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Volume 528: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2011

Pursuant to United Nations Security Council resolution 1973, NATO-led air strikes have been successful in reducing Colonel Gaddafi’s ability to attack his people, but he continues to target civilians in clear contravention of UN Security Council resolutions and international law. As the Foreign Secretary has said, it is now necessary to intensify the military, economic and diplomatic pressure on the Gaddafi regime.

We constantly review our military operations to ensure that we can continue to enforce UNSCR 1973 and prevent Gaddafi from attacking the Libyan people. Attack helicopters are one tool for that purpose, and the use of such helicopters is one of a range of capability options under consideration. However, I stress that no decision has yet been made about whether to use our attack helicopters in Libya. We will keep the House informed as decisions are made.

Thank you for allowing the urgent question, Mr Speaker.

The Opposition have always made it clear that we support the stated aims of the military operation in Libya: to enforce UN Security Council resolution 1973, to protect Libyan civilians, and to implement a no-fly zone. We have also made it clear not just that we support the Government and the UN mandate, but that it is crucial for Parliament to have an opportunity to scrutinise Government decisions and the campaign in Libya.

Yesterday Le Figaro reported that 12 French helicopters had been dispatched to Libya on 17 May. There was no comment from the Ministry of Defence other than

“we are constantly reviewing our options”,

but the French Defence Minister, Gérard Longuet, said:

“The British, who have assets similar to ours, will also commit…The sooner the better is what the British think.”

Is that an accurate statement by a French Minister of the British Government’s policy on Libya? The British people will be desperately concerned that French Ministers seem to know more about the deployment of British military equipment than the British Parliament.

Parliament has not written the Government a blank cheque on Libya, and Ministers should never keep the British public in the dark about major deployments. This is a serious moment, and it would be a serious escalation if such a commitment were to be made. Parliament should never be kept in the dark.

I want to ask the Minister a number of questions. First, why have discussions about an escalation of such magnitude with our French partners and colleagues reached such an advanced stage without Parliament being allowed even the courtesy of discussion or scrutiny? Secondly, will the Minister go into more detail about the situation on the ground which is leading Ministers at least to consider—and, in a private conversation with the French, to confirm—this military commitment?

Thirdly, if this were to happen, would the operational allowance be extended to those serving in and around Libya in the same way as in respect of Afghanistan? Fourthly, does the hon. Gentleman agree with the Defence Analysis estimation that the cost of the conflict could be £1 billion by September? Finally, will he say more about the UK’s military capability to maintain the current tempo, and have the Government decided to order further Brimstone?

Parliament thought long and hard about whether to commit military force over Libya on behalf of the United Kingdom. The House sought in good conscience to take a deep and significant decision about our nation, and now we are expected simply to wave through a possible major escalation in military commitment without a proper debate in Parliament. It is utterly unacceptable that the UK Parliament has to be informed about a possible deployment of UK forces by the French Defence Minister.

On this complicated issue, the Government need to provide greater clarity. On behalf of this Parliament and those who voted for this conflict, which we support—and, indeed, on behalf of those who voted against the conflict—Parliament is right to demand that decisions such as this one are announced in this Parliament, debated in this Parliament, scrutinised in this Parliament, and should never be kept from Parliament again.

The right hon. Gentleman quotes the French Minister, and my understanding is that the French have indeed taken a decision to deploy their attack helicopters in Libya. I state again for the avoidance of all doubt that no such decision has been taken by the United Kingdom. It is an option that we are considering, but no decision has been taken, and there is absolutely no sense in which it is true to say that we have kept Parliament in the dark about a decision that we have taken.

I do not accept that if we were to take the decision to use attack helicopters at some point in the future, that would be an “escalation” of what we are doing in Libya. The targets would remain the same; it would simply be a tactical shift in what assets we used to try to hit those targets. The right hon. Gentleman asks why we would consider doing this, and what would be the military logic of contemplating using attack helicopters. The principal advantage it would give us over the air assets we are currently deploying is the ability to strike moving targets with greater precision.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the costs. I do not recognise the figure he gives. It is not possible to compute in real time a figure, but I say to him again that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made it clear that the cost of this operation will be met by the reserve.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about maintaining the momentum. We keep our stocks under regular review, including specifically of Brimstone. We are content that we can keep going for the foreseeable future, but we will have to make adjustments as time goes on and calculate whether it will be necessary to increase our stocks.

On the operational allowance, the arrangements will remain as they are, but we are looking into the possibility of extending special consideration for those who would not meet the normal criteria.

The Government have been doing their utmost to ensure that the House is kept informed about what is going on. There have been debates and questions, and we have given several briefings, and if the right hon. Gentleman feels at any stage that he needs more information, he needs only to ask and we will do everything we can to afford him that information. We are involved in a military operation, however. We have to consider from time to time the tactics we are using, and you will understand, Mr Speaker, why we would not do so in advance on the Floor of the House. Apart from anything else, telling the enemy exactly what we are up to would be a very unusual strategy. As soon as decisions are taken, however, we will ensure that Parliament is informed.

I thank my hon. Friend for his statement. If the Apache helicopter were to be deployed, that would be entirely appropriate, particularly given the Gaddafi forces’ change in tactics, and the requirement to have a highly effective machine that can lurk and deal with the hard-to-find targets. What steps would need to be taken to marinise the Apache if it were to be operating off-carrier?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we are right to consider this in pursuance, as I said, of UNSCR 1973. Gaddafi and his regime remain a real threat to the civilian population in Libya and if we were to take a decision to use an attack helicopter, it would be in pursuit of that resolution. Such helicopters give us a greater ability to pinpoint targets, we are able to operate them from HMS Ocean or other maritime assets, and there is no need for any specific adaptation in order to do that.

Like many others, I am very concerned about the massive air raid that took place last night, which will inevitably cause civilian casualties, although I entirely accept that the Gaddafi regime will try to make as much propaganda of it as possible. Is the Minister aware that there is an increasing feeling that, despite denials, resolution 1973 is being used for regime change? I emphasise again that regime change is totally outside international law.

We are very familiar with the terms of UNSCR 1973, which remains absolutely our abiding objective. I recognise that there are risks inherent in whatever military options we take, but let me reassure the House that we are doing our utmost, and so are our NATO allies, to ensure that there is no loss of civilian life. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that that is in sharp distinction to the Gaddafi regime, which is retaining that loss as its objective and is continuing to cause it. We are there to prevent it from doing so.

May I sympathise with the Minister’s reluctance to permit a running commentary on operations in Libya, for the reasons that he has outlined? Were Apache helicopters, which carry missiles, to be deployed, how would that be different in principle from the use of fast jets carrying missiles?

I entirely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend: the objective and the targets would remain exactly the same, but we would have at our disposal a weapon with a greater degree of precision, which is better able to hit targets, including moving ones, and with a lower risk of collateral damage. This would be a tactical switch from using one asset to using another, which is why I do not believe it would constitute an escalation, but I repeat that no such decision has, as yet, been taken. The French have taken a decision and announced it. We have not taken that decision, but I confirm that it is an option we are considering.

This decision, if it is made, would make a qualitative difference to the strategy, because it would mean a greater risk to British service personnel. For that reason, the Government should seek not only a debate on the Floor of the House, but a renewed vote to sanction any such measure. May I also ask the Minister what efforts are being made, again, to get a negotiated settlement to this war?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The use of attack helicopters in contested territory is certainly inherently dangerous—about that there can be no doubt—but they have been used elsewhere very effectively and those dangers have not had a deadly effect. I repeat that this is a consideration of using another tactic; this is not a step change in what we are doing. The suggestion that while we are in the course of operations we would come to the House of Commons for a full debate and a fresh resolution every time we took an operational tactical decision is not realistic, and I do not think it would be justified.

As I ordered the attack helicopters, I am rather disappointed to hear that no decision has been taken on their use. I agree entirely with the Minister that firing a missile from a rotary-wing aircraft as opposed to a fixed-wing aircraft is not an escalation, but does he agree that this decision would also help to address another issue of increasing concern, which is the airframe hours left in the Tornados? That matter is worrying a number of people.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on having placed that order, because the Apache helicopter has proved itself in Iraq and Afghanistan over the years since then. It is useful that it is at our disposal for consideration at this time. I agree that sharing the duties out across our air assets will better enable us to sustain them over a period of time. I repeat that no decision to do that has been taken.

The trouble is that if the Government’s aim is not regime change, we are basically at stalemate. The worry for many of my constituents is how long that stalemate will go on.

I do not accept that we are at stalemate, as I believe recent events in Misrata have demonstrated. The situation is still dynamic and fluid and we have to respond to the situation on the ground by making tactical decisions. The consideration of whether we should use attack helicopters will be informed in no small part by the tactical call of those closest to it, who make the judgments about what we face.

May I remind the House of my interest as a member of the military stabilisation support group? Will the Minister update the House on the post-conflict reconstruction planning and, crucially, does he believe that it will require a further UN resolution to implement it effectively?

We already have a stabilisation unit in Benghazi preparing the ground for the post-conflict situation. We would expect the UN to play the leading role in co-ordinating that and there might well be an appetite for EU involvement, too. We are laying the ground as best we can but we are taking these things a stage at a time. The overriding priority at the moment remains preventing Gaddafi and his regime from attacking civilians in Libya.

According to the latest statement from the International Committee of the Red Cross, there is a growing humanitarian crisis on the ground. What can we do to address that?

There are certainly immense humanitarian difficulties in various parts of Libya, the most obvious example being Misrata. We were among several nations in sustaining the pressure to get supplies and relief into Misrata. There has been some success with that operation, but one does not want to overclaim on that. It remains an overwhelming priority to ensure that we can relieve humanitarian suffering by all means possible.

Whether or not we deploy attack helicopters, the fact that a key NATO ally has represents, in my view at least, a significant escalation in this conflict and reinforces the point that regime change has been the objective of our intervention. Given the air strikes and this latest news, at what point does the Minister believe that our actions on the ground will cross the line as regards UN resolution 1973?

My hon. Friend refers to operations on the ground and asks at what point they would cross UNSCR 1973. What was specifically prohibited was a landing and occupying force and I do not see that one can in any way compare the use of attack helicopters to take on moving targets with a landing and occupying force. We are talking about two completely different things. The French have, as I understand it, taken the decision to use attack helicopters, although I do not believe that they have as yet started in practice to do so. I do not accept, for the reasons I set out earlier, that that would constitute an escalation of the conflict in Libya. It would be a tactical shift in the way we were pursuing it.

The House is going into recess today and will not resume until 7 June. Given that the Minister has said on several occasions that no decision has been made, can he tell us, first, why the French Defence Minister thinks a decision has been made and, secondly, when this House will know when a decision is made, if it is?

I cannot comment on what the French Minister has said, but I absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman once again that we have not taken this decision and have not suggested to the French that we have taken it. I am aware that we are about to have a short recess, but it would be wholly unacceptable in my view artificially to accelerate a military decision in order to comply with the parliamentary timetable. If a decision is made it will be made according to military criteria and the operations will be conducted in the normal way. We will inform Members as soon as we can if any such decision is taken but I stress again that no such decision has been taken and I cannot anticipate that it will be taken on any particular timetable.

May I assure my hon. Friend that he is entitled to plan military operations and discuss them with allies in private and that so long as he reports decisions to the House he will not have taken his country’s name in vain in any manner at all? May I draw his attention to the fact that US Carrier Strike Group Two will be visiting Portsmouth this weekend and then proceeding to the Mediterranean? Will President Obama be included in these discussions about military options in Libya, because we either have to break the stalemate or broker a peace?

I thank my hon. Friend for his initial remarks. He is absolutely right that, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) said, it would not be appropriate to keep up a running commentary throughout an operation on the tactical decisions we might take. The French have taken a decision and have seen fit to put that into the public domain and that is entirely a matter for the French. So far as the Americans are concerned, it is certainly the case that during President Obama’s visit we will be discussing with him operations in Libya and Afghanistan as well as other world issues. My hon. Friend is entirely right that the US carrier strike group will be passing through the Mediterranean—I understand that is the intention—but these are things that we will keep discussing with allies. Let me say again that absolutely no decision has been taken.

Has not this intervention been subject to mission creep ever since it began, as statements to the House have indicated? There has been a little bit of help here, the use of special forces there and further intervention. It is no surprise to me that the French, who initiated the intervention in the first place because of an election in France next year, are now telling the British Government what the next phase is. How many civilians, whom we were supposed to safeguard, have been killed by NATO forces? When will we reach £1 billion of expenditure on this intervention, which is paid for by the British taxpayer? Is it right what the media say that it will be at the end of this summer, or will it be even sooner?

We know for a fact that Gaddafi was on the verge of an absolute bloodbath in Benghazi and that if we had not intervened there would have been an absolute slaughter. In conducting this operation we have at all times done our utmost to minimise the number of civilian casualties, of whom there are far fewer than Gaddafi has killed and would have killed. I do not accept that there has been mission creep from UNSCR 1973 at all. It remains the case that we are prosecuting it to the best of our ability and it remains our overriding priority to reduce the risk to civilian life and the suffering of civilians. The best way in which that could be concluded would be for Gaddafi to comply with UN resolution 1973 and stop killing his own civilians.

I do not see this as an escalation but rather as a proper tactical response to a changing tactical situation on the ground that is in line with UN resolution 1973. We know from Afghanistan and Somalia that helicopters can be more vulnerable to attack than fixed-wing aircraft. What assessment has been made of UK search and rescue capability should one of our helicopters unfortunately be downed?

I thank my hon. Friend for his supportive remarks. It is inherently true that the use of attack helicopters in contested territory is dangerous, but we are deploying all our assets through NATO and if we were to decide to use attack helicopters it would be through NATO co-ordinated efforts, so the assets of other partner countries would be available to us to help defend them. We have experience of using Apache helicopters in contested territory and we have successful ways of minimising the threat to them, but it is an inherently dangerous business—there is no way of getting around that.

Will the Minister update the House on how many countries have now sent military advisers to Libya to help the rebels? Can he confirm who is responsible for co-ordinating their work?

We have sent some of our own advisers and they are working with the French. We co-ordinate that between us and they are the pre-eminent military advisers. There are some from other countries in that region but they are undertaking specific tasks in co-ordination with the British and French forces, so the predominant effort is Anglo-French and we are co-ordinating it between us.

I welcome the Minister’s statement. Will he clarify what the assessment is of the situation in southern Libya, bordering Chad—an area with a huge amount of oil deposits?

The hon. Gentleman is right that there are huge oil assets to the south. I can only repeat that our objective in Libya is the protection of civilians, who we know are predominantly in the north and along those coastal stretches. The regime still has effective control over some of the oil assets to the south, but clearly its efforts to transport and export them have been significantly curtailed by the efforts of the coalition to implement UNSCR 1973.

My understanding is that the French have publicly briefed the press that the National Security Council has taken the decision to deploy the helicopters. When the Minister says that the decision has not been taken, does he mean that there is a recommendation from the National Security Council awaiting rubber-stamping from the Prime Minister in order to get sign-off from the President for an announcement later in the week?

I really cannot be expected to justify what may or may not have been said by French Ministers giving briefings to newspapers. I repeat to the hon. Gentleman that no decision has been taken. No decision has been taken by the National Security Council and no recommendation is awaiting the Prime Minister’s approval. It is an option that we are considering and at some point in the future we might decide to go down that route. If the French really have briefed in those terms they have clearly misunderstood the situation in the United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend has been clear that no decision has yet been taken to deploy ground-attack helicopters. May I ask him to assure the House that if such a decision were taken, it would in no way adversely affect our operations in Afghanistan?

I can indeed confirm that. There are currently Apache helicopters in the Mediterranean as part of exercise Cougar and if any decision were taken to use Apache helicopters in Libya, they would most likely be the ones used. That would therefore not have any impact on operations in Helmand.

Does the Minister accept that the more regime targets in Tripoli that are bombed and the more tactical weaponry that is employed on the side of the rebels, the more this appears, to the Arab world in particular, as a political rather than a humanitarian intervention?

The purpose of our being there is to carry out UNSCR 1973, the objective of which is to reduce the threat to civilian life. What the hon. Gentleman refers to as regime targets are in fact command and control targets—military targets. They are targets relating to the regime’s ability to persecute its own civilians, so those are the targets we have been aiming to hit. I do not accept a narrative from that that regime change is the objective of the exercise. The aim is to prevent the regime from slaughtering its civilians and that will continue to be the aim.

I say again that this is simply an option that is being considered, and the detail of how exactly these things would be organised has not yet been worked up. It is not the intention that the helicopters would land. The intention is that they would be deployed, if at all, from naval assets, most probably from HMS Ocean, but that is the sort of detail that is being worked through at present as the option is worked up and considered. It certainly should not be inferred that there is any intention to use helicopters in order to land ground troops and take off in a different direction.

I endorse the Minister’s emphasis on saving civilian lives. Can he update us on whether the Libyan electricity and water infrastructure has been damaged by bombing in recent weeks?

We have no grounds to think so. There are undoubtedly problems with electricity and water supplies in different parts of Libya for different reasons, but we have no grounds to believe that the actions of NATO or any of our allies have had that effect, and of course it is most certainly not our intention or objective to do anything of that kind.

What discussions has my hon. Friend had, or does he intend to have, with Arab League countries as part of the decision whether to deploy Apache helicopters?

If any decision were to be taken to go down that route, that would be discussed with Arab countries through the contact group. I stress to the House that the Arab League support for what we are doing in Libya remains strong, and we will consult our allies in the Arab League as we go along.

The Minister’s reason for withholding information from the House makes no sense at all. If French helicopters are attacking Gaddafi’s forces, there is no tactical advantage to knowing that there will be British helicopters attacking with them; that gives no militarily useful extra information to Gaddafi. When he made the original statement, the Prime Minister gave a commitment to keep the House informed in detail. There should be a votable resolution on the matter because there has undoubtedly been mission creep towards an objective of regime change since the start of this war.

I am not withholding information from the House. There is no information to withhold. No decision to deploy attack helicopters has been taken, and if any decision is taken we will take steps to inform the House. The idea that we should have a votable resolution each time we make a tactical decision to use a different air asset is ludicrous.

In his first answer the Minister spoke of the need to increase the military pressure on the Gaddafi regime, but subsequently refuted any concerns about escalation or regime change. As well as reporting to the House, under resolution 1973 any country or group of countries taking an action under that resolution must report it to the Secretary-General of the UN, who will then refer it to the Security Council. Have the latest actions been reported by France or on NATO’s behalf, and does the Minister anticipate no concerns from any member of the Security Council that the resolution has been exceeded?

In my initial answer I was quoting the Foreign Secretary, who said, quite rightly, that we had to step up the pressure on the Gaddafi regime through military, economic and political-diplomatic channels. That is true. I do not, however, accept that there is any significant escalation or a broadening of our military objectives. It remains the case that our overriding objective is to prevent the threat to civilian life, and if there are different assets that different members of the international force working in Libya can bring to bear at different points in time, I do not think that such micro-operational decisions need bother the Secretary-General of the UN. However, if we were to shift focus significantly on what we were doing, that would be of a different order altogether, and the UN very well might be involved.