I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of defence policy.
Defence policy is about delivering security for the people of this country, including security against terrorism, and being a force for good by strengthening international peace and stability. The Ministry of Defence and the nation’s armed forces do this in two ways: first, by ensuring that, within planned resources, we have the military capability needed to meet the Government’s policy aims; and, secondly, by delivering military effect on operations. Therefore, I would like to address my remarks today, first, to the delivery of our operation in Afghanistan and, secondly, to how we are preparing our armed forces for the future, including procurement and acquisition reform.
I know that all in this House and across the country hold our armed forces in the highest regard and have deep respect for their commitment and professionalism. Yesterday, we paid tribute to those who died over the summer. Some 221 members of the armed forces have lost their lives in Afghanistan since operations began in 2001 and many more have been injured, some with life-changing injuries. For their families, friends and comrades that is a heavy price to bear. This year alone, the NATO-led coalition has suffered 409 fatalities, with the United States bearing the brunt. In particular, I should like to pay tribute to those who fight alongside the UK forces in Helmand and have done so over this difficult summer in Operation Panther’s Claw—they include the forces of Denmark and Estonia. We are in this together: 42 nations are represented in the international security assistance force, working side by side with the Afghans, under a United Nations mandate and at the invitation of the Afghan Government. The Afghans themselves are paying an extremely high price; many hundreds of members of the Afghan national security forces have lost their lives this year.
Last week, in St. Paul’s cathedral, we paid tribute to the achievements of British troops in Iraq, where 179 of our people lost their lives. I am pleased to report to the House that, on Tuesday, the Iraqi Council of Representatives gave our bilateral agreement on naval training and maritime support its third and final reading. I shall keep the House informed of progress as we conclude that agreement, through which we will provide ongoing training to the Iraqi navy at Umm Qasr, in southern Iraq. Alongside our role in leading the training of Iraqi officers in the Baghdad area, that will be an important component of a broad-based bilateral relationship between the United Kingdom and Iraq.
With the end of combat operations in Iraq, our effort in Afghanistan is the main one. Our presence there is supported by all parties in the House. I have looked closely at the statements and the speeches of Opposition Front Benchers and have found that there is a great deal of consensus in what we say. We agree that our forces are in Afghanistan primarily for reasons of national security. We agree that we operate in Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban from returning to power and, again, giving al-Qaeda free rein. We agree that our approach must be regional and that our strategy must focus on Pakistan as well, so that we tackle the violent extremism in the area as a whole. Pakistan’s armed forces have dealt the Pakistani Taliban a severe blow in the Swat valley, and are looking to take on the insurgents and their leadership in South Waziristan. As I heard when I visited the Pakistan army headquarters in Islamabad just over a week ago, Pakistan has paid a heavy price for taking on the violent extremists. We should recognise the efforts that Pakistan’s forces are making and the sacrifice that is being made.
In this House, we agree that, unlike Pakistan, Afghanistan does not yet have the capacity to resist the Taliban-led insurgency on its own. We agree that building Afghanistan’s capacity to do that will mean that, over time, we will be able to reduce our military commitment, which is why we agree to focus on the training and the partnering of the Afghan security forces. We agree that the security space provided by NATO operations must be used to build and develop Afghan governance in order to give the Afghan people a stake in their own future and to help them to turn their backs on the Taliban-led insurgency. We agree that military and development operations must be backed up by a political strategy that bears down on the insurgency and begins the process of reconciliation. We agree that the consequences of failure in Afghanistan would be disastrous: it would be seen as a victory for the violent extremists, increasing the threat of terrorism back here at home; it would destabilise a particularly sensitive region, including nuclear-armed Pakistan; it would seriously undermine NATO, which has been the bedrock of our defence for the past 60 years; and it would damage the reputation of Britain’s armed forces and call into question the ability of the UK Government to project power in the future.
Let us be clear that sustained pressure on al-Qaeda in Pakistan, combined with military action in Afghanistan, is having a suppressive effect on al-Qaeda. A peaceful and stable Afghanistan would be a strategic failure for al-Qaeda. Three quarters of the most serious terror plots against the UK have their roots in the border and mountain areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, so the success of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan is therefore of critical importance to the security of British citizens and to UK interests.
I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree that until we reach the point that he has just described, we need to ensure that we have enough troops in theatre to carry out the task that is asked of them. At the height of the troubles, we had more than 20,000 troops in Northern Ireland. As he is well aware, Helmand province is nearly twice the size of Northern Ireland and Wales put together. The announcement of an extra 500 troops smacks of too little, too late, given the scale of the task. When will he deploy a substantial number of troops—more troops—to Helmand province, as requested by the military? If he does not do that, overstretch will continue to cost lives unnecessarily.
I know that my hon. Friend does not support our involvement in Afghanistan and thinks that it is not linked to our national security, but he knows that all the time we are thwarting threats to our security back here at home; most recently, people were prosecuted for the attempted airline bombs. Many of the threats are disrupted before they reach fruition, thank heavens, but it is well known and accepted—and I state this as a fact—that three quarters of the threats to this country originate in that region.
The Secretary of State said that he has the support of the Conservatives, but I think that that extends only to the support given to the armed forces. Time and again, we have suggested that the Government are adopting the wrong strategy in Afghanistan. That has now been proved by Admiral Mullen saying that we need to change—General McChrystal said the same in his report. What does the Secretary of State say about that now? How will things change in Afghanistan, given that in his report General McChrystal is quoted as saying:
“ISAF is a conventional force that is poorly configured for COIN”.
What will happen in respect of British troops so that we change and adopt a new strategy?
The reason I read out that list of agreements was to prove that what the hon. Gentleman says is not true. That list was an analysis of statements made by his own Front-Bench team and by the Front Benchers of other parties over time. It proves that there is widespread agreement on our strategy for Afghanistan. Inevitably, people will have a political view and some Back Benchers will disagree with their own Front-Bench team and with the Government Treasury Bench team on particular aspects. People should hold the Government to account, but all I ask is that when dealing with a situation this serious, where 9,000 people are deployed in a very dangerous environment, we should not pretend that we disagree about things that we do not disagree about.
Can the Secretary of State tell us what proportion of the Pakistani army is facing India, as opposed to facing Afghanistan? When he was recently in Pakistan, what pressure did he bring to bear on the Pakistani Government to redeploy more of their assets to deal with the problem confronting us, particularly in the tribal areas?
I did not go to Pakistan to lecture them on what they ought and ought not to be doing, and I do not think that that would be at all productive. If I thought that that was an appropriate way in which to deal with a proud and sovereign nation, I would do precisely that. We should recognise and applaud, as I do, what Pakistan has done in the past year or so. It has shifted resources and although, yes, Pakistan sees the Indian border as a threat and has forces based on that border that it is not prepared to move, it has shifted both its position and its forces. Its forces have confronted the insurgency in the Swat valley very effectively and are proposing, if they have not started already, to confront it in Waziristan. I received from Pakistani politicians and military leaders their clear recognition that the insurgency was a threat to them as well as to Afghanistan and to our forces based in Afghanistan. We need to work with them rather than thinking that we can lecture them in any way. I do not think that that would be appropriate or constructive.
I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State, who is being extremely generous in giving way. In the light of his answer, in which he referred to “that region”, will he confirm that three quarters of the terrorist threats to this country originated in Pakistan whereas the other quarter originated here in Britain, and that none of the terrorist threats originated in Afghanistan or from the Taliban?
I accept that the majority of the threats have come from the other side of the border, but I ask my hon. Friend to accept what is self-evident to me. If our troops were not in Afghanistan, that would probably not be the case. A collapsed Afghanistan—that is almost definitely what would happen without our presence—would be a threat to Pakistan and a threat to us back in the United Kingdom. That is why we are there and the very fact that the majority of the threats do not come from Afghanistan is a tribute to the job that our people are doing in southern Afghanistan. I would have thought that that was self-evident.
I shall move on, if I may. We have had a hard summer. The commander of ISAF, General McChrystal, has said that the situation in Afghanistan is serious, and I agree, but General McChrystal has also said that there has been progress. That is evident in southern Afghanistan, where most of our forces are based. The inflow of thousands of additional US troops has enabled the Afghan Government to re-establish their authority in a number of towns in southern Helmand and has enabled ISAF’s Regional Command South to take measures to reduce the Taliban threat to Kandahar. I want to take this opportunity to thank Major General de Kruif of the Netherlands for his leadership of RC South over the past year. I am sure that the House will join me in wishing his successor, Major General Nick Carter, well on his tour of duty, which is just starting.
Let me turn to UK forces specifically. The 19 Light Brigade has cleared insurgents from large areas of central Helmand and has spent a lot of time training and mentoring the Afghan security forces. Afghans were able to plan and provide the inner cordon of security around polling stations during a tense election period. The Afghan Government and security forces now have an increasingly permanent presence where it matters in Helmand—in the main population centres. Our recent operations have allowed civilian teams to start building schools, roads and clinics. What matters most is the support of the local population in the area secured this summer. This is the greatest evidence of success in a counter-insurgency operation. It is the Afghans who will ultimately consolidate success and we are committed to helping them to do so. It is a tough job, and progress can seem slow, but we have taken some essential steps in the right direction this summer and 11 Light Brigade will now take the job forward.
I think that the whole House should recognise the exemplary leadership that has been shown by Brigadier Tim Radford—I met him twice in theatre and I have met him twice since—during a most difficult deployment in Helmand over these past six months. He has done a fantastic job at showing leadership in those circumstances and we should recognise that and pay tribute to the marvellous job that he has done.
The Secretary of State is quite right about the superb job that Brigadier Radford has done. I am glad to be able to tell the Secretary of State that Brigadier Radford has accepted the invitation of the all-party group on the Army to come to a reception on the Terrace of the House of Commons on 30 November. I hope that hon. Members who are present in the Chamber will join me then to thank him for the work that has been done.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for arranging these opportunities for us to mix and to show our gratitude to the people who are serving our country in this way. I will certainly try to be there, unless there is something in my programme that is absolutely immovable.
The strategy that has been conducted up to now has been simplified as “clear, hold and build”. The clearing and the holding took place in the Babaji area under Operation Panther’s Claw. In our last debate, I asked the Secretary of State what will now happen to that area as regards reconstruction and stabilisation. He told me that they would go ahead but gave no details. In answer to a parliamentary question, I was told that the Department for International Development is paying for one road to be built through the area, which will be completed in 2013. Does he really feel that that is the sort of stabilisation, reconstruction and development that needs to take place? It does not match the efforts that our armed forces are putting in to clear the ground in the first place.
The hon. Gentleman appears to want to deride everything that our people do in every circumstance, so I am not surprised by what he says. The “one road” that he mentions is a road between Lashkar Gar, the political capital of Helmand, and Gereshk, the economic capital, if you like, of Helmand. That is probably the most important road in the region, and the hon. Gentleman dismisses it as “one road”.
As I have just said, there is now an opportunity—this work has already commenced—for schools and hospitals to be built as well as roads and for contacts to be made that offer opportunities for engagement between the Afghan Government and that huge centre of population as a result of the hard work and considerable sacrifice of our troops in Babaji over a period of time. The development piece is in there, right behind the front line, and if the hon. Gentleman asks people in theatre who have been part of this operation, they will tell him that. I hope that he does that, as that might curtail his carping to some degree.
The Prime Minister set out yesterday the priorities for the next stage of work being undertaken in Afghanistan. The security gains we have made in Afghanistan against the insurgency—and to prevent the return of terrorism—must be permanent gains. That is why we have to build on the capacity of Afghanistan to maintain security. The more the Afghans can take responsibility for security, the less coalition forces will be needed in the long term and the sooner our troops can come home.
The UK has fully supported General Stanley McChrystal while he has conducted his strategic assessment. His thinking on delivery ties in closely with our national thinking. Many of the themes of the Government’s strategy, published in April, have been developed by General McChrystal. We support his ambition to build the Afghan national army to 134,000 by October 2010. The new training centre that the Prime Minister mentioned yesterday is aimed at professionalising Afghan national army junior commanders, both officers and non-commissioned officers, up to the rank of major. The aim will be to train about 900 Afghans per month.
More Afghan troops are needed in Helmand. It is the centre of the insurgency and it is where the majority of the fighting is taking place. The Prime Minister announced yesterday the establishment of an Afghan corps headquarters in Helmand, and 215 corps of the Afghan army will take part in clear and hold operations in partnership with ISAF units. Together with the partnering strategy that the Prime Minister announced, that will allow the coalition to share the protection of the population centres cleared of the Taliban.
On UK troop numbers, in April we announced an uplift in force levels to 9,000 for the period of the Afghan elections. We also said that we would keep those force levels under review and make such adjustments as were necessary after the elections. I can confirm that we have agreed to maintain UK troop levels at the current level beyond the election period. I have placed before Parliament today the details of which additional units will be deployed as part of 11 Light Brigade to meet the new enduring baseline.
We have also agreed in principle a new force level of 9,500, to be put into effect subject to the following conditions: first, that the new Afghan Government demonstrate their commitment to operations in Helmand with an uplift in Afghan troops; secondly, that our commitment is part of an agreed approach and burden sharing across the coalition and, thirdly, that military commanders are satisfied that the extra troops are properly equipped for what they are being asked to do.
Our troop numbers have therefore increased from just over 8,000 in the early spring of this year to 9,000 on an enduring basis today, with a further proposed increase to 9,500 provided that those conditions are met. In all, that will represent a troop uplift of around 1,500 in a little over six months.
The hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) talked about the number of troops that were needed in Northern Ireland, but he needs to take into account the fact that, as well as our troops, there are also large numbers of American forces in Helmand now. In addition, we have to grow the Afghan national army, which we can do most quickly through partnering. In that way, the Afghans will be the people providing the boots on the ground, and not us alone. We are part of a coalition, and the Afghan Government must be part of it too.
I appreciate the Secretary of State’s generosity in giving way, but there is a growing body of opinion, including in the military, that a substantial increase in troops is needed if we are to do the job properly. As Brigadier Butler has said, we either go long, or we go deep, or we go home. The comparisons with Northern Ireland still stand, because there is a continuing acute shortage of troops and equipment, especially helicopters.
I ask the Secretary of State to re-examine that point. I do not want to go over old war stories but, when I was a platoon commander in Crossmaglen, we did not go anywhere without being airlifted. That is not the case in many areas in Helmand province. It is not just a question of a substantial increase in troops, because we are still short of equipment. Unless we re-examine the situation, we are putting troops’ lives unnecessarily at risk.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. All I would say to the hon. Member for Billericay is that we are part of a coalition. A huge uplift in troop numbers—from 73,000 to 102,000—was already agreed ahead of General McChrystal’s proposals and ahead of the offer that we have just made, based on the conditions that I set out. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman must not forget our commitment to grow the Afghan national army to 134,000 by the autumn of next year.
In answer to a question in the House of Lords yesterday, Baroness Royall said that
“it is the case that if the conditions cannot be met it must mean that the 500 extra troops will not be going to Afghanistan: that is the clear outcome.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 October 2009; Vol. 713, c. 238.]
I am hopeful that we will be able to meet the conditions in a relatively short period of time, but Baroness Royall is absolutely correct that we have to be satisfied about the balance of risk that the hon. Member for Billericay has identified. We have to make sure that the extra troops have all that they need to do the task asked of them, that our allies across the coalition also make a contribution, and that the American response to General McChrystal is clarified. Most important of all is the need for the Afghans to recognise the importance of Helmand. They must see that the province is the priority for their uplifted troop numbers: we need more Afghan troops as our partners in Helmand. We cannot do the job alone, and have no desire to do so. We have to build their capacity, and they have to be prepared to be a partner in that.
I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way again, and it is very helpful for the House to know this. What scale of increase in the activity of our coalition partners would be needed for the Government’s definition of the conditions to be met?
I do not think that we will be prescriptive in that regard, but we need to have a discussion with all our partners. There is a NATO ministerial meeting next weekend, and the American process remains to be completed. However, I am hopeful that we can get to a position where we can accept that the conditions have been met, and that we can therefore agree to the troop uplift, in a relatively short period of time. However, I do not want to talk about any specific number of days or weeks.
What does the second condition—that there should be an agreed approach to burden sharing within the coalition—actually mean? We have been there for the past eight years and have not achieved such an agreement. Why does the Secretary of State think that we might get one in the foreseeable future—that is, in months or years?
We have got agreements, but they have changed over time and the commitment of many nations has gone up. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the commitment of one or two of our NATO allies is likely to go down, but we have to have those discussions. There has been development over time. I know that it is widely thought in this country that only ourselves and the Americans are playing our part, and that the contribution from other nations is relatively small. However, a lot of nations are making a considerable contribution: we would like them to make more, because there is no doubt that the UK is making far and away the second largest contribution to the operation. We are entitled to say to NATO allies that burden sharing is important. Some of them could do more, as we all know. We have to put them in a position where we can ask them to do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) spoke about the need for helicopters. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that there would be more Chinooks, but he did not say how many and when. Is the Secretary of State able to say now how many there will be, and when they will come?
I shall come on to equipment very shortly in my speech.
Nothing can eliminate completely the dangers of the battlefield. The nature of the mission in Afghanistan—a counter-insurgency campaign among the people—means that our forces need to get out of the Chinooks and the Mastiffs and engage with people. As long as they are providing security for the people of Helmand in the face of an insurgency they will be in harm’s way, and we have to expect further casualties.
Because of our successes against them, the Taliban-led insurgents are relying heavily on attacks using improvised explosive devices. These are responsible for the majority of UK casualties and are taking a heavy toll on civilians as well. Tackling this threat is our priority and we are doing all that we can to minimise the risks to our forces while they do the job that they need to do.
It is always a challenge to balance the need to send new kit to the frontline as soon as possible with providing the best possible equipment for training purposes. We have deployed more specialist counter-IED troops to find and defuse mines and to identify and target the networks that lay them. We are continuing to invest in our intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capabilities to provide vital real-time intelligence to track and target bomb makers. In addition to the surveillance capability in theatre from Sea King and airborne stand-off radar, we will increase flying hours in our unmanned aerial vehicle fleet by 33 per cent. for Hermes and 50 per cent. for Desert Hawk by the end of this year, and by 80 per cent. for Reaper next year.
We have approved over £3.2 billion of urgent operational requirements specifically for Afghanistan, some 70 per cent. of which has been for force protection. We will ensure that support systems are robust, that spares are available in theatre when they are needed and that sufficient equipment will be in place to conduct pre-deployment training.
On vehicles, in the past three years, we have approved £1.2 billion for new vehicles for Afghanistan. Over the past 12 months alone, we have procured 500 protected mobility vehicles and several hundred more are on contract. For the new Mastiff 2 and Ridgback, an advance stock of spares will be issued to theatre and stocks will continue to be monitored to support the current tempo of operations.
Compared with November 2006, by May next year we will have doubled the number of battlefield helicopters and increased the flying hours by 130 per cent. That will include the deployment of the Merlin fleet to Afghanistan for the first time after its service in Iraq.
The Secretary of State mentions the availability of equipment for pre-deployment training. He will know that the Welsh Guards, based in my constituency, have just returned, and they tell me that one of their difficulties is that there were no Mastiffs and other armoured vehicles on which to train in the United Kingdom. That has led to difficulties with on-the-job training in theatre and a lack of skills in maintaining the vehicles—hence the fact that there have been breakdowns and so on. Now that he has ordered all those additional vehicles, is he satisfied that sufficient vehicles are available in the United Kingdom to undertake pre-deployment training?
There is no doubt that there is a problem with spares for Mastiff 1, but we got Mastiff 1 into theatre in record time. We have systems in place to ensure that such problems do not arise with Mastiff 2 or Ridgback, and we must provide kit and equipment for pre-deployment training. That is why I sometimes get riled when people say that we have helicopters in Hampshire rather than Helmand. We have helicopter crews in Hampshire as well as Helmand. They have to recuperate; they have to train—we cannot send them out to Afghanistan and keep them there—and we must have the kit and equipment back here at home to enable them to do so. So, yes, of course, the top priority is to deal with the theatre—the theatre has to come first, does it not?—but training is an important part, and providing the necessary equipment for training must come a very close second.
So why do we not use more reserve aircrews, particularly for helicopters, as the Americans do? The fact that we currently have one reservist Apache pilot—oddly enough, a Royal Naval Reserve officer—out in Helmand shows that reservists can meet a range of such requirements, and plenty of people who work in the civilian helicopter world are ex-service pilots.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have allowed him to beat up certain people in the MOD over a period to put his point of view that there are ways in which we can get more helicopter crews into the roulement, and any ideas that he has are always welcome, as they are from any other quarter of the House.
Can my right hon. Friend explain the circumstances in which we blew up two of our own Chinook helicopters? I understand that they had been lightly damaged—one from a hard landing, and the other by being attacked by gunfire, not by a surface-to-air missile. Why could we not guard those helicopters in time, so that they could be removed to a safe place or repaired? What does it say for security if we had to destroy two helicopters worth £40 million, because we could not guard them until repairs arrived?
The helicopters came down in the Helmand valley, well away from patrol bases, and a judgment must be made by people whose lives are on the line, not by us here in the House of Commons, about the balance of risk between destroying equipment to prevent it from falling into the hands of the enemy and taking risk to preserve it. We must accept that we are not in a position to make those judgments. Those are dangerous environments, and we must support our armed forces in making those judgments and back them up when they do so. If that costs us equipment, it costs us equipment.
May I bring the Secretary of State back to the equipment increases with regard to trying to guard against IEDs and so on? Although I very much welcome the news that more equipment is being sent out, to many people, that feels like playing catch-up. For example, the statistics show that something like 30 per cent. of American casualties are caused by IEDs, but the figure for British forces is much higher, at about 50 per cent. How does he account for that?
A measure of the respect that we should show for our armed forces is that our people are holding down the main centres of population in the Helmand valley, which is the centre of the insurgency—a well embedded insurgency. Therefore, they are taking on the enemy where it is strongest, and we are suffering casualties—far, far more than makes any of us in any way comfortable—but new kit and equipment is going out, in terms not only of quantity, but new technology. I hope that the House will understand that I do not want to go into the detail of what we can and cannot do, but no effort is being spared in trying to develop new ways and means to find and attack the devices. There is a huge increase in the number of devices that we are finding before they explode, but the main thing is to tackle the networks that are putting them in place. That involves surveillance, intelligence and other capabilities.
I understand very well the difficulties that the Secretary of State is talking about. Does he agree that, inevitably, there will be casualties in a war of this type, deeply regrettable and tragic though they are, and that domination of the ground cannot be achieved from the inside of a vehicle or helicopter? It is absolutely fundamental that there is no substitute for adequate boots on the ground. On what my hon. Friends say about troop numbers, what the right hon. Gentleman was told in the theatre capability review that he received earlier in the year was that many more troops are required on the ground.
Many more troops are required on the ground. That is what General McChrystal is looking at now. We cannot do that alone; we are part of a coalition. We are providing less than 10 per cent. of the foreign forces in Afghanistan. That has to come from others, and overwhelmingly, it has to be Afghanistan. If people are saying that more of our troops were required before now, that is not the case. Requests were looked at, but they were not looked at in terms of immediate requirements. Those requests have been met, and I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that the chiefs of staff are happy that we have got the right response to their requests.
Many hon. Members have seen at first hand the extraordinary role being performed by the Territorial Army and our reserve forces, which is indistinguishable from the role being played in Helmand by our regular forces. Some of us cannot understand what is going on with the Government’s freeze on training and pay over the next six months, as it seems entirely to contradict what the Secretary of State has been telling the House of late. Will he take this opportunity to clarify the Government’s position on the future of our reserve forces?
In answering questions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) yesterday, the Prime Minister said:
“there is an issue about small vehicles… We will do everything that we can to ensure that there are better vehicles in future.”—[Official Report, 14 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 309.]
Will the Secretary of State give a commitment on the number of better vehicles that will be delivered and a time scale for their delivery?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The basic problem is that we have supplied vehicles, such as Mastiff, which provide a huge protection against mines, but they cannot be used in many circumstances and our troops have to use smaller vehicles. We have upgraded Snatch to Snatch Vixen, which has a far higher level of armour, but it still can be overpowered. Any vehicle can be overpowered, including a Challenger tank, if people want to put enough explosive into a device. But, we are looking at improving the range all the time. Snatch Vixen is not as good as we can get, and we are now looking at new vehicles that could fulfil the role that we have asked of Snatch Vixen, so that we have smaller and highly capable vehicles that are at the front end of technological development.
Despite the continued real-terms increases, pressures on the defence budget are well documented. Additional spending on operations in Afghanistan has risen to reflect the situation, from £700 million in 2006 to more than £3 billion this year, and that is on top of a defence budget of more than £35 billion a year. We are adjusting the core defence budget to reprioritise Afghanistan, and that means some tough choices: for example, we have cancelled some Territorial Army training that is not related to Afghanistan. Let me assure the House that no individual deploying to Afghanistan does so without the required training: no TA soldier will be deployed on operations unless the Army is satisfied that he is properly trained and properly prepared. Those deploying over the next year will of course continue to be paid for the training that they do, as well as for the deployment. That is what making Afghanistan the main effort means, and I make no apology—no apology at all—for moving resources in that direction. That means that pain has to be taken elsewhere, but Afghanistan, with 9,000 people in theatre, has to be the main effort. I have the agreement of the chiefs of staff that that should be so, and we are looking at the degree to which it means that we prioritise resources in the direction of Afghanistan, but, as I have said, I make no apology to the House for doing so.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State. I think that there are more things on which we agree than disagree and fully support the funding for our armed forces. We disagree about the role of the Department for International Development behind the armed forces, and that is the issue that frustrates people on the ground. I am informed of what goes on there: the company in which I served, 2nd Battalion The Rifles, has just come back, and that is where I get my information. The Secretary of State just said that spending for the armed forces is more than £3 billion, and that is brilliant; according to an answer I received to a parliamentary question about DFID spending, for that Department, spending is £127 million. DFID has £127 million for reconstruction; the armed forces have £3 billion. The two just do not go hand in hand. How can we possibly win over people’s hearts and minds when we cannot take advantage of the umbrella of security that our armed forces work so hard to gain?
The British development in Afghanistan amounts to £510 million over four years, and there is USAID on top of that. Building the Afghan Government’s capacity and giving hope to the Afghan people is an important part of the process. I accept and understand that troops, who are fighting hard in very difficult circumstances, tend to look to others and want them to do the absolute maximum to capitalise on the situation that they have managed to achieve, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at the situation in Afghanistan. Our capability in Helmand province is pretty joined up, with a 2-star civilian working alongside the brigadier as a team, and alongside Governor Mangal, who has been an excellent governor. Our whole military effort is not a stand-alone military effort, but a comprehensive programme, looking at what gets done when, making sure that the military do not run away from others’ ability to keep up, and trying to plan the effort in a co-ordinated way. Of course it is not perfect; it never will be, but I think that that effort has improved and improved substantially.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way so often. On the issue of the Territorial Army and the freeze on training, I should say that more than 1,000 members of the Territorial Army from Northern Ireland are on operational deployment, which is a very high proportion, and there is real concern about what will happen to preparation for Afghanistan over the next six months. Is he saying that anyone going to Afghanistan will be trained and paid? We need to have clarification about that, because there is great concern.
I did the Territorials review, so I have become acquainted with a lot of people in the House who know an awful lot about the Territorial Army and have a close attachment to it. I know that doing anything with the Territorial Army, brings down a storm on yourself, but I have talked to the new Chief of the General Staff about the situation—
“He is a regular and therefore cannot be trusted”?—I think that we have to guard against that! I have said to him that I know he is a regular, and I have got my eye on him, but he is running the Army and appears to be a pretty competent guy. I have to take some advice about his priority, and I agreed with him and the other chiefs some weeks ago that we had to make Afghanistan the main effort. It means that we cannot drop everything else, and no way should we, but there must be a degree of priority for Afghanistan. Everyone is agreed on that, and hard consequences flow from it.
No one would disagree with the Secretary of State about the main effort being centred on Afghanistan, but, to use an example of the situation that we face, I cite the Honourable Artillery Company, my regiment, which has 11 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan, has made regular contributions over the past eight years and, presumably, will wish to do so in the future. The company’s commanding officer told the regiment last night that ordinary regular training has been effectively cancelled, and its recruits’ corps training has, too, so there will be no training in the regiment. Six months from now, will the Honourable Artillery Company still be able to provide the support that it has given to our efforts in Afghanistan over the past eight years? I, for one, very much doubt that it will.
I can only promise the House that, as we take these difficult decisions about prioritisation and the amount of resource that we shift, I shall be very mindful to ensure that we do the minimum damage elsewhere while making certain that we give the appropriate priority to Afghanistan. I know that among those taking the decisions there are regulars who many Members suspect of not having sufficient feeling for the contribution of the Territorials, so I shall bear that in mind as well.
The Secretary of State has been generous in giving way, and he has taken a long-term interest in reserves, for which I am particularly grateful. However, I really do urge him to bear in mind that, however professional our regular forces are, they have a very long history of not understanding how the reserves work. To cancel all training for the next six months for everybody except the relatively small number of people who have immediate call-out papers for Afghanistan will devastate the Territorial Army and completely attenuate its ability to provide forces for the future.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and know that he says it with conviction, but I can only repeat the assurance that I have: as we go forward and try to ensure that we properly prioritise our operations in Afghanistan to the degree that the nation would expect, we are also mindful of the issues that he has raised.
Does the Secretary of State understand that such hibernation of skills—of the sort that the Public Accounts Committee’s report on support for high-intensity operations highlighted—may be accommodated in the regular forces, although the impact on our generic war-fighting capability would be severe enough, but cannot be accommodated in the reserve forces? Reserves will simply walk: training is what they do, and it holds them in. Does he not understand that this decision will be a huge blow to morale, and that reserve forces, on whom we depend so much, are likely simply to fade away?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I believe that, within the priorities that we have had to make, that decision had to be taken. We carried out the reserves review, but I understand the importance of the offer—we are talking about volunteers, and we have to make sure that we maintain the commitment of volunteers, otherwise we will lose them. I fully understand that point.
The information that I have, which I believe to be accurate, is that the reason for the cut in funding for the Territorial Army is that Regular Army recruitment has exceeded expectation and that funds have to be found somewhere in the land budget to pay for the training of that extra recruitment. Is that true? If it is not, why is the decision on the cut in TA funding being taken so late in the year?
No one—neither my predecessor nor I—has tried, in the circumstances that we have faced, to discourage the recruitment opportunity that the Army has had. Yes, of course there are financial circumstances. Recruitment to the Regular Army has been so successful over a period of time. I do not think that Conservative Front Benchers would, on reflection, have taken another decision; if they had been in the position of my predecessor or me at various points of this year, I do not think that they would have said no. When the opportunity and need were there, recruitment was allowed to progress. That is the priority, and it is also the Chief of the General Staff’s priority.
By and large, there is cross-party agreement in the House about the priorities for what we devote to defence and about the priorities within defence. However, the Government have taken two profoundly wrong decisions. The first was to reduce spending on research and technology. The second was to cut funding to the reserves. That is profoundly wrong, and it will have long-term consequences for the armed forces.
As I have said, we have to try to be mindful of permanent damage to our reserves and of protecting our research and development. We cannot completely sell tomorrow to pay for today. However, today is the pressing need. Afghanistan has to be the main effort and I do not think that any Conservative Member genuinely disagrees with that in principle.
I pay tribute to the fantastic work being done by the medics at Camp Bastion, where our wounded are receiving first-class treatment. A lot of the medical staff there are reservists themselves. Is the Secretary of State absolutely certain that the effective freeze on TA training and recruitment will not endanger the services that we will be able to offer in future to our wounded at Camp Bastion?
I am certain that those facilities will not be put at risk in any way, and I will continue to satisfy myself on that point. I know the huge contribution that reserves play in medical services. It varies with deployments, but generally speaking it involves a high proportion.
I am informed that the Scottish battalions have to find £4 million of cuts over a two-week period. Does the Secretary of State not feel that we are spoiling the ship for a ha’porth of tar? Will not the soldiers and reservists walk out, so that they will not be there to call on in future?
I do not think that they will. I hope that they do not and that the hon. Gentleman does not encourage them to do so. I do not think that he can credibly argue against the idea that Afghanistan should be the main effort.
Providing battle-winning kit to our front-line forces is vital, both for success on current operations and the delivery of longer-term military capability. I am publishing today a detailed and thought-provoking report by Bernard Gray on defence acquisition. I apologise again for the fact that my Opposition counterparts have had the report for only a short time; I would have wanted them to have had it for longer. The report, however, is now in the public domain. It has been published as people wanted it to be, and we can now use it to examine how we should go forward.
My predecessor and the MOD asked Mr. Gray for a thorough and frank review, and that is what he has delivered. I am very grateful to him for the time and effort that I know he has personally devoted to the task. The report acknowledges the commitment of our people, our long-standing commitment to reform and the progress that we have made. It has also put into perspective some of the very real difficulties that we—and, indeed, all countries—face in this area.
The simple fact is that providing the world-class equipment that our forces deserve involves significant technological and other challenges. The report points the way to dealing with those challenges, recognising that cost and time pressures on individual projects are, and will remain, a fact of life. We do not agree with everything in the report, but we do accept most of the recommendations, particularly its two central themes. The first is that we need to bring the equipment programme into balance with the likely resources, and the second is that we need to improve its management and delivery. Today I have set before Parliament an eight-point plan, building on earlier reform, to improve performance radically. Implementation has already begun, and Lord Drayson is leading the work in the Department. We will publish an overarching strategy for acquisition reform in the new year. In going forward, we will work to adjust our equipment programme to bring it into balance with future requirements and resources through the current planning round and, in due course, the strategic defence review that I announced in the summer.
I turn to that review. In July, I set in train the process leading to a formal defence review after the election next year. All parties have agreed to the need for a new review. The strategic defence review of 1998 helped our armed forces to move beyond the legacy of the cold war and to configure for recent operations. The pace of change since 1998 has been considerable. We have built on the strategic defence review, not least with the new chapter in 2002, which helped to reflect the immediate implications of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Although some aspects of the strategic defence review endure, some have now been overtaken by events. Among others, the notion of “fast in, fast out” has had a much more limited application than was thought likely at the time. In the future, the need to maintain campaign continuity over long periods will have to be written into strategy, doctrine and organisation.
In a speech in September, I set out some of the Department’s initial thinking about how global trends will develop, including the character of warfare in which the UK may find herself engaged. I hope that the Green Paper will stimulate a public debate about Britain’s role in the world and the shape of the forces that we will need to fulfil our commitments. Going forward, our defence forces will have to balance competing requirements—the need to maintain credibility in the primary role as the ultimate guarantor of territorial integrity and the ability to engage abroad at differing levels of intensity, preventing and resolving conflicts in order to protect national security.
The national security strategy, updated this year, sets out the global nature of the threats that we face. In my view, UK security and national interests are underpinned by the ability to project power; the timely application of soft power and conflict prevention should remain a high priority. But when they fail, it is better to deal with threats at a distance; an expeditionary approach, as set out in the strategic defence review, remains valid. I believe that there is a general consensus in the House for such a forward defence posture.
That is an improvement, as the last time I spoke my hon. Friend wanted five—to span the Firth of Forth as a mobile bridge. I do not think he wanted them used for anything else other than to provide jobs on the Clyde, but he has now come down to three. Yes, it is our intention to continue with the two aircraft carriers, but not the third.
In the course of the defence review we shall take a lot of evidence about the demands on our forces, but will my right hon. Friend put as much emphasis on supply in the configuration of the armed forces to ensure that the outcome is that we have armed forces fit for the 21st century rather than the 19th?
We will certainly try to draw these issues out in the Green Paper. I do not think that in any defence review we can concentrate solely on equipment issues. We have to consider the people issues and the sustainability of the force. The costs of the people need to be properly examined alongside the costs of the equipment. We need to do as rounded a job as we can in order to try to inform that strategic defence review, which, as I say, all parties are committed to. I hope that we can do that constructively. I am enormously pleased that the other two main parties have agreed to participate in the defence advisory forum—that gives strength to the process.
In terms of defence as a whole, the pace of change that we are facing means that we will need to learn the lessons of operations and effect change more quickly, from training to procurement, from operational tactics to overarching doctrine.
Our armed forces do a difficult job, often in difficult circumstances, but always with outstanding commitment, professionalism and bravery. I am sure that all those in the House will agree that we owe them our gratitude and our thanks, but more than that, we owe them the best support that we can give them, not just now but on an enduring basis.
Several hon. Members rose
Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), let me observe to the House that the opening speech has been one of great length, which is a consequence partly of the material that the Secretary of State wanted to put before the House, but also of the very large number of interventions from Back-Bench Members, and that will affect the available amount of time. In the 57th minute of his speech, the Secretary of State referred to the Gray report, which had been the subject of exchanges earlier on. Unless the reactions to that form part of the main material of the debate, I think that Mr. Speaker would bear in mind that if the House did not feel satisfied with the opportunities for exchanges on it, he might well be minded to allow further opportunities for it to be discussed.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am very aware from your previous record of how your gentle hints are firm instructions to the Front Bench.
Once again, let me echo the Secretary of State’s comments about the sacrifices made in life and limb by our armed forces, particularly in Afghanistan. As a country, we are indeed fortunate that we have those in our society willing to volunteer to risk their own safety for our safety and security; and as a country, sometimes we would be wiser to count our blessings more often than we do.
Three events dominate today’s defence debate. The first is Afghanistan, which we all agree must be the priority on which I imagine most hon. Members will want to focus. Secondly, there is the Gray report, which we should not be spending time on in this particular debate because hon. Members have not had a chance to read its 296 pages. In fairness to the Secretary of State, it is fairly well known in Whitehall that the MOD wanted to publish that report but No. 10 very much did not want to do so; anyone who has had a glance at it can quickly see why. We need a separate statement on that. Following its somewhat disastrous appearance in the public domain, I note that the Defence Board minutes of 9 July say that
“the Department needed a good communication strategy to manage the eventual release of the report into the public domain.”
Well done on that one! The third issue is the TA and the severe, utterly inexplicable cuts to regular training, and what that tells us about the Government’s priorities.
Over the past three years, the Conservative party has called on the Government to accept our proposals for regular quarterly reports to Parliament on our objectives in Afghanistan, the benchmarks by which progress is measured, and the success or otherwise in meeting those objectives and benchmarks. We still do not have that. Nevertheless we welcomed yesterday’s statement by the Prime Minister on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
However, many questions remain unanswered, even after the Secretary of State’s speech. The first concerns conditionality. My understanding, and I think that of the House yesterday, was that there were essentially three reasons why we were sending a greater force to Helmand: to augment and support the mission; to increase the protection and safety of our forces; and to increase the speed of training of the Afghan national army. If all those are necessary in themselves, why apply the conditions that the Government have set out? If commanders say that they need these troops now, but the Government’s conditions are not met for several weeks to come, are not the Government, even by their own arguments, putting our troops in increased danger by failing to supply them with what they want? We must be must clearer about what the conditions are and how long the Government would wait for them to be fulfilled. That was not clear from the Secretary of State’s remarks; I hope that the Minister of State can make it clearer when he winds up. Perhaps he can also clarify, because we do not yet have this information before us, exactly where the extra 500 troops are coming from and what their mission will be in Helmand. Will it be mainly combat ops, training the Afghan national security forces, counter-IED operations, or a combination of those? We need clarity, because there are still too many uncertainties.
In December 2008, the Prime Minister announced “a temporary, until August” increase from 8,000 to 8,300 troops to Afghanistan. Those troops were sent from the theatre reserve in Cyprus. Are they still in Afghanistan? In April this year, as the Secretary of State said, the Prime Minister announced a further increase from 8,300 to 9,000 troops “until the autumn” to increase the security of the Afghan presidential elections. Yesterday, the Prime Minister justified this slightly differently when he said that we had
“decided to raise the number of troops from 8,100 to 9,000 until we could see what was happening with the American review of strategy”.—[Official Report, 14 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 307.]
These are not the same things. We need to have absolute clarity on the Government’s thinking. Are the extra 1,000 troops sent since last December going to be made part of the permanent establishment figure? Finally on troop numbers, the Prime Minister alluded to the fact that 500 troops normally based in Kandahar as an RC South reserve force will be permanently shifted to Helmand province. While that would be welcomed in Helmand, who is replacing the reserve capability in Kandahar? Will a coalition partner fill this role or will it be left unfilled? The House will expect an answer from the Minister of State.
We all know that we are waiting for the outcome of President Obama’s decision on how the way ahead for strategy in Afghanistan will be affected by General McChrystal’s review. Regardless of the outcome, General McChrystal deserves credit for producing a rich and vibrant debate about Afghanistan policy in recent times. Anyone who was fortunate enough to hear his speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies will know what a rare treat that was; if only politicians could speak with similar clarity on most occasions. His assessment comprised a very telling document, but one of its most important sentences went largely unreported:
“Inadequate resources will likely result in failure. However, without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced.”
We can talk about more troops, more helicopters and more armoured vehicles, but without a new strategy additional troops and resources will have only a short-term and localised effect. They can win the tactical battle, and they can buy politicians’ time, but ultimately unless something fills the gap they have created, their sacrifices and efforts risk being in vain. The surge worked in Iraq because it was fundamentally more than just an increase in troops. It was part of a bigger solution, designed to suit conditions on the ground and built around a revitalised political process that included the re-engagement of the Sunni minority. To secure this result, we will need a sound political plan moving alongside any military plan, because a sound political strategy will help to undermine the insurgency. We await the decision by President Obama.
It is vital that we maintain the public’s understanding and trust if we are to have the will and resilience to see through the mission in Afghanistan. We must set realistic goals and expectations to avoid disappointment at home and abroad. A comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan must include clear, tightly drawn, realistic objectives that are regularly reviewed; more rapid development of the Afghan security forces, as the Secretary of State said; and ensuring that the gains won by our forces on the battlefield are swiftly followed by reconstruction, which is all too often far too tardy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) mentioned.
In the early days after 9/11, there were two main objectives in Afghanistan: to deny al-Qaeda safe haven to plan, train and launch terrorist attacks on a global scale, and to remove the Taliban regime from power as punishment for not co-operating with the international community and for harbouring terrorism. Both were accomplished with relative speed, but the subsequent picture has been much less successful. There have been vague notions of state building and reconstruction built on UN millennium goals, and a plethora of strategies. People often say that there was no real strategy in Afghanistan, but the problem is that there have been too many. We have had an EU strategy, an American strategy, a UK strategy, an Afghan strategy, a NATO strategy, a World Bank strategy and multiple non-governmental organisation strategies, none of which were exactly the same. That is why we now require great clarity in what the President of the United States is soon to announce.
Because of all that, our inability to produce tangible and achievable results after eight years has disappointed public opinion at home and frustrated those in Afghanistan who are finding it difficult to build on the ground. Public disillusionment with the mission in Afghanistan is exacerbated by the Government’s repeated failure clearly to define our objectives in national security terms, and by the widespread belief that our forces have not been fully resourced. The Government have too often failed to explain what Afghanistan means in a broader geopolitical context, and I was pleased that the Secretary of State started to do that more clearly today.
The consequences of failure in Afghanistan are relatively easy to elucidate. First, were we to leave Afghanistan prematurely, by which I mean on a timetable not of our own choosing, it would be a shot in the arm for every jihadist around the world. It would send out a signal that we did not have the moral fortitude to see through what we believe to be an essential matter of our own national security. The impact would be felt beyond the Hindu Kush and the Durand line, extending across the region into the middle east and north Africa in one direction and south-east Asia in the other. We in this country should be under no illusions that were we to fail on those terms, it would also fuel latent fundamentalist sentiment within our own borders and in other European countries, imposing even greater burdens on our domestic intelligence and security forces. The public need to understand what the cost of failure would be, so that they are willing to invest in the price of victory.
Secondly, failure in Afghanistan would suggest that NATO, in its first major challenge overseas to combat terrorism, did not have what it takes to see a difficult challenge through. Again, we should be under no illusions that that would be deeply damaging, if not catastrophic, for NATO’s cohesion and credibility. The Secretary of State alluded to the reduced and sometimes falling contribution of some of our European partners. The European members of NATO that are failing to engage in proper burden-sharing in Afghanistan might like to reflect on what the collapse of NATO might ultimately mean for their own regional and global security.
If we can clearly describe failure, can we describe success? Describing to the British public what we mean by winning in Afghanistan will be crucial in maintaining public support. Success in Afghanistan will be achieved when we have a stable enough Afghanistan, exercising its own sovereignty and able to manage its own internal and external security to a degree that stops interference from outside powers and allows the country to resist the establishment of the terror bases and terror camps that went before. We should not try to apply Jeffersonian principles to what was effectively a broken, 15th-century state. There are noble ideas for development, human rights and democracy, but they are complementary to our military mission, not the same as it. We must not try to justify one by the other.
To achieve the objective of security in Afghanistan today, as General McChrystal set out, we need a counter-insurgency strategy to prevent the future need for a counter-terrorism strategy. It has to begin with the security and safety of the people in Afghanistan itself. Some 80 per cent. of the civilian deaths in Afghanistan are a direct result of Taliban activity. We need to build the trust and support of the people of Afghanistan by giving them the protection that we promised them but which the coalition has as yet failed to deliver. Only when we have their trust can we get the military success that we seek.
As has been said on many occasions, in a counter-insurgency a defection is better than a surrender, a surrender is better than a capture, and a capture is better than a kill. That is why General McChrystal’s assessment is so accurate. Any strategy in Afghanistan needs to include renewed and serious focus on reconciliation and reintegration with certain elements of the insurgency. The Taliban are not a homogenous group, and we have to understand the subtleties of what we are dealing with in Afghanistan.
As has been pointed out, and as the Secretary of State alluded to, part of the political process of improving governance will be to deal with those in what we call the Taliban who are reconcilable to the aims of the Afghan Government and the international community, even those who have fought against us in the past. However, we must not put on rose-tinted spectacles, and we have to recognise that some will remain irreconcilable, and the only way to deal with them will be in military terms and by military means. There will be no easy answer for those who are irreconcilable to who we are, what we stand for and the value system that we represent. As General Sir Graeme Lamb, who is now working as an adviser to General McChrystal, said recently:
“We need to take a good look at the people we consider to be our enemies…They have anger and grievances which have not been addressed. The better life they expected has not materialised; these are the people we must talk to, but we must make sure we have something to offer them.”
We also need to explore the idea of using auxiliary forces in Helmand province in support of our counter-insurgency operations. Since security is the definition of success, the sooner we get the Afghan security forces trained and on the front line, the faster we can bring our own troops home. That is why it is such a sensible investment to increase the number of British troops, to speed up the training of the Afghan national army. However, we need to remember that the ANA is a national, not provincial, army. It is recruited from across Afghanistan and from all ethnic groups. We need to make it clear that more British troops for training the ANA does not automatically translate into more ANA troops being sent to Helmand to fight alongside British troops, as they will have national responsibilities to carry out.
Consequently, when, where and if possible, we need in Helmand seriously to start exploring ways of forming and utilising local auxiliary forces. Auxiliary forces bring local knowledge and ownership to local security, which foreign troops will never be able to do. As Ministers know, there is already a pilot programme in Wardak province. If possible, a similar programme in Helmand might be worth exploring. It would have to take into account local customs, tribal structures, the views of the provincial and national Governments and of course legitimacy in the eyes of locals, but one would be hard-pressed to give an example of a counter-insurgency campaign that has been successful without using local auxiliary forces in some way. If we do not mobilise the locals, the Taliban will, and if we are serious about winning that is one matter that we need to look into further. I would be grateful if the Minister of State could say whether such an approach forms part of the Government’s wider thinking.
I regret interrupting the hon. Gentleman’s speech, and the question strikes me why on earth his party needs General Dannatt when they have shadow Ministers of his quality. Does he really believe, however, that the Afghan army, who are mercenaries from a wide range of tribal backgrounds, will have the commitment to put their lives at risk and slaughter their fellow countrymen in the defence of a corrupt Pashtun President?
We were warned of such potentially catastrophic outcomes in Iraq, yet what has happened there has been largely a success story in building the capacity of the army. I have no reason to believe—especially having been to some of the training grounds and spoken to British commanders on the ground—that the Afghan national army, when fully trained and having fully absorbed their trainers’ methods and values, will be anything other than a valuable and effective professional army in the service of maintaining its country’s national security. There are questions about whether a similar top-down approach could be applied to the Afghan national police. Indeed, because policing requires consensus—about the application of the penal code and the judicial system that interprets it—training in the Afghan national police needs to be more of a bottom-up exercise, to complement the top-down external security that the Afghan national army provides. That remains one of the biggest political challenges that President Obama and the coalition face in taking the political process forward.
Assuming that we get the strategy correct in Afghanistan—General McChrystal’s assessment suggests that that is paramount—the Government must always ensure that our troops are properly equipped for the crucial operations in which they are involved. That includes providing the earliest possible increase in the number of helicopters, armoured vehicles and other key battlefield enablers.
To maximise the mission’s success while minimising the risk to our forces, we must have the capability of moving troops safely while maintaining flexibility and manoeuvrability. It cannot be disputed that there is a shortage of UK helicopters in Helmand. That is largely as a result of the Government’s dreadful decision in 2004 to cut the future helicopter budget by £1.4 billion in the middle of two wars. There is no getting away from it.
Let me focus on specifics. Recently, two Chinook helicopters were destroyed in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, that is an inevitable consequence of warfare. However, will the Minister give an assurance that the attrition buy for replacing them will be funded from the Treasury reserve, not the core Ministry of Defence budget?
On 1 May, the Ministry of Defence announced that Vectors were being phased out of Afghanistan, but during the summer recess, we learned that an RAF airman was killed when patrolling in a Vector. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister guarantee that the on-scene commander had a choice of vehicles for the mission, as Ministers promised, and was not forced to use the vehicle through lack of choice? Will the Minister state in his winding-up speech how long he believes that it will take before the last Vectors come out of service in Afghanistan?
We welcome the addition of Mastiff and Ridge back armoured vehicles. However, it has been almost two years since the 157 Ridge backs were ordered, but only a trickle of them are getting into theatre, and we still have a shortage of lift capacity. In his oration at his party conference, the Secretary of State criticised my criticism of the slowness of delivering the Ridge backs. His justification was that the vehicles were not due in Afghanistan till the next deployment of forces and that, in fact, they were early. That is a bureaucrat’s thought process. When people are being killed yesterday, there is no such thing as “early” for delivering equipment in theatre. It is not the criticism of the lack of equipment, but not having that equipment, that damages morale and jeopardises the mission.
The vehicles were not ready for the deployment of 19 Light Brigade and people were not trained to use them in any significant numbers in 19 Light Brigade. The vehicles had to get to theatre before the people who were trained to use them, who were in 11 Light Brigade. Fortuitously, they were early. The hon. Gentleman chose to tell the British nation that we had betrayed our armed forces without bothering to check the facts. By all means, be an Opposition and hold us to account, but for heaven’s sake check the facts first.
With two years for procurement, one is tempted to ask why we did not have sufficient people trained to operate our vehicles. We are at war in Afghanistan. Our armed forces are at war. It is time Whitehall was fully at war.
Anyone who has visited Afghanistan knows that there is much praise from our armed forces for the Mastiff. It is a great armoured vehicle—a life saver—but only if it is operable and serviceable. According to this week’s Public Accounts Committee report on “Supporting High Intensity Operations”,
“only around 20 per cent. of the Mastiff fleet was classified as ‘fit’ in June 2008, with a further 55 per cent. able to undertake a limited role.”
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition raised that point yesterday, and today, when the Minister replies, I would like his assurance that the situation has improved. It is a sad state of affairs when, after eight years, we are still playing catch-up.
I would like briefly to consider Operation Telic and Iraq, in particular the UK training mission there to assist the Iraqi navy. The affair has recently been an embarrassment. It beggars belief that the Government could not secure the necessary agreements with the Iraqi Government in time, and that, consequently, British troops have been sitting in the desert in Kuwait for more than three months waiting for final approval.
I welcome the announcement yesterday that, after so many attempts, the Iraqi Council of Representatives finally secured the required quorum for the agreement’s third and final reading. But how long will we now have to wait for the Presidency Council to ratify and sign the agreement? Perhaps the Minister can help us with that.
The Royal Navy plays a very important role in Gulf security and is well respected, especially by our American allies. There is much criticism—often wrongly directed—of the relationship between the American and the British military, but anybody who has visited the American fifth fleet in Bahrain and talked to American commanders there knows how highly they regard the Royal Navy and its contribution to the mission in the Gulf. When we talk about Iraq as being “over”, we should remember those sailors and marines who are still patrolling and looking after security in the Gulf. The Royal Navy plays a vital role in the capacity-building of the Iraqi navy—a huge contribution to regional security. I hope that, when the agreement is back in place, we return to normal functioning there as quickly as possible because our forces are hugely appreciated.
I have the same experience as the Secretary of State—I know that the question is coming, and every single time I allow the opportunity for it. The hon. Gentleman knows I have often said that the seaborne air power projection is important for expeditionary capability, but we have also said that if we are going into a strategic defence review, we must maintain the discipline of considering everything properly in its time. We need to stick to that.
I want to mention another issue about our naval mission in Iraq that I would like the Minister to tackle specifically in his winding-up speech. It now appears that we will resume our training mission in the near future. What about its financing? In the Secretary of State’s letter to me dated 25 September—I thank him for keeping me updated throughout the summer recess on the matter, as he promised—he provided an explanatory memorandum on the agreement for training. It states:
“The costs associated with the provision of training and maritime support for Iraqi Forces will continue to be borne by HMG under existing arrangements for Operation Telic. The Treasury has agreed in principle to fund the additional costs for these military activities from the Reserve.”
Will the Minister tell us unequivocally that the costs for any and all UK training missions in Iraq and the Gulf will be met by the reserve and not from the core budget?
The recent PAC report that I mentioned earlier also highlights the Government's failure to ensure that our troops are properly trained to carry out their tasks. We know that there is a shortage of armoured vehicles for our troops to train on before they go to Afghanistan. The PAC report went on to say that
“there have been equipment shortages in many areas and some key equipment was missing altogether. Many troops have not had direct experience of some equipment, such as electronic counter-measures systems, before arriving in theatre”.
I am sure that the whole House agrees that no soldier should ever have to train on or see a major piece of equipment for the first time in Afghanistan.
Let us consider parachute training. Our Paras have a proud and gallant history. Our troops are expected to train like they fight, but now the Paras are being forced to jump from civilian aeroplanes flown by civilian pilots, when neither would be a wartime possibility. It is a matter for grave concern that parachute training and preparedness has reached that low level. Baroness Taylor said yesterday in the other place:
“the current capability is there. The lack of parachute training is not having an effect on the mandated operational capacity.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 October 2009; Vol. 713, c. 218.]
Many would disagree. When more than a third of parachute troops are unable to jump from a plane, which is what distinguishes them from their light infantry counterparts, there is a lack of capability. The lack of parachuting may not be impacting on current operations in Afghanistan, but what about our ability to react to the unexpected? According to the latest figures provided by the Government, more than a third of those who should be able to parachute are not trained to do so.
The situation with our reserve forces generally, and the TA especially, is worse than in other areas. Eighteen thousand members of our reserve forces, most of whom were from the TA, have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002, and we are extremely fortunate as a nation to have had those reserve forces available to us. However, the Government’s treatment of the reserve forces is unforgivable. In 1997, the establishment figure for the TA was 59,000. Today it is 38,500, even though the current strength is 28,920.
We learned last April that thousands more TA positions would be cut from the establishment figure. According to the Government’s latest figures, 12 of the 14 TA infantry battalions are under strength. On 28 April, in a statement to which he has referred, the Secretary of State said:
“Initial training will be restructured so that new recruits receive sufficient military skills to participate in their units’ collective training within six months of joining, and are fully trained and eligible for mobilisation in three years. Routine training will also be reviewed and sufficient man training days allocated to ensure that annual military competency standards can be achieved by all.”—[Official Report, 28 April 2009; Vol. 491, c. 702.]
As several hon. Members have already pointed out, we have now learned that training for all members of the TA who are not going to Afghanistan in the next year is going to be cut. The operational budget for the TA for this financial year was £38 million. We now know that it is going to be cut to around £23 million. That will have a very negative impact on the long-term readiness of the TA and long-term recruitment.
Let me give the House a graphic example. A young man sent me an e-mail today. It states:
“I have always had an interest in the armed forces so at the freshers fair this year”—
at King’s College—
“I jumped at the chance to join the London University Officer Training Corps, not only would I be trained by the military, develop my leadership skills but I would also get paid – always a good thing as a student struggling to pay a loan!...So after successfully getting in through the rigorous interviews and selection weekend (held in norfolk) I arrived for my first training evening, excited, keen and willing to learn! We were sat down in the hall and the Major walked out and announced bluntly – ‘There will be NO pay for any training officers this year.’ He went on to tell us about how the whole Army was facing a cut back. I think this is outrageous! We’re fighting two large wars, as training officers we should be seen as the next generation…properly respected and paid!”
The Government are willing to spend £12 billion on a pointless VAT cut to support their political reputation, but they are unwilling to spend £20 million to train the TA while we are at war in Afghanistan. That shows a very twisted set of priorities. The Government need to understand that for many in the TA, the TA is a habit: break the habit, break the TA. That is exactly what their proposals will do.
For our defence policy to be successful, we must have a clear strategy, defined objectives and the necessary military capabilities. Too often, this Government have simply not been up to the task. They are losing support among the public for the mission in Afghanistan, because they do not tell them why we need to be there in terms of our clear national security priorities. They are not making clear what losing would mean and they are not clearly defining what success would look like. We need better supplied forces in Afghanistan, with better spares and equipment.
Ultimately, the question is how much we value our forces. The TA decision is disgraceful and penny-pinching, and it is a shameful way to treat the volunteers in the TA. It may save £20 million, but the Government are willing to spend any amount to bail out their reputation in the middle of an economic crisis of their own making. In Afghanistan and elsewhere, whether dealing with equipment or our forces, if we will the ends, we must will the means. Half of what is needed will not buy us half a victory. Our armed forces deserve so much better than they are getting from this Government.
The 200th soldier killed in Afghanistan was Kyle Adams. Charlene Barry is a constituent of mine. She wrote to the Prime Minister and his predecessor, and she would like her letter to be read to the House. I shall read part of it:
“I am a 21 year old woman and my life was very happy and full of love. This was before a terrible…experience occurred…I try my hardest to keep up with understanding the background to your decisions on Afghanistan…I want to explain my background so maybe you can relate in some way to why I am very frustrated with you, and maybe you will understand we are people not just numbers…I left school after my GCSEs and I started to think about serving my country and working for the British Army. I enrolled onto a college course and got my diplomas. This is where I met Kyle Adams. We had such a great connection we would bring out the best in each other. We knew in our hearts we would always be together and made plans for the future…I later left the college, however my dear Kyle joined up as a paratrooper and began his gruelling training…We started to plan our lives in detail…We were to move in with each other…We were to have a dog for the first few years and then he would ask my father for permission to marry. Kyle wanted to wear his army uniform on our wedding day and we had our first dance song (savage gardens – truly, madly, deeply…We were to have three children; our first would hopefully have been a boy to carry on the family name for the Adams. His name was to be Cole Adams and he was going to be a cricketer as Kyle loved his cricket and his son would surely bowl out South Africa…Kyle was then sent to Afghanistan on the 22nd May 2009. He loved his job and was proud of what he had become – we were all very proud of him…Kyle was killed in action on the 6th August 2009 working for the paratrooper regiment when his Jackal vehicle ran over an IED bomb. We met our cold dead hero at RAF Lytham, on Thursday, 20th August 2009, and what a day that was! We met a lot of people and I was pleased to know that they felt enough emotion to turn up and show some respect for the four fallen men that had flown home that day…I think I speak for all British people when I say I just hope it doesn’t cost more lives.”
They laid down their lives for our decisions. I was so moved by that letter that I wrote to the Prime Minister and said, “I realise you get 20,000 letters a week, but please read this one.”
Charlene Barry made a plea for Ministers to turn up when the fallen soldiers are brought home, and the Prime Minister’s handwritten reply was greatly appreciated. It is crucial for Members of this House to confront the consequences of our decisions. We often talk about numbers and about issues that are peripheral to what has happened to the families of the 221 soldiers. They will suffer a wound that will never heal.
In this debate, we are concentrating on issues that are not central. My purpose in asking the Minister questions was not to suggest that the decision to turn those two Chinooks into scrap metal was wrong. I am sure that it was militarily the right decision. The point was what the episode says for security in Helmand province and in Afghanistan. In another answer to a question of mine, the Minister said I should realise that the reason why none of the terrorist plots originated in Afghanistan was that we were there, and that we had controlled the situation. That is an utter delusion. Karzai cannot travel 30 miles outside Kabul to the Logar province, because it is entirely controlled by the Taliban. An independent think-tank has estimated that the Taliban are in control of 80 per cent. of the territory of Afghanistan, more than they had in 2001.
Other evidence also suggests that we are deluding ourselves, and the battle is already lost. I questioned the hope that we have in the Afghan army in an intervention. It is a mercenary army that comes from all the various tribal areas, which have huge divisions between them. Karzai even has opponents in his own group.
We never mention Baluchistan. The king of Baluchistan was a constituent of mine until a few months ago—he is now an asylum seeker. Is that an area that we consider to be secure? Karzai sent emissaries to bring the area into line, because it was not obeying orders from Kabul. The reaction of the local people was to behead all 12. The country is out of control and has been that way for some time.
We are likely to repeat the disasters of Saigon and the disasters of the Russians—
I listened carefully to the moving letter that my hon. Friend read out, and it brought it home to me that this House has never voted on the deployment of our troops in Afghanistan, especially in Helmand, despite the promises from Prime Minister Blair and the current Prime Minister that the deployment of British troops in a war situation would require an affirmative resolution in this House. That would be in line with western European norms, as many other Parliaments require the full-hearted consent of the legislature in the full knowledge of what such action would entail, and we have been denied that in respect of this deployment.
My hon. Friend is right. We had a debate in March 2006—I commend the report of that debate to him—during which the claim was made that we were going into Helmand province. That area was peaceful at that time, and only seven British soldiers had died, two in action and five in accidents. At that time, the Government said—they would love to unsay it now—that they hoped to be there for three years and without a shot being fired. We would have been out by now if that plan had worked. Other voices said that this plan was as dangerous and futile as the charge of the Light Brigade. If casualties continue at the present rate, by Christmas twice as many of our brave soldiers will have lost their lives in Afghanistan than were killed in the charge of the Light Brigade—to similar purpose. My hon. Friend is right to point out that we have not debated this action or voted on it.
I have asked senior Ministers whether they have ever spoken to the Taliban leaders and asked why they are killing our people. I would have thought it would be important to do so in the circumstances. Both Front Benches deliberately mix up al-Qaeda and the Taliban—it happened again today—when the Taliban are complex enough on their own. Both Front Benches also deliberately mix up Pakistan and Afghanistan, and suggest that everything emanates from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The terrorist attacks here were all planned in Pakistan or in this country. None was planned by the Taliban or in Afghanistan.
The Minister’s answer to my intervention was about security, but there is no security if we have to blow up our own helicopters because we cannot guard them for the time it would take for a heavy-lifting vehicle to move them. That is the sign of a desperate situation. If security is that bad, how dare we ask our soldiers to go on patrol in light vehicles, or even on foot, and expose them to such dangers? We are in a similar situation to the final months in Iraq, when we were still sending troops out on futile patrols that had no purpose and many lives were lost in consequence.
If the Minister were to ask the Taliban why they are killing our soldiers, would they say, “Well, when we’ve killed all the British and American troops, we are coming over to Coventry and Newport to blow up your streets”? Or would they say, “We’re killing them because it’s our sacred, religious duty to kill the Ferengi, the foreigners, the infidels in our country”? James Fergusson, in his book “A Million Bullets”, tells the story of his meeting with a Taliban leader, who says, “I have three children, but I don’t allow them to live in the village where I live because I don’t want them to learn to love me. If they do, it will be more painful when I die.” James Fergusson asked, “But surely you don’t want to die.” The Taliban leader replied, “Of course I want to die, it is my dearest wish. My father died fighting the Russians and my great-grandfather died fighting the British, as did his father, and that is how I hope my children will die.” This is not a war that fits in with any of the military rules of conventional warfare over territory. This war is very different. The reason for the increase in deaths from seven to more than 200 is our presence in Helmand province, which was unnecessary and had no purpose. It was a giant military mistake and we are all still paying for it.
Politicians from both main parties are reluctant to admit the truth, because they would have to say that they had been mistaken for a long time, and that is a difficult thing to do. But we have to change tactics. All the issues raised about the number of helicopters, the training and other equipment are important, but they are not the central issues of why we are there, why the Taliban are attacking us, whether our goals are attainable and what will happen in the next few months. Thankfully, Obama is asking those questions. He has looked afresh at the war and is asking, “What is the likely outcome?” He has not taken the usual military line of sending more troops—every army asks for more troops.
We have told our soldiers that they must keep on dying. The line taken by those on the Front Bench about NATO is interesting. NATO is already fractured and divided—Canada says that it will leave in a couple of years. We have lost more troops than all the other European countries put together. They are doing the policing, but the Brits are doing the dying in this war. Is it reasonable to ask our troops to carry an unfair share of the burden? What are they dying for? Is it to guarantee the re-election of a thoroughly corrupt and disreputable president, Karzai, and his equally corrupt family, some of whom have become millionaires as a result of the war? Is it to allow the depraved, drug-addicted thieves of the Afghan police to take over when the soldiers have captured the territory? Is it to continue the abject and total failure of a drugs policy that has enriched the Taliban and allowed drugs to arrive on our streets in previously unheard of quantities? The price of heroin on the streets of our capital city—
I start by paying tribute to all those servicemen and women who have been serving our country in Afghanistan and elsewhere and, in particular, by marking the debt of honour that we owe to all those who have been killed and injured in that service. I also express our sympathy and condolences to their friends, families and loved ones. We should all be very proud of the work that they have done for us.
I welcome the opportunity this afternoon to discuss defence policy, with all the political parties now signed up to the principle of the strategic defence review after the forthcoming election. The opportunity looms for a national debate about defence policy, what we want to do in the world, what role we want to play and what we are prepared to leave to allies. Once we have identified what we want to do, we need to discuss how we will go about it. Tough questions must be asked; difficult answers must be sought. Policy is not, and should never be, simply a knee-jerk response to various crises. It should be about guiding principles; about the basis upon which we intend to interact with others; and about what we are trying to achieve in doing so. Having set out our clear objectives, the task before us all—whatever political side we are on—is to communicate that to a wider public that is increasingly confused and parting company with us on some of the things that we are doing. That public’s assent and consent is necessary if we are to continue as we are.
We are debating in part the Gray report. I think that everyone in the House would have appreciated more time to read and get to grips with it, but even a quick read of the executive summary is enough to make one realise that it raises very serious questions about the state of our defences and, in particular, procurement policies.
In many ways the report confirms what we have long suspected and what many commentators have been saying for a very long time: simply that there are systemic failures in the Ministry of Defence and, in particular, the procurement processes, which are crippling our armed forces’ ability to act. I very much agree with the general tenet of the report and the observation that the quest for a perfect solution too often gets in the way of achieving a very good solution. As Gray says, when an 80 per cent. solution is a viable option, and when it is in the interests of the armed forces to provide a “good enough” answer, the armed forces could get what they need and there could be far greater export potential. In summary, the report states that
“too many types of equipment being ordered for too large a range of tasks at too high a specification”.
In many respects, the report is a damning indictment of our procurement processes: the average programme overruns by five years beyond the time specified; average cost increases are 40 per cent, and the knock-on frictional costs to the Ministry of Defence of these delays amount, in monetary value, to, according to Gray, between £900 million and £2.2 billion annually. It is little wonder then that the worries that many have articulated about a black hole in the MOD budget are beginning to materialise.
To the best of my knowledge, the Liberal Democrat policy on the two aircraft carriers is exactly the same as that of the Government and the Conservative party. We see the need for the carriers, and support their procurement, but it is perfectly clear that a strategic defence review will consider the entire range of our military activity, and obviously in doing so will consider the aircraft carriers, like it will every other aspect of military activity. The hon. Gentleman asked me about policy; our policy is that we support the procurement of the two carriers on exactly the same basis as the other two main parties.
I noted with great interest that page 27 of Bernard Gray’s report provides figures, in a tabulated chart, suggesting that even on the most favourable assumption about the resources that will be available to the MOD, there could be a £2 billion annual gap in its procurement plans over the next two years. Looking further ahead, over the course of the next decade, he sees that growing to £4 billion annually, on the most optimistic basis. Taking a less optimistic assumption about the resources that will be at the MOD’s disposal, he sees that gap widening to £6 billion a year—and this is just on procurement. It is quite apart from all the other mismatches between resources and commitments in the MOD. Nobody should be in any doubt about the scale of the financial imbalance and the mismatch between our commitments and the resources at our disposal. If there has ever been a need for a strategic defence review, as a matter of urgency, surely now is the moment.
Given that very dark picture, I am tempted not to say that it is actually even worse than that. However, the report says that not only do we have the problems that currently exist, but that they are growing and at an accelerating rate. Things are continuing to deteriorate at an even greater pace. What is coming is even worse than what we have now.
I am very sorry to say that the hon. Gentleman is quite right. There can be no doubt that that is the case, which is why it is essential that this spiralling debt is caught hold of right away, and the strategic defence review will have to ask some very tough questions, because by no stretch of the imagination can we afford to continue as we are.
In my view, too often we seek bespoke solutions for British procurement that are out of all proportion to the size and scale of our armed forces. Some things we absolutely have to supply for ourselves, for reasons of national security. Furthermore, we need to keep supplies of some of our equipment on a national basis. Equally, and quite rightly, Members on both sides of the House are always very anxious about jobs in the defence industries. However, in some instances, our defence industries will have to, in the future, gear up far more for supplying through-life support, rather than for the design of a completely unique British solution in the first place.
I can also see that there might be more scope for building under licence in the future, although past examples of that have not always been happy ones. However, I have heard Members make powerful speeches on this in the House. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) made an impassioned speech along those lines in one of our debates early in the summer. Some of this is not always what everyone wants to hear—certainly not what our defence industries want to hear—and sometimes it is not even what those at the head of our armed forces want to hear. The latter are perhaps those who set us off on the wrong path of over-specifying what is needed. However, if we are to address the black hole that we have just identified and discussed, we will have to accept the logic that an Army of fewer than 100,000, an RAF of fewer than 40,000 and a Navy of fewer than 40,000 cannot have their own solutions on procurement as frequently as they have been accustomed to in the past.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the defence review and setting off on the wrong path. I thank him and the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) for the help that they gave me in forming a cross-party coalition for the Hebrides range in Uist. However, on the defence review, does he think that the long-term partnership agreement between QinetiQ and the MOD should be looked at? That might have led to a lack of utilisation at the base, but it could provide a better facility for what is Europe’s biggest and best missile range.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and deserves congratulations on the campaign that he fought. It will be appreciated in his locality. I believe that the strategic defence review must look at everything. There must be no no-go areas for a strategic defence review. We must ask very fundamental questions on a blank sheet of paper about what we want our armed forces to do, and what we need to provide them with in order for them to do it.
One of the experts in defence acquisition, quoted in the Gray report, remarked that
“the system is failing to produce the equipment we don’t need”.
That is a damning indictment. However, it is just an opinion. The National Audit Office, and others, have attempted to get to grips with the detail. It reported that last year there was an aggregate increase of 12 per cent. on the costs of defence projects. Often in this House, we debate defence inflation. Over the past year, the NAO has quantified that at 12. per cent.—£3 billion more than originally forecast. The total aggregate of slippage on all projects is now around 483 months—that is, the top 20 major procurement programmes have delays of 483 months—with expected cost overruns amounting to £16 billion.
The Public Accounts Committee reported that only 20 per cent. of new Mastiff armed vehicles were classified as fit and ready for use, with the deployed fleet of 87 consuming 176 axles in 13 months. They operate in very difficult terrain—nobody should underestimate that—but that shows, when we are having a discussion about the equipment that we supply to the front line, that there is a great need for improvement.
It cannot be stressed how vital helicopters are for troop movement, medevac and helping people to avoid improvised explosive devices, so I welcome efforts to get more helicopters to the front line. However, I suspect that we will need a great deal more than we have heard about so far.
The hon. Gentleman is always very thoughtful about such matters and I have been listening to him with great interest. However, I put it to him, first, that the 80 per cent. solution is something that we are already doing—I am doing it on armoured vehicles, for example. Secondly, on separating support solutions from manufacturing, there will normally have to be a support contract with the manufacturer or design authority with the source codes, who will need a knowledge of the kit that he will be supporting—indeed, there certainly cannot be support without the consent of the manufacturer or design authority. Thirdly, licences are not a panacea for saving money, but are actually rather expensive. We wind up spending money on the licence by having to pay the licensor and also the manufacturer.
I thank the Minister for his intervention and welcome what he says about 80 per cent. solutions, as he put it. I recognise that, in the case of some recent urgent operational requirements, that sort of logic and thinking has been more to the forefront. I welcome that, but such common sense has not always been present across the piece with our procurements.
As for the contracts for through-life support, they would of course have to be partnerships with the manufacturing companies. However, I am making a call for the British defence industries to be far more ready to position themselves for such contracts, because we certainly would not want to take things that we buy from abroad back to those manufacturers for through-life support every time. The British industries—and let us face it: the defence industries are becoming increasingly internationalised—need to think more along those lines for future decades.
I take the Minister’s point about building under licence. The experiences have not been happy ones. Perhaps I am being too optimistic in thinking that the idea may be a way forward for the future, but it at least needs to be thought about again. Licences have sometimes been very expensive—I recall one of the helicopter programmes being prohibitively expensive, to the point that Lewis Page said in his book that if we had given every man in the factory £1 million, we would still have saved the taxpayer millions. I therefore take the Minister’s point; nevertheless, we cannot continue to think that it makes sense to devise a completely British solution to every need that arises.
I welcome yesterday’s news from the Prime Minister that he intends to send more troops to the front line. However, the previous Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), has said that it would have been
“much more helpful had we had the additional troops there six months ago”.
That need has been widely known about for some time. However, I am clear that if it will provide the troops who are already there with additional safety and expertise and if it will help the programme of training the Afghan national army, sending more troops is the right thing to do.
On our commitment in Afghanistan, I entirely echo those who have raised criticisms of the decision to cut back on Territorial Army training. The TA has been picking up a far greater proportion of the burden in Afghanistan than anybody could have expected at the outset, and we should pay tribute to the work that it has done. However, if we are going to take people from ordinary civilian walks of life and throw them into the front line—a contemporary of mine from university, aged 48 and holding a senior academic position, is going out to Afghanistan next autumn to fight in the TA as a private—it is essential that every possible preparation is given to them to enable them to do the job when they get there. I urge the Government to review that issue and think again.
Hon. Members will appreciate that I and others in my party have been raising great anxieties about the strategy being followed in Afghanistan. I therefore greatly welcome the remarks and proposals of General McChrystal, who has said:
“Our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces; our objective must be the population.”
There have also been remarks from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has drawn new attention to the need to try to slice away the Taliban. Indeed, the Prime Minister emphasised in his statement yesterday the need to get out and reach the population. All that is a welcome shift in emphasis.
However, I felt yesterday that too much of the Government’s shift in emphasis sat on the single tactic of increasing the size of the Afghan national army from 90,000 to 134,000 in about a year. I would not want to be misunderstood: that aim seems an entirely laudable objective. However, as I sat listening, I asked myself whether any organisation, anywhere in the world and operating in any walk of life, can expand itself by 50 per cent. in a year or so in a way that is sustainable or gives confidence that it will effect such extraordinary growth efficiently and effectively, let alone an organisation as new, young and immature—I do not say that in a critical way—as the Afghan national army.
The hon. Gentleman’s strong point is made even more powerful when one reflects on the fact that Afghanistan is a tribal society. The danger is that, in seeking to expand so quickly, there will be parallels with Northern Ireland, for example, with disproportionate numbers of recruits coming from the north and thus being less acceptable to the population as a whole.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, although one of the Afghan national army’s strengths has been that it is drawn from all over and is not always deployed using people in their own areas. Indeed, that is one of its strengths over the Afghan police, who tend to be used in their own areas, which seems to account for the suggestions sometimes made that they seem to be corrupt, as are others in parts of the Afghan structure.
As I mentioned earlier, we will have a strategic defence and security review after the election. Some of the preparatory work is being done on that now, and I welcome the fact that all parties have been invited to cast their eyes over it. I have said that I think that everything must be included, and I simply cannot see the logic in conducting a strategic defence review and not including the consideration of our future nuclear capability and what we will do beyond the lifetime of the existing Trident programme. That is not to say that we should jump to conclusions now, before the event, about what the SDR might conclude. It seems baffling, however, that one of the most significant programmes, militarily, and one of the biggest, financially, should be excluded from an otherwise seemingly comprehensive review. I urge the Government to think again on this.
The Gray report said that
“we cannot fight the kind of unconventional expeditionary wars that have been the stuff of much of the last decade at the same time as providing the regeneration capacity across the full width of defence capabilities that keeps many critical military technologies within the UK, at anything like the current level of resources.”
That sums up where we are very clearly. We must consider what we are good at, and what we want to develop. We cannot continue as a Jack of all trades. That is not in our interests, or in the interests of our allies.
We also need to match our defence practices with our foreign policy ambitions. Governments of any complexion need to look at their wider policy in the context of what they can do with their allies. It is perfectly clear that the countries of Europe must do more of the heavy lifting. Between us, we need to share more of the burden in military matters. The Americans cannot be expected indefinitely to keep doing so much more than their fair share. We recognise the special relationship with America and we must seek to maintain it, but we cannot expect them indefinitely to continue to do as much as they do.
Nor must we continue to follow American policy without questioning whether it is in our self-interest or within our capability to do so. For example, we went along with missile defence under Bush, and now we are going along with Obama, who has decided—quite rightly, in my view—to dispense with it. We need a far clearer idea of what our policy objectives are. We need to reappraise our relationships with others to ensure not only that we get the most out of those relationships but that the allies get the most out of their relationships with us.
I should like to acknowledge the fact that the British Legion came to all the party conferences during the conference season and called on politicians to “do their bit” for the armed forces. Today’s debate is not predominantly about the armed forces, but we should all take seriously the need to renew the military covenant. Taking seriously today’s report on the way in which we support our armed forces with equipment will be a critical part of that.
The Gray report is welcome and timely, and it says what many people have believed for a long time. We welcome the Government’s suggestion that they will accept some of its recommendations, but we are going to need to see what action they take in practice as a result of the report. We all know that dramatic changes are needed in the Ministry of Defence and in the wider defence policy, and we need to work to realise those changes, to ensure that our troops are properly protected and supported, that the country has a realistic defence agenda and that the necessary resources are put in place to make a reality of it.
The timing of this debate, in our first week back after returning from our constituencies, is significant—especially for those of us who have constituencies with a substantial armed forces presence. Our cities have had to bear the tragic losses incurred over the summer: the roll of honour read out in yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions reminded us starkly of the price that has been paid. We must also support those who have returned injured and in need of specialist support.
Alongside the human aspect, we must also consider the strategically important defence industries. These are all crucial to Plymouth, Devonport, and where we are now and where we go with our defence policy will be crucial for the city and its position as the economic driver for the sub-region. Historically, we have depended on and worked closely alongside the Navy, including the Royal Marines, and clarity on their projected roles is therefore hugely important. I make no apology for the fact that my contribution today is likely to be very parochial as I stress the importance of these industries and the armed forces to my constituency.
It is now some 10 years since the last defence review, which was prompted by changing circumstances after the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the cold war. Now is therefore a good time for strategic reflection, especially on the back of a recession. For a range of reasons, we must have a long-term look at where we want UK defence to be, 15 to 20 years down the line and beyond. In particular, we need to look at how some of the assumptions and scenarios envisaged in 1998 have changed as a result of what happened on 9/11 and of our subsequent involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. We also need to consider the challenges caused by global warming and the growing shortages of water and other resources, as well as by nuclear threats from some nations that have not committed to a policy of non-proliferation.
We are not alone in seeking to revisit our nation’s defence needs. The French Government have announced their new strategy this summer, after a 15-year gap in their policy development. Their proposals were aimed at changing the emphasis from logistics and maintenance to operational punch. They are maintaining their nuclear deterrent because they believe that it has a role in preventing inter-state conflicts of a traditional kind. Because of global security challenges, which were mentioned earlier, they have accepted the need to place greater emphasis on fast response and hence readiness. It is all about the power to project—something that we in the UK have understood for some time.
We must look at what our defence base will look like post-Afghanistan, when, hopefully, we will not be engaged in any major mission or conflict. That may be 10 years or longer down the line, but given the length of time it can take defence contracts to get going, or indeed be stopped, we need to consider how we will be placed to meet the challenges of 2020 and beyond. If, by then, we are in the fortunate scenario in which the Army is not engaged significantly in intense situations of the type in which we are currently engaged, we must ask what we are likely to need in defence. That is why I shall not speak further about Afghanistan today, but highlight why I believe that, in future, we will need a Royal Navy with the ability, to paraphrase a former Defence Minister, to act as a defence asset and not simply a Navy asset.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) that the carriers—the CVF project—should be central to our future plans. We must stop the speculation. The build has started and we need to go ahead so that at least two carriers are finally built. They are vital as a delivery platform for almost any type of expeditionary warfare.
The continuation of the build programme is also, of course, essential for the work force in my constituency because of the skills that we in Devonport are able to offer both to support directly the work in Scotland and to tackle the overflow work that will come down from Rosyth once Babcock moves into the main build phase. The maintenance of the skills base across this part of the defence industry is something that, by broad agreement, must be maintained if we are to be able to produce and service our defence equipment within the UK.
There are those who would suggest that we could buy cheaper off the peg from overseas, but doing so regularly would lead to the loss of the skills that we might need in future, more unsettled times when we may not want to rely on foreign companies. At a time when we are rebalancing our economy, we would be ill advised to pursue a defence policy that undermined a highly skilled and very successful sector of our economy. Babcock alone has a number of overseas contracts based on the expertise of its UK work force; it is not only supporting UK needs, but bringing in valuable income from overseas. Once lost, those skills will be almost impossible to get back—and any Government must seriously consider the implications of that scenario.
To return to the value of the carriers programme, I believe that we cannot have global reach without them, because a number of future threat scenarios would require us to maintain the capability to move into areas outside our immediate control, perhaps where there is no friendly state willing to allow us to use its territory as a base. With increased tension and pressure arising from the consequences of global warming and the potential for mass migration, we could see existing and developing intra-state conflicts over water shortages and land escalating to much more serious inter-state conflict, which might require international involvement and intervention. If we cannot get a foothold close to the source of the problem, we will need the flexibility offered by the CVF.
I therefore welcome a review and hope that it will revisit some of the assessments made of our core capabilities in the paper “Future Navy—Operational Context”, published in 2002. That set out clearly how maritime platforms are uniquely capable of supporting the other services of the armed forces in theatre.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.—indeed I do, and my electorate in Plymouth, Devonport should certainly take note of the position of those two Opposition parties.
We currently have some capacity, but not on the size and scale of the carriers. For example, current exercises in the far east are designed to support a range of scenarios. The Taurus taskforce, led by Commodore Peter Hudson, which includes both HMS Bulwark and HMS Ocean, is practising a wide range of skills that support the Navy’s ability to deploy a maritime force across the globe for prolonged periods. Within the group are frigates and Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels, as well as submarines. Some 17 other nations are also involved. Such exercises flag up the need to look at the changing nature of the demands placed on our Navy and bring into focus its importance to any future defence review.
As I have said, today I am focusing on the Navy, and the review should, I believe, consider whether the Type 45 is the answer to our needs in the long term, as was thought to be the case when the programme was agreed. The Type 45 is a fantastic vessel—it is beautiful to look at and, I understand, fantastic to serve on—but is it exactly what we need to tackle some of the future threats? While it is “all singing and all dancing” in terms of its technology and performance, do we really need significant numbers of Type 45s? Are they over-specified? Should we be considering a more flexible, agile, simple and yet adaptable group of vessels that will possibly cost less than the Type 45?
The recent announcement of the maritime change programme—which, from Plymouth’s perspective, was very positive; certainly Babcock thought so when the deep water maintenance contracts were announced—hinted that a future review would be looking at the shape of a future Navy in terms of frigates in particular. The implication was that the Government would have to consider whether or not we needed more smaller and less complex vessels. If so, I am sure that Plymouth would be best placed to support them, and that that would offset some of the continuing concerns about changes to base-porting.
Finally, I want to touch on the importance of having the expertise to apply force, or the threat of force, successfully in the littoral environment, the area between sea and land where strength in amphibiosity is so important. I ask the Minister to reaffirm that, as part of ensuring that we have the best trained and supported capability in that area, Plymouth will be a centre of amphibious excellence and the Royal Marines will be moving to Plymouth from Poole in the not too distant future. It makes enormously good sense for that move to go ahead, given the work currently undertaken at the base which is specific to the landing craft and landing platforms.
I thank my hon. Friend. I know that the whole House appreciates that, as a member of the Defence Committee, she has great experience of the subject.
Will the Minister also confirm that that decision will not be delayed until after the review, which is unlikely to be delivered until early in the next Parliament?
I look forward to the Green Paper and the debate that follows, and to learning how Plymouth, with its naval base and dockyard, fits into the future requirements for the defence of the UK. That is important. Let me say to the Minister that the Green Paper must not undermine confidence or the motivation of the people who serve in our armed forces, or work to supply them with the best possible equipment and technology, by creating unreasonable uncertainty. I know that Green Papers are designed to leave a range of options open, that they need to be tough, and that they need to explore all avenues both to progress and to efficiency and cost savings. However, this paper will be published at a time when we shall still be in a very difficult theatre of operations, and our manufacturers will be working hard to meet the needs of our troops on the ground. A Green Paper that had the effect of demoralising them would not be helpful.
Yesterday the moving roll-call read out by the Prime Minister of those who have died in Afghanistan over the last few months held the attention of the country, and I hope that the poignant letter read out by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) about the death of Kyle Adams did the same. These are men and women who will be honoured for ever. I hope that we shall also be able to remember for ever, and honour during their lives, those who have been wounded in body, in spirit or in mind, because that is something of which we often fail to take sufficient account.
We also heard yesterday from my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) about the curtailment of his Territorial Army training. That was very important, but today, shortly before I came into the Chamber, I received a message from my daughter. She is a university undergraduate, and last weekend she went to join the officer training corps at her university. Using the words young people employ, she described the weekend as “mental” and “absolutely incredible.” She joined up with enthusiasm. Just before I entered the Chamber, I received a message from her saying that she will not be paid for any training but that it is expected that paid training will recommence in April. I do not know how much reliance we can put on such an expectation.
I am not the commanding officer of anything, but I can assure my right hon. Friend that a member of one of the Yorkshire Territorial Army units has informed me that they will be allowed—indeed, encouraged—to continue with the TA but they will not be paid. I also join my right hon. Friend in bemoaning the cuts to the OTC because my second oldest grandson is at Exeter university and, like my right hon. Friend’s daughter, he will be adversely affected.
My daughter concluded her message by asking me whether I think she should continue with it. I hope she is watching this debate, and if she is I can tell her—I have never communicated with my family in this way before—that I very much hope that she will, because it is one of the best things anyone can possibly do.
To the Government, however, I communicate the following: to take the advice of chiefs of staff—who will always support the regulars when faced with choices between priorities—and to cut off this link between the civilian population and the military in order to save £20 million will result in units going out of existence. It is a short-sighted and wrong decision, and I ask the Government, please, to think again.
We have also heard today about Bernard Gray’s report on procurement. The decision the Government took in July to delay its publication for as long as possible—and even, possibly, not to produce it at all—was extraordinary and ridiculous. It gave the impression that they had something to hide. It was not that there was something to hide; this is something to be brought out into the open and discussed so that we can put the endemic problems right.
The key recommendation in the Bernard Gray report is that the costings and truthfulness of the equipment programme should be subject to independent audit by a large firm of outside independent auditors and that the Government and their programme should be subject to a “going concern” test. We know that at present the equipment programme would not pass a “going concern” test—and we also know that the Government would not pass a “going concern” test. In order to get this right, we must have a realistic equipment programme. That means that if we were to follow Bernard Gray’s recommendations, the first year would be very difficult. I must draw attention to the fact that the first year will involve some tough decisions.
Other key recommendations of an excellent report are aimed at the perverse incentives within the Ministry of Defence, whereby our procurement process means that we are almost bound to end up with the wrong decisions; at the absence of skills within the MOD and how skills, particularly those in project management, can be built up and required; and at the need for long-term budgets—10-year budgets—for the MOD. I warned all three Front-Bench teams that although the Treasury will have a bit of difficulty with that, it must be seen off. Long-term budgets for a Department that sometimes builds equipment that takes years to bring into commission and then lasts for a further 50 years are essential. The recommendations also include the holding of regular defence reviews, which has been an excellent policy of the Conservative party for some time. I am not sure whether it is a Government policy yet—I very much hope that it is.
The right hon. Gentleman seems to be in favour of long-term planning, and of decisions being made and not being thrown into question, so does he agree that it would be appropriate for any party that aspires to form a Government to be unequivocally in favour of proceeding with the aircraft carrier order?
I agree that any party that aspires to be in government should follow all the recommendations on the need to have a strategic defence review. Such a review should take into account precisely the sort of things that the hon. Gentleman mentions. I am sure that he has his press release by now and does not need any further quotations from this debate—[Interruption.]
I return to the theme of Afghanistan. I share the approach of the Secretary of State and of my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who made an outstanding speech, to Pakistan and to Afghanistan. The Select Committee on Defence was in the United States last week. We were a bit depressed by the quality of the debate there about General McChrystal’s report, because it seemed to be about whether the discussion should have been held in public or in private, as opposed to being about whether the points that his report had raised were intrinsically right or wrong. I thought that the points that General McChrystal made had great strength and that he was right.
Yesterday, this House of Commons welcomed the 22 Light Dragoons. I was told by a young major—nowadays all majors seem to be young—that he thought we ought to concentrate far more than we are doing on the comprehensive building of capacity within Afghanistan; on building an understanding of the culture of the Afghan people and their economic needs, rather than the needs that we think they might have; on building an understanding of their power structures; and on building genuine friendships between this country and that country and these people and those people. Although General McChrystal’s report suggests that we need more resources, we must recognise that they do not necessarily need to be entirely military resources.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that. When we were in the United States did he sense that the Americans were being very thoughtful about the purpose of the possible increase in the number of troops? Does he not only welcome that, but agree that they do not need to delay too long, because there is a danger of a vacuum emerging if they do so? Would he therefore urge them to get on with making their decision?
Yes, I did get that impression of thoughtfulness. Given the importance of the issue of Afghanistan and Pakistan—I put those both together, despite what the hon. Member for Newport, West said—I do not object to those in the United States doing their utmost to get these decisions right. Yes, we need to do this as speedily as possible, but the key thing is that we need to get it right. The future of the world, I believe, is at stake.
The other issue that the 22 Light Dragoons raised with me yesterday was housing. I should not spend too much time on that, but they mentioned both the quality and the cost of armed forces housing. I am going to pose a problem to the House. It is only the armed forces who have to face a competition between the needs of bullets and the needs of housing—
Bullets and billets, yes. The result of that is that these are the only people who, as a result of Government policy, face the risk of substandard housing because they have the discipline and commitment to fight for their country. There is something intrinsically morally wrong with that. I pose that problem without, I am afraid, being able to suggest a particular answer. I do not know what the answer is, but perhaps there should be closer links between the housing budgets of local authorities and the Minister of Defence. Although I do not know the answer, I know that we need to treat our armed forces better than we do as regards housing.
Like the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), I was part of the delegation to the USA last week, and I want to make a few observations. We discussed issues that we have not discussed today but that are part of the general discussion. For example, we discussed the trade treaty, which the Defence Committee has asked to consider in particular and which this Parliament ratified some time ago. We were concerned that the new Administration should take that much more seriously than they seemed to have been doing up until now and deal with it much more quickly than they have been, because it speaks to an enduring relationship. In my opinion, a lot of loose language is used in talking about a special relationship and so on, but particular relationships need to be cemented and understood. The trade relationship is one of them. We were trying to ensure that that was the case. We were also concerned about a second engine for the joint strike fighter—a huge investment for us in terms of our defence, but one involving small numbers for the United States. The investment is of huge importance to our local economies, our national economy and our defence relationship. Those are a few of the things that we discussed.
It is interesting that the debate in the United States—like the debate here—is clearly dominated by concerns about Afghanistan and where we will go in the future. Other issues were are stake, not least of which was a broader discussion about missile defence—that has not been mentioned today, and we cannot do everything in one day—but that affects the view from America about where it should be in the world. We all know that that has changed; it has changed radically with the election of the new President. That offers us opportunities to debate differently with the Americans and to speak to them about looking at parts of the world in a different way. They know that they have lost capacity to go and speak to certain parts of the world—whether it was deliberately destroyed or not. The previous Administration damaged their ability to do so. They know that they need to rectify that, and it was interesting to discuss it with them.
As my colleague from the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire, said, the Americans’ discussion about where they are going in Afghanistan was somewhat overlaid by their semi-hysterical press, which does not help. If anyone thinks that ours are bad, they should go and have a look at some of theirs. It did not inform the discussion but we felt that, underneath that, people were trying to get a real analysis. I was pleasantly surprised by at least the first half of the speech from the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), as he seemed to begin a real analysis of where we need to be. He asked some genuine questions, similar to the ones that some of us have been trying to ask for some time.
I take personal offence at the way in which problems tend to be collapsed together, and at the abuse of language exemplified by terms such as “the AfPak solution”. I am sure that the Pakistanis and Afghanis find it offensive too. It may only be shorthand but it does not help, as the type of language used in discussions with these people is very important.
I agree that military activity is not always supported by civilian work to build capacity. It is clear that the US is now having that debate. It has a new organisation for reconstruction and stabilisation, but USAID—the United States Agency for International Development—has all the money. Organisationally, the US is not properly joined up, and that is a problem with which I think it knows it must deal.
Our Department for International Development tries to make available most of the finance that it can offer through Afghan Government structures, however corrupt, difficult or dysfunctional they may be. The aim is to help to build indigenous capacity rather than offer a well meaning substitute for it.
Those organisational questions are crucial to any discussion of where we go now in Afghanistan. The debate goes beyond numbers of front-line infantry combat forces. In that regard, it should be noted that Stan McChrystal talks about resources in the broader sense, and he is right to do so. What should be the shape of our contribution? That is the important question.
I visited Iraq several times during the conflict there. I saw Bremer with his boots on, and I observed what happened all the way through. We learned a lot in that period, but one thing that became clear was that such operations have to be conducted with local people and not just for them. A way has to be found to engage them in the process, and that is the real discussion that has to be held in respect of Afghanistan.
Some hon. Members not present in the Chamber believe that our contribution in Afghanistan should be confined to a counter-terrorism strategy. Similarly, there are people in America who say that their forces should use their technological advantages—drones, and so on—to spot the bad boys and deal with them that way. They do not want to tackle terrorism by getting involved in Afghanistan and fostering counter-insurgency from the inside; they say that they are about defence, and not nation building.
I believe that that is the road to perdition, but it is one side of the continuum of discussion. Our approach is different, and more difficult. We cannot build a nation for other people, but we can help them do it for themselves. People tend to claim that NATO will collapse unless certain things are done, but they should recall that NATO supported the original UN mandate to take action in Afghanistan and that it is now trying to help a body of people there develop their country. We must remember that ISAF is an assistance force, not a substitute for anything, so the question that we must consider is how we give it the right combination of activities, over and above the merely military.
It is indeed an assistance force, and the “I” in ISAF stands for “International”. I am getting a sense that, at long last, the Americans might be beginning to understand what we call the “comprehensive” approach and what they call the “whole-Government” approach. Does my hon. Friend feel the same? The matter is very complex, but does he agree that everyone must sing from the same song sheet if we are to get effective outcomes in Afghanistan?
The short answer is yes, and we continue to go around that discussion with some of our allies and the rest of NATO. We have been having that debate for some time. Who can turn up to do what? Will they turn up, and if so, when, and when will they pay for it? Rightly in a sense, the United States is saying, “Well, that’s what we think we are doing. If we are going to do something that is comprehensive, we need assistance as well.” The fact that the United States is saying that is useful and long overdue. It is saying, “We need help.” It is beginning to recognise that there is no monopoly of decision making about such issues either in Washington or London, or in any one place. My hon. Friend is quite right: an international contribution will make the difference.
I noticed that the Secretary of State talked about security space and then about reconciliation, which is absolutely key. I noticed that the shadow Secretary of State talked about auxiliary forces. We need to have a careful discussion about how we do such things. There was a misunderstanding in the United States—some of it was still there when we spoke to people last week—about what the surge in Iraq was all about. Apparently, it was all about sending all those extra troops. As we were quite rightly told today, it was not just about that, but about a combination of activities that came together at the right time, and opportunities were taken. Mostly, however, it was about local people making a different determination about their political and security future and deciding to enter the discussion differently. Local concerned citizens and organisations were involved. We still have a difficult argument about whether we were arming insurgents and stacking up another problem for the future. We cannot solve all problems at the same time. After all, it is their country and their future. That is the other side of the argument, and that is the debate with the Afghans themselves in a sense. I do not think that they shy of that—the ones to whom I have spoken are not shy of it—but they are wary of how it is done and who is doing it for them.
At the end of the day, the right questions were asked about our expectations. Afghanistan will not look like either New Hampshire or Hampshire, and there will be difficult, long-term work. To those in America who told me, “Oh, we’re done with Iraq now,” I said, “Really? I don’t think so.” These are generational issues; they will last for some time. We will have to deal with the situation in the area for generations to come, as we have done for generations past. We do that well; we do it badly.
I do not say that Obama should make a decision tomorrow. Clearly, given his own political imperatives, he will have to make a decision before Thanksgiving, because that is the way that the political clock turns in America. The decision may well come before the NATO Ministers’ meeting next weekend—I do not know—but it will come sometime soon because the opportunities are clearly perishable on the ground in Afghanistan.
We are all stuck with the fact that the Afghans have a voice as well. We might not like their election or its result. We certainly do not like some of the people who probably participated in the election. That is not the point. We have asked them to engage in a process. In an odd, negative way, the Taliban were very actively engaged in that process and produced a result that no one seemed to expect. The security for the election took the form that we all hoped it would—there was not great bloodshed—but the election was not something that people looked to.
There is an elephant in the room all the time. When I go to Afghanistan, I talk to Afghans as best as I can in those circumstances, and they know that they have traditional ways of doing things that do not fit. This is not just about the imposition of Jeffersonian democracy; they have helped to build a construct in respect of their political solution, and it will not endure. At some point, it must be reformed, and we must find a way to do so that involves them and lets them come to their solution. It might not be one that we like, but if it has resilience and fulfils our other requirements of giving them security, allowing girls to go to school, letting the Afghans say, “We can be part of the international community in a proper way,” giving us confidence that we have security and contributing to the broader geographical solution that is required in the area, it will be what we have to accept. We cannot say that we will dictate what is success, but we need to develop that understanding and those tools to understand what success for us might be.
I have concerns about the Territorials. We saw the field hospital from Wales at Camp Bastion when we visited last year. Major Andy Morris is a good friend of mine, from my local community and involved in the mountain rescue team—all the things that go to make up a good TA man. He contributes to the whole community, as well as to the military. Those are the people whom we need to protect, and I am not sure that the decision to curtail training is correct.
May I start by paying my own tribute to the fallen, to their families, to the families of all servicemen and women serving abroad and, indeed, to our remarkable servicemen and women, wherever they may be? I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) said. Indeed, I was also in Washington last week.
The McChrystal paper is required reading for anyone who wishes to take an interest in Afghanistan. I am quire sure that he is correct, and I detect behind his paper the hand of a very senior—now, sadly, retired—British officer, Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb, who is advising General McChrystal closely and from whom many ideas to which the hon. Gentleman referred derive.
I shall deal with four separate points, because the general Afghanistan question has been very well covered by other people and will be covered by others. First, I pay a tremendous tribute to the work of the Defence Medical Services and congratulate it on its achievements on operations. It has through a torrid and difficult time, which flowed from substantial but necessary changes at the end of the cold war. I do not think that anyone believed it possible that it would be involved as it is today, but it is now the world leader in trauma medicine, and soldiers who would normally have died are surviving on the battlefield. That is a great thing. Survival rates are beating all expectations, but those survivors, bless them, will present problems for the whole Government and for our country in looking after them for the rest of their lives, and we must ensure that we honour those obligations.
I think it extraordinary what surgeons, nurses and others achieve while working in field conditions in one of the most hostile environments in the world.
Will the hon. Lady forgive me for a moment?
Secondly, on the Territorial Army, Lieutenant-General Sir Hew Pike, a former inspector-general of the TA, wrote a letter to The Times last week, which he started like this:
“Sir, The decision to suspend training and matches would quickly spell the death knell of a football or cricket club. So it is with the Territorial Army (TA), which relies on regular training activity to develop and sustain skills and morale.”
He is of course completely right. Culling TA training days to the extent that the Ministry of Defence is doing will result in an under-trained TA, with soldiers deploying on operations who are not properly prepared. It will result also in major retention issues for the TA. After all, why should people remain committed to an organisation that appears to show such a callous lack of commitment to them? That, in turn, will undo much of the substantial investment that has been made in the TA, lower confidence in TA soldiers among their counterparts and the chain of command, and challenge the ability of the Ministry of Defence to sustain high-tempo operations in Afghanistan in the medium term.
The British Army in the field simply could not survive without the extraordinary input of the TA. For example, as far as the Defence Medical Services is concerned, the Public Accounts Committee report published this week states that the annual operational requirement for anaesthetists is 108, and that there are 45 deployable regulars. The balance is made up by Territorials. Presumably, the Minister will exempt medical staff from the cuts to TA training.
I really must get on; I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
Thirdly, I want to say something about the structure of the Ministry of Defence. As a Minister, I worked with some of the finest officials, soldiers, sailors and airmen it is possible to imagine, and that has been one of the greatest—if not the greatest—privilege of my life. However, it is now 25 years since the Heseltine review of the head office of the Ministry of Defence. At the time, our armed forces were twice the size. Since then, however, we have—magically, somehow—increased the number of military officers and, especially, civil servants, at the three and four-star levels.
How can anyone seriously justify the creation last year of the post of director general of strategy to serve in addition to the director general of policy, who did the job perfectly well when I was a Minister? How can anyone justify creating a commercial director general, a chief of defence materiel, a deputy chief of defence staff personnel and a director general of human resources? It is all a crazy, absurd, overblown bureaucracy. The top structure is increasingly bloated with senior officials, who themselves create bureaucracy and slow down decision making in a wholly unacceptable and dangerous manner, given that we require decisions to be made nimbly, sharply and promptly. Can one really imagine Lord Beaverbrook and Churchill allowing a procurement structure of the type that we have now?
On the running of operations, as a result of the enlightened reforms of the last Conservative Government, we now, thank goodness, run operations jointly under the chief of joint operations. It is a good structure. How can we therefore continue to justify each of the three services having both a chief of staff and a commander-in-chief? Do we really need a First Sea Lord and a separate commander-in-chief for the Navy, with all their supporting staff, who come in big numbers? We also need to address the duplication of staff between the head office of the Ministry of Defence in London and the permanent joint headquarters at Northwood, which is the key nerve centre for the running of all operations. A great deal must be done to flatten that structure. The time is now right for a thorough root-and-branch review of the head office of the Ministry of Defence, following the thoroughly botched so-called “streamlining” mounted by the Government 18 months ago. We need to reduce the number of chiefs and not just cut the Indians. It is first-order business, and I have no doubt that the Secretary of State will address it in his review.
On procurement, if the number of civil servants has grown out of control anywhere in the past 10 years, it is at Defence Equipment and Support. Some 28,000 staff work in that buying organisation, and that must be a world championship record, especially as it spends only £13 billion per annum. The upstream division of Shell procures £20 billion of equipment per annum with 1,000 staff. Furthermore, is delivers it on time and on cost, which is absolutely unknown—
No, I will not give way.
Each year, the record of the Ministry of Defence is agonisingly exposed to all of us who love the services and want them to do well. It is agonisingly exposed as a national scandal to the public, not only by the Defence Committee but by the Public Accounts Committee and everyone else involved. The issues need to be addressed and there needs to be reform that is fundamental to the transaction of the Department’s business.
Finally, may I give an illustration from another letter from The Times, which I just have time to read in full? It is from a Mr. Brian Faux of Tonbridge, Kent, and it contains a lesson that the Government might like to learn. It says that Jackie Fisher—Admiral Lord Fisher—
“was appointed First Sea Lord on October 20, 1904. The Special Committee on Design first met in December 1904. Its recommendations on future design (of Dreadnoughts) were approved in early 1905. They were revolutionary. HMS Dreadnought’s keel was laid October 2, 1905. She was launched on February 10, 1906. She went to sea, for steam, gunnery and torpedo trials, on October 1, 1906.
The whole of the trials were completed without hitch of any kind. She left England for a long experimental cruise on December 5, 1906. Immediately after the trials”—
the ship entered the inventory of the Royal Navy and three other keels were laid. The letter concludes:
“Each of these was completed in two years from laying the keel.”
The Ministry of Defence has a very great deal to learn.
May I start by raising an issue that I think will get support in all parts of the House—support for our troops? I wish to draw to the House’s attention the fact that on Tuesday Glasgow Rangers football club, which is situated in my constituency, has a champions league game against Romanian opposition. It is making a complete section of the ground—some 1,200 seats, worth £50,000—available to members of Her Majesty’s armed forces as a tribute from the club to those who have served overseas. It follows the successful visit, for which I lobbied, of 45 Commando to a home game at Ibrox, where many of the members of that unit paraded on the pitch at half time amid a rapturous response from the crowd, who gave them a standing ovation. That is very much to be welcomed. I hope that Front Benchers will find an opportunity in their closing remarks to welcome that initiative and to call on other clubs, not only in Scotland but throughout the remainder of the United Kingdom, to make similar gestures. That would be much appreciated.
That is excellent. I hope that my colleagues, not only on the Front Benches but elsewhere, take the opportunity to pursue that with their own local clubs, because I know it meant a great deal not only to the troops who were there but to the fans who had the opportunity to welcome the troops among them.
Let me pick up on the issue of the military covenant. I was down in Plymouth, Devonport last week, and I discussed with some of the people there the Haslar Company of the Royal Marines, which deals with many of those who are extremely badly injured, having in some cases lost multiple limbs. We discussed how we offer people like that the prospect of a future. It was outlined to me that most people in similar circumstances in the UK, where excellent work is being done—I am not criticising that; it is also the case in the United States—want to rehabilitate and then go out into the wider world. They want to face the opportunities that are out there notwithstanding the difficulties that they have experienced. We should offer a guarantee of continued employment to those who serve overseas and come back, are rehabilitated and want to stay in the forces. That safety net would be a psychological reassurance. I do not believe that it would ultimately be taken up by a tremendous number of people, but it would ensure that they are aware of how much we appreciate the efforts they are making and indicate that we are prepared to stand behind them in their time of difficulty—not only for the short period of their medical treatment but in the longer term. Those who want to stay on in the forces in some capacity should be able to do so, notwithstanding that the majority will recognise that it is not the right place for them, given the nature of their disabilities, and they would rather face life outside.
I move on to a point about the good General Dannatt, whose name has not come up so far in this debate. The current situation raises a point about the dialogue between Government and senior officers that is interesting to me as an external observer. To what extent can politicians elected to Government trust the advice of a senior officer if, at the back of their mind, is the possibility that that officer might at some stage come out as a political participant and use the information that he or she has gathered in an entirely partisan way? It seems to me that what has happened in the case of General Dannatt has betrayed the trust that there ought to be between Ministers of whatever party and senior officers.
I understand that in the event of a Conservative Government, the good general is to be appointed a Defence Minister. [Hon. Members: “Not true.”] Well, let us proceed on the basis that, despite the denials, the rumour is true. What is to be the role of his successor as Chief of the General Staff? Will that person’s position be undermined by their predecessor being in a superior role?
Perhaps I can enlighten the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that if General Dannatt, a very able man indeed, finds a post in a future Conservative Government, he will find it no more difficult than Admiral Lord West has found it to hold a post in the Government whom he supports.
The difference as I understand it is that the job for which General Dannatt has been lobbying is directly related to his previous functions, whereas the good admiral’s position was somewhat removed and he was not seeking to overshadow his successor. That is an important distinction.
Of course, Admiral West was in procurement, and it seems that the gentleman to whom my hon. Friend refers thought that he was certainly in line for something when he said, as reported in the Daily Mail, that the Leader of the Opposition
“put it to me that he was concerned that his defence team—at a time when defence was really important, and Afghanistan was really critical—lacked expert understanding”.
Indeed, and I do not think that there is any doubt that the Opposition Front-Bench team lacks expert understanding, but then again the Opposition have to make do with what they have got.
We must try to ensure that the trust between senior officers and elected representatives is not broken by the type of partisan behaviour that we have seen. There is already the difficulty that senior officers, particularly in the Army, are socially unrepresentative. The latest figures that the National Audit Office has given me show that nine out of 10 come from private schools, which is clearly socially unrepresentative of the country as a whole. It is bad enough to believe that they have Conservative sympathies without their coming out in such a partisan and sectarian fashion.
As Members might have expected, I shall deal now with aircraft carriers. The confusion about how the matter is to be proceeded with was summed up well by the Liberal spokesman, who managed, not untypically, to have two contradictory positions at the same time: claiming to have the same viewpoint as the other two parties when in fact their viewpoints are clearly different. The Liberals indicated, as I understood it, that they wanted to procure aircraft carriers, but that it would all be subject to review. That smacks a bit to me of wanting poverty, chastity and the pure life, but not yet. Given the importance of the aircraft carriers to the Rosyth base in a Liberal Member’s constituency, I would have thought that the party could be much more unequivocal about its support for the aircraft carriers. As I understand it, the Conservatives have not made even as clear a statement as the Liberals about their desire to order the aircraft carriers. They would simply pass on the decision to a review—the weakest of all positions.
That is a hard question. I do not find it particularly surprising—it simply demonstrates the Liberal spokesman’s confusion or possibly lack of local knowledge.
The Conservatives have not said unequivocally that they would like the aircraft carriers. They have pushed the matter into the middle distance, presumably hoping that something will turn up. That is causing great concern among people in the Royal Navy to whom I have spoken. The Royal Navy without an aircraft carrier programme would be little more than a glorified coastguard.
The contrast between the Conservative position and that of the Government is that we do not need to look at the crystal ball when we can read the book. The Government have ordered the aircraft carriers. The Secretary of State made it clear that they intend to continue with the programme.
The Government have placed the contract and, to the best of my knowledge, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats backed them in that. When did any Minister guarantee that the future of the programme did not form part of the strategic defence review? The hon. Gentleman is wishing a policy on his party and his Front Benchers, and I cannot see any authority for it.
I got a clear, unequivocal statement from the Secretary of State earlier today, which firmly committed the Government to maintaining the aircraft carrier programme. I and my constituents in the shipyards have absolutely no doubt that a Labour Government are committed to maintaining the aircraft carrier programme, as are those working on it in Plymouth, Portsmouth and elsewhere.
Let me revert to the notion of the glorified coastguard, which brings me on to the navy of an independent Scotland. It is important to mention—so that people can consider them for the future—the recent statements on defence by Lance Corporal Robertson, the Scottish National party spokesman on defence. He said that, in his view, after independence United Kingdom forces would be perfectly free to remain in bases in Scotland, and that, indeed, they would do that. He also said that some arrangement could be reached whereby independence came but nothing would change, and that the considerable cost of bases in Scotland would be maintained by a the United Kingdom Government, bereft of Scotland. That is wishful thinking of the most gratuitous sort.
I am surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s myopia. I was recently in the State Department and the Pentagon, where people spoke of their co-operation with the Dutch and praised them. It might be beyond the hon. Gentleman, but countries co-operate internationally. An independent Scotland would look to do exactly that with, of course, our nearest and dearest neighbours, and with other countries throughout the world.
I am not entirely clear whether those other countries would be offered the opportunity to have bases in Scotland. Let us be clear about SNP policy on defence jobs and spending in Scotland. It is predicated on the idea that all the existing UK forces would remain in Scotland, except those on the Trident base. So in circumstances in which one base was thrown out, the assumption is that everyone else would remain.
This is the man who says that the SNP can always do better. If Labour has lost 10,000, he wants to lose 100,000. Let us proclaim what the SNP defence policy would mean. It would mean Leuchars no more, Lossiemouth no more, Rosyth no more, and the Clyde shipyards no more. All those things would close under an independent Scotland. We have a responsibility to make clear to people here and elsewhere what devastating impact an independent Scotland would have on defence and defence jobs. Do the two Opposition parties that aspire to be in government intend to keep bases in Scotland after independence?
Madam Deputy Speaker, it is worth taking a few seconds of my precious 12 minutes to invite you to draw Mr. Speaker’s attention to the fact that by the time we reach 6 o’clock in today’s short debate, almost half the time will have been taken up by Front-Bench Members. If they say, “Ah, but we gave way so often”, I would invite you also to point out—this is my grumpy old man bit—that when I was first elected to this House, it was regarded as the height of discourtesy for hon. Members on either side to intervene on a Front-Bench spokesman or Minister and then to disappear and go home. That has happened consistently. Some Members have intervened three or four times before disappearing from the Chamber.
Before the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) asks, I unequivocally support the construction of the two carriers and I believe that they should be built. When the seas are opening up around the north pole area and the north coasts of the Russian Federation and Canada are becoming available to shipping, when 90 per cent. of this country’s trade comes by sea, and when every house in the country depends for its fridges, cars and television sets on seaborne trade, I cannot think of a sillier thing to do than abandon the Royal Navy and the global reach that it represents. In case he would want to challenge me further, I am also unequivocally in favour of renewing the Trident submarine fleet. When the only certainty in the world is uncertainty, this would be a foolish time even to consider giving up Trident.
There is so much for us to talk about, but I want to talk about MOD policy on ranges. I pay tribute to uniformed and civil personnel in my constituency, and also to NHS staff—Salisbury district hospital receives wounded soldiers from Afghanistan—for their spinal, burns, orthopaedic and rehabilitation skills.
Last week, I visited the Hebrides range. It is all very well talking about policies and Afghanistan, but if we do not have the right sort of weapons, and if they have not been trialled to ensure that they are effective and efficient, we may as well go home. Ranges are important. In the end, we depend upon them. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), and the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil). I met the latter in the Hebrides, and his commitment to the MOD and QinetiQ work forces on the islands is beyond doubt. There was nothing party political on my part when I was there. I was attacked for cosying up to the SNP by the Labour candidate, but I will put that to one side because the matter is far too important to indulge in pathetic party politics.
I was immensely impressed on my visit by the determination of the people of North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist to sustain their communities and to ensure that young people stay on the islands. I was also hugely impressed by the vision of the head of the secondary school that the hon. Gentleman took me to visit, who seeks to focus the education provided by the school on the islands’ future needs.
My interest in ranges stems from the fact that the headquarters from which all QinetiQ MOD ranges are managed—10 ranges and 10 other sites—is at Boscombe Down airfield in my constituency. I see the matter from both sides.
There was an unseemly little spat about the ranges in Scotland questions yesterday. Following suggestions that the range on the Hebrides might be rationalised and 125 jobs might be lost, the Secretary of State for Scotland said:
“We are very clear that the initial proposals were abandoned, that there is no plan B and that the jobs will stay.”—[Official Report, 14 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 278.]
Of course there is a plan B. If evidence were needed, I happen to have a copy of the invitation to the meeting held at Farnborough last Friday at 4 pm, with a list of those who attended, which states:
“This is a meeting to set goals for investment based projects that we expect to undertake now that IARO”—
integrated air range operations—
“is not going ahead.”
There must be a plan B.
Back in July, the cost-saving investment proposals for the air ranges in the Hebrides and Aberporth were published, and we were told that it would be possible to operate both air ranges from a single command and control centre at Aberporth without loss of capability. That is by no means certain, as I have discovered by going to the ranges and talking to the people involved. It was said in the paper that the operational savings would amount to £4 million a year for the MOD. That is fine, but the Hebrides range’s taskforce reports that the cost of job losses to the islands would be £5 million a year, and that the Government would lose £3 million a year in tax income and benefit payments. In other words, the MOD may not be responsible for the creation of jobs in the islands, but the Government have an overall responsibility for the consequences of MOD decisions.
When the MOD issued a press release on 15 September, following the decision, I was relieved to read the wise words of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who said:
“I have taken into account the interests of the Defence budget, the social and economic impact on the community in the Western Isles, the future of St Kilda, and the risks which in my view would be involved.”
Wise words. I discovered when I was on the islands that the National Trust for Scotland alone is likely to lose about £500,000 a year of benefits if the MOD withdraws from St. Kilda. There would be enormous costs to the community and the country if that happened.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for coming to my constituency to see the Hebrides range. Does he agree that while he was there he saw that no other range could do what can be done by the Hebrides one, which has a range the size of Scotland if not bigger, so the proposals are folly and stupidity of the first order?
Yes, I learned that and I learned too that while everything that is done at Aberporth could be done in the Hebrides, the majority of the work done in the Hebrides could certainly not be done at Aberporth. Another thing that I learned from my visit was that the long-term partnering arrangements kept coming up—the great contract between QinetiQ and the MOD. QinetiQ’s “VISION for 2013” on “Test and Evaluation Capability Services…2013 horizon” talks about the need
“to sustain organic growth”
“Expand market share in Sweden, France and Australia.”
I looked a little further into that point. QinetiQ hopes to develop
“a facility management foothold in Sweden”
and to consider
“T&E support acquisitions in Australia and France”.
The answer is that it does not have a long-term partnering agreement to worry about in Sweden, Australia and France. I wonder whether there is a plan somewhere to take work away from the Hebrides and give it to those three countries, which would not be in anyone’s interest. I observe that some of the contractors on missile tests are testing missiles in Sweden and France. Thales is, of course, a French-owned company, so that is entirely natural, but I do not want to see the erosion of jobs and skills in the Hebrides to someone else’s benefit.
It is not the job of the MOD to subsidise jobs or promote economic development, but if the defence budget cannot or will not pay, taxpayer support will have to come from somewhere else—probably the Scottish Government, perhaps the UK Government and perhaps the European Union. Is it true that the Minister’s decision was based entirely on the socio-economic arguments? How big a part did those play?
I think that I have learned from my briefings, both at Boscombe Down and West camp on the islands, and from talking to a number of employees and others, that for technical reasons the cost-saving investment proposals are not as good an idea as they seem. I picked up the message that one of the problems with the long-term partnering arrangement is that no one who works within QinetiQ on the ranges fully understands it. Indeed, many of the staff who work within the LTPA are—I believe—forbidden from even seeing it. A culture of managerial dependency has been created. Managers, who have bloomed—in terms of numbers and salaries—have tended not to respond to changing military need. I feel that they might have stifled innovation, stamped on new business ideas and discouraged new customers, because they have such a constricting influence in the LTPA. That is a great shame. The cost-saving investment proposals, too, would undoubtedly reduce range capability, would take the jobs of the very staff who have kept it going over the years and would remove a potentially excellent training capability for the Army, including for the Royal Artillery, which still goes up there for Rapier training every year. It costs the taxpayer a great deal of money.
There are many technical issues here. For example, what would happen if the number of tracking radars was reduced from six to two or if they were withdrawn from St. Kilda? Those would all bring disbenefits on a substantial scale. All those factors lead me to say that it was a wise decision not to go ahead with the original proposals at this time, but huge technical and scientific issues still need to be resolved. The microwave links between St. Kilda and Benbecula, and between Benbecula and Aberporth are by no means certain and are definitely unproven with many additional nodes in the system. For example, St. Kilda weather protection and repair is a huge unquantified cost. Simultaneous working between Aberporth and the Hebrides would not be possible—it would be one or the other, as far as I can see. I am very concerned, therefore, at a technical level.
I am very grateful again to the hon. Gentleman; he has been very generous in giving way. He is making some very strong points about the LTPA. However, the overriding message that came through from the Hebrides range taskforce exercise concerned the flaws in the LTPA and the constraints that it was putting on the Hebrides range. The upshot was greater cost to UK forces, which are having to exercise and train elsewhere. That is the bizarre spin-off from aspects of the LTPA. I should mention China Lake, which has been used by Lynx helicopters, I think. Does he think that the LTPA needs to be looked at quickly and properly?
The hon. Gentleman is obviously very well informed, and I am delighted that he was able to visit the Hebrides and see for himself. He has certainly identified many of the very critical factors, and what he says about them is perfectly right. To answer his earlier question, of course I took into account the socio-economic factors when coming to my decision about the range, but they were not determinant. I decided against it on a balance of factors, including very much the financial and technical risks to us, some of which he has identified. I dare say that my decision will become a matter of public record under a freedom of information request before too long. When that happens, he will see that all those factors were taken into account. However, there was a strong defence case against proceeding.
I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that point. I am sure he is right.
Finally, I want to make a plea: this is a fantastic range. It is the only one of its kind in the whole of northern Europe. We should have NATO partners flooding in to use it, but we do not. Why not? Why are our own contractors going to other people’s ranges? This is a wonderful opportunity. It is not only a huge range, but the sort of missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles that we are using are getting heavier, going faster—supersonic—and with a bigger bang. We need a huge area to use them—we certainly cannot do it at Aberporth. This is a wonderful opportunity for the community on the islands to see an expansion of defence activity on the range, as well as an expansion of other economic activity, to sustain some of the most exciting and vibrant communities in the country.
I am extremely pleased to follow the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key), who is a fellow member of the Defence Committee. I am disappointed that he was not able to join us on our recent visit to Washington to discuss a range of subjects. The visit was extremely valuable and has been mentioned by a number of my colleagues on the Committee in their presentations in the Chamber today.
It was extremely valuable to hear the range and depth of discussion about the strategy review being undertaken by President Obama. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard)—perhaps he was watching Fox News and I was watching the studio debates on the many other American television channels. I was impressed by the depth of some of the discussions in the media there and by the fact that the outcome was not predetermined and that people were willing to consider the pros and cons of various outcomes of the strategy review.
As has been said, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister started Prime Minister’s questions yesterday by reading out the names of the 37 servicemen who lost their lives while Parliament was in recess. It was a sombre reminder of the fight being undertaken by our military and highlighted their commitment and sacrifice, which everyone in the House and across the country should remember.
Also during the recess I had the opportunity, along with others, to attend a preview of a film, which was subsequently broadcast by the BBC, called “Wounded”, which followed the processes undertaken by Tom and Andy as they returned to the UK, having been wounded in Afghanistan. The BBC had an agreement with the Ministry of Defence that it would follow the first two injured servicemen being returned. It had no prior knowledge of who those servicemen would be, where they would go or what their injuries would be.
The agreement was that the BBC would follow those servicemen as they returned to Selly Oak. If the families agreed, filming would continue, but if when the wounded person regained consciousness they said that they did not want to take part, the filming would cease and the BBC would restart with the next wounded person. Tom and Andy and their families both gave their permission for the filming to continue.
We should place on record our admiration for those two young people and their families. Their dignity, determination and sheer, unbounded guts exemplified our forces. They were picked at random, but they exemplified what we see day in, day out among the brave men and women who fight on behalf of this country.
We often criticise the BBC in this House. At times it is not our favourite institution, but for me that film also exemplified why we need the BBC. There was no edge to the film—it was honest and straightforward recording. The film told of a journey, of the hard work of all those at Selly Oak and Headley Court, and of the comradeship that gets people through. It was a wonderful piece of filming and it should be repeated on the BBC, because many people have missed it and would welcome the opportunity to see it.
However, it is possible to lose heart in our mission when we think about the troops we are losing. I cannot be the only Member who hears people asking why we are there and whether it is time we pulled out. I feel, however, that we must remain assertive and confident in our objective. We are there to end the safe haven provided to al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations that threaten our freedom here in the west. The mission has not gone smoothly. The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily, but we can defeat ourselves. Uncertainty and a lack of clarity can dishearten our people and our allies, and embolden our foes.
Expectations when we entered Afghanistan were not realistic. We expected the coalition forces to roll in and blow the Taliban away, so that they would subsequently vanish and the job would be done. The terrain in Afghanistan is difficult—geographically and culturally. It is a unique tribal society with a culture vastly different from our own. There are numerous variations across the country, with ethnic, geographic and economic circumstances varying from one valley to the next. Many would say that, after 30 years of almost constant warfare, Afghanistan is a damaged society, in which many of the old tribal structures and relationships have also been damaged.
It was interesting to hear General McChrystal describe in his speech the problems associated with the digging of a well. He spoke of how the military’s good intentions could cause huge political disruption, and his speech was important in highlighting the need for the new approach that we heard about in the strategy review in Washington, which described the need for consultation and the need to engage with the local community.
After eight years, we have reached a new stage in the war in Afghanistan—a stage at which we need to focus on supporting and defending the population instead of focusing on attacking and defeating the enemy. This means engaging, at political and community level, with the needs and priorities of the people of Afghanistan. That is no easy task. I welcome the deployment of an additional 500 troops to Helmand, but, along with extra troops from the UK and other NATO countries, we need a change of tactics. It is now time for counter-insurgency, and time for the Afghans to prepare to defeat the insurgency. This will require a combination of civilian and military efforts to contain and address the root causes of insurgencies and to reinforce the legitimacy of the Afghan Government at local, community, regional and national levels.
This is no cheap or quick solution; it is a long, high-cost strategy. Let us remember the years Britain took to develop its civil institutions, its legal system and trust in the police and criminal justice system. People in Afghanistan want much the same things that people want everywhere: jobs, financial security, economic growth, clean water, access to education and health, and the confidence to live their lives knowing that their Government are working to tackle corruption and crime while building security and stability. To achieve this, we need rapidly to increase the size of the Afghan security forces—both the army and the police—although I agree that there are issues of corruption within the police force.
We also need to connect more with the people we seek to protect. We need to respect the people we are there for. The Taliban are still not unpopular everywhere; they have proximity to some people and communities and are perceived in some areas to have the ability to provide some things, such as a basic rule of law. For many who support the Taliban, the main motivator is not ideology; it is hatred of the invader, inter-tribal conflict, revenge for military mistakes, or poverty and the opportunity to be fed and clothed.
The insurgents in Afghanistan might not have the capacity to defeat the allies through traditional warfare, but they can prolong the conflict and exhaust our public with the cost in human lives and money. Our task is to close down their safe havens in neighbouring countries and cut down their access to international information and funds. We may not totally defeat the insurgents, but we can reduce their threat to the Government of Afghanistan. Helping to build stability in Pakistan will be essential to do that.
Following the recent elections in Afghanistan, there are clear shortfalls that will need addressing. President Karzai’s credibility and the level of corruption in his Administration must be addressed. Equally, however, we must not forget that tremendous progress has been made in our eight years in Afghanistan: infrastructure has been developed, roads constructed, clean water provided, health care has become accessible and millions of girls now receive an education, boding well for the future. It is not just a matter of dropping more bombs, sending more troops, using more drones or keeping our troops off the roads and in the air—it is more subtle than that.
People ask me how we will know that we have succeeded. It is not Jeffersonian democracy, but a sort of modern-day Magna Carta that we must leave behind—a sovereign Government who uphold human rights and basic freedoms, respond to the demands of their people, impose limits on their power over citizens and respect an independent judiciary. Public support in the west will not remain indefinitely, and the support is edging away, day by day, at present. The cruel irony is that, in order to succeed, we need patience, discipline, resolve, time and humility.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) rightly reminded us of the human dimension to all our defence debates. Yesterday’s roll-call of honour of the 37 of our fallen servicemen who died while our Parliament was in recess is a chilling reminder of what we are talking about.
I am sometimes careful about straying outside what I call the comfort zone of the aerospace industry, about which I have acquired a detailed knowledge. I am always amazed at the expertise in the House in just about every area of defence, of which I have little knowledge, but I would like to spend a moment or two observing that we are in the run-up to a general election and that all parties are committed to a strategic defence review.
My observation on that is that we seem to be in an era of what I call entrepreneurial warfare, in which a man in a rubber boat can take out the USS Cole. Many in the House grew up at a time when the cold war was the prevalent threat—when there were big systems versus big systems and big armies were the answer to everything. We need to learn very quickly how to be much lighter on our feet in order to be able to respond to a world of continuing uncertainty. Who could have predicted that the use of commercial airliners as a weapon of war by those who attacked the US on 9/11 would fundamentally change what was done militarily over the previous decade, as witnessed by the invasion of Iraq and the current expedition in Afghanistan?
Many have sought to justify why it was right for us to participate in both those theatres and I accept the logic of what is put before us, but I would observe that in a world of 24/7 media coverage when members of the public have war thrust into their front rooms and see visions of the dead arriving back at Brize Norton, it adds a different dimension to how we need to debate the future of our defence policy. Members of the public are involved—and they are involving themselves, as witnessed by the strength of organisations such as Help for Heroes, which supports our forces—in a very different way than hitherto. Most people might have said that the annual poppy collection was the main way people showed their solidarity with the fallen and those who need help, but things are different now.
If we are to have a strategic defence review, all parties must in some way involve members of the public in understanding the purpose of defence. It is not just about the enemy offshore of the UK, as it takes in a global dimension. We must educate people to understand the purpose of our military expeditions. We in this place must be certain of why and when we want to intervene.
I hope that the debate on Afghanistan will reach some kind of conclusion shortly. If I were the enemy in this 24/7 world of the media and were listening to people agonise over whether we have the right equipment, whether we know what we are doing in Afghanistan and what is the reason for it, I would be rubbing my hands with glee. That is what the enemy must be doing, because they are receiving the message that the people whom they regard as their enemy do not have a clear clue what they are doing. They are ill equipped, they have no strategy, and they are falling out with each other. This thing called NATO is not working. All that must give the enemy tremendous encouragement
The sooner we coalesce around a plan and make it work, the better, because that will provide the platform on which the strategic defence review will take place. What slightly worries me about the SDR—and I have noticed this so many times in the House—is that when a convenient event in the future allows us to shovel all the difficult issues of today on to tomorrow, we tend to over-egg what an SDR can do. If we were so imbued with brilliant foresight, we would be continually adjusting the way in which we run our armed forces and our defence policy so that we would know what was around the corner. We would adjust our procurement, and so forth. These one-off long gaps between one SDR and the next push to the very limits the credibility of how far we can see into the future.
If there is one thing that I have observed, it is that in a world of entrepreneurial war in which the enemy is light on its feet and capitalises on weakness, it tends to say—the improvised explosive device is but one example of this—“We do not have the big systems, but we do have a very effective way of disturbing the enemy.” We therefore need to be flexible, innovative and technologically clever. We need to be able to move in and out of theatres quickly, and that requires helicopters and lift capacity. We need equipment that gives us mobility and flexibility. The amount that we will need in the future is a question for experts, but those seem to me to be the key elements that perhaps distinguish the future from the past, when we bought big chunks of kit because we were dealing with a very different situation.
My right hon. Friend is advancing a powerful argument in explaining why the military need to move forward and understand the threats of the day. I am pleased that the procurement Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies)—has returned to the Chamber. Does my hon. Friend agree that the invention used by the Germans and the Americans, vehicle-bound radar, needs to be procured immediately for our troops in Afghanistan?
Indeed. My hon. Friend has made a good point. Technology will play a vital part in future warfare. Future warfare will not necessarily be in the Afghanistans of this world. For example, we recently saw the Russians involve themselves in cyber-warfare against Estonia. We do not have debates about cyber-warfare in the House, because it is not something in which we appear to be directly involved, but it is just as much of a threat to our systems in this country as what I might call the more conventional manifestation of warfare.
I defer to my hon. Friend’s knowledge, because he knows a great deal about these matters, but in any case I agree with him. Lord Drayson is a good exemplification of the way in which a bridge was built between industry and the Ministry of Defence to create a good rapport over the use of technologies.
Someone who knows a great deal more about defence than I do has said that, whatever the scenario, in the first instance we should send the enemy the message that we have what he described as a terrifying response. In other words, we say to the enemy, “If you have a go, you too will get more than a bloody nose in return.” That means that in some circumstances we do have to have the big kit with the big hit, but the terrifying response can manifest itself in many ways. We need to be flexible as we approach the next strategy defence review.
It will not surprise you to learn, Mr. Speaker, that I want to spend the remaining moments of my time considering the aerospace industry. Over the summer there were some dispiriting reports. Now that the Government have at long last decided on tranche 3 of the Eurofighter, people are saying that when Eurofighter comes to an end, BAE Systems Warton in my constituency—the home of military aircraft production and expertise in the United Kingdom—will close. Many people have been deeply worried about that. I say to my own Front-Bench colleagues that some of their observations and attitudes towards a number of defence projects have also caused worries; the idea of a review of the Eurofighter Typhoon project has created an air of uncertainty, for example.
It would be helpful if the Government spelled out the penalties that will result if people go monkeying around with what has been agreed. The RAF will not get the 232 aircraft that were originally committed to. A number of those aircraft have been sold to a very good customer: Saudi Arabia. If we carry on having this kind of dialogue, in which people across the political spectrum undermine the Eurofighter, we will miss out on a tremendous opportunity. It has been calculated that there is a market of some £90 billion-worth of ageing fighter fast jet capacity that will need to be replaced. The alternative to the Eurofighter is the much more expensive United States F-35 joint strike fighter. I would far rather the Eurofighter Typhoon consortium had the benefit of those orders, but unless we get behind the aircraft and show commitment towards it, we will not realise that opportunity.
This is important not from the point of view of jobs alone, as the Eurofighter Typhoon sustains the technology base that is our aerospace industry. I was delighted when the Secretary of State talked about the deployment in the Afghanistan theatre of HERTI, an unmanned air reconnaissance vehicle. I am delighted that a piece of technology that was manufactured in short order using relatively simple aerospace technology but very advanced electronics is now playing a part in Afghanistan and showing the way forward.
I think the right hon. Gentleman will find that the Government are a much better friend to him on this subject than his Front-Bench colleagues. As with carriers, we are completely committed to Typhoon tranche 3. We are going ahead with that—we are on contract for it—so his constituents have work now for the next four or five years even if there are no export orders. We are going for more export orders, however; I shall visit Japan next week on precisely that subject.
I am delighted that the Minister is pursuing the Japanese option, but in fairness to my Front-Bench colleagues they did insert an important caveat into their observations. They admitted that they may not be privy to what the Minister is privy to, which are precisely the clauses that would readjust the work-share to the disadvantage of the United Kingdom and on the compensation that would have to be paid. Now that they are aware of that, they might take a revised view. It is not fair to criticise the Opposition for wanting to question the decisions of a Government who at times have been found wanting in the world of defence, as many speeches in the course of this debate have shown.
The underpinning of our aerospace industry gives us the opportunity to go beyond the HERTI aircraft. The Government and BAE are working on a further exemplification of an unmanned air system known as Mantis, a much more advanced system that might ultimately be developed into an offensive capability. That illustrates the future of our aerospace system. We need to maintain this expertise in the UK. I hope the strategic defence review will recognise that in spite of the temptation to buy something that somebody else makes, there is a very good case for having our own capability in certain strategic areas. Mr. Deputy Speaker, if the Government can recognise that naval architecture and the building of ships—[Interruption.] I apologise, Mr. Speaker, I would not want in anyway to downgrade your recently elevated status. We must maintain the strategic capability in aerospace, just as it is recognised that ship construction is also a strategic capability for the United Kingdom.
It would be helpful if the Government were to repeat the BAE acknowledgement that BAE Warton is effectively the only military airfield with a big enough runway to deal with everything from Tornados and Typhoons through to the Nimrod MR4A. It has got the telemetry equipment, the people and the necessary expertise to sustain an aerospace industry that in the north-west accounts for some 40,000 jobs—and directly in terms of Eurofighter Typhoons some 4,000 jobs—as well as another 10,000 jobs in the subcontracting industry. It is an industry of which we can be truly proud, because without the technology that came from the Eurofighter Typhoon we would not be involved in the joint strike fighter project and 10 per cent. of the work of that project would not be being done at Samlesbury in Lancashire. There are not only good military reasons for these systems, but good economic outcomes for the United Kingdom. I hope that the need to maintain technological excellence will be one of the key factors that will inform the strategic defence review, whomsoever—I hope it will be the Conservatives—form the next Government.
May I start by asking you, Mr. Speaker, whether you had a moment to read the first few lines of the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key), because many of us are going to be squeezed for time? I shall, thus, try to cut short what I was going to say in order to allow others to get in.
I wish to draw the House’s memory back to July, when, in one horrendous day in Afghanistan, five members of 9 Platoon, C Company, 2nd Battalion The Rifles were killed. Many years before that, I commanded 9 Platoon, C Company, which was then in the 1st Battalion The Royal Green Jackets. July was a very intense time for me, so what must it have been like for the families of those who were wounded, the families of those who were killed and the general family of the regiment at that time? It must have been too awful to contemplate. It was deeply depressing at that time to hear Ministers say that those deaths and injuries were not caused by a shortage of helicopters. That is technically correct, but we all know, as does anyone who has been involved with the operations in this part of Afghanistan and as do their families, that if we had even a fraction more lift per head of people deployed, which is enjoyed by, for example, the United States forces, we would be able to have a much wider footprint in that area and we would be able to be unpredictable. Thus, we would be able to dominate the ground and limit the opportunities for the enemy to create this awful daisy-chain network of improvised explosive devices that has been so damaging to our young men.
I get the big picture of what we are doing in Afghanistan—I understand all the arguments made this afternoon by more eloquent people than I about the need to create stability in the region and the risks of getting this wrong. However, I have had to work pretty hard to get my head around it, and I am certain that many people outside this House do not understand what we are doing there. The Government have a major job to do to get the public to understand the importance of our mission there.
It was brought home to me more recently—just the week before last, when I went to the Selly Oak facility—how difficult it is to raise one’s mind above what is happening to the young men and women whom we are sending to serve in this part of the world. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) in paying tribute to the Defence Medical Services. Particular praise should go to Brigadier Chris Parker, who has revolutionised Selly Oak, along with others before him—he certainly would not want me to label him as being the only saint, because there are a great many. It is a remarkable place to visit, and we must understand that he is fighting in that unit every bit as operationally as those right on the front line in Afghanistan.
I also visited Norton House, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association—SSAFA—accommodation for families, and I pay tribute to its wonderful atmosphere and to the wonderful people who run it. Most of all, I pay tribute to the way in which DMS has embedded itself in the hospital trusts in Birmingham—we should understand that we are not only talking about Selly Oak hospital, but a range of facilities. Such embedding is entirely the right policy and it should have the universal support of everyone in this House. I also pay tribute to the support that now exists for the development of the Army recovery centres, and I speak as a trustee of Help for Heroes, to which some hon. Members have been kind enough to pay tribute today.
Such support offers a further opportunity to address some of the points made by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) and others: we must not only look after people when they are recovering from their wounds, but remember that we must give them lifelong protection, because the latent mental health repercussions of injuries might need to be revisited. I am full of admiration for the development of that new concept of care.
We have to understand that those who are serving in Afghanistan are having to dig pretty deep into the manual that they perhaps have not looked at since they were at Sandhurst, but that is part of their DNA. I think that it is called “Serve to Lead”. They have to dig pretty deep in leadership terms at battalion level, company commander level, platoon level and even section commander level. They are having to think very hard about ways of motivating their men to do extremely dangerous work. It is remarkable what they can achieve. I heard, for example, of a platoon commander who had to buy a goat from tribesmen in order to ensure that his men had enough to eat. I am not criticising the Government—when one is on operations, one has to make do. I know that from experience. When re-supply does not happen, one has to think and to think fast. Some remarkable things—
My hon. Friend served in the same regiment as me, but I will not give way as there is simply not time.
These men have to continue patrols, checking and clearing compounds in extremely hazardous circumstances. All the time, their families are worrying about them. I cannot pay more tribute to any group of people than to those who man the rear parties of serving units. Rear parties are doing heroic work, and they have to do some of the most unpleasant work when informing families that people have been killed.
A friend of mine’s son arrived back in Camp Bastion yesterday after six gruelling months in one of the forward operating bases. Of his battle group, 22 members have been killed and 80 have been aero medevaced back to the UK. Let us contemplate what it must be like for the parents, girlfriends and wives of the 9,000 people we have serving in Afghanistan at any one time. By rough calculation, I think that that is about 50,000 people, but it probably rises to about 100,000 when we take in siblings and close friends. That cohort rolls over every six months as we deploy more people, and so more and more people must go through that awful experience. We have to understand their concerns. I pay tribute to the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox): the Government have a great responsibility to articulate what our men and women are doing there. It is a major educational role, a public relations role and a moral role to explain to a sceptical public why this is important and what these young men and women are doing.
For that group and for the wider group who are concerned about the issue, we need to consider the tactics that are being employed. General McChrystal, like General Petraeus and others before him, comes to us as an intellectual and thoughtful person who needs to be listened to. When he says that ISAF is poorly configured for counter-insurgency operations, we need to listen to him. I think that we are listening and I hope that the President of the United States is, too.
Can we reassure a sceptical public that the ink spots that we are all told about can be joined up and, once they are joined up, can stay as one large ink spot rather than being fragmented? Have we not learned from the Boer war that single strong points do not secure the ground? Securing the ground is about DFID getting out there and building not only roads but mosques, schools and hospitals. We all know what that means in terms of counter-insurgency.
Counter-insurgency is hard pounding. I know a little about it—I did it for two years as part of a counter-insurgency operation that took 30 years and which had nothing like as high an attrition rate as the current operation. When parents come to my surgery and say, as one did recently, “My son is in a forward operating base doing exactly what his brother was doing in that forward operating base two years before. We are not getting anywhere,” I have to say, “Counter-insurgency is like that. We have to work hard, but we must work harder and have a bigger footprint.” I understand the frustration, and the determination.
I was a Green Jacket and I was therefore weaned on a book called “Gangs and Counter-Gangs”, written by General Frank Kitson in 1960. When my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring talked about the need to get defectors as our first priority, he could not have been speaking more readily than to someone who understands it from that precise point of view.
I shall finish by quoting the Kiplingesque words that Lieutenant Colonel Rob Thompson used in his description of the July day I referred to at the beginning of my remarks. He said:
“We turned to our right, saluted the fallen and the wounded, picked up our rifles and returned to the ramparts.
I sensed each rifleman tragically killed in action today standing behind us as we returned to our posts and we all knew that each one of those riflemen would have wanted us to 'crack on'.”
At the heart of all our debates about the Government of Afghanistan, the work done by our wonderful forces and the tactics that we seek to get them to employ is the staggering courage shown by our young men to “crack on” as they step over the blood of their comrades.
In fact, we have had several outstanding speeches, including the one by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames).
The bulk of the debate has focused, rightly, on Afghanistan, and I want to put on record how incredibly proud the men and women of Canterbury are of the 5th Battalion the Royal Scottish Regiment (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders), who were recently given the freedom of the city, and of our own Territorial Army unit, the 3rd Battalion Princess of Wales Royal Regiment. In recent deployments, the Argylls had one killed and several wounded, while one Territorial was severely wounded.
Many years ago, when I was slimmer and fitter, I was privileged to serve in the Territorial Army for 13 years. Before the debate, I looked for my regimental tie in my palatial second home—over the Elephant and Castle public house—but I seem to have lost it. Nevertheless, I want to focus on the crisis facing the TA as a result of the deeply unwelcome decision that has been made by the Government.
At one point during the deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, reservists—most of them Territorials—accounted for one fifth of the force in Iraq and for one eighth of the force in Afghanistan. Given that our reserves are very small—they make up only one fifth of our total manpower—and that they are people with civilian jobs, that is truly astonishing. A total of 15 Territorials and one air reservist have been killed in the operations.
These people did not come from nowhere. They did not walk off the street. Most were people with busy civilian jobs, but they chose to spend their evenings and weekends in draughty drill halls and on exercises to prepare for deployment. Often, that choice compromised their civilian careers and their family lives, and the same can be said for the many people involved in training them who did not themselves get the opportunity to deploy. I cannot stress enough how much the TA will be devastated if it really turns out that, for five and a half months, there is no training for anyone apart from those due to go on operations.
The essence of any voluntary organisation—be it a charity, a football club, a political party or part of the volunteer forces—is that it has to be led by high-quality people willing to make the sacrifice year in and year out. The Government’s proposal sends an appalling message.
I have a huge regard for the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), who is Minister of State, and for the Secretary of State. They have been generous to my all-party group and given us privileged access. We are just negotiating a date for the Minister to come and address us. For that reason, I very much hope that he will be able to take the edge off that appalling proposal.
Earlier, I was one of the people who pointed out that Sir David Richards was a regular. I have never been privileged to meet him, but I know quite a number of people who know him well. Every one of them believes him to be a really outstanding soldier. His command of the operation in Sierra Leone—one of the comparatively few wars that we have participated in to have been swift, successful and extraordinarily well handled—was a model.
The fact remains, however, that generals advise, Ministers decide. In 1921, Sir Henry Wilson was an extraordinarily distinguished predecessor of Sir David Richards. He had been Chief of the Imperial General Staff since the final year of the first world war. As Secretary of State for War, Sir Winston Churchill, who then suffered under the considerable disadvantage that he was deeply unpopular because he had been blamed for the Dardanelles campaign, faced down Sir Henry Wilson when he proposed disbanding the Territory Army and flatly told him that he was wrong.
Much more recently, we have had two very clear indications of the absolute inability of the Regular Army to handle the TA—one was the catastrophic shambles of the way in which the mobilisation for the Balkans campaign was handled. Just after the decision was taken to make a huge cut in TA numbers, vast numbers of Territorials received the most disorganised call-out notices. Unbelievably, the same thing was repeated in the first stage of the Iraq conflict. That was why the Government took the very wise decision to have a two-star officer who was a Territorial with a civilian job to advise them, so that they got advice directly from the horse’s mouth. The Duke of Westminster was the first holder of the post.
I should like to make a wider point, although I am conscious of the time. Again and again, we have failed to understand where the next threat will come from. In 1914, the Commons and the country were gripped with a sense of crisis because Ireland seemed to be sliding into war, with arms being raced into both Protestant and Catholic communities. Only at the very last moment, we realised that the real threat to the country came from the continent. A week before the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, most people in this country had no idea that we even had a garrison there. Three months before Saddam Hussein invaded Iraq, we heard restated that there was no question of sending armoured forces out of area. On 10 September 2001, anyone who had said that we would go to war in Afghanistan would have been thought out of his mind.
The truth is that we must keep capabilities alive that are not needed on current operations—that is absolutely fundamental—and when we face desperate pressures on the defence budget, reserve forces are the best way of doing so. There is no reason why the Navy’s mine- clearing capability is all manned by regular naval personnel. Historically, the vast majority of them were reservists. There is no reason why we should not have one or two armoured brigades in the Territorial Army. Do we really believe that we will deploy Regular Army air defence units in the near future against an opponent with a superior air force? We need all those capabilities and they could be provided much more cheaply in the reserve forces, but they need the opportunity to train at evenings and weekends and be paid to do so.
I should like to make one last point. Time and again, we hear about the shortage of helicopters—it is one of the most pervading themes of every discussion on Afghanistan—and often it appears that it is mostly about a shortage of pilots and technicians, rather than machines. It is not just astonishing; it is scandalous that we are trying to man our helicopter force almost entirely with regular pilots, when the Americans provide nearly half their air capabilities from reservists. We have a vast number of ex-regular helicopter pilots from all three services in the civilian community, most of whom continue to earn their living by flying helicopters. It is time that Ministers brought their regular advisers to book on that and told them that they must introduce a plan, and if they do not, they should bring in Americans to advise them on how to do it. The fact that one pilot—astonishingly, a RNR officer—is in Afghanistan, manning an Apache, which is far more removed from civilian capabilities than medium-lift helicopters, shows that it can be done in principle. It is time that it was done.
I want to leave room for other colleagues. However, I will say that all of us are proud of what is happening in Afghanistan, but we must never lose sight of the need to keep other capabilities going, and we need our reserve forces for that, too.
I join others in paying tribute to all those who have lost their lives recently in Afghanistan, not least Guardsman Jamie Janes of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, in which I served, who died tragically on 5 October in Nad Ali district in Helmand province while on foot patrol. Our thoughts are with their families and regiments.
Nobody who wishes to do anything other than understand what is happening in Afghanistan could do any better than read the quite excellent speech that General McChrystal gave recently to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in which he attempts to give a comprehensive view of the situation and dispels many of what he calls the “bumper sticker” truths about Afghanistan.
Those of us who were in Helmand province during Operation Panther’s Claw will realise how important boots on the ground are and how welcome the announcement of 500 extra troops is, despite it being some way off the number for which the service chiefs asked. That pales into insignificance against the awaited decision from President Obama about whether he will have a further surge to provide far more manpower in Afghanistan.
With the Canadians due to pull out and many of our coalition partners refusing to undertake what I would call active service, there is a concern that the burden of operational duties will continue to fall disproportionately on the UK, the Americans and some of our other allies. We need to watch that situation very closely.
The Secretary of State’s announcement that Merlins are shortly to be dispatched—finally—to Afghanistan is nothing other than welcome. The great enemy of our troops, the IEDs, continue to cause a real problem, and it would be interesting to know whether the amount of fatalities and wounded that we have had from IEDs is due to our troops going out to the forward operating bases, which they should most properly do by helicopter, or, as the Government would maintain, their going out from the FOBs on foot patrol.
There has been some misunderstanding during the discussions about vehicles in Afghanistan. Of course we need new and different vehicles, but we need also a range of different vehicles to suit different terrain and operational duties. A heavily armoured American vehicle might be all very well for going down the road, and would offer better protection against an IED, but it most likely would not be able to go off that road if, as a result of an ambush, it needed to.
The surge in growing the Afghan national army must be the right way forward, although the figures are ambitious and the training will take longer than we expect. We were lucky to see some of the Afghan national army training while we were out in Helmand, and I ask the Secretary of State whether there is any plan to bring some of the officers or the most promising potential officers to the UK to give them accelerated courses from which they might benefit.
The Afghan police, as important in so many ways as an Afghan national army, present problems of their own. I said yesterday that we need to create a genuinely national Afghan police, but many refuse to serve outside their local communities, and when they become police in such communities it is tempting for them to become involved in corruption or extortion, or their extended families benefit. That is a real problem for a general, national Afghan police force.
When I was in Camp Bastion, the first-class medical facilities that we saw at the hospital impressed me almost more than anything else. Unfortunately, we were there when several of our troops were “casevaced” back to camp. We were shown around by an excellent Royal Navy surgeon commander, who told us how many specialists one would have if one arrived at his hospital—far more, he said, than anywhere in the private sector or the NHS. I suggested that the reason why we might find so many specialists on duty there was that there were no golf courses nearby, which is where one finds most specialists in the United Kingdom when one needs one. However, they were all incredibly well trained, the hospital was immaculately clean and, I should point out, a good proportion of them were reservists. I say again to the Secretary of State and Ministers: please do not underestimate the importance of reservists in the Territorial Army. Of course, when invited to make cuts of one sort or another, the generals and those in the higher echelons of the regular armed forces will try to make cuts to the TA. That is only natural, but it is to be resisted. In my part of the world, in Lympstone, there is a commando training camp at which reservist Royal Marines are trained up to slot into positions vacated by the regulars. In the field, no distinction is made between a regular and a reservist, and that seems to be an increasing pattern in many of the other sectors of the armed forces.
It is really short-sighted of us not to continue the TA training. That training is rotational; we cannot just stop and start the TA, or its soldiers will fade away and do something else. We have to keep it going. At the moment in this country we have the luxury of higher numbers of people entering our armed forces than has been the case for a long time; the same is happening, I think, in the United States. If people see on a piece of paper that Army recruitment is doing so well, I can understand why they might be tempted to run down the reservists. However, we are in the middle of a recession and that is why the figures are so high. One day we will get out of that recession and the figures will drop away. We will then rely once more on our reservists, but may very well find that they are just not there.
I want to make a quick comment about those who are left behind and those who come back. The Secretary of State ended his speech by saying that we must give our armed forces the best support that we can give them on an enduring basis. Yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) asked the Prime Minister about better facilities and monitoring for our armed forces. He said:
“In the United States veterans are contacted regularly, even decades after they have served. Does the Prime Minister agree that that should happen here as well?”—[Official Report, 14 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 290.]
Again, we are seeing reports that disproportionate numbers of people retired from the armed forces are homeless on the streets of London. York university research from 2008 has shown that on any given night there are 1,100 homeless ex-service personnel in London alone. The armed forces provide a structured environment—very often the only structured environment that many of these men and women have ever known. When that is suddenly taken away from them, they are on their own and cast into civvy street. Many of them find it extremely difficult to adjust.
Additional to that is the whole issue of mental health. Between January 2003 and December 2006, 2,333 regulars and reservists who served in Iraq during Operation Telic were managed by the Defence Medical Services for mental illness attributed to their deployment. In 2007, 1,898 new referrals to the MOD’s departments of community mental health were diagnosed with a mental health disorder and had served in Iraq, Afghanistan or both.
The British Medical Journal reported that of those UK troops serving 13 or more months in the theatre of operations, 5.2 per cent. suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Some 21.8 per cent. suffered from psychological distress and 23.9 per cent. suffered from severe alcohol problems. This month, the centre for suicide prevention at Manchester university looked at people leaving the armed forces and found that veterans were at increased risk of suicide.
As part of the military covenant, the Government have made moves that I welcome. They have appointed a Minister for veterans and established Veterans day; I was proud to take part in Veterans day in my constituency. However, I still do not believe that we are doing enough to look after those men and women, who have given more than any of us in the Chamber, when they come home and have served their purpose. Underlying the military covenant should be an unspoken contract: people serving in the armed forces for whatever period will be supported during their training and service—and for the rest of their lives, if that is what they require.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, raised the question of homelessness and whether we should look to provide local authorities with a special housing allowance. I had one such case in my own constituency, where a serving soldier wanted to come to Exmouth but was registered in Bulford camp, where he had served, and it turned out that there was no extra money to get him to the top of any housing list. That is wrong: returning soldiers who want to go back to their original homes should be enabled to do that. That might mean giving some ring-fenced money to local authorities to accelerate the process.
The situation in Afghanistan will continue for some time. We will no doubt be deploying more troops there, some of whom will be reservists. I again urge the Government to reconsider how we train and look after reservists and to redouble their efforts to look after those who are in need of our support when they can no longer support themselves.
This has been a very good debate with some excellent speeches, particularly on Afghanistan. I do not want to dwell too much on Afghanistan save to say that in May I was in Kabul visiting ISAF headquarters and Afghan Ministers. Having previously been in Kabul about two years ago, I came away very depressed by the deterioration of the security situation in the area—it had got significantly worse in the intervening period.
I want to deal with some wider long-term defence issues as regards the projection of British foreign policy through our armed forces and our common interest with our European neighbours, particularly France. More specifically, I want to discuss how European members of the alliance can make a greater contribution to our collective defence.
Before I do that, I want to deal with a technical issue that is affecting the security and safety of our servicemen and women. European nations that are members of both NATO and the EU can deploy in the same theatre under different commands—EU or NATO—and find that they cannot communicate with each other. That puts the security and lives of our men and women significantly at risk. I have raised this before with regard to Operation Atalanta, the anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia, where ships of NATO nations acting together under EU command cannot access NATO communications and intelligence systems. It is plainly daft that they cannot communicate with ships of the same nation that are acting under NATO command or combined taskforce—CTF—151.
In Afghanistan, NATO nations participating in the police mission under EUPOL are denied access to the NATO identification system, known as “blue tracking”. In a recent meeting that I had with General John McColl, the NATO deputy supreme commander, it was evident that this is seriously endangering the lives of men and women on the ground. There is a similar situation in Kosovo, where NATO security forces cannot communicate with EULEX, the European Union rule of law mission; again, that puts our men’s and women’s lives at risk. In theory, the Berlin-plus arrangements should make such a situation unnecessary, but the breakdown in political dialogue between the EU and NATO means that our military commanders are continually frustrated by this fundamental flaw whereby our men and women serving the same nation’s armed forces cannot communicate with each other. I say to the Minister that this simply cannot go on.
I want to examine longer-term defence issues. Last year was 10 years after the St. Malo accord between President Chirac and Prime Minister Blair, and this year is 10 years since the inception of the European security and defence policy. It is clear, particularly to France and the United Kingdom, that the ESDP is not “défense Europe”. Common foreign and security policy under the EU banner is not collective European defence. It is not and cannot be, under either the existing treaties or the Lisbon treaty, the strategic defence pact that protects our continent or projects the foreign policy of France, the UK or any of the other major nations of the EU. Nor can it be the vehicle for Europe’s contribution to the security of our continent or our collective contribution to the Atlantic alliance.
I do not wish to deny the achievements of the ESDP or the useful role that it plays in both conflict prevention and crisis management, but I do not believe that its role is simply in civilian operations either. It has a key role to play in military as well as civil operations—in peacekeeping and peace enforcement, and in challenging threats to our security and that of our friends. The operations in Bosnia, Congo and Chad and the current anti-piracy mission off Somalia are testament to that. Interestingly, the two current EU military operations are both commanded by British commanders. However, the ESDP is not, in its current form, the European pillar of the Atlantic alliance, nor is it capable of defending us against any significant external threat or of projecting the foreign policy objectives of member states.
Let us be clear: the French Republic wishes to project its own foreign policy objectives, as do the United Kingdom Government. One tool available to each of those nations is its armed forces, including their respective nuclear deterrents. Their defence policy is an extension of their foreign policy. As Europeans, we hope and pray that our foreign policy objectives are not in conflict. In fact, we devote a considerable amount of time and effort to arriving at common positions, and we earnestly wish that from time to time they should be common European positions. We do so not in opposition to our major ally, the United States, but in our own interests as partners of the United States. In military terms, we should do so as the European pillar of the alliance. Those are our aspirations, but as a continent as a whole we fail quite miserably to deliver.
In the 21st century, the largest economic bloc in the world should not depend on the United States. It should be allied to it and an equal partner to it, and it should be able to defend itself and look after the security of its own region. That position is pro-NATO and pro-Europe. It is a challenge, but as British politicians we should be talking to the French, because between us we spend 60 per cent. of the defence budget of the EU. We together could form the core of a “défense Europe”, but in both our countries our aspirations go beyond our budgetary capabilities. We must co-operate, and we must bring our European partners with us. Collectively we have the technology, the manpower and the industrial skills. It is not a choice between NATO and the EU—we are in both. It is a matter of whether we want to continue to project our values to a wider world through our foreign and defence policy. We can do that only if we work together.
My point is simple. It is now generally accepted that the ESDP is not, and cannot be, European defence. If in the long run, in these difficult economic times, we are to continue to have the ability to project foreign policy through our armed forces, and if we are to cajole and coerce our European partners into making a significant and fair contribution to the alliance and to our common defence, that will not come from Brussels. It will not be an EU initiative. The UK and France are medium-sized powers—just. If that is to continue, they will have to work together and bring with them sometimes recalcitrant European partners. The alternative is that China, India and Russia will overtake us in influence and we will for ever be dependent on the United States for our defence capability. We are perfectly capable of providing that capability for ourselves, and we owe that to the alliance, to the United States and to the British people.
I rise because, of the 37 names that, sadly, the Prime Minister read out yesterday, five were those of fusiliers of my regiment. My thoughts, and, I am sure, those of the House, are with their families and friends.
It will be no surprise to the Minister that I revert to Afghanistan because it currently dominates our defence thinking. Let me start by briefly making the obvious point that soldiers buy time and space, but politicians must provide the political solution. It was true in Northern Ireland, it is true in Iraq and it will be true in Afghanistan. I urge the Minister and the Government not only to explain to the British electorate what we are doing in Afghanistan, but to use their offices as best they can to try to find that political solution. Without it, our forces become simply occupying forces, with no end in sight.
After eight years in Afghanistan, on any objective measure, we are not succeeding. Poppy production has soared from 2001 levels. The worry is that the profits are finding their way to funding insurgency. According to the United Nations, it is no coincidence that, despite record production levels, the price of opium has not fallen. That leads the UN to believe that stockpiles are being created to fund insurgency.
Meanwhile, women’s rights have not been helped. If anything, because of laws that have been passed in recent years, women’s rights and liberties have been eroded. The Afghan Senator Namati has accused President Karzai of being worse than the Mullah Omar Taliban junta on protecting women’s rights.
Then we have the election. If anyone believes that the election has any credibility, they need to look again at how and under what conditions it was fought. There were reports by independent observers that the ballot boxes were already full of returned voting slips before they were opened to the voters. That does not help matters.
As General McChrystal said in a welcome speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the position is deteriorating, and victory will depend not on killing more Taliban fighters but on winning people’s confidence. Too many Afghans are alienated by President Karzai’s widespread corruption. We need a political plan and solution. The election did not achieve that and the soldiers cannot achieve it—it is not their job. We hear nothing from the Government about the political solution. In effect, we have a vacuum. While it continues, the troops are nothing more than an occupying force, with no end in sight.
While we try to find a political solution, we must ensure that our forces are fully resourced and up to strength. When I intervened on the Secretary of State, I drew parallels with Northern Ireland—at the height of the troubles, there were 20,000-plus troops there; in Helmand province, despite American support, we have only up to 10,000 troops with the latest deployments. Even more important, the lack of helicopter support means that perhaps too many troops are being put unnecessarily at risk because they should be flown to their destinations rather than transported by road. Until we get that right, and despite the talk of more helicopters, we are well behind the American forces’ ratio of helicopters to troops. That must be examined. It is no coincidence that the percentage of American casualties accounted for by IEDs is significantly lower than it is for British casualties. Helicopters have a key role to play in that.
I am trying to be brief because others wish to speak. The bottom line is that while we are trying to find a political solution, we must resource our troops properly. I urge the Government to do more to find such a solution. Politicians alone can do that; soldiers can only buy time and space. If the Government get requests from the military on the ground, they should listen to them. They should ensure that we properly resource, through manpower and equipment, our commitment to the region. As Brigadier Butler put it, we should either go deep, go long or go home.
I pay tribute to our armed services, their families and those who have fallen in the service of this country. I believe that the reservists have received a body blow in the cuts that have been announced. In his excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) outlined where defence savings could have been made that would have ensured that the reservists went from strength to strength.
Referring to Afghanistan on 3 October, the new Chief of the General Staff, General Sir David Richards, said:
“Failure would have a catalytic effect on militant Islam around the world and in the region because the message would be that al-Qaeda and the Taliban have defeated the US and the British and NATO, the most powerful alliance in the world”.
I am sure that everyone agrees with that statement. We cannot spin ourselves out of failure this time as we did when we came out of Iraq.
Taking on conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan with the wrong equipment—highly technical, sophisticated and very expensive equipment—resulted in the wrong tactics and strategy being adopted from the very beginning. They were backed by a policy that was not fit for purpose, and mean that we could now be staring defeat in Afghanistan in the face.
Can anyone in the House tell me how the UK is going to pay the present costs, never mind future ones, of using up state-on-state war equipment at such an exorbitant rate, when we cannot even afford to pay the TA? I was glad that General Richards acknowledges that issue and takes it seriously, as can be gleaned from his Chatham House defence lecture on 17 September.
Some of the military’s criticism of politicians in the past few months has at times been grossly unfair, because some of the military’s procurement decisions have been operationally disastrous and extremely expensive. That is particularly true regarding protected vehicles. We still do not have enough of the right type, and are forced to use vehicles that are inappropriate for the tasks being undertaken.
When troop numbers were increased to 21,000 this year for the surge, the military implied that the job could be done with that number of boots on the ground, but now, like Oliver, General McChrystal is back for more, according to his report. The US Administration have every right to be cautious of the continual escalation in numbers when the overall strategy appears to be based on reforming the country as a whole and on imposing a western style Government. That strategy, in my opinion, can never work.
There was a very interesting article in the Small Wars Journal by Major Omar Khan of the Pakistani army. It is very worthwhile reading. He begins by describing a number of things that cannot be done in Afghanistan and ends up saying what he believes can be done. I assume that he is a Pashtun, so perhaps has a certain interest in the matter. The essence of the case he presented was that districts, rather than provinces, of excellence should be created, which would require fewer troops. The emphasis would be on farming, small businesses, banks, the provision of paved roads and a model transport system, all of which would act as an example for the rest of the population to copy. He says that in most cases the Afghan people and the Taliban are not driven by the fear of God as we believe, but by absolute poverty. If we can show examples of what can be done, those ideas will spread widely and we will have a greater chance of success.
Let us compare that to the McChrystal report, which had not a squeak about roads in it and barely a mention of agriculture, which was listed eighth out of 11 points of importance in the civil-military campaign plan—perhaps not surprising, given the total failure of the different departments to co-operate and work together so far. I hope that Ministers can ensure that the civilians and the military work more closely together.
The linchpin of Government policy appears to be the building up of the Afghan national army and police force, which they hope will take over from coalition forces in due course. This is a policy destined to fail, not least because of tribal differences. At present, for example, a large number of Tajiks are being used to secure predominantly Pashtun areas, and I understand this is exacerbating the situation rather than ameliorating it.
We have to admit that current policy is failing to win insurgency skirmishes and indeed may be being used by those who have been recruited as part of a tribal uprising. With the complete failure to understand these conflicts, a decision will have to be made in the future about whether we should ever be involved in them again. General Richards has stated that
“we simply can't afford to retain a full suite of capabilities for all eventualities”.
Some huge decisions will have to be made in the future about our defence situation and our role in the world, and what we can and cannot afford. Whichever party is in power after the next election—and I believe it will be mine—it will have to solve this issue.
It is a pleasure to be the final Back Bencher to contribute to what has been an excellent debate that has primarily focused on Afghanistan. I have begun every speech in a defence debate by saying what a shame it is that we have to use these debates, which arise once in a blue moon, to discuss the fact that we are war. We should have regular updates on the situation. Our armed forces are firing some 10,000 rounds of ammunition every day, and that is an indication of the seriousness of the situation and why we should have better information and more opportunity to debate it.
Afghanistan is at a critical juncture. Eight years after the invasion, we have demonstrated how we might lose the war, wasting half a decade by not providing enough forces, money or leadership—or even agreeing our objectives. As in Iraq, we removed the threat, leaving a power vacuum that the Taliban were quick to exploit. Because of the distraction of Iraq, the west never fully came to terms with the scale of the operation required for success. That contributed to the biggest schoolboy error of all—the failure to have a co-ordinated, integrated, properly funded and locally supported plan. If the stream of hearses regularly filing through Wootton Bassett has not made us realise that the current strategy is not working, General Stanley McChrystal’s interim assessment confirms it.
I have visited Afghanistan every six months or so since being elected and have made every effort to understand what is happening out there so that I can support our armed forces. It therefore saddens me to say how badly we have let our troops down and how much the security situation has deteriorated. I am talking about troop and equipment shortages, poor co-ordination of the Whitehall message, an absence of Cabinet leadership, scant support for reconstruction and development, and no clear plan. Only by blindfolding our troops as they departed for Helmand could we have hindered their chances of success even further.
These are harsh comments, but I make no apologies for them. They are directed not specifically at the Front-Bench Members here—they are as dedicated as anyone to success in Afghanistan—but at No. 10 and the co-ordination of the Cabinet. We come here regularly to salute the bravery and professionalism of our soldiers, but then do not give them the tools to succeed and conclude the mission. After eight years, the lack of progress has not gone unnoticed. Doubts are growing about the war in both the UK and the USA, and leading commentators and politicians are suggesting that it is turning into President Obama’s Vietnam.
We now have two distinct groups, one supporting a surge and a substantial increase in troop numbers—I do not know whether that would be time-limited—and a second supporting what has been labelled as “cut and walk”. That would involve slowly down-sizing, leaving behind special operations and drone capabilities very similar to those in Pakistan. The US military is clearly showing its strength in supporting a surge and dispatching its brightest senior military commanders to Afghanistan, but, on the other side, some politicians, perhaps with one eye on the polls and the other on the congressional elections in November 2010, are urging huge caution.
The delay in making the decision is playing into the Taliban’s hands, as has been mentioned already. The reasons not to pull out are very clear and have been echoed again and again in this Chamber. We need only to look over our shoulders at what is happening in Pakistan even today to see the chaos that might occur in Afghanistan were we to pull out now. What would it say to the rest of the world if a second superpower were to be beaten by Islamic fundamentalism? We need to recognise that this is not a war of choice, but a war of necessity. It is also a new style of warfare involving counter-insurgency. We must get used to it and get good at it.
Two other places are appearing on the horizon: Somalia and Yemen. We already have sizeable forces in Somalia, which will become a problem too. We need to get this right. Several factors need focusing on—I do not have time to go through them all in detail, but I shall mention them very briefly. First, it is for us here to move to a war footing. It is not acceptable to read out a list of the fallen at every Prime Minister’s questions, if the nation does not understand what we are fighting for. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) made the point that we need to educate the public about why we are there. Recognising that we are at war means providing the resources needed to win, and it will require proper debates in this House to keep us informed and allow us to scrutinise what is happening.
Secondly, improvements in Afghan security are needed. That point has been repeated again and again. However, we cannot go in there, after six years, and say, “Yes, we are now going to train more troops.” We have to get good at training troops no matter where they are. That is the type of counter-insurgency warfare that we now face, and anyone who reads General Petraeus’s book will recognise that point. We must move away from the cold war mentality and understand that after the war of fighting comes a period of peacekeeping that will include training local troops, whether in police forces or armies. We have to get good at that, whether that means us, NATO or both.
We also need to consider other ways of strengthening the security system fast. The awakening project in the al-Anbar province is a great example of that. The militias there have a binding loyalty to the local areas that they are trying to protect and so they want peace. That is opposed to what we have at the moment, which is a very difficult, procrastinating approach that has shown no mileage after six years in theatre.
Thirdly, I come to improvements in our stabilisation capability. We must recognise that the Department for International Development is not up to the job. I say that bluntly, but it was never designed to do the job of stabilisation, reconstruction and so forth. The budget for our war fighting is now £3 billion a year. Our budget for stabilisation is £130 million a year. That discrepancy means that our soldiers will be continually looking over their shoulders after they have done their work at the top of the hill. They will be wondering, “Who on earth is going to sort out the village beneath?” That cannot go on and needs to change.
The co-ordination of international development still does not exist. We need a three-star ISAF appointment, made or supported by the UN, to do the J5 tasks. I have pushed my big idea of sliding sizeable funds across from humanitarian projects under DFID to create a stabilisation capability, so that in the three to six-month window of opportunity after the initial invasion we can help the locals get off their knees, improve the employment situation, get security under control and start training the police, thereby winning hearts and minds before the enemy can regroup.
I made this point earlier, but on Operation Panther’s Claw in the Babaji area, let me reassure the Secretary of State that I do not doubt that the road is important. However, we cannot wait three years for one project to be completed. There are other projects that need to be undertaken at the same time, although I think that he is well aware of that.
We are forgetting not just history, but the role of the Army in stabilisation. Let us look at what the US army and Abraham Lincoln did in the secessionist states after the civil war. It was the army that reconstructed and stabilised those places and got the economy going. Indeed, it even ran the local governments for a while—the army did that, not anybody else. The US army also did that in Japan, the Philippines and Germany. We, too, did that in Africa and India, as well as in Germany and Bosnia. Sierra Leone is another great example. It was the Army that helped to stabilise that place, not DFID or anybody else. Let us agree that the Army can do that.
Fourthly, we need a more federal structure in Afghanistan to look after domestic matters. The scale of corruption in the presidential elections does not reflect the model of democracy that the authors of the Bonn accord had in mind when it was written. We now have an opportunity to update the model of governance. The current Kabul-centric model is already seen as too advanced for a state in its infancy. With decisions made in Kabul having little impact on rural communities in the surrounding 35 provinces, a more federal approach in domestic matters would allow provinces to expedite decision making, take more ownership of their destinies and reduce the high levels of corruption, which is exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) was saying in her contribution.
A more federal approach would also fit more easily with the traditional tribal power structure that has dominated Afghanistan all the way back to when Peter the Great wandered through the area, as a glance at Afghanistan’s history shows. When we had problems with Dost Mohammad in the 1830s, he was the big, powerful tribal leader there and was respected by everybody else, but he did not run the country. All the tribes did their own thing in their own areas, and likewise with King Amanullah, the great reformer. He was in charge in Kabul. The groupings in the tribal areas did their own thing, but they respected the leader.
Then there was Zahir Shah from 1933 to 1973. There was a powerful body in Kabul, but all the tribes, whether they be the Uzbeks, the Tajiks, the Hazaras or the Baluchis, did their own thing while respecting what happened in Kabul. There has never been an advanced centralised form of government in Afghanistan. I do not know why we suddenly think that we can walk in and impose one.
My fifth point is about an economic plan for Afghanistan. I go there and ask people, “What is your vision? What do you want to do with your country?” but they cannot even see that far. We need to understand what they are good at. They were good at exporting agricultural produce—one of the best in the region—but they cannot do that now, because there is no infrastructure or train network, and yet Kandahar is only 38 miles from Spin Boldak, which is on the border with Pakistan. Link those two together and suddenly people can start exporting those goodies out of the country, which not only makes them money but, more importantly, gives people something to work towards, which they do not have now.
There is no time to talk about the tactics in Helmand. However, I am concerned that we remain in control of our area of responsibility, which has 70 per cent. of the population, yet the Americans have turned up with 20,000 troops and are looking at the rest of the province, which is pretty rural. Why not focus on the population and get us and the Americans working in the same AOR? That would be a much better use of our forces.
In conclusion, eight years on and with few tangible results in Afghanistan, the nation’s patience and commitment is being tested. We have wasted half a decade with a half-hearted approach, yet it is modern engagements such as Afghanistan that we have to show we are becoming good at winning. Our entire strategy has to be reviewed. Britain has had a decade of fighting counter-insurgencies, yet our tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan in that period have not changed whatever.
Finally, I pay tribute to the 2nd Battalion The Rifles, my own battalion, which is commanded by Colonel Rob Thomson, who has done a fantastic good, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newbury mentioned. We are at war. Let us give our soldiers the support and resources that they deserve.
Unusually, we have had two days in a row in which to consider the grave problems facing our armed forces in the context of the Afghanistan campaign. Yesterday, we had a major statement from the Prime Minister and an opportunity to question him. Among the points that he acknowledged was the fact that 80 per cent. of our casualties arise from roadside bombs. That is an important factor—in fact, it is the supremely important factor because, although my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) has just said that we must concentrate on getting in, getting on and winning, the reality is that we need to wage a campaign in which we do not take levels of casualties that the public are not prepared to bear.
That, above all, is the single reason that people in this country are dissatisfied with the campaign in Afghanistan. It is not a question of a lack of patience, or of not spending enough money or of troops going back on a recent tour to the same forward operating base that they occupied two, three or four years ago. The country will not put up with a disproportionate cost in lives for a campaign that shows no sign of ending. We cannot be defeated on the battlefield, but we can be defeated in the battle for morale. Above all, that is why the Government should focus on doing everything they can to protect our servicemen and women in the field and to ensure that they are not exposed to unnecessary risks.
I venture to suggest that, if our enemies in Afghanistan focused on a strategic objective of ensuring that they killed two or three British service personnel every week, keeping that up for a sufficient length of time would be enough to harden opposition to the continuance of the campaign. We must therefore be as canny as our opponents, not only because we owe it to our servicemen and women to protect them but because it is essential for the success of the campaign. We must go out of our way to ensure that our enemies cannot do the one thing that would force us to feel that we had to leave.
That is why I was disturbed to get an unsatisfactory answer from the Prime Minister yesterday, when I asked him about the fact that 80 per cent. of our casualties were caused by roadside bombs. I asked:
“What proportion of the convoys attacked by those bombs were resupply convoys, which could and should have been transported by air but which were not because of the disgraceful shortage of air transport capacity?”
The Prime Minister replied that he did not accept my conclusion. He went on to say:
“A lot of the casualties have, unfortunately, been those people who have been on foot patrol, trying to build relationships with the Afghan people”.
That might well be true of some of the casualties, but it is certainly not true of all of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) intervened on the Prime Minister subsequently to say that he was
“staggered at the Prime Minister’s characterisation of the deaths from IEDs as being caused by foot patrols and not by the lack of helicopters.”
My hon. Friend went on to say:
“Commanders regularly complain of unnecessary logistical road moves.”—[Official Report, 14 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 316, 320.]
I know that to be true because I have had similar complaints made to me. This matter is not going to go away, and I advise Defence Ministers to ensure that it is a complaint that will not be repeated in the future, although it has been justified in the past.
My mind goes back to the “Defence in the UK” debate of 26 March, when we heard from three Government Back-Bench speakers, seven Conservative Back-Bench speakers and no Back-Bench speakers from the Liberal Democrats. Today, we have heard from five Government Back-Bench speakers, 11 Conservative Back-Bench speakers and, once again, no Back-Bench speakers from the Liberal Democrats. [Interruption.] I am asked why not, but I am afraid that I can provide no enlightenment on that.
The shadow Secretary of State and the Secretary of State rightly focused on the Afghanistan campaign, as did many other Members in our debate. The hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), who is no longer in his place, told the tragic story of Kyle Adams and concluded that we ought to give up, whereas my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), in a passionate and most moving speech, gave an account of the loss of so many members of his former unit and concluded that we must crack on. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) made the important point, re-emphasised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East a few moments ago, that we must work with the grain of Afghan society and not against it.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) wanted the nuclear deterrent to be included in the strategic defence review, while the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) wanted the aircraft carriers to be excluded from it. The aircraft carriers were also a cause close to the heart of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck).
Much concern was expressed about the need to give maximum support to those grievously injured in body and in mind. My hon. Friends the Members for East Devon (Mr. Swire), for Newbury and for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) spoke about that. In that connection, when it comes to reintegration of grievously wounded people into society, I welcome the emergence of organisations such as Soldier On, which is organised by a very able young man called Nicholas Harrison, who is determined to find ways in which an employment agency can be created in order to get people who have lost limbs into civilian work so that they can live their lives earning and working their own way.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex stressed the absurd duplication of top-level bureaucratic posts, while my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) was as robust as he always is on both Trident and the carriers, adding a detailed study of the potential of the Hebrides missile-testing range.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) referred to the dangers of cyber attack, to which I would add the dangers of electromagnetic pulse attack. People are constantly talking about the possibility of rogue states getting nuclear weapons and using them to attack other countries directly, but a single nuclear weapon used by a rogue state and exploded above a target country could well do irreparable damage to its infrastructure without directly attacking the country itself. My right hon. Friend also stressed, as always, the vital importance of the aerospace industry and the necessity of keeping it as an essential part of our defence industrial base.
Huge concern was expressed about the threat to future reserves. Apart from the robust comments of the shadow Secretary of State, we heard contributions from the Chairman of the Defence Committee, from my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Sussex and for East Devon and especially from my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who has shown a long dedication to the cause of the reserves. When the Minister replies, will he tell us whether the Government will guarantee first not to extend the non-payment of the Territorial Army beyond this six-month period and, secondly, not to extend it to the Army Cadet Force as well?
I must stress to Ministers that people in the reserve forces do it not for the money, but for the training and the love of it. My own modest career as a seaman in the Royal Naval Reserve would not have appealed to me if I had not had a ship to go to sea on at the weekends as part of my training. If such training is cut off from people for six months, we may well find that, even if the tap is turned on again at the end of the process, such crews are no longer available.
The hon. Gentleman has raised the subject of the number of Members who went in to bat today. I have been silent for a variety of reasons and I have been in and out of the Chamber, but I want to express my concern and, I think, that of many other Labour Members about the threat that has been posed. It is a narrow but important point. I accept that we can probably be reassured about the resources available for the training of the Territorial Army and other reserve forces, but I hope that the Minister can reassure us about that, particularly in relation to the Army but also in relation to the Royal Naval Reserve.
As always, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am only sorry that he was not present to contribute more fully to the debate. The preparation of reserves to go into the front line is a continuum. If a major segment of the training process is removed, that will work its way through the system so that when it is necessary to move on to the next section of the continuum, there will be nothing but a black hole. That is the threat to which the Government have exposed our reserves with this penny-pinching and unjustified measure.
I am sorry: not for the moment.
Let me complete my quick survey of the contributions that have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) spoke of the duty of European countries to work as individual countries through the institutions that are available, but not to try to offload their defence responsibilities on to those institutions in order to contribute to collective security. My hon. Friends the Members for Billericay (Mr. Baron) and for Congleton (Ann Winterton) shared a rather gloomy outlook on the prospects of the campaign in Afghanistan.
My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay reckons that the anti-opium campaign is failing, that women’s rights are failing, that democracy is failing, and that corruption is rife. That is to suggest that the objectives of our presence in Afghanistan were to get rid of the opium trade, to assert the rights of women, to create a democracy, and to root out corruption. Those are all worthy and desirable aims, but they are not the reason we are there. We are there because an attack was made on cities, killing thousands of people, and because that attack was orchestrated and organised by an organisation whose headquarters were in Afghanistan. The question that we must ask ourselves is this: is our strategy, and are our tactics, adequate to deal with that threat and prevent it from arising again? I have to say that I have some doubts, but I am not prepared, and do not have time, to articulate them fully on this occasion.
My hon. Friend may have misheard what I said. I was suggesting that what we needed in Afghanistan at the end of the day was a political solution, and that the failures that I cited were all signs that we were not near to a political solution. I did not for a moment suggest that solving those problems was the main objective of our forces.
I fully accept that. Unfortunately, however, if a political solution is to be found in a counter-insurgency campaign, there must be a means of dealing with the element of society that is determined that no political accommodation will be reached. That is a problem that has not yet been solved and cannot be solved by political means alone, just as it cannot be solved by military means alone.
No, I will not. I am sorry. Time is against me, and I wish to go a little wider than the question of the Afghanistan campaign, central though it is to our considerations. I wish to revert very briefly to another point touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury: the unpredictability of future conflicts.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have been involved in counter-insurgency campaigns in the past. We were involved in a long counter-insurgency campaign in Malaya which lasted from 1948 to 1960, but that did not lead us to believe that because we were involved in fighting a counter-insurgency then, we would always be involved in counter-insurgency campaigning in the future. We remained fully committed to NATO and fully engaged in the cold war. Important as the campaign in Afghanistan is, it would be a strategic mistake to say “We do not need aircraft carriers; we do not need Trident; we do not need conventional forces.” We need a range of capabilities to deal with the range of threats that might rise up against us in 10, 20, 30 and 40 years’ time. Some people say that we are making a mistake because we are reckoning to fight the wars of 10, 15 or 20 years ago. I say that we are planning to deter and protect against the wars of 10, 15 and 20 years in the future, and if we judge those just by what we are doing today we are making the same mistake as when we judge what we are doing today by what we were doing 15, 20 or 25 years ago. We must have the full range of military capability that we can afford. That is the issue the strategic defence review, which the Conservatives were the first party to demand, will decide. It will be a difficult and tough task, but it is an absolutely essential one.
We have had a good and well-informed debate, which has demonstrated the strong degree of cross-party support in the House for the armed forces. In every contribution, there has been a palpable recognition of the heroic, professional and hugely competent job our armed forces do on behalf of us all. We are enormously in their debt.
In the time available to me, I shall try to respond to as many as possible of the points made in the debate. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) started by raising an issue that many other hon. Members have also raised: the position of the Territorial Army. Let me be very clear that the change was recommended by the service chiefs. It was accepted by Ministers because, as the Secretary of State rightly pointed out, Afghanistan is our main priority and it is crucial that we redeploy resources to that main priority, but that does not mean that any member of the reserves will be deployed without appropriate pre-deployment training. Let me make it clear that no reservist will have to pay for their pre-deployment training and there is no cut to that pre-deployment training. I say that clearly for the record because the Leader of the Opposition tried to paint a very different picture at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. It is important that we debate the issues based on the facts.
The Minister says the purpose of the cuts is to make money available for the front line in Afghanistan, but we are repeatedly told that the Treasury is fully funding the campaign in Afghanistan from the Treasury reserve. If that is the case, why are we cutting core MOD functions?
We are actually supplementing that. That is crucial. The constant thrust of the comments we hear from the Opposition is that we are in a war situation and we should devote all our resources and efforts to that front-line campaign, and I think that that is the right thing to do.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about Regional Command South and which nation would be replacing the regional battle group south. That is a question for NATO, but our current understanding is that the battle group will not be immediately replaced. I stand by our decision, however, because our decision to redeploy that battle group is about thickening our forces in Helmand, and particularly about helping us tackle the huge challenge of improvised explosive devices.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the make-up and sustainability of the 9,000 commitment and the 9,500. The 9,000, will be made up of the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards and elements of 30 Signal Regiment, 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment and 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment. The additional 500 will involve the deployment of 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh. There is a statement to that effect in the House of Commons Library.
The hon. Gentleman went on to labour a critique by saying that there was a failure to define our strategy in Afghanistan in terms of our national security. I must say that that is what we have been doing for months and years. This is fundamentally about our national security. It is about generating capacity in the Afghan nation and its forces so that it can defend itself and secure its own borders and country, and in the bargain make us and other countries safer from terrorism. That is why we want to generate that capacity; we do not want to be in Afghanistan for ever and a day. We want to reach the point where we can sensibly and safely withdraw. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that if we were to succeed, it would be a fundamental strategic failure for al-Qaeda and other insurgents. Importantly, and conversely, our failure in Afghanistan would be a huge boost for terrorists and violent extremists in every part of the world. That is why this is so fundamentally in our national interest.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about helicopters and the two Chinooks, and I can confirm that the funding will come from the Treasury reserve. He asked how long it will be before the last Vectors come out of service in Afghanistan, and I can tell him that a phased withdrawal will be complete by mid to late 2010. He went on to discuss the situation in Iraq. He said that it “beggars belief” that no agreement over the continuation of our naval presence in Iraq has been achieved. This is the reality of politics in a democracy, which is what Iraq is now. There has been a Government-to-Government agreement, but it is now going through its parliamentary procedures and we cannot dictate, from the outside, the time scale of that.
The hon. Gentleman also asked whether the training mission would be funded from the Treasury reserve, and I can confirm that it will be. He gave a huge critique of the Government’s performance and the situation in terms of equipment, training and everything else that we are doing. Every Member of this House needs to be clear about the fact that the Conservative party is not committing one penny extra of additional expenditure to the defence budget. Words come easily, but we face a hugely challenging situation in Afghanistan and we ought to be debating these issues on their merits and trying, where possible, to achieve a consensus.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) described the letter that he had received from one of his constituents about the tragic loss of her fiancé Kyle Adams and his tragic death. Nothing I, or any of us, can say or do can compensate any individual for the loss of a loved one. I wish to pay tribute to the heroism of Kyle Adams—he was serving our national interest.
My hon. Friend asked a particular question about Ministers’ attending repatriation ceremonies. That issue comes up repeatedly in the press, but I wish to make it clear that Ministers rightly take military advice from the service chiefs and they have consistently told us that repatriation ceremonies are military occasions for military personnel. In such circumstances, it would be wrong for Ministers to intervene.