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Armed Forces

Volume 597: debated on Wednesday 24 February 1999

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8.10 p.m.

rose to call attention to the problems of current deployment and overstretch in Her Majesty's Armed Forces and the implications of potential deployments to Kosovo; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

This is a crucial time for our Armed Forces. There are at present nearly 6,000 British military personnel in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece. And earlier this week, we learnt that the Government have authorised another 2,225 additional personnel to Greece and Macedonia as the advance element of the UK's contribution to any NATO-led peace implementation force in Kosovo. I believe that these troops have now left for this deployment and I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that.

The Defence Secretary has said that this latest deployment represents,

"prudent military planning to ensure that the UK can continue to play its part in bringing about a peaceful settlement in Kosovo".

The news from Rambouillet, while well-spun by the Foreign Secretary on the "Today" programme this morning, is not, I fear, encouraging. Your Lordships will have heard the Statement repeated by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, a few minutes ago.

During my time at the Ministry of Defence, now long ago, world order was shaped by the Cold War. With the collapse of communism, some thought that the world would become a safer place. But the reality is far different. We face a situation of ever greater uncertainty, and one of the most complex situations is in Europe itself.

I would like to pay tribute to the members of the Armed Forces and their families for the commitment and dedication that they show under very difficult circumstances. As the recent Strategic Defence Review recognised, units and individuals, especially in key areas, are separated from their families and base units too often and for too long. And it is also acknowledged that overstretch and undermanning in the Armed Forces "are linked problems".

Back in April 1998, Army manpower stood at 109,800, representing a reduction of 28 per cent. since Options for Change. Now the Government's own SDR forecasts an increase in Army personnel by some 3,300. However, what may appear to be good news should be seen in the context of the fact that the Army is already significantly under establishment. And although further recruitment is taking place, the Army is having to cope with the problem of heavy wastage of personnel. I understand from figures provided by the Defence Analytical Services Agency that in the 12 months to October 1998, 1,612 officers, no less, left the Army compared with only 1,026 in the 12 months to October 1997—an increase of more than 50 per cent. Most of the exodus is a result of officers choosing to go rather than taking retirement or leaving because of ill health.

These problems are no less serious in the other services. I was fortunate to hear a recent lecture by the Chief of the Air Staff in which he recited at some length the stresses and strains being placed on his personnel by repeated and protracted deployment in various theatres, including the former Yugoslavia, southern Turkey and the no-fly zones in Iraq.

The problem is repeated in the Royal Navy, which has lost somewhere in the region of 12,000 personnel in the past two years. The frigate and destroyer flotilla is to be reduced by three ships and two submarines are to go, which will place a still greater burden on the remaining fleet.

These trends should be seen against the claim by the Defence Secretary in his opening statement in the SDR that he would modernise and reshape the Armed Forces to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and that the review would,

"give our services the firm foundation they need to plan for the long term".

One key to achieving the SDR's objective is a more effective recruiting policy. I understand that future recruitment is likely to be in signals, engineers and logistics troops.

I especially wish the Army well in recruiting more engineers. In my capacity as Chairman of the Engineering and Marine Training Authority, I can tell your Lordships that attracting young people into engineering is one of the most difficult and worrying issues facing the industry. I look forward to hearing how the Army proposes to recruit more engineers. It is not going to be easy and the problem will not be helped by the proposed reductions in the TA.

Until the modestly revised establishment level is achieved, which is not expected to happen until 2004, the problem of overstretch will remain or worsen. In addition, the vital support given to the regular Army by the Territorial Army is to be reduced. Most regular units deploy with a TA increment on operations or on exercises. In Bosnia, some 10 per cent. of the implementation force and the stabilisation force is supplied by reservists, a total of some 2,500 of whom nearly half are in the infantry.

I would like to turn to events in Kosovo. The Foreign Secretary has made clear that the Government would be willing to send more British troops if there were a clear agreement to a political settlement. He has also said that they will be,

"part of an international force to provide stability in Kosovo so that a political settlement can take root".

While it would appear that troops will not immediately be going to Kosovo following the failure to produce a breakthrough yesterday, the Government have still committed troops to that region. That commitment will have major implications for our Armed Forces and their ability to react to any future major crisis elsewhere.

Given that one division is already deployed indefinitely in Bosnia, the possible deployment of a corps headquarters and a brigade to Kosovo is a huge additional burden. The noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, admitted as much himself a fortnight ago when he told your Lordships that the deployment of troops in Kosovo,

"will add to overstretch in the Army, in particular if we end up deploying of the order of 8,000 men".—[Official Report, 11/2/99; col. 389.]

That number is now in prospect. Indeed, I heard the figure rise to a possible 9,000 from the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, a few moments ago.

It would seem that if and when we fulfil this commitment our Armed Forces will be at the limit of their resources. We are told that the deployment will be for three years. Is that up to three years, precisely three years or at least three years? I greatly fear that it will be the latter of those. We shall be the largest single contributor to the proposed NATO deployment in Kosovo and we are committing troops which we can ill spare from other tasks no less important. What will happen, for example, if the situation in Northern Ireland seriously deteriorates? From where will any extra troops which may be needed there be found?

It is a remarkable fact that our Armed Forces seem ever willing to respond to the demands placed upon them, come what may. Perhaps the Chiefs of Staff too easily acquiesce in meeting ministerial wishes. Has the time not come for the Government to recognise the validity of their own statement writ large in the SDR that we,

"must match the commitments we undertake to our planned resources."?

Hear, hear to that. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

8.18 p.m.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, has done your Lordships' House a service in introducing today's debate. He properly identified these as difficult times. Europe, which has enjoyed peace since the formation of NATO, no longer enjoys that same peace and stability. The noble Lord referred to the collapse of communism which has left the world with areas of great instability that present very real dangers. The Balkans and the current crisis in Kosovo referred to in the noble Lord's Motion make that place the most immediate flashpoint. Our readiness for such a crisis must be seen and related to the Government's Strategic Defence Review.

The defence review has been much debated and commented on in Parliament and in the country and it took place against the background and legacy of the previous administration. During 18 years in office, the previous government made profound changes in the scale and capacity of our defence provision. Defence spending as a percentage of GDP was cut from 5.3 per cent. in 1984 to 2.8 per cent. in 1997. Overall defence expenditure was cut by almost a third in real terms between 1985 and 1997. The number of UK jobs dependent on defence expenditure and defence exports almost halved under the Conservatives, from 740,000 in 1980 to around 400,000 when they left office. Total service manpower, excluding reserves and auxiliary forces, was cut by a third between 1979 and 1997. a cut of over 100,000. Under the Conservatives the number of regulars in the Air Force and the Navy were cut by 29,000 and 27,000 respectively. Over the same period civilian jobs were cut by more than half, a fall of 115,000.

Under the Conservatives the number of conventionally armed submarines was cut from 28 to 12; the number of destroyers and frigates was cut from 48 to 35; the number of infantry battalions in the British Army was cut from 55 to 40; the number of tanks was cut by 45 per cent.; and the number of aircraft in service with the Royal Air Force was cut by some 30 per cent. Meanwhile, the Conservative government left the Army under strength by over 5,000 personnel against its trained requirement.

The result of these cuts was that Her Majesty's Government inherited a damaging gap between commitments and resources, reduced morale among many service personnel and overstretch in many areas of our Armed Forces. If there is overstretch today, some responsibility for it must be accepted by the Benches opposite.

However, I believe that in the 22 months of this administration real progress has been made. There has been progress in the development of joint capabilities, an area of defence policy in which I am sure we shall see further developments. There has been progress in modernising—and I promise not to say "modernising" too often—the services, from plans to buy two new aircraft carriers to improving the deployability and usability of the Territorial Army, adding some 3,300 troops to the Regular Army and confirming the order for the Eurofighter. The list is too long to repeat now and I should simply be re-running information which we all received from the Ministry of Defence. The SDR was well received and is the basis for ensuring that our services meet all foreseeable demands that may be made upon them.

The Government have developed an ethical foreign policy, through that is not to say that other governments and administrations have not had an ethical basis for their policy in foreign affairs. That means that the defence arm of that policy must be backed up with the tools and personnel to do the job. We want to play our part as a nation in preventing conflict, supporting the United Nations peace support operations, promoting international arms control and, where appropriate, arms reduction and minimising our nuclear deterrent to that which is necessary and essential. The ban on import, export, manufacture and transfer of anti-personnel landmines is a very real success of our policy.

We shall not fail now, or in the future, to meet our commitments to NATO. The Government are addressing the question of recruitment, to which the noble Lord referred. It is vital that we achieve that objective. Recruitment is always difficult in times of high employment. It is a problem brought about to some extent by the successful management of the economy, resulting in a choice of jobs for our young people. We must ensure that that choice includes the offer of a rewarding career in our armed services.

I know that my noble friend Lord Gilbert is concerned to see progress in recruitment from our ethnic communities and an expansion of posts open to women. That is something I hope to follow up in the future in your Lordship's House. I wish to congratulate my noble friend on all that he is doing in that regard.

The world is not a safe place, a matter to which the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, properly referred. Ensuring our domestic defence while fulfilling our role in the community of free nations must be the central principle of defence policy. I believe that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence has won the support of the country for the policies correctly being pursued and that we can and shall meet all our obligations.

8.24 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgame, for raising this crucial issue. For the past 10 years, to my certain knowledge, the Ministry of Defence has expounded a consistent, if rather monotonous, line on overstretch: yes, it is admitted, we have a problem over manning and overstretch, but we have turned the corner and noble Lords can be assured that in two or three years' time recruiting will have improved, units will be manned to establishment and tour intervals will be back to the 24 months which is considered necessary for proper balance and longer-term retention and morale.

Of course, two to three years on the situation was seen to be broadly the same and the story was exactly the same: be patient for another two to three years. I imagine that today the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, would have to admit that, although recruiting has improved considerably, poor retention means that the Armed Forces—particularly the Army, but the other services as well—are still significantly undermanned and grossly overstretched, which induces still poorer retention and a more or less chronic situation. I am sure that the noble Lord, of all people, will not again trot out that long-playing gramophone record.

The question is: does overstretch matter and what should we be doing about it? I should prefer to see the forces overstretched than understretched. After all, men and women join the services for activity in the service of their country and welcome variety and interesting challenges. Besides, if they were invariably understretched, the Treasury would quickly seize the opportunity to erode the Defence Vote even more than usual. Long experience has taught me that only high profile activity in the national interest can keep the Treasury at bay.

I certainly would not want the Government's professional military advisers to advise against a commitment and the legitimate use of force in the country's interests purely on the grounds of overstretch. If you spend billions on your forces, you want to be able to use them. There may, of course, be other reasons why they should not be used. For instance, what is the aim of the whole exercise and can the forces available to be deployed go any way to meeting that aim?

But, of course, overstretch matters. It degrades performance; it sours the families; it leads to cannibalisation of establishments to produce proper front-line strength; and it has a cumulative effect on retention.

What should the Government be doing about it? First, I am sad to say that it is, rather, a question of what should not have been done over the past six to seven years which has made matters worse. The Army manpower ceiling was set too low, and that may have to be corrected further. One of the most serious consequences of the medical shambles has been the inordinate time wasted by front-line soldiers, who are therefore not available for deployment, in waiting for medical appointments because of shortages of doctors and specialists. That has a direct effect on internal unit overstretch.

As the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne said, there have also been excessive cuts in the TA, particularly in the infantry and the engineers, which have needlessly reduced the only reserve we had at this crucial time and when TA soldiers could help to fill the gaps when sudden emergency operations occur.

There has also been a steady erosion of the regimental system, that great motivating force, starting at the rather impersonal Army Training Regiment. The regimental system has received another body-blow—in some cases totally unnecessarily, in my opinion—from the way the cuts in the TA infantry have been implemented on the ground by the military.

What can be done to improve the situation? We clearly need more units, if they can be recruited. I will deal with only one step which could so easily he taken and which I strongly commend to noble Lords; that is, to make more use of the Brigade of Gurkhas, behind whom there is an almost inexhaustible and immediate supply of first-class, trainable soldiers whose forefathers have loyally served the British Crown for over 180 years, who have long since thrown off any fallacious mercenary tag and who are recognised as an integral part of the British Army. Indeed, in recent years they have served in most places that British troops have served including, on an individual basis, Northern Ireland. Such use of the brigade would be splendid and provide an extra deterrent element in any international peacekeeping or peace enforcement operation.

As noble Lords will know, there are in addition to the two Gurkha Rifle Battalions and supporting arms squadrons, five independent companies at Brecon and Sandhurst attached to, in order to strengthen, three British battalions including a parachute company. I hope that the Minister can give an assurance that at least those extra companies will be kept on well past the original date of the year 2000. But a third battalion headquarters would also be an enormous help, both to administer those companies and perhaps to command others which could and should be formed. A third Gurkha Rifle Battalion of five companies and stronger supporting arms would make a significant contribution to a less stretched arms plot. I hope therefore that the Minister will look carefully at the question of a greater use of Gurkhas.

Finally, the important element to ensure that the Armed Forces continue to be ready for any eventuality is not to be complacent. The old story of "very soon everything in the garden will be lovely" just will not wash. Unless positive steps are taken, that situation will not happen and the overstretch will become infinitely worse.

8.31 p.m.

My Lords, I join with those who congratulate my noble friend Lord Trefgarne not only on securing this debate but also on the powerful speech he made. I shall certainly pick up some of the themes he addressed.

I am also particularly glad to follow the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, even if, as a mere major, I am sandwiched between a Field Marshal and a Marshal of the Royal Air Force in the form of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. One reason I am glad to follow the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, is that we have both addressed this theme in your Lordships' House before. I am particularly thinking of the debates we had on Options for Change some years ago, the defence White Papers which emerged at around that time, and discussions also held in this House about Front Line First. Indeed, the noble and gallant Lord referred to the number of times he has addressed this issue.

Some of the noble and gallant Lord's most trenchant words were in a debate on the infantry held on 10th February 1992 at cols. 556 to 558 of the Official Report. It was interesting to read them again earlier today. It appears that many of the forecasts of the noble and gallant Lord have come about. I well remember his remarks in relation to Options for Change and strongly agreed with him then that over-zealous application of the peace dividend and the cuts that Options for Change foreshadowed were bound to lead to huge and unforeseeable pressures on our Armed Forces. The Falklands War, the Gulf War and the situation in the former Yugoslavia are all largely unrelated to the Cold War. They were not predictable and, in the case of Bosnia and now possibly Kosovo, are of apparently indeterminate duration. If we couple that with a sadly still unresolved situation in Northern Ireland, to which my noble friend Lord Trefgarne referred, the potential for over-commitment of the Armed Forces is extraordinarily real. It seems as though nearly everything we feared and forecast six or seven years ago has come about.

The Chief of the General Staff said in a recent lecture that 41 per cent. of the Army is now or is being committed to operations. That struck me as a startling figure. Where does it leave the intentions expressed by my noble friend Lord Arran, speaking for the government on 10th February 1992, when he referred to the hope for 24 months between operational postings? Perhaps that is something which can be addressed by the Minister in his reply.

Because of the thoroughly professional attitude of our Armed Forces, we do not hear them voice concern about this problem. They cannot easily do so. Nor is it necessarily right that they should. No one has complained to me. It is for us, as politicians in this House, to draw attention to it if we perceive it. In this House there is almost the sole repository of military experience in Parliament, at least for the moment.

I am a trustee of my now much amalgamated regiment, the King's Royal Hussars. I am glad to see in his place the noble Viscount, Lord Allenby, who served with me. As a trustee of certain benevolent and other funds, I do not become involved in operational matters. But I do what I can to keep abreast of what is going on. I am aware that overstretch is exceedingly real. Although the enthusiasm of all ranks to do their professional duty is marvellous, pressures exist, particularly with families. Last year my regiment had a comparatively quiet year—training in Poland twice; training in Canada; gunnery camp and all the usual activities. But even that quiet year resulted in around 130 nights out of barracks—less than the quiet many of us experienced when serving at the height of the Cold War.

What of this year? As I understand it, my regiment is to deploy one armoured squadron to Bosnia later in the year as part of the continuing SFOR presence. They were last there in 1997, coming back just before Christmas. In order to fulfil that role, the regiment is currently training. All well and good. It is admirable experience and I have no doubt it will be conducted to the highest standards. But now Kosovo arises. For that potential deployment two further squadrons have been warned off—one for the lead armoured battle group and one in another role. Of course regimental headquarters and administrative elements will deploy also.

Again, I have no doubt whatever—indeed I know it to be the case—that the King's Royal Hussars are operationally fit and will accomplish their tasks in the true spirit of the former regiments of which they are made up and of their own considerable reputation developed since they were formed. But there is a snag. My regiment has four armoured squadrons, each of four troops of three Challenger One tanks. In order to man the three potentially deployed squadrons, the fourth has had to be closed down. Why? Because training courses, leave and all the usual features of regimental life still have to go on. And the equivalent to the war establishment to undertake these tasks requires manning which would not normally be required in peacetime.

Additionally, soldiers must stay on the ground in Germany to guard the camp, look after families, maintain undeployed vehicles and so forth. Needless to say, there is a degree of undermanning to the extent of around 20 soldiers. All that speaks to me of overstretch; I cannot think of another word to describe it.

The SDR may aim to correct some of the imbalances of Options for Change and to that extent I welcome it. But it hardly gives confidence that there is any fat in the system and there seems no end in sight to such operational commitments. It was disturbing during the Gulf War that cannibalisation of vehicles, including armoured vehicles, for spares to ensure operational adequacy was such a feature. The tank parks of Germany and elsewhere were littered with cannibalised vehicles. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, can say to what extent cannibalisation of vehicles for Bosnia and Kosovo is an operational necessity, or whether suitable spares holdings have been made available and released.

What are the effects of this overstretch on recruitment and retention? Will the noble Lord give some figures of current undermanning in both the Royal Armoured Corps and the infantry? Will he give the numbers of young officers who have sought to retire early, who have not gone on to regular commissions from short service? Also, what is likely to be the effect of the new, I believe, three-stage commissioning process soon to be introduced?

It goes without saying that my former regiment, as others, will set about its duties in a highly efficient and professional way. It will bring great credit to the Army and to the country, as it has always done. It certainly does not complain about its role. But that superb skill and versatility should not mask the stresses and strains which our over-stretched Army sustains and to which it is our duty, in this House, to draw attention. The elastic cannot be stretched indefinitely. What comfort can the Minister give us that this is not a real possibility?

8.40 p.m.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur's very trenchant speech. As highlighted in last year's SDR, and as pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, who we must all thank for raising this topic tonight, our forces were and are under-manned and over-committed. Although well-known, the frank acknowledgement in the SDR of this crisis was most welcome. It is said that a trouble shared is a trouble halved. Eight months on, how far have the Government gone in halving that problem?

Looking first to commitment, and acknowledging that we live in a troubled world, I am concerned that the resources of the Royal Air Force are still so heavily over-committed. The RAF, although halved in size in the past decade, is more widely deployed than ever it was during the decade before. For many months past, perhaps years, squadrons have been operating at rates of effort far higher than is normal and provisioned for in peacetime.

Such sustained rates of effort, real live operations, flying from overseas locations far from home, place exceptional demands on resources of both men and material. That cannot be sustained unless extra consumables and overhauls are provided for. Are the additional resources available? If not, the defence shoe will once again pinch, and pinch hard, in areas of acute interest to personnel, such as their quality of life, identified in the SDR as of such crucial importance. It was depressing to read in last week's Sunday Telegraph a report that the Royal Navy ships were being required to cut speeds from 18 knots to 12 knots to save fuel and, presumably, cost.

Meanwhile, widescale logistic support is required if our forces in the frontline are not to grind to a halt. Many of us have viewed with strong misgivings the massive logistic restructuring put in hand by the SDR at the insistence of Ministers. With live operations and an overstretched front line dependent upon superhuman logistical effort, now seems a very inopportune moment to be forging ahead with new, untried and untested arrangements.

How, indeed, can single service chiefs discharge their responsibility for the efficiency of their service if they are deprived of responsibility for their overall logistics? I have already questioned the decision to press ahead with this restructuring when we are so operationally committed. It takes time and a great deal of effort to put in place such major and critically important new arrangements.

If there are teething problems—and there will be—I fear for their impact on our frontline effectiveness. We have been marvellously, incredibly, fortunate that in none of our recent operations have we been faced with any major loss of life or equipment. But we cannot assume that that is the norm. Overstretch could be dramatically increased, by serious loss of life or equipment, due to enemy action, mere accident or even logistic failings.

Against that background, I ask how far have the services been able to find the spare capacity and the time to put in place the "Policy for People" package which was given so much prominence in the SDR. The package, we were told, was to place clear emphasis on providing practical help to servicemen and women. Education and training (vocational and academic) were to underpin promises that people would not be disadvantaged in civilian employment markets. How have we done? Recruitment is better, but what about retention? Are enough of the best seeking to stay on, happy with their lot? I hope that the Minister can give us the picture. I hope that we can be reassured that retention of air crews, in particular, is very much better than it was and that we are seeing the really good people, whom we want to retain to fill the next generation of senior appointments and responsibilities, staying in, not voting with their feet.

A year ago, when we considered the Human Rights Bill, I reminded this House that we treat the Armed Forces in law quite differently from all other members of the public. The Armed Forces Acts are there to ensure that legitimate orders are obeyed and that discipline—essential to the successful use of armed force—can be enforced if necessary. Such legal requirements may impinge on some of the human rights of individuals in the forces.

Sir Roger Wheeler, the Chief of the General Staff, is only the latest of a number of senior serving officers who have spoken in public about this. We must not undermine the structure and ethos of the Armed Forces. The kernel of all military authority relies on a sense of duty by individuals to their colleagues and their service; a duty to obey a lawful command; a duty to be loyal and supportive of their unit; a duty which at times may have to be given greater weight than any of their own individual human rights.

I hope that the Minister will confirm that one United Kingdom court, perhaps the courts martial appeal court, will be the only one to hear human rights cases brought by service personnel under the new Act. Consistency of treatment across the three services and throughout the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, and overseas, is vital if we are not to confuse our servicemen and women and undermine their sense of duty and commitment to their comrades and to military authority.

I was relieved to see that the Government were seized of the dreadful mess to which the Defence Medical Services have been reduced over a long period of years, and that they were determined to get that right. Against the pressures to recruit into the National Health Service, it will not be easy for the Defence Medical Services to recover to a reasonable level of manning and expertise. It would be interesting to hear tonight how far the many actions now being put in hand for the Defence Medical Services are beginning to bear fruit.

8.47 p.m.

My Lords, the resources chapter in the Strategic Defence Review states that the defence share of GDP is to drop from 2.7 to 2.4 per cent. by 2002. We continue to suffer serious problems of overstretch and undermanning.

According to press reports, upon which I hope the Minister will be able to comment, members of the armed services are being encouraged to take out private insurance for life and injury cover, and even insurance to cover loss of kit. According to the Defence Committee Report of December 1997 on our peace support operations in Bosnia, some of the troops posted there from Germany actually lost pay and the rising rents of married quarters for families left behind— which were encouraging soldiers to become owner-occupiers—would, the troops feared, have significant adverse effects on morale. Now the arms plot is in serious danger.

No one can doubt that, thanks largely to Options for Change and Frontline First in the first place, the Armed Forces have serious problems of retention and overstretch. There is every reason for many of them to vote with their feet when it seems to them that they are undervalued.

We have just had a defence review which said categorically that we can provide the troops and resources for,
"one relatively short war-fighting deployment and one enduring non-war fighting operation".
The latter seems likely to be Bosnia, where we have been in one guise or another for some years, and are committed to at least, I believe, another three. The other commitment can only be "relatively short". That will presumably be the 8,000 to 9,000 troops earmarked for Kosovo, to say nothing of naval, air and logistical back-up. How likely are we to extricate ourselves from that commitment should it come about in fewer than three or four years? We still have 2,000 servicemen committed in Iraq. We seem only too likely to see a return to violence, and hence a military commitment in support of the RUC, in Northern Ireland. As our defence strategy is driven by foreign affairs, it seems that we have just offered to commit troops to a UN-sponsored peacekeeping force in East Timor. No doubt there will be more such admirable gestures in terms of peacekeeping. Where will it end?

When will the Government recognise that our defence forces have achieved their present high standing only because of their professionalism, which rested on good training, high morale and the knowledge that they are valued? That is what makes them good peacekeepers. If the whole of our forces are tied down to that, professionalism will go and all desire to remain in, or to join, the forces will go too. The best will leave and it will take many years to replace them.

Meanwhile, there are real threats which demand highly trained, highly motivated, coherent armed services—not a series of agencies and privatised units. Russia itself may pose no serious threat for the present, although I wonder how helpful Russia has been over Kosovo. However, Russia's surrogates do pose a threat. Russia's new weapon is proliferation, and that is our new enemy which can be contained only by good intelligence and professional, trained, well motivated troops. I recognise that the Government are taking the whole issue of proliferation seriously and I am most grateful for the excellent briefing papers on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction which I have received from the Minister. However, Russia is to sell 2 billion dollars-worth of military technology and arms to Syria. She has been found (as she was when she continued to make biological weapons) to be selling the techniques of double purpose technologies in the field of nuclear and chemical weapons to Iran and chemical weapons to Syria. She recently sent Russian specialists to Iraq, ostensibly to repair an electrical power plant in the south which was damaged by American/British bombing.

The new head of the state arms sales corporation is Grigori Rapota, the former deputy director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, and Primakov's appointment. Primakov's longstanding links with Iraq, Iran and Libya are well known. I am not citing the extensive Russian arms sales to India and China; nor the sale of fighter aircraft to both Ethiopia and Eritrea, because they are essentially conventional weapons. My concern is for the power to destabilise and the disproportionate threat to peace which the proliferation of weapons, biological, chemical and nuclear, which Russia is vesting in unstable, irresponsible and dangerous countries can pose. Russia has still not signed the START 2 Treaty. She has still not destroyed her stock of chemical weapons; instead, she is selling the know-how.

In those circumstances, I find it deeply disturbing that we are seeing our splendid Armed Forces tied up by a series of political gestures in long-lasting commitments, however worthy they may be. As we form a significant part of NATO's armed forces, NATO also is being effectively neutralised. So far as I know, there has been no serious, major debate in Parliament about committing our forces to what may prove to be a debilitating war in the Balkans. We have had Statements, as we have had today, but that is not enough. But if it has to be—and, alas, it is the service tradition to accept tasks and to do the impossible to fulfil them—at least action should be taken by the Government both to raise morale and increase retention and to ensure proper training and proper consideration for the needs of families, including, as has been mentioned, the medical services.

There must be more money, if that is what is needed, and the Treasury must learn that value is expressed not only in terms of pounds, shillings and pence—or, as it seems, euros—but in terms of human resources.

There has been too much bad news for the forces lately, from the TA cuts to the unremitting overstretch. The Government seem to want to apply business standards and the language of the market to everything. I can tell them that no self-respecting and successful large business enterprise would dream of neglecting the need to reward professional success, to provide the opportunity for the ambitious to advance, to value status and to listen.

Fortunately, some small but significant step towards reminding society that we have troops—and splendid ones—has been taken in the decision to allow uniforms to be seen on the streets again. But I still think that COs must be having a difficult time convincing not only the men but their families, whose well-being is a vital part of morale, that they are valued by the country. Once they feel that they are not, they will vote with their feet—and who can blame them?

8.54 p.m.

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, for providing us with this opportunity. It is entirely right that from time to time we should consider the conditions of Her Majesty's Forces and, in the present context, see how relevant the Strategic Defence Review continues to be. It was seen as a mature and sensible approach last year. I believe that its significance continues, despite the very serious commitments and burdens which our forces are bearing and which the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, mentioned in his reference to the Royal Air Force.

The prospect of a strategic defence review was criticised and derided for between three and four years before 1997, yet it followed a series of cuts and contractions which bore harshly upon our forces. The contraction was frequently married to dogma as there was apparently an inclination to serve the cause of private loot. That did not help to maintain morale in Her Majesty's Forces. Indeed, I recall suggesting—frivolously, I thought—to some of our political opponents that they would next be selling off Royal Air Force runways and establishing a company that would charge whenever a Royal Air Force aircraft took off or landed. I had not expected an opponent to say, "What a good idea!", but he did. Fortunately, the Conservative Government were too busy mishandling the sale of married quarters to move in that direction—and then the electorate made that wise decision at the last election. We saw too much of that sort of thing previously and morale was inevitably affected.

Had the Government taken a wiser course and pursued a different approach, there may well have been some benefits. It may have been better if they had devoted their energies to persuading our European Atlantic partners to make a more equitable contribution to both European security and international need.

We had reached a situation where morale was at rock bottom. Reference has been made to the Defence Medical Services. The House of Commons Select Committee on Defence remarked that lower morale had been perceived than had ever before been experienced. That was a serious comment from a group in which Conservative Members were heavily involved.

This Government have maintained the responsibilities and commitments. They continue. However, this Government have at least recognised that the burdens on the servicemen and their families are severe. I am delighted that in recent months we have seen the Government embark on a policy which will help to sustain those affected by the very heavy commitments undertaken.

I also think it significant and worth mentioning that the Government have embarked upon training and educational initiatives in the Armed Forces. That is most important. In a modern world it is essential that those entering the services are given the opportunity to train and to equip themselves with skills which benefit not only the services but, in due course, society also.

However, I urge the Government to pursue a more vigorous course in regard to our partners. Some neighbouring European states, which contribute very little towards Europe having a meaningful defence capacity, are extremely eager to see the common security policy—that is, the second pillar—established at a rate of knots. I make that point because some of our partner countries are eager to welcome a British contribution and to commend our sense of responsibility yet, as I have said, they contribute remarkably little themselves, although they may have at least as much economic capacity as we do. In the meantime, our forces continue to pull more than their weight. They need to know that, sooner or later, there will be some relief rather than facing the incessant demands which are placed upon us because the United Kingdom acts rather more responsibly than others.

I do not wish to take very much longer, but I have just one other point to make which relates to retention and recruitment. Before the last debate we assumed that the Government and the service chiefs were seeking to achieve a sensible arrangement in regard to the transfer of pilots from the services to civil aviation. It seems that the airlines tend to lure pilots away from the services whenever demand for pilots increases. I believe that a sensible attitude was adopted by the MoD which sought to obtain a more orderly arrangement whereby pilots could leave the services at appropriate stages in their careers when they perhaps did not wish to go along the command route but wished to enter civil flying, which may well be rather more rewarding financially. However, I do not know whether any advance has been made in that respect. I still believe that it could be a cause for serious concern, even though I welcome the fact that we now have a significant number of pilots serving in the Royal Air Force in a reserve capacity. Indeed, my noble friend the Minister may care to comment on that.

However, as far as concerns recruitment, I should like to refer to a visit which the all-party group made a little while ago to RAF Halton to look at the training of recruits. It was a most interesting visit and I see one or two noble Lords who took part in it are present in the Chamber. I found it delightful because it revealed a wise change in the attitudes which may have dominated recruit training in Her Majesty's Forces until recently. We saw an attempt to lead rather than drive and, indeed, to encourage rather than merely to provide demand. I believe that the quality of that recruit training was first class.

I should add that I was also delighted to find out that one of the recruits who passed out on the day of our visit—and did so with some credit—was a member of the Air Training Corps squadron of which I am president. I wish to conclude by making some references to the Air Training Corps, but I shall be extremely brief.

There is an anxiety that resources will not allow that degree of contact with the service which such a cadet organisation requires. It is not the fault of the present Government. The Royal Air Force suffered enormous cuts so that the stations which are responsible to the variety of squadrons within their region may face an enormous problem. However, there needs to be contact and there needs to be a quality of training because the recruits entering the service from the Air Training Corps tend to be very much more above average, with an interest in commitment and with intention, which we need to see. When he concludes the debate, I hope that my noble friend will be able to offer us reassurance that the quality of opportunity which that organisation offers to young people will certainly be maintained in the future.

9.2 p.m.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Trefgarne for introducing this debate at a most timely moment. I remind the House that I do have an interest, but I shall be very brief. The Minister knows that we support his policy with regard to Kosovo, but we are extremely concerned regarding overstretch. The noble Lord, Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld, made a brilliant job of turning his brief into a quite excellent speech. The noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, also did not disappoint us. But the fact is we still spend a considerable proportion of our GDP on defence and we must remember that there is a guns and butter curve. I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Hogg, would advocate actually increasing defence expenditure and replacing the cuts. On balance, I found that I have more to agree with in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, especially when he addressed the problems with our European partners.

It seems to me that the problem is that the Army is trying to man three major operations at once—we have Bosnia, Northern Ireland and now, potentially, we have Kosovo. But the problem is that we are running them continuously. The Gulf operation had a military objective that was achieved in about six months. The problem with these operations is that they are continuous and go on for years on end. As we know, the effect is an increase on overstretch. However, if we go to Kosovo, we would need two sets of logistics to support the operation. We would need two transport regiments running at the same time, two engineer regiments, two REME battalions (with which I am involved), two signals battalions and, most importantly, as has already been mentioned, two medical field ambulances.

The latter will result in terrible pressure especially on the families. I have certainly seen the problems in Bosnia. The wives of our servicemen are tending to say, "It's either me or the Army and divorce". I have also been involved with the management of soldiers in such operations who are facing the break up of their marriages. They know that when they go home there may not be a wife waiting for them. Indeed, the divorce rate in the services is horrendous. Moreover, the PVR rate must be of great concern to the Minister. The solution is not easy. However, I believe that the SDR should have managed to balance our commitments with our resources. We are not doing so at present. I have grave concerns regarding the sustainability of our current level of operations. I hope that the Minister is able, at least to some extent, to give us some reassurance tonight.

9.6 p.m.

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, for introducing the debate this evening. We have heard some very good contributions and I hope that my small contribution will also help. Since the autumn of 1989—some 10 years ago—the pace of political and military conflict has accelerated markedly. Starting with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there has been the unification of Germany and the wind-up of the Warsaw Pact as a military organisation, which took place in March 1991.

We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld, the sad story of the cuts under successive defence reviews up to and including the most recent Strategic Defence Review. However, I should like to ask noble Lords: who would have forecast the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq eight days after the announcement of the options for change?

All these defence reviews are aimed at restructuring our Armed Forces without really attempting to describe realistically the circumstances in which they will be most likely to operate. In the past some people have said that the reductions in our Armed Forces were an arbitrary imposed cut on the part of the Treasury. Personally I do not believe that to be entirely true, although obviously the Treasury had a hand in it. The service chiefs nowadays have much tighter budgets. They have much greater financial responsibility and they alone control where they set their priorities.

Since the Gulf War, and probably even before then, there has been a chain reaction which has led, to put it simply, to a description of our forces as undermanned and overstretched. This in turn has led to an ongoing change of attitude among our servicemen and service women today. I shall attempt to explain this. First, there is the loss of image and links with the civilian population. Today, as regards image, our Armed Forces have a worse image than the National Health Service and the education service, which we read about every day in the papers. There are few large shows of military strength except the Queen's Birthday Parade, the Edinburgh Tattoo and the Royal Tournament, and even that will end next year for good reasons. There are no longer eye-catching events which attract young people into the Armed Forces. I have repeatedly bemoaned the demise of the Junior Leaders Regiments of the Army and I applaud the efforts to bring back apprentice training to enable young people to join the Army straight from school.

Together with the enhancement of the cadet organisation, I hope there will be some improvement in our recruitment and retention efforts. I have to tell your Lordships that as of last Friday there are 503 "true" vacancies in the Army up until the end of April and a further 341 apprentice vacancies. Those two figures added together amount to another battalion. I hope those vacancies will be filled, if not the undermanning situation will continue to worsen, as we have heard.

My second point of explanation is career expectancy, which is possibly better described as career horizons. Over recent years, due to the much reduced places to serve, especially overseas, the length of careers are shortening particularly as regards the technical arms where offers of civilian employment are numerous because of the training that the Armed Services give. I give an example. British Telecom offers signallers of all three services a good career when leaving the services.

We have already heard of visits made by the defence group. Last week the defence group visited 24 Air Mobile Brigade and talked to a great many of the soldiers in that brigade. It was noticeable that they did not complain about service pay or conditions, but they all complained about a lack of manpower and having to do two jobs, including guarding the barracks. Where does this all lead? Shortages and undermanning in many areas lead to a loss of morale. The well known saying "rob Peter to pay Paul" is as true today as it ever was.

The noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, has already referred to the King's Royal Hussars who are currently on their way to a possible deployment in Kosovo. This regiment has had to receive reinforcements which they have neither trained nor worked with. While this is inevitable, it is the numbers of the reinforcements which causes concern and when those reinforcements return to their parent regiment they may well have to redeploy elsewhere at short notice.

Other shortages which face those who may have to deploy to Kosovo comprise trained medical specialists and technicians, dental technicians and certain mechanical and electrical tradesmen. Of course they will cope—they have always done so—but the real concern must be whether the Kosovo operation has a long-term implication requiring large numbers of troops, along with helicopters and other specialised monitoring equipment, as currently deployed in Northern Ireland. There may well be shortages and failures.

Our Armed Forces do a quite excellent job wherever they are deployed. They are, however, overstretched, as they have been for many years. By the turn of the century we must do something about that. Will the Minister say what action the Government propose to take as regards adopting a realistic view on recruitment to our Armed Forces to ensure that they are maintained at full strength to meet whatever exigency that may occur in the future? We must be prepared for the unexpected in the future in this dangerous and changing world in which we now live.

9.12 p.m.

My Lords, 12 years ago this month I resigned my commission in the British Army. I did so to protest at the defence cuts which were then introduced. One of the defence Ministers at the time was the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, to whom I am grateful for introducing this debate. But it was his fellow Minister, now Sir John Stanley, who wrote, answering my letter, to The Times. He replied to the letter but he did not answer my points. He gave a list of all the defence equipment that had been introduced while he had been Minister. That equipment, of course, had taken 10 to 13 years to produce.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, answered Sir John Stanley's letter saying that I had a point but that he rather wished I had not taken the decision to resign my commission. I understood later that the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, went down to the Royal Armoured Corp at Bovington to see what the situation was and whether I had a point. I understand that he came back with the message, yes, what I had said was true—but since I had said it, it should not be taken too much into account.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, who is not taking part today, because he, as Secretary to your Lordships' all-party defence group, enables us to visit various formations and units. I am reminded of last year when we visited 1st UK Armoured Division in British Forces Germany. We were taken to the cookhouse, where we lunched with the warrant officers and sergeants from rifle companies and support companies of the Royal Regiment of Wales. That splendid regiment had some very angry sergeants indeed. They said that they were undermanned, that NCO's of eight to 10 years service were leaving and that the situation was getting worse. I asked them the reasons for this situation. They said that they had recently completed a two-year tour of Northern Ireland, had gone straight into ceremonial duties in London, and were then going to deploy to Bosnia for six months, after six months training, much of which would be carried out away from their families.

We saw the brigadier later and I asked him about the situation in regard to the Royal Regiment of Wales. He said "Yes, this battalion has been hammered, but so have many others". Can the Minister assure us that, as far as possible, all regiments are treated fairly and that great care is taken when allocating troops to tasks in order that units are not over-committed?

We learn that the Army is 5,000 below strength. The Chief of the General Staff, Sir Roger Wheeler, in his excellent speech last Wednesday, 17th February, at the Royal United Services Institute, stated that:
"Manning the Army fully is my top priority and our investment in recruitment and retention measures reflect this."
I believe that recruiting is too serious a matter to be left to the armed services; it concerns us all. This year I have encouraged four young men from non-service backgrounds to join the Army. I suggested that two of them should apply for commissions. One of those who has applied for a commission received a letter from the Director of the Royal Armoured Corps, my friend and former brother officer in the 9/12th Lancers, and a visit to the Royal Armoured Corps is being arranged for later this year.

If the Minister has not already considered the following measures, I urge him to reflect upon them. I know that what I advocate are short-term measures. First, we should consider extending service beyond the 22-year point. Are we not chucking out of the services men and women in their prime who still have much to contribute? We visited the Royal Air Force at Royal Air Force Halton, as the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, has already mentioned, and I know that it is doing this. I understand that the Army and Navy are reluctant to adopt a policy of extending service because it blocks promotion. Secondly, is the Army doing enough to target those who have left the service and encouraging them to re-enlist? I understand that personnel can now rejoin if they reapply within a year. Could this not be extended to two years? Thirdly, we have recently shed numbers of well-trained members of the TA, some of whom are unemployed. Are we doing enough to attract them to join the regular forces?

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for giving way. A great deal is being done on exactly that point. In my own unit we have on orders all the time opportunities for operational tours and support to the regular Army in Canada.

My Lords, I am delighted to hear that from the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. I hope that in his reply the Minister will confirm that what is being done in the noble Earl's TA company is being done widely throughout the Army.

Finally, are the careers information offices and recruiting sergeants in the right place? Do we still have a satisfied soldier scheme whereby a young NCO or soldier is given leave to recruit in his area? I learnt with some concern that certain battalions and regiments are paying out of their regimental funds to recruit. If that is the case, I hope they will be reimbursed by the Treasury for those endeavours.

The Chief of the General Staff aims to fill the gaps by 2004. That is laudable; it is also necessary. But in his RUSI speech last Wednesday he also, I detected, gave us a warning. He said:
"The more libertarian values of modem Britain with their emphasis on the freedom of the individual rather than obligation to any collective identity are sometimes at odds with the values and behaviour needed to create the spirit and cohesiveness required in battle".
The Armed Forces are not a commercial corporation and must not be treated as such. They have, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, reminded us yet again, unique traditions, history and ethos where the core values are still courage, self-discipline and commitment.

I express concern that performance related pay may be introduced into the Armed Forces next year. Perhaps the Minister can confirm or deny that. We already have a perfectly good and well-tried system based on the annual confidential report system whereby merit is rewarded by promotion and, therefore, by additional pay. If it is introduced, I expect that PRP will cause friction, jealousy and rivalry. It involves commanders at all levels carrying out more what the Duke of Wellington called "quill driving". I hope the Minister can assure us that he. like the three Chiefs of Staff, will put recruitment and retention and the elimination of overstretch at the top of his agenda. And the word "agenda", I remind your Lordships, means, from the Latin, "things to be done".

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, he referred to me apparently in some connection with his resignation. May I assure the noble Earl, in case he is not aware of it, that I had nothing whatever to do with his resignation? I was not connected with it in any way. Nor have I ever, sadly to my regret, been a Minister in the Ministry of Defence. So I shall read with care what the noble Earl said and will certainly consider his remarks.

My Lords, I immediately withdraw what I said and apologise to the noble Lord. It was a slip of the tongue.

9.22 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Trefgarne for introducing this debate today. As your Lordships are aware, we already have 5,000 troops in Bosnia and face the prospect of deploying some 9,000 troops to Kosovo in the near future. In addition, there is cause for concern about the situation in Northern Ireland which may continue to require a greater commitment of resources than we had hoped. It is therefore right that your Lordships' House should have this opportunity to discuss the capacity of the Armed Forces to fulfil their commitments.

My only qualification to speak in this debate is nine years in the Territorial Army. I hesitate to speak in front of noble Lords with specialist military knowledge and real experience, especially the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Bramall and Lord Craig of Radley, both of whom led our Armed Forces with distinction and have tonight made such illuminating and helpful contributions to the debate. I am also very glad to follow the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, and congratulate him on his most interesting speech.

Since the ending of the Cold War the former central role of the Armed Forces to provide through NATO adequate defence against the threat of attack or invasion by the forces of the Soviet Union has disappeared. The Strategic Defence Review states that the objective today is to meet our purely national requirements and be able to make a reasonable contribution to multinational operations in support of our foreign and security policy objectives. Greater flexibility is now required of our Armed Forces to meet a wide range of perceived and unforeseen threats.

The SDR states that, in addition to providing whatever military support is required for continuing commitments such as Northern Ireland, we should be able to respond to a major international crisis, such as the Gulf War, or undertake up to two medium-sized deployments which might last up to six months. As your Lordships are aware, our deployment of troops in Bosnia has already lasted more than five years, and I expect that the situation in Kosovo will make it impossible for us to withdraw our forces, if and when deployed, within the prescribed six months.

It therefore appears that with troops committed to Bosnia and Kosovo, and given the situation in Northern Ireland, our Armed Forces would already be fully extended. Our soldiers, sailors and airmen are therefore having to spend longer periods away from home more often than was the case a decade or so ago. That, of course, has a detrimental effect on morale and on recruitment. The SDR makes clear that we cannot afford the luxury of having additional forces "just in case". A senior army officer told me this week that the Army does not want to be an army that people are reluctant to use. It likes to be used and likes to be stretched. But it is a delicate balance. The regular Armed Forces are already fully stretched, if not over-stretched.

What I find extraordinary is that in these circumstances the Government have decided to emasculate the Territorial Army in order to increase the regular establishment by 3,000. At a time when our regular forces are fully stretched, we need to maintain our reserves, or even to increase them. I am no advocate of the growing belief that we should always do things the way other countries do. The things that foreigners admire about this country, such as our Armed Forces, and your Lordships' House, are not generally things that we have copied from others. But on this occasion we should ask ourselves why we are reducing the TA by one-third, from 60,000 to a little over 40,000, whereas most of our NATO allies currently maintain a roughly equal balance between regular and reserved armed forces. The United States volunteer reserves outnumber their regular counterparts; the Australians maintain a balance near parity.

The real outcome for the TA is even worse than the cut of one-third suggests. The TA infantry is to be cut by more than half, from 16,000 to 7,200. London is set to suffer disproportionately, especially so on the basis of its daytime population.

The Secretary of State for Defence has said that the TA should be useable, relevant and better integrated into the regular Army. However, the destruction of the regimental system in the TA infantry, predicated by the replacement of battalion units by multi-cap badge regional headquarters, will do precisely the opposite, besides having a devastating effect on morale and on both TA and regular recruitment. I was proud to serve with 4th Battalion The Royal Green Jackets, the successor to, inter alia, Queen Victoria's Rifles, Queen's Westminster Rifles and the London Rifle Brigade. Two companies will survive, but they will be subsumed into the new London Regiment, which, incidentally, I doubt will ever be able to parade as a battalion; marching in step will clearly be impossible. I rather doubt whether the two surviving Green Jackets companies will possess the critical mass necessary to continue the regiment's identity, spirit, traditions and historical links with London and its boroughs.

Fourth Battalion The Royal Green Jackets has recently been seconding on a continuing basis between 10 and 20 TA soldiers to supplement the two regular Green Jackets battalions. There were around a dozen 4th Battalion TA soldiers with the 2nd Battalion in Bosnia recently; and I understand that there are 11 TA soldiers waiting to join the 1st Battalion when it moves to Northern Ireland shortly. I doubt that the London Regiment will be able to maintain the close connections and identify equally closely with all the regular Army regiments of which its predecessors currently form part. I do not think that the two regular Green Jackets battalions will be able to rely on the TA for additional support in this way in the future as they have in the past.

I am disappointed that the Army Board was prepared to sacrifice the TA for such a small benefit to the regular Army. I do not think that the closure of 180 drill halls and the resulting disappearance of much of the framework of the TA is going to help fill the 8,000 regular Army vacancies which will exist under the expanded establishment. The Minister told me that only some 7 per cent. of regular Army recruits have seen service with the TA. The proportion of former cadets is much higher. But I fear the noble Lord may not recognise the point that the cadets themselves depend heavily on the existence and co-location of TA units.

The station commander of Royal Air Force Halton told me the other day that the RAF also recruits a number of people who have seen service with the TA. Many potential Army recruits, even though they may never see service with the TA, first inquire about an Army career by visiting a TA centre. TA centres are the Army's shop window.

It was perhaps not the responsibility of the generals to take account of the social benefits that the TA provides to the community, but I am frankly amazed that the Government, who talk a great deal about social inclusiveness, have also missed this important point. In London and many other cities the TA offers much needed opportunities and a sense of belonging to disadvantaged sections of the community such as members of ethnic minorities and single parent families. Twenty one per cent. of the members of 4 RGJ are from ethnic minorities. The Government want to see a more inclusive regular Army and in this respect the TA can provide leadership. There is certainly no institutional racism in the TA.

My recollection of the TA and the extraordinary breadth of skills and experience that weekend soldiers bring to it lead me to believe that its usefulness and relevance to the regular Army are enhanced and not diminished by the changed role of the Armed Forces today.

The TA has given the nation good value for money in defence terms and also bridges the gap between civilian and military life—another of the Government's declared aims. Its emasculation removes our insurance policy that we could, at a time when our regular forces are fully stretched, nevertheless rely on reserve forces to meet an unforeseen threat or natural disaster such as a serious flood.

I hope that the Government will think again and reverse the cuts in the TA now being implemented before it is too late and the Army's footprint fades across vast areas of the country. Our fully stretched Armed Forces deserve to be complemented and backed up by adequate reserves who themselves deserve the country's full support and appreciation.

9.32 p.m.

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, for giving us the opportunity once again to debate briefly issues which are close to the heart and the interests of the Armed Forces. I am sorry that the debate is taking place so late at night and in such a sparsely populated House.

I wish to concentrate my remarks this evening on the Army, although the Motion refers to the "Armed Forces". I wish particularly to speak of the Army because a long time ago I had personal experience of handling the problem in the British Army. Way back in the 1950s, I was a staff officer in the War Office, as it then was, in a branch which was, for some obscure military reason, called "staff duties". It had nothing to do with staff duties; it was entirely to do with the organisation and manpower planning of the regular Army. My task at that time was to plan, or take part in planning, the shape and size of the Armed Forces, with special reference to the requirements of the notorious 1957 White Paper. Older Members of the House will recall it with some nostalgia.

We had two golden rules when we were carrying out all the planning and number-crunching. One was that if you are faced with over-stretch in your Armed Forces you must either increase your resources or reduce your commitments. It all sounds simple but we kept it constantly in the front of our minds. The other lesson, still equally relevant today, is that if you plan an Army which is designed only for low intensity operations and peace-keeping operations, it is almost impossible to move into a high intensity situation with the same Army. However, if you plan a high intensity Army, there is no difficulty in performing low intensity tasks.

Most contributors to the debate this evening have, quite rightly, spoken of the need to maximise resources. I should like to place greater emphasis on what we do about our commitments. At the moment it is unrealistic, especially so shortly after the Strategic Defence Review, to expect any substantial increase in military resources. I mention the Strategic Defence Review because it was, as at least one other noble Lord has said, a serious and imaginative attempt to plan a post-Cold War army and match commitments with our resources. Of course there was Treasury involvement in it. It would be foolish to expect that there should not be Treasury involvement in a spending department of this kind.

However, generally speaking, it is true that the shape and size of the forces brought about by the Strategic Defence Review was based on the views and operational analysis of the General Staff. One cannot want much more than that. We heard that later all three Chiefs of Staff told the Defence Select Committee of another place that each individually signed up to the Strategic Defence Review. What results from that very careful, constructive and effective review is that now we have an Army—I shall not go into the details of its deployment—that is able to solve the high intensity/low intensity problem. We have an Army which, although small, is designed for high-intensity operations and is also trained for other forms of activity short of war.

General Wheeler, Chief of the General Staff, who has already been referred to this evening, said recently that in his view the Army was better balanced and nearer the manpower need than it was three or four years ago. Incidentally, for those noble Lords who are especially interested in this area of national policy—I imagine that that includes all noble Lords who are in the House at the moment—there is a fascinating interview with General Wheeler in the current issue of Jane's Defence Weekly. There he gives his views on overstretch, commitments and resources. That is an extraordinarily upbeat and confident article that I believe will provide considerable comfort to a good number of people.

But as to resources and commitments, perhaps we have not quite solved the problem. Other noble Lords have already mentioned this, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and, specifically in relation to retention, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, who made the very important point that this was a vicious circle. If one has overstretch and loss of morale not only recruitment but retention of the forces that one already has also suffers.

It would be foolish to expect any great increase in defence resources at this moment. To ask what may sound a rather crass question, can we reduce our commitments? I believe that we must consider that question although it may not be a matter for the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, himself to answer. We should bear in mind that armed forces are basically for military purposes. The following are perhaps the three most important roles for our Armed Forces: first, the defence of the realm; secondly, as a contribution to alliances; and, thirdly, as backing for our foreign policy. But it now appears that we expect our Armed Forces to become involved in a broad range of other rather dubious commitments. I mean "dubious" in the sense that the problems do not always seem to me to be ones with which the British Army should deal.

There may be a case for peacekeeping operations but there is often a far less strong case for British forces being involved in humanitarian activities. I am not entirely sure about demands that are often made on our Armed Forces in the area of disaster relief. It is possible that some of those activities are justifiable and are a necessary demand on our resources. But I suggest that the British Armed Forces should not be expected to act as the world's policeman or the world's welfare officer, intervening in crisis after crisis—not always military crises. It seems to me that sometimes—I slide now into the field of foreign policy—we are intervening perilously near the internal affairs of other states. However, I leave that for the moment. We should not expect to take a disproportionate share of military responsibilities.

The noble Lord, Lord Hardy, mentioned our allies. It is true that we have close to us France and Germany and, not so close, the United States. France has an army of over 200,000; Germany has an army of nearly a quarter of a million; and the United States has an army of 480,000, nearly half a million. Yet we are expected apparently to take on the heaviest share of Kosovo operations. Eight thousand to 9,000 troops have been mentioned today.

I conclude with two quotations from the Strategic Defence Review. We now have,
"designed a future force structure matched to level of commitments we plan to be able to undertake".
Those are important words. Later there is this sentence:
"We must match the commitments we undertake to our planned resources".
Noble Lords will note the emphasis there.

I leave it there. I only ask the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, who I know has the welfare and efficiency of the Armed Forces very much at the centre of his attention, whether it is still the policy of Her Majesty's Government to ensure that we do not take on more commitments than we can match with our resources.

9.41 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, for initiating the debate, enabling us to have a discussion, effectively, on defence matters. He has, of course, laid himself open to contributions from this side of the House as well as from his own side.

I need not elaborate on the interesting contribution of my noble friend Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld. He pointed out the enormous reductions in defence capability under the Conservatives. My noble friend Lord Hardy of Wath also picked up that point. It is worth considering how the Conservative government did that. There were two major reductions in defence expenditure. Many believe that the first, at the beginning of the 1980s, resulted directly in the Falklands campaign. The second, in the early 1990s, resulted in a horrendous situation for those members of the Armed Forces who were subject to it. Both were easily seen to be completely Treasury driven. They were nothing to do with foreign or defence commitments.

Let us compare that situation with what has happened since the advent of the new Labour Government. The Strategic Defence Review received plaudits from all parts of society and the Armed Forces in this country. It was also recognised as being sensible by others outside the United Kingdom. We need to say "Well done" to the Government for their Strategic Defence Review.

It has been a fascinating debate. One of the advantages of speaking late is that many of the points have already been made so I do not need to repeat them. However, it gives one the opportunity to highlight and pick up points already made. I was impressed by the contribution from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall. He pointed out that overstretch was better than understretch. Perhaps we should push the Treasury in the direction that the Armed Forces would wish.

I was fascinated by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, who pointed out that his old regiment spent 130 nights out of barracks. I suddenly remembered that, on average, Members of the House of Lords spend 134 days away from home; that is, if they are regular attenders and live outside London. That puts the issue in perspective.

We need to recognise that there are serious problems for individual units in the Armed Forces which are required to do tour after tour of duty, whether in Northern Ireland or Bosnia, which take them away from their families for a number of consecutive Christmases. I hope that my noble friend Lord Gilbert will assure us that individual units will not be subjected to that dislocation of family life which is so distressing.

Much has been said about recruitment and retention. The overall figures suggest that recruitment is on the increase and we have heard that the Government are taking action on a number of fronts in respect of retention. I am sure that my noble friend will comment on that. The previous government first introduced the higher activity levels of women in the Armed Forces and I pay tribute to them for that. This Government have continued the policy and have also sought a higher level of recruitment of the black and Asian members of our society who are under-represented in the Armed Forces. I am sure that my noble friend will reassure us on those issues and recognise that one of the pleasant aspects of such a debate is that it gives Members on all sides of the House the opportunity to pay tribute to the sterling service which our Armed Forces perform for our society.

9.47 p.m.

My Lords, first, I apologise to your Lordships and to the noble Lord. Lord Trefgarne, in particular for being absent at the beginning of the debate. I was scribbling away upstairs and did not look at the monitor. I was therefore unaware that the previous debate on the Statement had finished.

I must declare an interest in that I have recently completed an Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship with Shorts Bombardier which manufactures some defence systems and some aircraft which may be used in the military world.

I have seen the overstretch at first hand over a considerable length of time. I was in the armed services for 23 years, 17 of which were spent in Northern Ireland with the Ulster Defence Regiment and later the Royal Irish Regiment. We saw many units coming in under-strength which provided more work for us. I am not saying that it was as hard as it might seem. We were part-time, so the more work we did the more we were paid. However, there were shortfalls in the strength.

I thank this Government and the previous government for the way in which they resourced the equipment we had. We were never short of it at any stage, and in the fight against terrorism that is most important.

My noble friend Lord Allenby spoke about unpredictability and the invasion of Kuwait. I remember that we were on an All-Party Defence Study Group trip to SHAPE during the week prior to the invasion. We asked the Deputy Supreme Commander about the various threats. When we dealt with the southern flank, which included Turkey and Kuwait, he said, "Don't worry about that. We have got far bigger problems elsewhere". So the world is very unpredictable!

We were led to understand in the SDR that, although there would be a reduction in total manpower of reserves and regulars, that would be compensated for by directing more resources into fully equipping our services. Does the Minister accept that in some key areas the Government are failing to do that? That is not to say that they are the only culprits; it applies to the previous government as well. Things have not improved a great deal and perhaps not as much as the Government would like to think.

For example, I should like to turn to my recent experience with Shorts. The short-range anti-aircraft capability includes the Shorts-built self-propelled, high-velocity missile Starstreak, which is new in service. This is a revolutionary short-range anti-helicopter and anti-aircraft system. Without encroaching on confidential information, I can say that it transforms the time taken from acquisition to a hit on the target and that it has an unsurpassed percentage rate of hits. It has ground-to-air and air-to-air capability. In testing in the US in November it achieved a 100 per cent. success rate when fired from an Apache attack helicopter.

I believe that, since the Government introduced the 3 per cent. year-on-year budget reduction, it has been decided to equip fewer Royal Artillery sub-units with the system than was originally envisaged. In effect, that is a cancellation which is in the public domain. It means two things. First, there will be a reduction of high-tech support for the soldiers on the ground and for friendly aircraft in the air, contrary to the Government's stated policy. Secondly, it is not a good message for exports when we are seen to be slightly less supportive than previously of our own British systems. It will also mean a higher unit cost, and any orders lost overseas may mean a net loss to the Exchequer of more than it would have cost to equip an additional sub-unit.

We have recently been introduced to the phrase, "joined up government", or co-operation between departments. Can the Minister tell us whether the reduction in units to be supplied with this system is permanent and, if not, how soon the position will be rectified? In addition, I believe that the MOD has delayed any requirement for air-to-air capability of this system on the UK Apache fleet until 2005.

In order to reduce the effect of overstretch and lack of manpower, we must complete essential programmes taken on and not leave them half-finished. Here we have the most sophisticated attack helicopter but we deny it the most effective weapons system to support those on the ground.

The Government are fully aware of the importance of air superiority, which as the years go on becomes the major issue in the modern field of conflict, as has been proved in the Gulf War and the no-fly zone over Iraq and Bosnia. Can the Minister tell us whether this serious delay can be shortened to ensure that our forces are sent into operational areas with the most up-to-date equipment, especially when it is British?

I have a question relating to this system and its export to America. It is far superior to any system there in the short-range field. What are the Government doing to help overcome US protectionism, when additional sales overseas would reduce the unit cost to the MOD? Her Majesty's Government could then afford more systems, thus reducing the effect of overstretch.

I wish to talk for a moment about another programme in which Shorts is involved. Astor is a long-distance, airborne surveillance system, which the MOD has indicated that it will purchase. It is of use in both peaceful and war-time environments. In fact, 95 per cent. of surveillance takes place in peace-time. The system will be mounted on one of two long-range, converted intercontinental executive jets. Operationally, it could be tasked from this country to central Africa and back without refuelling.

I believe that a couple of years ago over 50,000 refugees were lost, having fled their homes in central Africa. It took some days or weeks for aid workers on he around to find them. It could have been done with Astor in a day or two.

I have two questions to ask the Minister. First, opinion is that the optimum number of aircraft is five or six o ensure that enough are operational at all times. However, there is a feeling that only four may be ordered. How many will be ordered? If it is only four, will that not be yet another overstretch of an important resource?

Secondly, the two aircraft involved are the Gulf Stream 5 and the Shorts Bombardier Global Express. Of course there is a question of jobs in Ulster, but I do not want to be too parochial about it. From a long-term point of view, Gulf Stream 5 is an older design and airframe, perhaps coming to the limit of future modifications which it can withstand. It is also much smaller and only just large enough to carry this equipment. An Astor will use the maximum amount of inboard electronic power that can be carried.

No doubt in the future there will be developments to that on-board surveillance equipment and any requirement for additional power, which is almost a certainty, or additional manpower could be catered for only in an aircraft the size of the Global Express, which is brand new and can therefore be modified more easily in the future. Can the Minister tell us which way he sees things going?

Overstretch is a problem, and not for the first time. The only way to help reduce its effect is to procure the latest and best equipment available, especially when it is British.

9.55 p.m.

My Lords, I was slightly surprised by some of the speeches from the Benches opposite, which tried to make party political capital from what has happened in the past. I believed this debate to be about the future. Towards the end of another long day I shall not detain the House for many minutes, but I should like to make a few brief points some of which have been referred to already this evening.

In the main, service personnel are superbly trained. However, it is clear that the standard of training is at risk as a result of the frequency of operational tasks. I am sure the whole House will join me in not wanting inadequately trained personnel to be put at risk through a lack of training.

I understand that there is a great problem from poaching in relation to retention, particularly in relation to signals, helicopters and pilots. I throw in as a thought: should we look to longer-term "contracts of employment" for the major categories at risk who have, after all, been trained extensively and expensively by the taxpayer? I have been advised that there is also a problem with retention payments; that the reward for signing on for a further period of service is greater at three years than at six years. Someone who has been trained for three years is of great use thereafter; but someone trained for six years is a trainer and has much greater experience. Why should he receive less in the way of retention payment than someone with three years' experience? I find that extremely difficult to understand.

My next remarks are directed to the training corps. I believe the position is increasingly difficult, as painted by the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath. Will the Minister give a commitment to continue the funding and backing of the cadets, particularly maintaining, if not increasing, the flying and gliding opportunities which attract the better quality cadets to the Air Training Corps. Around 30 per cent. of the RAF recruits come from the Air Training Corps and I understand that around 40 per cent. of the current officers started their service lives as cadets. If funding was to be reduced it would impact either on the poorer areas where the greatest recruitment problems arise already, or on areas where the best recruits come from, neither of which makes any sense and is certainly not desirable.

I should like to refer briefly to Astor, the Short aeroplane. I had not intended to do so but the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, mentioned it. I am sure that it is absolutely fine, but is he aware that the radar capability in Astor is already 16 years-old and upgraded, whereas the other team Astor has brand new radar developed by Racal? Two hundred people have been employed on it. The Government have already spent over £100 million on this development.

My Lords, I apologise. I am probably not as well informed as the noble Lord.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Trefgarne for giving us the opportunity to have this discussion.

10 p.m.

My Lords, having already spoken only two days ago on the debate on the future of the Lords, I should not wish to speak again too soon lest your Lordships accuse me of chattering. However, I received a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, Secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Defence Group, as I suspect did many of your Lordships who are speaking today. He is unfortunately not able to be with us due to the unforeseen circumstances of the debate being put forward. It is events which catch us all. However, it is not quite as ill a wind as all that because we have gained the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, to open the debate and it has blown back a little sooner the dear and noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, who is not technically my noble friend, at least on this side of the House, although of course she is.

It has also been a pleasure listening to my noble and gallant friends, and, indeed, to all noble Lords who have spoken. Having spent the past two days in the Chamber listening to over 95 of your Lordships and to some of the best speeches I have ever had the pleasure to hear, it was in the early hours of this morning that my noble friend Lady Warnock dropped me off in Lambeth. All I could think of was to crawl into bed with one or two useful books which I thought I might run through later in the day when it came to writing a speech. Unfortunately, when I woke up later this morning, I discovered that they were a little out of date. So, I have many grateful thanks to the office of the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, at the MOD for its help and kindness and for the accurate and up-to-date information.

However, as this debate is all about overstretch, I was rather interested in the correlation between the two sets of MOD figures then and now, as I am sure your Lordships will be also. I only hope that there is no significance in the fact that in 1992 the figures were produced on 1st April, whereas now they are produced in January or December. To be fair, I should say that five of those years were under the Conservative government and two under Labour.

In the Royal Navy in 1992 there were 62,100 people on the strength. On 1st January this year there were 39,325, a drop of nearly 23,000. In the Army in 1992 there were 145,000 men. On 1st December last year there were 96,822, a drop of nearly 48,000. In the Royal Air Force there were, in 1992, 86,000 and on 1st January this year, 55,905, a drop of nearly 30,000.

I think that those figures speak for themselves. Seven years ago we did not have any more commitments than we have now. In fact, with Bosnia now an ongoing situation and Kosovo possibly starting, perhaps less. Yet we have 23,000 fewer people in the Royal Navy, 48,000 fewer in the Army and 30,000 fewer in the Royal Air Force.

Although we are always working towards the magic and desirable figure of 24 months between front-line tours, it is still never more than 18 months and sometimes very considerably less. I hope that those figures will indeed draw attention to the thinness of the red line. We are talking about people. However well trained, efficient, brave and loyal they all are, they are still people and cannot be stretched too far.

Now to Kosovo, on which we have already had a Statement, so I can cut out huge chunks of my speech. As we know, there are 1,250 international observers in considerable danger, of whom 101 are British, and the rescue force, which is currently called an extradition force, of 500 is currently on standby in Macedonia, awaiting the arrival of ships carrying the necessary equipment which were due to dock at six o'clock tonight.

Here, I do not think that it does matter that my books are a little bit out of date, because the whole situation in Kosovo goes back to the foundation of the Ottoman Empire, with its founder Othram, or rather his son, Orchan, whose vizier, Black Habil, conceived the idea of trained slave armies of Janissaries, made up of captured Christian children trained as professional fighters. At the same time as that was happening in Asia, Serbia, under Stephan Dushan, was emerging as a battling and patriotic Christian state. Stephan Dushan's son was Lazarus, who was a sort of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce rolled into one. He started a great Christian campaign against the Moslems with a huge assorted army of Serbs, Bulgars, Poles, Hungarians, Bosnians, Albanians and Mongols, none of whom spoke the same language, and when they met the Moslem army at Kosovo under Orchan's son, Murad, composed of Christian enslaved children, now grown-up and welded into a taut, professional fighting body, the great conglomerate did not stand a chance, and lost. But Murad, the Moslem leader, was killed. That was in 1389, about the time of the Battle of Poitiers. It was the Serbian Dunkirk, and is so celebrated.

However, before noble Lords move that I should be no longer heard because of talking irrelevantly, I can skip 600 years to 1989 when Slobodan Milosevic celebrated the 600th anniversary with a huge rally on the site and banners of himself and King Lazarus. By this time, Kosovo, a province of Serbia, had a population of over 90 per cent. Albanians. The land was the same, the battle site was the same, but the people were not. Speaking to my daughter in Washington early this morning, she said, "Everyone here is talking about the Battle of Kosovo". "The Battle of Kosovo?", I asked. "Yes", she said, "1389".

While we always pray for peace and do what we can to preserve it, we do not want to fight 600 year-old battles for other people. The protection of our own forces, however reduced they are, must always be our first priority.

10.7 p.m.

My Lords, I should thank the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, for referring to my distinguished ancestor, but my recollection of what I have read about the Battle of Stirling Bridge is that William Wallace's forces were neither very well trained, nor organised into trained regimental units, nor supplied with adequate reserves. Thankfully, the English were even worse supplied at the time.

I am grateful for this debate on such an important subject. In another place on Monday, the Secretary of State for Defence said very soberly that maintaining the deployment in Bosnia and Kosovo would be very demanding. I echo the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, in saying that we have a number of other existing and potential commitments about which I hope the Minister will be able to say a little when he replies. I refer, for example, to the question of whether in East Timor there will be a need for a UN-sponsored peace keeping force. I understand that the Secretary of State for International Development is making a major speech the week after next on the use of armed forces in development and disaster relief. That is another potentially substantial role for our Armed Forces. There is also the whole question of defence diplomacy and defence training in central and eastern Europe. Those are all considerations.

The lesson that we are learning very rapidly from Bosnia and Kosovo is that, in the post-Cold-War world, we need flexible armed forces and we need the ability to expand and contract our full-time professional forces as different demands present themselves. As a number of noble Lords have suggested, that requires us to rethink the role of reserves. I recall that 100 years ago continental armies had a number of battalions which were held at CADRE strength with reserves to come in. That is perhaps the sort of thing that we need to consider ourselves. We clearly need an adequate and skilled ready reserve, from which individuals could be integrated into units at relatively short notice. After all, 10 per cent. of the forces in Bosnia have consisted of people called up from the reserves. There is considerable anxiety in this House and in another place that the cutbacks in the territorial forces have not provided sufficiently for this.

I should like now to raise a related question which I have mentioned on previous occasions. It seems to me that the preference of the Armed Forces for long-service personnel causes a number of problems. There has been much discussion during this debate about the problem of retention. Again, I should like to suggest that it might be worth considering moving towards a higher proportion of shorter serving soldiers, which would lead to a higher turnover of people on the full strength but also to a higher proportion of reserves. Fewer of those younger people would have wives and families and, therefore, the problems of morale and high turnover, and so on, would be rather less. I suggest that the MOD should consider encouraging a greater number of shorter term recruits by perhaps offering a period of full-time service followed by a priority reserve obligation. That is the sort of flexibility that we should consider.

I should also like to reiterate the point that several of my colleagues have made from these Benches on previous occasions; namely, that we perhaps may need to consider the "arms plot" under which whole units are moved around together. There are those in the services who consider that to be a source of inefficiency and misuse of manpower. A move towards multi-battalion regiments, in which sub-units and, indeed, even individuals, could be posted on a rolling basis, should also provide for more flexible arrangements when long overseas postings are necessary. One may anticipate that the obligation to maintain some military forces in Bosnia will be medium to long term. If a peacekeeping force goes into Kosovo, we may anticipate that that will also require a long-term commitment.

I should like to make one further suggestion in that respect. What we are seeing in Bosnia, and what I hope we might see if a force goes into Kosovo, is the demand for an initial, substantial heavily armed force and then, slowly, a reduction in the level of force and in the heaviness of the weapons provided. It seems to me that the sort of Petersburg tasks which the European militaries are now facing will require rather more gendarmerie-type armed forces. We have had some difficulties in Bosnia in matching the gap between the provision of the civilian police from Britain on secondment and full-scale highly-trained armed forces. There again, it seems to me that there is a cause for rethinking precisely where in between civilian police and full strength Army units we might perhaps need to have an intermediate force in the long term.

Moreover, in the long term it seems to me that there is a great deal to be said for encouraging closer European co-operation and more joint forces so that—and this relates to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hardy—others of our allies will be more effectively able to share the burden. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, commented on the larger size of the German Army. However, I am sure that he is well aware that, out of that larger size, the German Army has considerable difficulty in providing at short notice as substantial a number of troops as the British Army is able to provide. In that respect, it seems to me that the British Government's latest European defence initiative—the San Malo declaration, and so on—is exactly the right direction in which we should be moving. Indeed, I hope that they will move further with the pursuit of closer integration of British forces with those with whom we are most likely to find ourselves in joint operations in the future. Having said that, I intend to follow the good example of many speakers before me and sit down before my time is up.

10.15 p.m.

My Lords, it is particularly opportune that my noble friend Lord Trefgarne should have introduced this debate within minutes of the House receiving a Statement on Kosovo, because it is Kosovo and its associated problems which have revived the doubts as to whether the Armed Forces are capable of doing all that may be required of them. At the same time perhaps I may say what a joy it is to listen to my noble friend Lady Park. It is a gloomy joy in the light of what she had to say. However, my noble friend has returned to this House with a bang, making speeches in both of the two debates this afternoon.

Within the past week both the Chief of the General Staff and the Chief of the Air Staff have made speeches in which they have expressed their concern about overstretch. With 5,675 servicemen in Bosnia and its neighbouring countries and 2,225 as the advance guard of the peace implementation force in Kosovo, any senior commander must be looking nervously over his shoulder to see where the next demand will come from. Air Marshal Johns is already particularly concerned about overstretch in connection with aircrews.

But if we think we are overstretched now, there is undoubtedly worse to come. It must at least be possible that more troops will be sent to Northern Ireland if the situation deteriorates, as it well could. Within NATO there must be a major fear that Kosovo, if not Bosnia, will suck in an increasing number of men for a period of at least three years. Outside NATO, South Africa is already a far from happy place. Chile has apologised to the Argentine for its support of Britain at the time of the Falklands. It has problems. We have commitments to the United Arab Emirates, Brunei and Kuwait. Belize remains a hotspot, while Australia, as has been said, may have troubles with countries to the north, in particular East Timor. Today's Statement on Sierra Leone concerned another point, but a rescue mission—if not more—is already in place.

The proliferation of NATO is, almost more than anything else, due to the wish of many of the new members and applicants to make use of Article 5 of the treaty whereby they may call upon other members of the organisation to come to their aid if they are in trouble. It is unlikely indeed that all, or indeed a number of these, will hit us at once, but more than one could do so, and that would be a problem.

The position of the Secretary of State and all concerned with financing the Armed Forces is an extremely difficult one. It is not reasonable to expect expenditure to increase to a higher proportion of GNP in the face of other demands which are perceived to be of greater importance, particularly education and health. Therefore the generals and their equivalents have to do the best with what they have in the hope that those who have been responsible for formulating the foreign policy on which the SDR was based have got their sums right. It is at this moment that I must demand the resignation of the Minister who is recorded in Hansard yesterday as having described 3rd Mechanised Division and 4th Armoured Division as being "deplorable". I hope that he was misquoted.

It is not only a question of money. The SDR is now nine months old but its presumptions are already showing signs of strain. The trouble is that the British Armed Forces are too good, everyone wants them. Britain is the only country in NATO which has a rapid reaction corps and even that is only kept up to strength and maintained with relevance to any particular forthcoming operation by borrowing from other units. Those points were well made by my noble friend Lord Glenarthur and the noble Viscount, Lord Allenby.

The United States has a "one for one" policy whereby every man will spend a month at home for each month on deployment abroad. There is no way that this is achievable here. On Monday the Member for Carlisle in another place recorded that the Border Regiment had spent the past two Christmases in Macedonia and Bosnia and it is now rumoured that it will be in Kosovo this coming Christmas. For, as the Chief of the General Staff pointed out, British forces went to Bosnia on the strict understanding that it would be for six months only. That was seven years ago. While we aspire to reducing our commitment this summer, in common with our allies, it is much too soon to say that the worst is over. And now Kosovo, with the ARRC and a two-battle group brigade on standby. is already consuming 8,000 men. Before Kosovo, 28 per cent. of the trained strength was either on operation, preparing to deploy or recovering. Including the forces warned for Kosovo, that figure goes up to 41 per cent.

In the light of what the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has said, I should say that my noble friend Lord Attlee has passed me a note. He has his nose much closer to the grindstone than anyone else in your Lordships' House, and he is telling me how much the soldiers enjoy relief work and other civilian activities in which they are asked to take part.

All the work that our Armed Forces are doing comes at a time when recruitment, we are told, is up by 18 per cent. Premature voluntary release, commonly known as PVR—these acronyms are horrible, and that is a particularly nasty one—is also well up. A number of noble Lords have referred to this, and a Written Answer in another place yesterday showed the increasing number of Army officers and RAF pilots who have left the service for voluntary reasons. That figure is much higher than it was three years ago.

Of course recruitment is important—vitally important—but retention is even more so. These are the middle-ranking officers and men on whom the Armed Forces so particularly depend. The Government have compounded the problem by four mistakes, for which they alone are responsible. Two, already made. are reversible; two are in the process of being made but I believe them to be avoidable. First, the Government have written into the SDR forecasts and assumptions regarding the intensity and duration of operations which are less demanding and less realistic than the professional planners would have recommended. As I understand it, the Chiefs of Staff overruled the planners at the last moment in the interests of getting an acceptable document. To compare the folly of that, we should look at the original predicted costs of Concorde.

Secondly, with overstretch already a problem, the Government have reduced reserves when these are an essential factor in managing overstretch. To increase reserves, rather than to reduce them, was the logical consequence of the SDR foreign policy base line. Incidentally, I note that at the present moment the Ministry, as the noble Lord will confirm, has not yet trawled the regiments for volunteers for Kosovo.

The mistakes which the Government are now making are of ignoring the warnings of their professional advisers with regard to the evidence and implications of overstretch. Unfortunately, they believe their own propaganda about the success of recruitment. The Government are committed to full staffing by 2004. I fear that is optimistic.

If I sound critical, I hasten to say that no one would say it is easy. From these Benches, I may be unwise to criticise the state of the Defence Medical Services, and we certainly do not want the German system where they have 84 doctors in a brigade. But I believe I am right in saying that there are only three orthopaedic surgeons in the whole Army; and if you break a leg in Kosovo you are in trouble! Without doubt, we shall have to rely on the reserves and can only hope that relations between the MOD and the National Health Service are good.

Maybe—and I am not being sarcastic—if there is to be a proliferation of problems, the Ministry of Defence will have to employ Sandline. After all, until after Waterloo, British forces continually employed large numbers of Germans, particularly Hanoverians, and Americans. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, is himself a member of an American regiment. War may well have to be privatised if we do not have the resources to carry it on professionally ourselves. But let us remember, as has been said, that we have the Gurkhas. Yes, they are mercenaries, but let us increase and strengthen the force of Gurkhas. That is very much an easy method of increasing our capability to deal with any problem. I must say that I should like to let them loose in Northern Ireland.

Let us hope that in all of this I am being over-pessimistic. But we are treading a very narrow path. I am sure the Ministry of Defence realises the difficulties and dangers. Do the rest of the Government and the whole of the country realise them?

10.21 p.m.

My Lords, I agree with all the encomiums that have been delivered to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and I thank him very much for raising this subject for debate. I confess that in the middle of the debate I said to the noble Lord that I did not think I would take up my full 20 minutes. However, so many interesting points have been raised that I think I will have some difficulty in keeping to 20 minutes. I will do my best, as usual, to answer in as factual a way as I can all the points that have been raised.

The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, asked me how many troops have already left on deployment to Kosovo. According to the figures I have available to me this evening, as of now a total of 1,332 personnel are in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia and Greece and it is planned that a further 390 will fly to Skopje tomorrow. Of those 1,332, 305 are at Thessalonika in Greece preparing for the reception and onward delivery of heavy equipment and vehicles that will be arriving there by sea shortly, 40 more are at the extraction force headquarters in Kumanovo barracks in Macedonia and 987 are at Skopje. That figure includes the UK contribution to the NATO extraction force and personnel who have deployed since last weekend for possible peace implementation in Kosovo. I hope that that answers the noble Lord's question.

The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and other noble Lords discussed the whole question of overstretch. That is what the debate is about. I will not contest many of the figures that have been quoted in the debate for the very obvious reason that I am quite sure that noble Lords have been ringing my office to get the right figures. So I am in no position to contest them, am I? However, it is a fact that recruitment is improving and it is also a sad fact that retention is not improving. Retention is going down. That is not a secret; it is not even an open secret; everyone knows that. The Government fully recognise the difficulties. We have set some targets. We hope to be at 95 per cent. by 2001 and fully up to the higher establishment for the Army by 2004.

I can assure the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, that I sing no complacent tune about this. It will be extremely difficult to achieve these figures. I hope they are not optimistic, to use the word of the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, but they will be very difficult to reach. The fact is that recruitment is up. It is up very satisfactorily at the moment. Most gratifying of all—this touches on the point raised by my noble friend Lord Hardy—recruitment from the ethnic minorities is up. We set ourselves an initial—I emphasise the word "initial"—target of 2 per cent. of our recruits to come from ethnic minorities. That will be a rolling target, increasing over time. I believe I am right in saying that the figure stands at 1.8 or 1.9 per cent. already. That is extremely gratifying.

I emphasise the extremely important point made by my noble friend Lord Hogg during his perceptive remarks; namely, that it is very difficult to recruit for the Armed Forces at a time of high levels of employment in the economy as a whole. I am sure that your Lordships accept that.

The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, referred particularly to the recruitment of more engineers. With his normal candour he said how difficult it was to attract young people into engineering work in civilian society. During every visit that I make to a defence manufacturer I ask the question: "What are you doing about employing more women engineers?". I gave the chairman of a well-known company a hard time this very afternoon on precisely that subject. The more that your Lordships can help in increasing employers' awareness that one of the great under-utilised assets of this country is the brainpower of young women—as we have not succeeded up to now in persuading them that there is a career available for them in engineering—the better off the country will be as a whole.

I quarrel with the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, over his remark that support of the Territorial Army for the Army is to be reduced. That is certainly not the intention of our proposals for the Territorial Army. Our aim is to make it much more closely integrated with the Regular Army, and that has occasionally been a matter of some controversy.

I take issue with the noble Lord on one or two further points. He said that the reduction in the number of submarines would increase overstretch. First, we shall not be reducing the number of submarines for a couple of years yet. My remarks will apply equally to the number of frigates that will be taken out of service, and also to the reduction in the front-line fast jet strength. Perversely, those two decisions will work to reduce overstretch because the proportion of trained men available to the assets will increase.

I wish to make one general point about the Royal Air Force's difficulties over pilots. The problem is not in any way unique to the Royal Air Force. It has been going on for many years in almost every country that has an air force worthy of the name. I believe I am right in saying that the Royal Air Force currently has a pilot-to-fast-jet ratio of the order of 1.5:1. For that, we should be grateful; I have seen some horrific figures in other countries. We are not complacent. We know that there are great problems of retention. However, we are not nearly as badly off as some noble Lords may imagine.

The question was raised as to why this country is the biggest contributor to possible forces in Kosovo. There are two reasons. One is that Britain, as the framework country, will be supplying the headquarters for the ARRC. If that happens, it will be of the order of a couple of thousand men at least, which brings the figure up to 8,500. Our contribution to forces in the field will be very much along the line of those that are presently contemplated from France and Germany and from the United States.

The noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Chalfont, raised the question as to why we were providing so many troops if we compare the size of our Army and comparative overstretch with the contributions of our major partners in western Europe. The answer is, as the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, said, that our forces are very much in demand—everyone wants them. In addition, we derive great benefit from the fact that our forces are entirely volunteer. It is much easier to deploy a higher proportion of a volunteer army than a conscript army. That is why the efficacy of the British Armed Forces—and I am sure I carry your Lordships with me—is much greater than that of other countries which have nominally much larger forces but do not have the effective deployment capability and the trained men that we have in this country. That is one of the principal reasons we find ourselves making such a major contribution to international forces.

I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, for the notice he gave me that he would talk about the Gurkhas and the Defence Medical Services. I confess I had a similar view of the Gurkhas when I was in another place as the one put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Burnham. All I can say at the moment is that more Gurkhas would be useful. I shall write to the noble and gallant Lord when I have studied the text of what he said to see whether I can add anything positive to his remarks.

I am sure that, like the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, is seized of what the Government are trying to do with the Defence Medical Services. I have had many exchanges of correspondence with the noble and gallant Lord and I do not think anyone in the House would dispute that at least the Government are trying hard to do something about the condition of the Defence Medical Services.

I take the point made by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Braman, that the Army manpower ceiling may have been set too low, but at least the Government have raised it for the first time for quite a while. I hope very much that we shall be able to achieve the 3,300 extra.

My Lords, perhaps the Minister will give way for one moment. I quite understand that on the general question of Gurkhas he would want to write to me. The last time I made an observation I received an answer from the Minister with responsibility for defence 18 months later. However, I am sure this Government will write much earlier than that.

Can the Minister say something specifically about the companies which were to be taken on until the year 2000? I thought it might have been in his brief and that he could have given an assurance about that. If not, I shall await the letter, whenever it comes.

My Lords, perhaps I may also intervene with regard to the Minister's statement that he will write to the noble and gallant Lord. It would be extremely useful to your Lordships if the letter could be included in Hansard as if it were a Written Question.

My Lords, it is for noble Lords whether they put down a Question to me. I shall be happy to put a copy of any letter in the Library and if a noble Lord wishes to put down a Question I shall be happy to answer it in the normal way.

I now come to the important points first raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, about times between postings and cannibalisation. I am not aware of any cannibalisation for Bosnia or Kosovo. That does not mean it has not taken place; it is quite possible that it has. I set myself the task when I first arrived in this post in May 1997 to try to ensure that we never again found ourselves in the situation we encountered in 1991 where we were cannibalising tanks and planes in Germany in order to have those in the Middle East fully operational.

It is an important part of the smart procurement initiative that we say to manufacturers that they will be responsible for the supply of spare parts for the equipment they sell us right through the life of the equipment so that we share the risk. They are responsible and there are financial penalties attached to any failure on their part to match up to their responsibilities. These will be contractual obligations. Of course, it will take some time to move fully into that situation, but at least we have initiated what I hope the noble Lord will agree are important first steps in that direction.

The noble Lord asked about shortfalls in the Royal Armoured Corps and infantry. I have some figures here hut, given the time, perhaps the noble Lord will find it acceptable if I send them to him. With respect to harmony guidelines in general—this question was raised by many noble Lords—it is perfectly true that they are not as satisfactory as they should be. I am briefed to say that the Army's harmony guidelines are still being met in most cases but there is a serious problem with combat support services and the infantry in particular.

Noble Lords will be aware that many units undertake operations with gaps of only 18 months or even shorter, and individuals can be even more adversely affected. I am informed that most Royal Air Force personnel are within their harmony guidelines and serve no more than 140 days a year in Germany or away from their UK or German base. But some Tornado and Harrier crews (air and ground) spent over 70 per cent. of 1998 preparing for, conducting, or recovering from, operations. The Navy generally meets its harmony guideline that personnel shall spend 40 per cent. of their time averaged over two years in their base port. But from time to time individuals whose skills are particularly valuable may find that their ship comes into port and they are whisked away again quite quickly. The Government do not dispute that there is serious overstretch.

I turn now to some of the points raised by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. I also thank him for giving me notice of the questions he intended to ask. I should like to deal particularly with questions to do with quality of life. I am sure he will be glad to know that this very afternoon I raised questions in the Ministry of Defence as to the facilities that would be available to our troops in Kosovo or Macedonia, particularly given the extremely harsh climatic conditions in which they will find themselves which are rather different from those experienced by our troops in the Gulf. Troops have already been issued with additional cold weather kit: boots, mittens and hats. They will be served fresh food. The toilet facilities there are a mixture of chemical and purpose-built ones. Accommodation is a mixture of buildings and tents.

I asked particularly as to the availability of chip machines and mobile phones. I can inform the House that private telephone facilities will be available using the military system at present until a commercial facility can be established. I have inquired as to whether or not UK mobile phones can operate in that part of the world. The news is not very encouraging. We have already authorised free newspapers, a British Forces Post Office mail service with free aerograms, and concessionary parcel rates in both directions, library services and the provision of British Forces Broadcasting Service radio and television units. We are doing what we can in short order.

With respect to the generality of what we are doing to improve the quality of life of our services, I can best answer the noble and gallant Lord's question by rattling through some of the titles of the units we have created. We have already created a service families task force, a veterans' advice unit, which has been extremely well received and used, and a career transition partnership. We are also introducing an Armed Forces overarching personnel strategy. We are extremely seized of the importance of the quality of life in order to improve the retention rate in our Armed Services. We are not too proud to consider what our American friends have done under the GI Bill of Rights to see what we can make available in practical terms to our people along those lines, within the limits of resources.

I turn to the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Park. I am delighted to see her skipping up and down the steps after her operation. We have missed her badly for the past two months and I hope that it will not be too long before we see her on the tennis courts, the ski slopes and possibly going to ballet classes. It is wonderful to see her again. The noble Baroness startled me, as did the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, with some reference to East Timor. It was news to me that we were expecting to send troops to East Timor. Having consulted rapidly, I am told that no such indication has been given by Her Majesty's Government. I think that that is probably a hobgoblin that we can put behind us for the indefinite future.

I normally agree with almost everything the noble Baroness says. However, in this case—I think I have her words correctly—she spoke about our committing forces to a debilitating war in the Balkans. I think I know what she is saying: that she is afraid that if our forces go into Kosovo they may be subject to perpetual attrition and attacks. We shall not go into Kosovo unless there is agreement by all the forces involved there, as my noble friend Lady Symons said today: the various groupings of Albanians and the government of whatever is left of Yugoslavia. We shall certainly not fight our way into Kosovo. We shall go in there by agreement with our allies. So I think that I can set the noble Baroness's fears at rest.

The noble Baroness wanted us to reward success and give opportunities for the ambitious to advance. On the other hand, the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, was worried about the introduction of performance related pay. I cannot satisfy the noble Earl and the noble Baroness at the same time. In this case, I think that the noble Baroness will win. We are intending to introduce performance related pay, I think, in the year 2000.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, rightly drew attention to the need for the sustainability of our forces in Kosovo. This is a matter of considerable anxiety for us, mainly because of the difficulties of physical access. There are not many roads and railway lines from the Thessalonica part of Greece through Macedonia and into Kosovo. If we are talking about a total land force of 25,000 troops with heavy equipment, this will be a massive problem. With the Ministry of Defence in the lead, we shall be well placed to see that arrangements are as efficient as they possibly could be if we have to set up an armed headquarters there.

I am aware that I have gone over the time allotted. I hope that various noble Lords will not accuse me of discourtesy if I have not dealt with all the points they raised. I shall undertake to write to them.

I say this to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont. It is the policy of Her Majesty's Government not to take on more commitments than we can handle. It is easy for me to say that, but I can assure him that it is a matter that has the attention of the Secretary of State on a regular basis.

I cannot get into debate with the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, or the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, on the merits of candidates for the Astor procurement, the competition for which will shortly come before Ministers. I have been lobbied by about 65 different people now for the three different solutions. Unfortunately only one will win; and I shall have unhappy friends all around me. But there will be a winner and two losers. I think that we shall know the answer to that conundrum within a very few weeks.

I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, about different retention payments. I was not aware of that. I shall look into the issue to see whether I can advise him why the present pattern exists or whether we might be considering having it changed.

I was fascinated by the tutorial of the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, on the Ottoman Empire. One of the most marvellous things about this place is that you learn something new every day. I must study Hansard to obtain full benefit from her remarks.

I hope that the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Burnham, will acquit me of discourtesy, but I do not believe that they made a point which I have not already dealt with. I shall study Hansard and respond to them in writing as soon as may be.

10.50 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords and the two noble Baronesses who have taken part in the debate. We have had a most useful and interesting discussion. I am particularly grateful to the Minister for his comprehensive and helpful reply and for his coming to answer the debate at all. I know that it was arranged at short notice and that he had to rearrange his diary. I am greatly obliged. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.