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Armed Forces: Equipment

Volume 691: debated on Wednesday 25 April 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether the Armed Forces have all the equipment they need to minimise casualties in armed conflict.

My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Corporal Ben Leaning, Trooper Kristen Turton and Kingsman Alan Joseph Jones, who have died in the past week during operations in Iraq.

As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence has made clear, force protection is our top equipment priority on operations, but operations can never be made risk-free. Our overriding aim is to ensure that the Armed Forces are successful on operations and that they have the equipment to achieve that.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Will he comment on reports that the refurbished fleet of Nimrods in Afghanistan will have the same fuel system as caused the disaster with the loss of 14 personnel last year?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will understand that I am not able to comment on that because the board of inquiry into the loss of the Nimrod has not reported; of course, I will be able to once that has taken place.

My Lords, in practice, what financial limitations are imposed on the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in respect of its excellent and valuable work on ballistic protection for armoured vehicles?

My Lords, the issue of the development of ballistic protection for armoured vehicles is a top priority for us for research and development. When that leads to a solution that we believe can be fielded to meet an urgent operational requirement, there is absolutely no limitation. All operational requirements have been met.

My Lords, we on these Benches join in offering our condolences to the families of the three servicemen.

Presumably, the Fulton inquiry into the hostage-taking by Iran, which is considering equipment, will be able to give some insights into the Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharples. Yesterday’s Statement did not provide a full set of terms of reference; it described what was going to be looked into. I regret that, but I gather that no more details are to be made available. Can the noble Lord tell us what will be the composition of Lieutenant-General Fulton’s inquiry, just as the Government tell us about the media inquiry? Can he also tell us what progress he is making with forming a group from your Lordships’ House to look at the results of the inquiry in full?

My Lords, on the composition of Lieutenant-General Fulton’s inquiry, I am happy to write to the noble Lord and place a copy of the letter in the Library. On the review by this House of the outcome of the inquiry, I would welcome feedback from opposition spokesmen on what they want the composition to be. I am open to suggestions from noble Lords on what they think would be the appropriate composition of that team in the circumstances.

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that all transport aircraft operating in and out of airfields in Iraq and Afghanistan are now fitted with appropriate defensive aids?

My Lords, I can give the noble and gallant Lord the assurance that he seeks that all the transport aircraft have the appropriate defensive aid suites for the missions on which they are engaged.

My Lords, we on these Benches also send our condolences to the families of the soldiers killed. The Secretary of State has said that the full complement of Bulldog armoured vehicles will be in Iraq by May. Is the Minister confident that this will happen?

Yes, my Lords, I am confident. The provision of protected patrol vehicles such as Bulldog, Mastiff and Vector is a top priority for me. The progress that we have made—for example, fielding Mastiff from start to finish in under six months—shows the priority that we give to this.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the more information comes out about the Army’s Bowman radio system, the more unsatisfactory it looks? Not only is there the basic problem of the infantry sets being too heavy for them to carry with their other equipment, but there is more and more evidence that the software is not working. Will the noble Lord now put someone into the Ministry of Defence who is in total charge of Bowman, reporting directly to him to get the right results from this vital bit of equipment?

My Lords, I understand the noble Lord’s concern. I do not accept the picture that he paints of the Bowman system, which has appropriate management that reports to me as the Minister responsible for the equipment. The issues to which he refers relate to the complexity of fielding the Bowman system and the fact that it needs to be continually upgraded in the future. Much as we are used to loading computer systems with the latest software—version 2, version 3, version 4—this will be the future of communications systems in our Armed Forces. It is part of the development of modern technology.

My Lords, the noble Baroness’s Question asked whether Her Majesty’s Armed Forces have all the equipment that they need to minimise casualties. As many of the casualties are suffering from PTSD, what preparation do Her Majesty’s Armed Forces have to protect them from the consequences of what they see and feel in the field of battle?

My Lords, I assure the noble Countess that, alongside the investment that we put into force protection equipment—physical assets such as body armour and so forth—we invest equally in medical care. Some of the innovations that we have used, such as technologies to control heavy blood loss, have made a real difference to outcomes and survival rates. Mental health is also very important. We have learnt that the key to that is giving soldiers the opportunity to decompress together after deployment on operations. This is something that they now do regularly in Cyprus and on other bases, and we have found that this has worked effectively.