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Equipment Renewal

Volume 496: debated on Monday 13 July 2009

12. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s spending on equipment renewal; and if he will make a statement. (285632)

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.

But what estimate has the Minister’s Department made of the additional cost to its core budget of greater-than-planned levels of equipment usage in Afghanistan?

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.

Topical Questions

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.

T3. The Secretary of State said earlier that the strategy in Afghanistan was about building up Afghan capability to the point at which the Afghans could defend their own country. I am sure we would all agree with that. When I was there in February with the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), the tactics seemed to involve deploying troops by day and withdrawing to defensive positions by night. Will the Secretary of State tell me whether he thinks that both the strategy and the tactics are working? My question is not meant to be hyper-critical; this is a matter of real concern to all of us who are concerned about our troops and our country. (285648)

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.

T2. For there to be 15 UK fatalities in 10 days is a dreadful tragedy for the families concerned and for the armed forces, but it is truly desperate when an Opposition leader exploits such catastrophes for party political gain. Does not the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) owe military families with loved ones serving in Afghanistan a sincere apology for his nakedly opportunistic reaction this weekend to the awful surge in British military deaths in that chronically unstable state? (285647)

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.

T4. I wonder how many troops the Minister believes we need on the ground in Afghanistan in order to achieve our objectives. Does he believe that the Chief of Staff, General Dannatt, is the man who knows best what is happening in Afghanistan or is it a man in a Westminster office? (285649)

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.

T7. Back in March, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), about the MARS—military afloat reach and sustainability—project. He said earlier that the most important thing was to get the contracts for the carriers up and running. Now that we have the steel cut—I thank him on behalf of the Clyde—is it not time to look at the MARS project to add the extra work that is so dearly needed for the years to come? (285652)

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.

T5. I have just returned from a visit to Afghanistan and I have nothing but praise for our forces working in Helmand province. I have to say, however, that I think this Government should hang their heads in shame for sending our troops out to a war without enough manpower or heavy-lift helicopters. Let me ask the Secretary of State what will happen when the fighting stops and Babaji is declared clear. What is our plan for reconstruction and development? I asked a series of senior officers and not one of them had any idea of what was going to happen once the bullets stopped flying. I urge the Secretary of State to look into this. He has a budget of £2.6 billion, and the Department for International Development has £166 million and that— (285650)

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.

T8. The Government, in their disposal of the former RAF Machrihanish, have the twin aims of obtaining value for money and helping to stimulate the local economy. Can the Minister update me on progress made there? What consideration has been given to the possibility of a community buy-out? (285653)

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.

T9. We have seen today how pressed our infantry is in Afghanistan. Do the Government agree that to keep a world-class army in tip-top condition in such difficult theatres requires very difficult expenditure decisions, and that we may have to postpone or cancel some big-ticket capital expenditure items elsewhere? Will the Government therefore bring forward their review of defence expenditure, rather than postponing it to the other side of a general election? (285654)

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.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will not cut any regiments of the infantry, so that we have enough boots on the ground to do the job?

Is not one of the greatest threats to the security of Afghanistan the incompetence and abject failure of reconstruction projects which are imposing intolerable burdens on our security forces?

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.