to Trident and to the carriers. There has been an increase in the programme costs of the carriers, as the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) suggests, but we are committed to both projects.
The effectiveness of our spending on defence procurement is being enhanced all the time. Ever since the reforms involving smart acquisition and smart procurement at the beginning of the history of this Government, its effectiveness has been very good by international standards. As I have already explained, we are now considering further improvements.
We are looking at this at present. We do not have any firm response to that question, but we are undertaking a study of the matter. It involves a complicated calculation, as the hon. Gentleman probably accepts.
The Department’s responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended, now and in the future, and that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in the military tasks in which they are engaged, either at home or abroad.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his response. May I place on the record my thanks to his ministerial colleagues for their courtesy in dealing with the Nimrod replacement programme? May we also have a clear statement that BAE Systems will have an opportunity to bid for the refitting of the MRA4s with the Helix system, and that such a bid will be properly assessed before any final decision is made about the efficacy of other bids?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know that he has been hugely interested in this matter for some time. We are ready to receive a Nimrod-based bid from BAE Systems. We wrote to the company on 15 June, asking if it planned to make an unsolicited bid. To date, we have not received a response, but I can assure my hon. Friend that if the company makes a bid, it will be considered objectively. However, it does not have for ever in which to do so. We need to consider the decision around the end of the year.
I believe that the strategy and the tactics are working; we are facing an extraordinarily difficult set of challenges, however. The hon. Gentleman’s point about increasing the capacity of the Afghan forces is absolutely key. There are 90,000 troops in the Afghan national army; over the next couple of years, that figure will increase to 134,000. In the meantime, we are right to pursue the approach we are pursuing—taking back and reclaiming ground from the Taliban, bit by bit, so that we can spread the authority of the Afghan national army and its Government.
My hon. Friend must accept that we all need to make the maximum contribution to maintaining the cross-party support that our operations in Afghanistan have enjoyed over the years. We should not allow any tensions that might have arisen over the past few days to dent that. I was out in Afghanistan just over a week ago, and I was enormously pleased to be able to say to the troops in theatre that they enjoy cross-party support in this House for what they are doing. Let us all try to do everything we can to make that a reality.
We have rightly increased our troop numbers from 5,500 to 9,000. I think that that was the right thing to do, but we are also there as part of a multinational coalition—of 42 nations working together on this challenge—so the idea that we alone are responsible for facing up to that challenge is, I believe, fundamentally wrong.
We are looking at the MARS project, but I do not want my hon. Friend to be under any illusion about it. Where building war-fighting vessels such as the carriers or the Future Service Combatant, which will come on line after the carriers, are concerned, we have made a strategic decision as part of the defence industrial strategy to ensure that those ships are built—and, of course, subsequently supported—in this country. Where we are talking about logistic support ships or tankers, however, that does not apply, as we need to get the best value for money. It would thus be quite wrong to say that those ships are being reserved for the shipyards in the Clyde or elsewhere in the UK, but that does not mean that British shipyards would not be most welcome to bid for them—indeed, we would be delighted if they did and if they won a contract on a best-value basis. I must make it clear, however, that when we procure those ships, it will be done on that basis.
The shadow Secretary of State for Defence confirmed his view this morning that, tragically, no amount of helicopters would have saved the lives that were lost last week. I think we should conduct this discussion on the basis of the facts and a rational approach. On nation building and reconstruction, we are committed and we are increasing the capacity of the Afghan national army, the police, the courts and the judicial system to spread the authority of the Afghan Government. That is the right approach.
When the bullets stop flying, the hated Karzai police will move back in with their dreadful record of exploitation of the population, extortion, robbery, drug use and drug trafficking. Worst of all is the practice of “bacha bazi”, which is the sexual exploitation of young boys. How is that a way to win hearts and minds?
My hon. Friend has strong views, which he has expressed over a period of time. Let us not deny that the situation in Afghanistan is less than perfect. We have to strive to improve it, but some of the abuses perpetrated under the Taliban regime when it was in power were utterly appalling and pretty comprehensive—and still are in those areas where the Taliban hold sway. My hon. Friend, I would have thought, should temper his views with regard to the Karzai Government.
As with any other surplus land belonging to the MOD, the aim is to obtain the maximum possible value for money, but, as I said when I last wrote to the hon. Gentleman, it is also important to ensure that there is a community buy-in. I shall be happy to meet him and local authorities to discuss how the disposal of the site can provide the maximum economic benefit for the local community as well.
As my hon. Friends will know, the British public understand very well how many casualties are occurring among the British forces in the offensive in Afghanistan but are less aware of the losses being experienced by our allies, the Afghans and others—and, indeed, of those being experienced by the Taliban. Are any estimates available?
I cannot give precise figures, but I think my hon. Friend is right. There have been casualties across the coalition, and their numbers are equally significant to the numbers we have lost. That underlines the fact that we have arrived at a critical phase of the campaign. We are harming the Taliban—that is why they are fighting as strongly as they are—and we need to keep pursuing our current strategy to ensure that we can succeed.
We face an acute dilemma. We have to strike a balance between giving the required priority to the operations in which we are now involved—difficult as they are, as the right hon. Gentleman says—and trying to ensure that we can respond to the many threats we may well face in the coming years. That is quite properly the province of a strategic defence review. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman’s party is committed to such a review in 2010, as are the Liberal Democrats and as are we.
The strategy is about ensuring that this country is safe. If that is to happen, we need sufficient capacity in the Afghan national army, police and Government, so that the Government of Afghanistan can bring about security in their country for themselves.
Does the Secretary of State share my disappointment at the fact that we seem to be losing the argument about Trident purely because of the financial bill? Would it not be better if, rather than his giving us holding replies as he did today and referring back to 2006, we started an open debate about the strategy and the options—as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis)—so that people can begin to understand why we need it?
I think that the debate has already started. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there is quite a debate raging in his own party about the future of the Trident nuclear weapon. The defence team has one view, while the Treasury team appears to have another. However, there is a need for a debate on defence across the piece. That is why I announced the other week a process to produce a Green Paper on defence capability. I hope that we can conduct that process in a cross-party manner, and that as many people as possible will become involved in a non-partisan way.
Health centres are open, schools have been rebuilt and girls are at school in Afghanistan today, and that simply was not the case in 2001. Yes, we face significant challenges, but I think that hon. Members understate the progress we are making if they deny that reality.
Is it good value for money to spend an additional £1 billion on the aircraft carriers without creating one extra job or any additional capability on those carriers? Will the Secretary of State guarantee that there will be no further delays in the construction of these carriers?
The carriers are proceeding well. The first carrier had its first steel cut last week in Govan, and it was a great privilege to be there and to see the excellent morale in the shipyards. I have no reason to suppose that there will be any delay in that programme. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have re-profiled the programme in order to align it better with the introduction of the joint strike fighter, the aircraft that is going to fly off those two new carriers.
May I put it to the Secretary of State that, with the appointment of General McChrystal as supreme commander in Afghanistan under President Obama, the Americans and the British are in fact embarked on a new strategy of which Operation Panther’s Claw is a part? Will we not know in just a few short months whether we are able to win the hearts and minds of the ordinary Afghan; if not, will we not have to rethink what we are doing in Afghanistan?
General McChrystal is involved in an initial review of the situation in Afghanistan. It is a 60-day review, and we are completely and absolutely plugged into that process. We will want to see and be able to respond to his findings, but the election process that will follow very soon thereafter is of course of massive and vital importance. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this is a particularly crucial time for the future of Afghanistan, and, therefore, for the future of our involvement in that country.