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Afghanistan: Combat Vehicles

Volume 691: debated on Tuesday 8 May 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether there is a current shortage of combat vehicles in Afghanistan.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in extending our sincere condolences to the families and friends of Major Nick Bateson and Guardsman Simon Davison, who died last week in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively, and of Private Kevin Thompson, who died over the weekend of injuries received in Iraq. There is currently no shortage of combat vehicles in Afghanistan.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. There continue to be very disturbing media reports of shortages, quoting service personnel in theatre, including a report about combat vehicles, which prompted my Question. Another report yesterday, headed:

“Army equipment cupboard is bare”,

suggests that,

“Even troops preparing to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan will have at best a third”—

only—

“of the equipment they need”.

Does not this indicate a shortage of equipment overall for the forces undertaking the tasks that they have been set by this Government?

My Lords, I am aware of the press reports to which the noble and gallant Lord refers. I have carefully studied the data on the availability of combat vehicles in Afghanistan, and can confirm to the House that requests for combat vehicle equipment that come up through the chain of command from theatre have been met in all cases. Those in theatre do have the combat vehicles that they require to carry out operations. I had a conversation this morning with the Chief of the Defence Staff on this very subject, and he confirmed that to be the case.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that he saw the article to which the noble and gallant Lord referred? It is extremely damaging to morale, not least to that of the families of those who are going to serve in both these operational theatres. Will the Minister undertake to publish and put into the Library a full response from the Government to all the points made, not only about armoured vehicles but about the general issue of all the equipment referred to in the article, so that, if he is correct that there are no shortages, this matter can be officially confirmed? Otherwise, it is extremely damaging.

My Lords, I am happy to place in the Library the data that I can provide on the availability of our combat vehicles. I cannot be specific about each vehicle type because that would prejudice operations, but I can give data relating to the total number of combat vehicles, their availability and the trend thereof.

My Lords, we on these Benches join in offering our condolences to the families of the three soldiers killed since we last met. The Minister will be aware that the reports in the press are drawn from the leaked document, Equipment Reverse—SITREP No. 2, which since the weekend has been in the public domain. It confirms what the Minister said—that the forces are well equipped on operations—but it spells out in detail the difficulty of sustaining that situation. The phrase it uses is “LAND’s cupboard is bare”: in other words, the cupboard of the headquarters of the Army’s operations is bare. What changes is the Minister making, given his new responsibilities, to ensure that he can sustain the necessary spares, which are lacking; replace the equipment, which is wearing much faster than expected; and change the assumptions on attrition rates?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Garden, highlights exactly the points on which we need to focus. The level of operations with which we are now coping puts pressure on equipment and means that equipment priorities for operations have consequences for the availability of equipment at home base. Dealing with these issues is about investing in more equipment where required. We are addressing the availability of spares. More importantly, the reforms we are putting in place and the way we manage equipment—for example, the whole-fleet management of combat vehicles—is at the heart of improving the availability of vehicles both for operations and back at base. These reform initiatives, which we are putting in place as a result of investment and the proactive approach to reform that comes from bringing together defence equipment and defence support, are at the heart of these issues.

My Lords, will the noble Lord tell us whether these combat vehicles really are properly protected now?

My Lords, as I have said a number of times, there is no such thing as a perfect vehicle that will protect our troops against all threats. There is a balance between the mobility of the vehicle and the threats it comes up against. The key is for commanders to have a range of vehicles from which they can choose the most appropriate for the given mission. The measures that we have put in place to deliver to theatre a much greater range and number of vehicles give commanders what they need to do the job. There is no magic solution that will provide perfect protection for our troops. We need to recognise that.

My Lords, I come back to the noble Lord’s answer to my noble friend Lord King. Do I correctly understand that whereas the total number of vehicles is sufficient for need, the same cannot be said for each specific type?

My Lords, let me absolutely clear about this. We have the number we need of each type of vehicle. I can put in the public domain—and, therefore, in the Library—the total number of vehicles and their availability. I cannot break that down by individual vehicle type because our policy is not to put into the public domain the specific numbers of, for example, Viking, Snatch and Mastiff vehicles. That would give information to the enemy.