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Body Armour (Afghanistan)

Volume 503: debated on Monday 11 January 2010

4. What his most recent assessment is of the adequacy of provision of body armour to UK front-line forces serving in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (309567)

The Osprey armour, which we began to issue to our troops in 2006, is second to none in the world. We are now in the process of issuing a new version that is more comfortable but equally protected—Osprey Assault—together with the mark 7 helmet, to all those who are liable to deploy outside the wire in Afghanistan. That is another example of the concept of a continuous pipeline of improvement in the equipment provided to our forces in Afghanistan in operation.

When my constituent Marine Corporal Danny Winter died in action, he was the first casualty from Stockport for 30 years. That has much increased local concern about whether we have the right equipment in the right place and at the right time. Will the Minister say clearly to the House when he believes that we shall have good force protection equipment in place and avoid the casualties and the terrible injuries that are now occurring?

We are all bitterly sorry about the death of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, and about that of every other man and woman who has fallen for the country in the difficult conflict in Afghanistan. However, my answer to him and to the House is clear: we provide, and will continue to provide, the very best equipment that we can—the very best armour, the very best weapons, the very best communications equipment, the very best vehicles, the very best helicopters and the very best of everything else. We regard that as a sacred task.

Does my hon. Friend agree that although we can design body armour that gives more protection, there is a risk that it will be heavier and more difficult to move about in? There is a tension between the amount of protection that can be given and the mobility of our soldiers in the field. If we are not careful, there is a danger that some soldiers will not wear all their body armour in order to get more mobility.

My hon. Friend, who is an expert in this field and a distinguished member of the Select Committee on Defence, has got it absolutely right. There are always trade-offs in such matters. Quite simply, no human being could carry the weight that would be required to provide ballistic protection all over the body. That is a physical impossibility, and we will just have to face it. There are already trade-offs made, in circumstances where troops are carrying electronic counter-measures and communications equipment. They might be carrying 60 kg or even 70 kg each, often in appalling weather conditions, with temperatures in the 40s, and so on. There are genuine limits, and we are looking all the time at how we can provide the essential equipment as lightly as possible, consistent with the best possible outcomes.

I am grateful to the veterans Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), for our meeting before Christmas to discuss body armour. I know that he appreciates—presumably his colleague does as well—the capabilities and limitations of body armour. The United States increasingly relies on aerial reconnaissance to detect improvised explosive devices, which, despite personal protective kit, kill more soldiers than anything else in Afghanistan. Is the different approach to force protection down to the Minister’s failure to get the US to share technology or the withholding of funds for equipment, which was discussed over the weekend in connection with the then Defence Secretary, Chancellor and Prime Minister?

The suggestion of a lack of co-operation with our American allies, like the suggestion of the withholding of funds, is utter rubbish, complete nonsense, totally libellous and without the slightest foundation in fact. I hope that the hon. Gentleman takes those words on board. In fact, we have very close co-operation with the United States on counter-IED measures and force protection. Indeed, we use the same methods, based on various air vehicles, which have been very successful and which I have seen for myself in real time in theatre.