House of Lords
Friday, 6 November 2009.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, before we move to the debate, perhaps I may advise the House that there are 35 speakers, including 32 Back-Bench speakers. If Back-Bench contributions are kept to seven minutes, the House should be able to rise this afternoon at around the target rising time of 3 pm. I remind noble Lords that when the advisory clock reaches seven, seven minutes have gone.
Armed Forces: Future Defence Policy
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to open this debate, but, first, I am sure that noble Lords will join me in offering sincere condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of Warrant Officer Darren Chant, Sergeant Matthew Telford, and Guardsman James Major of the Grenadier Guards, and Corporal Steven Boote and Corporal Nicholas Webster-Smith of the Royal Military Police, who were tragically killed in action on Tuesday 3 November following an incident in the Nad-e-Ali district in Helmand province. I also pay my full respects to the soldier from the 3rd Battalion, The Rifles, who died yesterday near Sangin.
With Remembrance Sunday approaching, the lives being lost in Afghanistan lend greater poignancy to our customary period of reflection. At this time, of course, we remember with great pride every individual who has given his or her life in service to this country, and we note with regret the final passing of the First World War generation.
Afghanistan, however, is uppermost in our minds. The situation there is serious. Ninety-three lives have been lost this year, with more than 100 soldiers seriously wounded. But, as the Prime Minister has said today, with the right strategy, we can succeed. It will not be easy and more lives will be lost, but I am clear in my mind that the mission in Afghanistan is essential for our national security. It is a campaign of necessity and not one of choice.
It is true that al-Qaeda has relocated to the borderlands of Pakistan, but it is there only because we are in Afghanistan. I have no doubt that, were we to walk away—as some argue that we should—and concentrate wholly on “fortress Britain”, we would become less safe because, as General Richards has said, withdrawal would have an intoxicating effect on those who threaten us. That is why we and 40 other countries have troops on the ground today. We all face the same threat; we must meet it together.
We need to strengthen the legitimate authorities in Afghanistan. Training the Afghan security forces and getting them to take a lead role is the right approach. But my overriding point today is this: we have to get the business of defence right. This is a hard business. We are dealing with challenges of unrivalled complexity. Every country is. It is essential that more of that complexity is revealed and discussed openly. If the public are to support the billions of pounds being spent on defence, and are to accept British lives being put in harm’s way, they need to have confidence that the Ministry of Defence is using their money wisely and that our forces are being deployed for matters of essential national security.
Public trust and confidence are vital to maintaining our military capability. So my main purpose today is not to dwell on Afghanistan, for we need a frank debate on the broader questions. What role do we want Britain to play in the world? What military capabilities do we need? How much will they cost, and can we afford them? The answers to these questions will form the basis for our future approach to defence.
My starting point is the strategic context. Let me share with your Lordships the initial conclusions that we have reached about the security environment over the next 30 years. We have identified a number of trends as having the greatest effect on our defence policy: the rise of Asia; ongoing globalisation and interdependence; the impact of multiple stresses such as climate change and population growth; and the proliferation of advanced technologies. At the same time, there are several threats to which we shall have to respond: terrorism, failing states and international crime. The obvious conclusion is that our Armed Forces are likely to be called upon regularly to protect the national interest and promote international security. It will most likely be in distant places; it will most likely be against enemies using asymmetrical methods; it will most likely be in complex political and security environments requiring an integrated strategy with military and civil components, rather than the blunt use of force; it will most likely be as part of an international coalition.
Afghanistan, therefore, is a signpost to the future, to further situations without a conventional adversary, where the battlefield is congested and cluttered with ambiguous targets, and where we will have to fight for access and freedom to manoeuvre. It is in such environments that we will seek to prevent conflict and promote security.
This represents an uncertain future, but we face it with certain firm principles. First, territorial defence will always be the primary task. While it is true that Britain faces no direct territorial challenge, we have been involved in four wars over the past 30 years—to recover the Falklands, in Kosovo and the two Gulf wars—where the opposing Armed Forces were those of another state. Deterrence, both conventional and nuclear, will remain a valid strategy.
Secondly, we cannot defend our wider national security interests alone. No country can. The principle of multilateralism has to underpin our defence policy. This new world will contain multiple, overlapping institutions through which we must work: NATO, the UN, the EU, and informal coalitions. All will play their part. UK defence must be flexible enough to operate with a wide range of partners.
Thirdly, national security is also broader than just defence. As the national security strategy, updated last year, makes clear, this is about trade, aid, diplomacy and police work. Soft power is as important as hard power. As we have seen in Afghanistan, even in complex military operations we need a comprehensive, cross-government approach.
The last full defence review was in 1998. The Strategic Defence Review got many things right. It drew a line under Cold War posture. It anticipated the need to tackle threats at source through expeditionary forces, and it foresaw that joint and coalition-based operations would be the norm. Initially, the thrust of the SDR was largely vindicated by a series of limited interventions, in Sierra Leone, Macedonia and Kosovo. But we did not foresee the strategic shock brought on by 9/11. We did not foresee the enduring and concurrent operations of the past decade. We have learnt the hard way that some of the planning assumptions underpinning the SDR were wrong. “Go first, go fast, go home” had a very limited shelf-life.
Not only that, but the costs associated with counter-insurgency in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, especially in terms of force protection, were not budgeted for, and they are very expensive. With our adversaries able to get their hands on advanced technologies, the adaptability of our forces is a must, if we are to manage risk and preserve lives. In such circumstances, the military can easily price itself out of the market.
To address these problems, a full defence review is required. The defence Green Paper will be out early next year, and that full review will follow. I am in no doubt that defence is going to have to change, not only to succeed in current operations, but to ensure that we meet future challenges. Tough decisions will have to be made, and any decision in the MoD has consequences elsewhere. Clearly, the impact, since 2001, of priority operations has been significant. For example, we have been unable to conduct a medium-scale, war-fighting exercise since 2001. This kind of training is clearly important for our long-term capabilities. Our air transport fleet is operating at 10 per cent over its planned level of effort, meaning that our reliance on charters has increased year on year since 2001. That has to be paid for. Furthermore, operations of the intensity that we have experienced since 2001 have meant that we are using our personnel to maximum capacity. Specialist areas, such as ammunition technical officers, are in high demand for operations, with resultant adverse effects on their tour intervals.
Nor can we escape the fact that defence is expensive. Costs are accelerating, and every country is experiencing this. For us, the two biggest costs are service personnel and equipment. Combined, they take up almost two-thirds of the defence budget. Over the past 30 years, service pay has risen by around 1.2 per cent every year ahead of the defence budget, consuming an ever greater proportion. A similar trend exists with equipment, where inflation estimates range as high as 10 per cent.
Moving forward, therefore, we have three basic options—to spend more, have less, or do better with what we have got. In the current fiscal climate, option one is unlikely. For all that I have said so far, option two is undesirable. That means that we have to do everything in our power to manage defence more efficiently and more effectively within current parameters.
In terms of personnel, here are some of the key questions we are examining. First, while Armed Forces numbers have gone down by almost 40 per cent overall since the end of the Cold War, some senior ranks have gone down by only 10 per cent. Those at the top are more expensive. Are we top-heavy? Is some rebalancing necessary? Secondly, Armed Forces personnel receive an overall package that includes pay, pension, accommodation and overseas allowances. Is there a case for altering the balance of remuneration and for reconsidering career lengths and retirement age? Thirdly, over the past decade, we have been investing more in more capital-intensive equipment platforms—Astute submarines, Type 45 destroyers, and Typhoon—all of which require lower manning levels than their predecessors. Do we have the right mix between personnel and equipment?
My primary responsibility at the MoD is acquisition reform. Bernard Gray, in his report, has of course raised the key questions here. How do we achieve a sustainable and realistic equipment programme, given the cost pressures I have highlighted? How do we match what we procure over the long term to what we require in the short term, without over-reliance on the urgent operational requirement systems which have proven so effective during the past five years? How do we improve our track record in delivering these complex programmes on time and on cost? As I told the House last month, we have accepted the bulk of Bernard Gray’s recommendations. The challenge now is implementation. I am currently developing a strategy for acquisition reform, which I will present in the new year.
It bears repeating that defence is a highly complex business, one where the security of our nation is at stake. But there is also a significant moral dimension to our decisions, not least because the lives and livelihoods of our forces personnel are on the line whenever we deploy. As a nation, we want to be a force for good in the world, and our Armed Forces are a key part of that. Today, I have set out the challenges we face in supporting their activities. I know that there is a tremendous amount of experience and expertise on defence in this House, so in the coming debate I will listen very closely to the contributions from all sides.
I have no doubt that I will hear strong opinions, but I welcome that—in part because the public need to understand the difficult decisions ahead and to recognise the complexity involved. If we are to sustain public support for operations in this new security environment, people will also need to understand that lines on the map and the body count are not definitive measures of success—and that in coalition warfare, as in Afghanistan, Britain cannot dictate every course of events. Support for our Armed Forces in general is not enough. The British people need to support what they are doing as well. I hope that this debate will make that clear.
My Lords, I join the Minister in paying tribute to those who have, sadly, lost their lives and to the most recent casualties. It is moving that we speak so shortly before Remembrance Day, when new names will be added to the war memorials that many of us will be standing beside, and when many of those attending may well, perhaps, be doing so in wheelchairs to pay tribute to those of their colleagues who have paid the final sacrifice. I make no apologies that, while the Minister has indicated the serious challenges and issues that will have to be addressed in looking on that 30-year perspective on defence, I shall speak exclusively about the situation that we face in Afghanistan. The outcome of that will profoundly affect what further deliberations might eventually enter into a defence review.
There is no question that we face an extremely critical situation. Today, the Prime Minister indicates—in a speech that has already been trailered in the Daily Telegraph—that it is a campaign or war that we might not win. The gravity of that situation needs no underlining, but the speech is not enough. It is the actions of Government that are critical at the moment, and the leadership that they need. If I might quote the Times leader from last Saturday on my worry, it referred to,
“the brevity of Mr Ainsworth’s tenure”,
as Secretary of State being,
“testament to a lack of seriousness with which the Government has treated national defence. … The Government has signalled by its continual succession of defence secretaries (five have held office since 2005) and its pinching attitude to military safety that it is culpable. It is a case of negligence without accountability”.
That was written in particular respect to the Nimrod report, but there is the report of Bernard Gray that has been referred to, and the report of Mr Haddon-Cave who talked about the organisation trauma in the Ministry of Defence, in which:
“Financial pressures and cuts drove a cascade of multifarious organisational changes”.
That ties in very much with what many of us understand of the problems.
Against that background, there is also the most recent debacle of the Territorial Army through—to be quite blunt—the inexperience of Ministers. I do not blame them, as it is simply not fair to keep changing people and giving them new responsibilities, and to expect them to have the background and experience to deal with such issues. I am afraid that responsibility for those problems goes right to the top, because we are at war, and that requires the full commitment of the Government in resources, in diplomatic effort and in every way that we can. That has been the history of our country; when finally challenged, it has been the full commitment of the whole nation that has seen us survive. I see Mr Ainsworth’s problem; I am very worried that he appears to be in something of a difficult position. He is a very junior Minister in the Cabinet, and has been in his position a very short time. He is obviously still having difficulty on the financial side, because financial resources are a problem.
Mr Ainsworth said in the debate in the House of Commons last week that the MoD must live within its means. He said that the operations in Afghanistan must,
“have … support, not only from the … reserve but from the defence budget as a whole”,
“Afghanistan is the main effort”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/10/09; cols. 355-56.].
It is the overriding priority at present; we are at war, and there must be the fullest commitment. If it is true, I am appalled that we are not getting the full commitment of the reserve to all of the activities that involve Afghanistan. That was certainly the situation in the first Gulf War, when there were commitments not just from the UK Treasury but from a lot of other countries which supported our efforts there, and that affects all sorts of areas.
I, and many other noble Lords, have complained about this in this House, but why do we still not have enough helicopters in Afghanistan? Why are lives being lost? While the Prime Minister tried to say that lives were not being lost because of helicopters, the recent sad and posthumous e-mail report from Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe contradicts what he said in that respect. I want to ask the Minister directly; as it is well known that a number of people and organisations have offered the Ministry of Defence additional helicopters that could well be very suitable—certainly for transport facilities and activities and some, possibly, for the operational roles as well—why have those offers been turned down? It is no good saying “There will be further helicopters available next year, or the year after”, and progressing into 2012. What about the present situation? Were they turned down on grounds of cost? On what grounds were they rejected?
I have a great deal of personal respect for the Minister, and I am delighted to see him back in his responsibilities at last after his sabbatical, if I might put it that way. However, there are workarounds in all of these ways. I would remind him that you do not always have the conventional way to deal with a problem. In the Falklands, how did our forces know that they were going to get every bit of support that was coming? We did not have enough sea transport to get the troops out, so we commandeered not only the “Canberra” but the “QEII”. That illustrates an unconventional but determined approach to making sure that the resources were there.
Certainly, in the case of Gulf War I, as I refer to it, I had in the chairman, managing directors and chief executives of all the major industrial suppliers—those who were supplying our equipment that was going to war, not least our Challenger tanks, about which there were some worries. One or two noble Lords and noble and gallant Lords who are here will remember this, but I said that those suppliers were on test. If their equipment did not work, it was their responsibility to make sure that it did. Having their civilians out there maintaining the equipment and making sure that it worked had not been done in the same way before, but was another way to work around a problem to make sure that our forces had the resources that they needed at the time.
It needs a full-hearted effort and, of course, we need more people. I say immediately that it is a great worry that we have not yet heard a statement from President Obama as to what the American position will be. However, we had what I understand was an interim statement from the Minister and the noble Baroness the Leader of the House in which we offered 500 extra troops on certain conditions. My questions are simply whether those conditions have yet been met and whether our allies will support those troops. If those conditions have not been met, and if we are supposed to need 500 troops, will they be sent or not? Otherwise, why were we proposing to send them?
The next issue is how we are going to involve our allies in this struggle. The tragedy, as I suggested back in July, is that we needed a surge at that time to coincide with the Pakistan Army’s efforts on the other side of the border. We have now seen a considerable effort by the Pakistan Army, unmatched by us on this side of the border, so the same problem of the Taliban and other al-Qaeda people moving back and forth will exist.
In this situation, we have other friends. The maximum diplomatic and financial efforts should be made, with Saudi Arabia, China, India, Russia and Iran. They all have a key interest in not seeing the Afghan situation collapsing in the dangerous way that it might. They are capable of physical and, some of them, financial contributions. It is no secret that the first Gulf War, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, will remember, was significantly paid for and contributed to by the nations in the Gulf which appreciated the efforts that we were making and helped substantially towards our financial costs. They are looking at how we are going to challenge the situation on the ground.
Prince Turki al-Faisal wrote an interesting article in the Washington Post. I hope that the Government have taken that into account, and would like to know if it has been followed up. There are possible roles that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia might play in following up what General Lamb said in his report. With Afghanistan and the Taliban, we now need to have a good look at who we consider our enemies; the idea that it is just “all of them” is a naive approach to the situation. We face a tribal situation, and there is a tribal structure that could be turned to our advantage.
I simply say that this war cannot be fought on a peacetime basis. Counterinsurgency needs local support. Unless the local people think that we are going to win, and are committed to doing so, you will not get that local support. I see this as the last chance to get a grip on a very dangerous situation. Of course the lead must come from the United States. Of course we are a junior partner. However, we have a duty to the future defence and security of our country, about which the Minister has just spoken most interestingly. But it will not be the same unless we address the current crisis, deal with it in a much more positive and effective way, and are much more effective in rallying public support behind the brave and amazing courage of our Armed Forces. They are currently trying to conduct a very difficult campaign of war.
My Lords, I first enjoin these Benches in the earlier tribute. I also declare a number of shareholdings in public companies that directly or indirectly supply the MoD, as listed in the Register of Members’ Interests. I was originally allocated 12 minutes for my contribution. I will do my best, and my noble friend Lord Addington will attempt to balance out our overall time contribution.
Defence and defence spend are always contentious subjects for debate, but over the coming months our nation faces some particularly fundamental decisions. These will have to be taken against the background of an uncertain world, at a time when our forces are involved in a serious and complex conflict in Afghanistan, and from an already appalling financial position and with many other countries markedly increasing their defence spend. For too long the Government have covered up the scale of the MoD's financial difficulties and refused to accept the word “overstretched” in relation to our Armed Forces. The Gray report has now confirmed and quantified the seriousness of the situation: a cost overrun of approximately £35 billion—equivalent to one year's MoD budget.
Many people have the impression that government departments have total freedom of spend within their Treasury allocation. The reality is of course very different, as the Treasury has to approve virtually all significant departmental programmes. Thus, while the MoD can be criticised for the management of programmes, the Treasury should always be aware of the financial situation of the department. Under this Government we have experienced a steady reduction in the percentage of GDP spent on defence, now down to just over 2 per cent. It must be asked how responsible it was to place orders for the two new carriers, whatever their military attraction, given the scale of the MoD's financial problems that have now been confirmed.
While I have considerable sympathy with Defence Ministers, pressured on three sides by the services, the Treasury and the media—indeed, I remember the pressures on the department when I was a Defence Minister some 25 years ago—the primary responsibility lies with Gordon Brown, first as Chancellor of the Exchequer and then as Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury. Historically, he has taken little interest in defence and was semi-detached for too long in the Afghan conflict, with the Government being behind the curve on both troops and equipment all along the line.
Compared with the Falklands—referred to by the noble Lord, Lord King, and of which he has obvious experience—when industry worked around the clock to deliver equipment to the ports and with payments sorted out later, there has been nothing like the same sense of urgency in the war in Afghanistan. Can the Minister give me one example of any company in this country working 24 hours a day, flat out? There has just been no national leadership or co-ordination from Downing Street.
Leaving aside personalities, the nation must make a fundamental decision. Do we maintain our first-division military status, being prepared to provide the additional resources necessary? Or do we drop down to a second-division status, albeit still with powerful but perhaps more focused and limited military capability? Linked to this is the issue of Trident and whether we maintain an independent nuclear deterrent.
When we briefly debated the Gray report two or three weeks ago, I posed this specific question to the Minister:
“Finally, in broad terms, how do the Government intend to balance the books—by providing more resources or by cancelling major projects?”.—[Official Report, 19/10/09; col. 454].
The noble Lord replied:
“Finally, the noble Lord asked how the Government intend to balance the books. The books may only be balanced through an SDR”.— [Official Report, 19/10/09; col. 455].
How the Strategic Defence Review will provide the solutions to our financial problems is beyond me. It is certainly no panacea.
I thought it would be helpful to look back at the 1998 Strategic Defence Review to see what it said and compare that which has actually come to pass during the ensuing 11 years. The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, was, of course, Defence Secretary at the time, but was obviously speaking on behalf of the whole Government. Paragraph 6 of the introduction to the 1998 SDR reads:
“So we plan to buy two new larger aircraft carriers to project power more flexibly around the world. New transport aircraft and ships will move our people and equipment rapidly to troublespots”.
Well, the carriers are at best some years away and new transport aircraft are hardly on the horizon. Paragraph 8 says:
“We will also radically reorganise our procurement and logistics organisations to spur efficiency and drive through best business practice”.
Paragraph 17 says:
“Too often in the past our new equipment has been too expensive and delivered too late”.
Well, if we believe Gray, we are still at first base. Paragraph 13 states:
“All three Services have been overstretched because of the demanding pattern of our operations, and I am determined to put that right”.
We are probably more overstretched today than we ever have been before.
On force structure, paragraph 116 says:
“There will also be an impact on the number of destroyers and frigates we need. Taking into account their wide peacetime utility, our reassessment has concluded that the total force can be reduced from 35 to 32”
Just how many destroyers and frigates are currently in operation?
Finally, paragraph 131 says:
“We will also be giving higher priority to improving the standard of single living accommodation”.
Just what improvements have been made?
Before moving to specific areas of defence co-operation, policy and procurement, I will comment on our overall national financial situation. I think it is common ground between all political parties and commentators that we have massively overborrowed as a nation and some very hard decisions will have to be taken, whichever party is in power. Many departmental budgets will have to be cut and programmes moved to the right. However, I do not accept that the pain should be evenly spread. The defence of our country, as indeed the noble Lord acknowledged, is the number one responsibility of government. In normal times I would argue for an increase in defence spend, particularly when we are in a serious conflict, as in Afghanistan. This may not be possible today, but I would argue strongly against any decrease in the defence budget, particularly when we start with a £35 billion overcommitment.
This is not to say that the MoD cannot and should not make significant economies in its assets, processes and staff, but to slash its budget at present would be dangerous and irresponsible. In recent years, the MoD has increasingly moved to long-term partnerships with industry. The latest BAE Systems News includes the following headline:
that is, the shipbuilding division—
“secures 15 year partnership with MoD”.
It then refers to the Torpedoes Capability contract. I quote these two programmes not by way of criticism—indeed these long-term partner agreements are a sensible way forward and are designed to deliver savings for the taxpayer, though no doubt they are also good for BAE—but to make the point that we cannot just walk away from contracts without incurring heavy penalties. So politicians should beware before making superficial comments about cancelling this or that programme without being cognisant of penalty and redundancy implications.
I turn now to Trident and the nuclear deterrent. In recent years I have become increasingly Trident-sceptic. I find it virtually impossible to conceive of circumstances in which we would launch a nuclear retaliatory strike. Unlike the two other parties, we do not favour replacing the Trident force on a like-for-like basis We would run on the present boats, perhaps seeking to develop a much more limited nuclear capability based on our Astute submarines. We must also work internationally to reduce nuclear stockpiles and do everything possible to prevent further nuclear proliferation.
I view the French nuclear deterrent in exactly the same way. I understand it costs approximately twice what ours does, because of our “favoured nation” relationship with the USA, but that is France’s problem. Talking of France leads me to defence co-operation. Within Europe, Britain and France account for about half of all spending on defence and new equipment, and two-thirds of all research spending. So far little has been achieved on co-operative projects, save historically with the Jaguar and some missiles and, of course, there is the struggling A400M transport aircraft, which is a saga in itself. Sarkozy is not de Gaulle. We know that there is still protectionism in France but there has to be so much more that we could do together. Sooner or later the Treasuries of both countries will come to recognise that the pursuit of hugely expensive independent procurement programmes makes no sense. Perhaps the new world of unmanned aircraft will present a real co-operative opportunity.
On co-operation with the USA, given the appalling casualties in Afghanistan from IEDs, my understanding is that the Americans have spent vast sums on devising countermeasures. I ask the noble Lord specifically whether all the United States R&D results are made available to us, and to assure us that there is no unnecessary duplication here. I also ask specifically about the new robot, Cutlass, which is eventually to replace Wheelbarrow and is being developed by Northrop at Coventry. I understand that full production is intended to start next year. Could the Minister confirm, given the crucial importance of this work, that we are prepared to fund round-the-clock working if necessary, given the situation in Afghanistan?
I welcome the recruiting successes in our troops. Nearly 24,000 people joined all services in the 12 months to June 2009—an 8.7 per cent increase. I welcome the Lib Dem commitment to increase the pay of our lowest paid troops by £6,000 a year, placing them on £23,000 a year and an equal footing with a development-level firefighter or a new entrant police constable, with more modest increases for privates, lance corporals and higher NCO ranks. I also welcome the review of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme under the leadership of the independent chairman, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce—who we will no doubt be hearing from later—with representatives from service and ex-service organisations, service family representatives and medical, academic and legal experts. It is to report within a few months.
To conclude, we are at a defence crisis point. Our procurement budget is hugely underfunded. Our gallant forces are war-weary and overstretched. We just cannot go on like this.
My Lords, on behalf of the Cross Benches, I add to the tributes that have already been paid.
This debate is about defence, and in Afghanistan—I wonder if anyone is not going to speak about Afghanistan—the rationale is that the forces are there to prevent further terrorist attacks in countries in the western world. Therefore, defence must be interpreted widely to include measures taken to increase stability and reduce the opportunities and the desire to join the terrorist movement. In this sense I fear defence has not succeeded and is not succeeding. We have to face the fact that the war against insurgency is not working. Consider that prior to the elections in August the US drafted in an extra 21,000 troops and NATO 5,000. This did not prevent the considerable and widespread violence that accompanied the first round. In addition to over 70 ISAF deaths between January and June of this year, more than 1,000 civilians have been killed, compared with just over 800 in the same period last year. A recent expert assessment reckons that to make an impact on an enemy as amorphous as the Taliban one would need a minimum of 660,000 troops well trained in counterinsurgency. Not even President Obama is considering this.
Experience from around the world, but particularly from Afghanistan in the past three decades, tells us that insurgency is only sustained by the support, albeit reluctant, of local populations. If people had alternatives in protection, income and access to basic services they would be far less likely to support the insurgents. The failure of the Armed Forces to create areas of real and sustained development, together with the recent rapid acceptance by the greater part of the international community of the results of a fraudulent election, has led to profound disillusionment; and the loss of credibility is severe. This in turn encourages the Taliban and makes it easier for it to recruit.
Let me continue with these rather bleak facts. The US military recently estimated that there are about 100 al-Qaeda operatives dispersed across Afghanistan, none of whom are capable of mounting a serious terrorist attack in the US or Europe. Yet we continue to pour troops in and accept what appears to be an accelerating number of deaths, as was so tragically illustrated earlier this week. We know that the real threat comes from the militia who are trained in the tribal areas of Pakistan and trickle across the border regularly. The Pakistan army’s recent onslaughts on both the Swat valley and south Waziristan cannot be deemed successful if the enemy has simply melted into the hinterland, only to reappear when the army withdraws. Meanwhile, and despite protestations, Pakistan, for many complex geopolitical reasons, continues to support, or at least not effectively stop, the Taliban crossing into Afghanistan. If our concern is to deprive al-Qaeda of the base from which it plots the destruction of the West, would we not do better to direct our firepower against terrorists in the tribal areas straddling the border by increasing military and other support to Pakistan?
It seems we do not fully take into account either the structure of the war in Afghanistan or the motives of its enemy. The Taliban is made up of hundreds of fragmented and disenfranchised groups, some with ethnic loyalties, others of them foreign, and each having different agendas and different incentives. Unlike during the time of the Soviet occupation, this war has no front line and the Taliban does not control any areas; it attacks but does not have to spend resources on defence. It moves constantly, recruiting on the way and drawing insurgents from distant villages, thereby reducing any loyalty to a local area. Its intention is to create terror, not to overthrow a Government, far less to mount terrorist attacks abroad. Its fight is cheap and it has real impact. The war is becoming a more general insurrection aimed at the foreign forces and yet we appear to continue responding as though it is a traditional war, and the sombre and relentless death toll goes on. It can only end badly.
However, the coalition could do much better, most particularly if it were able clearly to define its military and development objectives. I am sure that all of us welcomed the PM’s Statement, repeated in this House on 14 October, which included admirable hopes and plans. I very much welcome today’s statement by the Minister when he introduced this debate. My concern is that the huge resources required to keep our young men and women in position in Helmand could, if differently deployed, dissipate the enemy and better promote the security of civilians. It seems that we cannot fully do both at the same time.
This is a debate about defence, but for the present arrangements to have any impact there is a massive job ahead which starts with dealing with the suspicion—hatred, even—of foreign troops and the illegitimacy of the corrupt and inefficient Government. To begin with, given that Afghanistan is dependent for about 90 per cent of its budget on foreign aid, it is surely right to insist that the Government be accountable to donors. In the past eight years, tens of billions of dollars have provided little benefit to people, with perhaps as little as 20 per cent reaching the intended beneficiaries. Donors have to confront the Afghan Government with these shocking figures.
A Marshall plan is desperately needed in which major donors co-ordinate policies, money and other resources to build in the north and the main cities—district by district, province by province. The commitment must be not as a military occupier but as a long-term investment and development partner. The tasks are to build the infrastructure of the mines and oil pipelines, and to enable the production and export of cotton, fruit, medicinal plants and herbs, gemstones and marble. There is potential for the development of telecommunications, construction materials, agriculture and related industries.
These are the tools of defence; these are the tools that will enable people to withstand terrorism. I should add that Iran, China and India are all trading profitably with Afghanistan, and France and the US have embarked on building trading networks. Mining and cement works are starting up, as are manufacturing and the regeneration of ancient crafts. However, the UK still lacks even the mechanisms for trade with Afghanistan. There is no DTI representation there and DfID has no commercial interests.
Finally, the constant refrain from my Afghan colleagues is, “This is our war, we should be fighting it”. They want training, equipment, advice, and support, but they do not want US and UK troops occupying their land with no visible improvement to their lives. We should heed their wishes and deal with their reality.
My Lords, from these Benches I, too, express our condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in recent days.
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of visiting the Messines Ridge as part of a pilgrimage to the Flanders battlefields. In what I suspect will be a rare moment of lightness, I want to reflect on the fact that the team organiser decided that he would send me into the middle of the field to illustrate a point. He wanted to illustrate that out of the 21 mines that had been planted in 1917, 19 blew up, killing 10,000 men in the first instance. Two mines remained. One still remains in an uncertain state. I was not sure what I had done to upset the team leader to make me stand over the spot where this mine is alleged to be. However, when I returned to the group, a colleague took me to one side and said, “You realise, don’t you, that in exactly this field in 1914 at Christmas, combatants got out of their trenches, met one another, played football and shared gifts for Christmas?”. Somehow or other, human beings recognised, subliminally at least, that we are made for greater things.
Later that week, I had the privilege of taking the service at the Menin Gate. During that ceremony, at the end of the gate were two recently trained squads of young soldiers from Catterick. I was asked to speak to them, which I was delighted to do, and I asked each one in turn, “Where are you going, sir?”. The responses were Northern Ireland, Afghanistan or Iraq. It was particularly poignant in that place, in which many thousands have no known grave, to be standing beside young men who were brave and willing to go to fight for their country yet again.
War and its consequences remain among the biggest issues for humanity to resolve. We must have a better way for the future. Perhaps I may dare to presume on the metaphor of an unexploded bomb—a bomb which we are sitting on at present. It is called Trident. I am delighted that Members of this House, including former Defence Ministers and service chiefs, have set up a cross-party group to promote nuclear disarmament as an issue which they describe as critical. The noble Lord, Lord King, is a member, as are other noble and gallant Lords.
George Shultz, who was a consummate Cold War warrior, recently stated that he believed that nuclear disarmament was an idea whose time had come. He said that here was a weapon that had the power to wipe out big swathes of humanity, asked how anyone had the right to use such a weapon, and concluded that there was no morality to it at all. The Minister indicated that the issue of nuclear weaponry is under review—and rightly so. Next year will mark the review of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and it is entirely the responsibility of all signatories, of which the United Kingdom is one, to consider their current positions in respect of non-proliferation.
I am not an impossibilist, which I was once accused of being by Des Browne on “Channel 4 News”. I recognise that it takes time to dismantle nuclear weapons. However, we need to realise that the desired result is imperative and we can make a distinctive and important contribution at this moment in history by not renewing the Trident weapons system. This will have two effects. First, it will declare our continued commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and, secondly, it will make resources available for the kind of conflicts which the Minister has outlined as being integral in the defence strategy of the future.
When I was leaving the battlefields of Flanders, like many people I went to the graveyards. I had the privilege of taking a small ceremony for the remembrance of Harry Patch at the Tyne Cot cemetery. Harry was a member of the city of Wells in which I live and I knew him very well indeed. I also visited one of the German cemeteries. There on one of the stones were the words of Einstein:
“I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones”.
I hope that in this debate and in the future defence policy of this country, we can make a clear decision that it is time to bring an end to nuclear weapons of all kinds, and at this moment take the lead in making non-proliferation a reality.
My Lords, I add my voice to those who have expressed sympathy for all those who have died, and particularly for their families.
A lady who had lost her husband in Afghanistan quite recently was interviewed on the BBC this morning. The interviewer asked, “Do you know why he died?”. She said, “I don’t have an answer, and I don’t know what I’m going to tell my children”. Listening to the Prime Minister’s views and comments this morning, one cannot help wondering, where is the political will to win? Where is the leadership? You cannot win by looking at your toecaps. You have got to go out there and you have got to lead from the front. When you come to answer this lady, perhaps you could ask what the people of Afghanistan really want. They want freedom of the individual, backed up by the rule of law—that and economic well-being are what it is all about, and what we are there to help them to achieve.
If America and the United Kingdom withdraw, the effect of that in an uncertain world would be to undermine our credibility for the future. The roll-over to Pakistan has been commented on. There would also be an effect in central Asia, in particular in a country that I know a great deal about. People never talk about the effect on India, which has always had uncertainty on its borders. Can noble Lords imagine India facing a Pakistan that is even more extreme, with 170 million Muslims in their midst? The knock-on effect was commented on recently by Henry Kissinger.
Today we need a foreign policy and a military strength that allow us to have steel underneath the diplomatic glove. Sir Mark Stanhope, the First Sea Lord, put it better than I could in one of his speeches when he said:
“In terms of maximising choice, I am a firm believer that prevention of conflict is always better than cure. When you think about it, what the Government really wants from defence is the efficient delivery of one of the levers of national power—military force—in a way that maximises political freedom of choice. I think that has always been the case, but the need to preserve political choice has been thrown into sharper relief by the experience of recent campaigns. It depends on one’s ability to effectively influence the behaviour of others—state or non-state actors—who are your enemies or allies, potential enemies or potential allies. That ability to influence is in turn dependent on having a capable and credible military who can operate in support of a wider government strategy. It is precisely because the effective prevention of conflict in the future depends upon the continued credibility of our armed forces”—
I repeat, credibility—
“that the success of UK Armed Forces in the Afghanistan campaign is so important”.
One has seen through history the importance of having a powerful carrier force. Eleven of my P&O ships were involved in the Falklands war. A carrier force is an extraordinary deterrent to conflict. I do not have a deep understanding of Trident, but if only once in 100 years we need to use or have the opportunity to use it to defend these islands, I totally support it.
I am troubled by the military budget. Everybody is concerned about the recession, but the world will go on. I have been through five recessions. This may be the worst, but the world will not stop. This is a very wealthy country. According to Treasury figures, in 1987 we spent 4.3 per cent of our GDP on defence. Now we spend less than 2.6 per cent. Historically in a time of war one has always increased the spend on the military, and brought it down later—and we are in a time of war.
It takes courageous government, backed by a powerful military option, to make good foreign policy. I conclude by saying that, whoever is in power in future, if the military develops in a flexible manner, perhaps we will be able to reply to the lady who was on the BBC this morning by saying, “Your husband died to create a better and safer world”.
My Lords, this debate is important because it comes when the country has been at war in Afghanistan for eight years. The sacrifice of our troops calls for a sober assessment of what our expectations are of our Armed Forces when they are in theatre, and for honesty with them and the country about what the future holds. It is a sad fact that we have neither leadership to explain why we are fighting this war, nor honesty with the country about what to expect. We heard an unusual statement from the Minister today. He seems to be opening the door to a new era of honesty. I will confine most of my remarks to these two issues, because they are now critical.
Leadership in war requires that the political masters be clear to the military about the morality of war and the consequences of doing nothing to avert the dangers to the nation. I welcome the news that the Prime Minister is reconfirming his commitment to the Afghanistan mission, but, like many others, I do not accept the tone of the message. It is not sufficient to say simply that the sacrifice of our service men and women is to prevent terrorism on the streets of Britain. If it were so simple, we would not continue to have terrorist plots disrupted day after day in the UK, as our presence in Afghanistan would have ended Muslim extremism throughout the world. If it were so simple, the chairman of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee would have had logic on his side in his article in the Guardian the day before yesterday. Why fight in distant and inhospitable territory when it is much more comfortable, and indeed cheaper, to snoop on our own citizens at home?
The sacrifice of those who serve their country with valour places on politicians a duty to be honest. The honesty must not only explain why we are at war—and these reasons must be spelt out again and again lest the public memory be distracted—but also provide a regular assessment of where we are in the war effort. During the war in Afghanistan, we have sadly lacked both. This spring and summer, when Ministers should have explained clearly that the shortage of helicopters was due to the need for reconfiguration because the aircraft were designed for a different theatre, there was no explanation of the problems that we faced. What we were given instead was denial about shortages of helicopters, and denial that more troops had been requested who had not been sent out. When issues of poor procurement lead to fatalities, there is a need for an explanation of why these situations arise. However, within government, instead of an acceptance of responsibility and a determination to do better, there has been a “bury the bad news” approach—hence the attempts to sit on the Gray report for several months.
I will spell out what must comprise part of our compact with the nation if the Afghanistan effort is to succeed. First, there must be an explanation of what constitutes our national interest. The noble Lord, Lord Drayson, went some way this morning towards addressing that. I will add that this must include the possible consequences in Afghanistan, and more importantly in Pakistan, if those states fail. My noble friend Lord Ashdown detailed this succinctly during Questions in the House this week, and in his article in the Times yesterday. A regional conflagration could result not only in jihadis with fingers on nuclear buttons, but could also expand the conflict to the central Asian republics, to Iran and almost certainly, because of Kashmir, to India as well. The idea of two nuclear powers, with a long history of antagonism and war, engaging in increased hostility is certainly something that we in the UK would have to engage with. It is part of our national interest.
Lowering expectations is also an essential task in taking the war to the country. As Brigadier Buster Howes said last month, talking about Afghanistan, we are,
“not engaged in some misguided project to create Berkshire in the Hindu Kush”.
Our objective should be limited to securing stability such that the writ of the Afghan Government runs to the borders of that country. Our objective is to ensure that al-Qaeda does not have a country from which to conduct its operations. We have to explain that our objectives are not to bring about a western-style liberal democracy in Afghanistan but merely to contain problems that will not be containable if we leave them to fester.
Secondly, it is in our national interest that we continue to play our full role as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Our obligation is to help to preserve international peace and security and we have a duty to live up to that. It is in our national interest that NATO, of which we are such an important component, is able to execute its mandate in Afghanistan. It was not designed for this kind of operation, so far from its traditional theatre, but it is vital now that it is engaged that it passes this test if it is to survive and be fit for purpose in the future.
The Minister touched on the importance of multilateralism. I would go further. In an increasingly insecure globalised world, working with others on defence and security is equally important as working with others in stabilising the economy or addressing climate change. Countries can no longer pick and choose from an à la carte menu of multilateralism and say, “We’ll co-operate on this but not on that; we’ll play our part here but not there”.
Finally, I want to touch on the case that needs to be made here at home to the public for our engagement in the Muslim world. Many will question why our service men and women are putting themselves in harm’s way to sort out the problems of people who seemingly do not conform to our values, our ideas of freedom and democracy or our respect for human rights. The answer is clear. We are all, irrespective of our religion or culture, enjoined in our common humanity. However, I do not make sweeping claims for our obligations under that banner. I raise this simply because there has been a failure to explain to our public the extent of the crisis that is engulfing the Muslim world and the ideological struggle over adapting to modernity or retaining an idealistic, pure vision of a kind of life that probably never existed. Our interest has to be to support the vast majority of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims who form the mass of the community of nations. We need to explain that this trouble will take at least a generation to work itself through and that we will undoubtedly be affected by it here in the UK.
We need to remind ourselves of history. Just when we were recovering from the losses of the First World War, the unfinished business of the treaty of Versailles catapulted us into the Second World War. After 1945, when we thought that we could get on with peace and prosperity, we had the Cold War. A decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had 9/11 and the spectre of jihadi terrorism. It is a sad fact of the continuity of world affairs that there is also continuity in an imperfect peace. We on these Benches will happily play our part in taking this message to our fellow citizens. I fear that the Government are bound to fail to do so.
My Lords, in his Statement about the Bernard Gray review on defence acquisition, Mr Ainsworth said of the review’s recommendations:
“We accept most of them and work is in hand, as part of a wider defence acquisition reform strategy, to implement the changes we agree are needed”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/10/09; col. 648.]
Something has to be done about the mismatch between the MoD’s procurement aspirations and available resources, but this problem has not suddenly arisen in the last six to 12 months. Mr Gray’s report shows the massive and unsustainable scale of the expenditure bow wave way back in 2005, let alone now in 2009.
Thirteen months ago, some of my noble and gallant friends and I met Mr Hutton, then the Defence Secretary, to discuss the growing pressures on the defence budget and issues of procurement. I asked him directly, “Is it not time to have a defence review?”. “No,” he replied, “we know where we are and it is not necessary”. In which case, why was the procurement budget being so cavalierly overloaded?
Now, over a year later, there is serious talk of a new defence review. The Minister has described the preliminary work. However, due to the timings of the electoral calendar, there is little hope for a further 18 months or more of a completed defence review emerging and enjoying firm government endorsement, with future funding levels, one would hope, approved. Meanwhile, there is no sound basis for procurement decisions or cancellations. UORs apart, defence acquisition is in limbo. Even UORs add long-term liability to the core defence budget.
If ever there has been a crying need for firm, determined, knowledgeable ministerial leadership on these issues, it has been in the past few years. I do not have to single out individuals, because what we have had in the MoD is institutionalised mismanagement. What organisation with a budget of well over £30 billion a year would seek to direct its efforts at decision level with individuals who hold appointments for a short time or on a twin-hatted basis? What organisation would attempt to resolve this with confusing additions and overlaps in responsibilities? The MoD’s ministerial quartet bizarrely became a quintet a year ago; now it is a sextet. Surely this is institutionalised mismanagement, apart from sending all the wrong signals about overweight headquarters when we are at war.
Let me return to Mr Gray’s informative and instructive review. If the MoD was all powerful, with a known and guaranteed level of funding, it might work. But how can his proposals deal better with things that lie without the MoD’s control and are too often the root cause of its poor performance? The first and most obvious issue is whether any forecast level of funding will be allowed to remain from year on year for the 10 or more years that are perceived to be necessary to manage a large acquisition programme. All my experience since I was a wing commander in the CDS office in the mid-1960s has been that defence spend is always being challenged or squeezed. We have had a litany of reviews, cuts, savings, efficiencies, leanings and reductions in output costs, some compounded year on year.
In the past decade, following the SDR of 1998, there has been a series of reorganisations, changes in responsibility and wholesale moves and amalgamations of headquarters. Each new iteration has been hailed as a panacea. Bernard Gray’s is but the latest and in many ways it is a persuasive and well presented case. However, it banks on a well preserved forecast of funding for a decade ahead. Is that realistic after all our experience in this field? Will other government departments allow it, let alone the Treasury? If not, Gray is dead meat.
My second concern is about the impact of collaborative programmes where, say, a change of government leads to reappraisal, and almost certainly to delay. Although not the only reason for the Eurofighter/Typhoon’s extended development timescale, the “wobbly” thrown to the programme by the incoming German Government in the early 1990s was beyond our control and had serious adverse consequences for the final programme cost.
My third concern is about the problems of reviews and change. After a year or more of deep discussion and consideration with staff at many levels, the plan is hatched and approved, and direction is given to get on with it. This will be complex, with adjustments made to ways of working, to chains of command, to relocation of staff and so on. To be effective, sound leadership and direction have to be maintained, unbroken, over a period of several years. However, too often a further “review” is started during the bed-down process. The attention of those who should be overseeing the progress of the previous change is caught up with and distracted by working on or contributing to the new study, sometimes with a loss of confidence in the earlier proposition. If this sounds abstract and theoretical, Ministers must read the horrific account in the review of the fatal Nimrod accident in Afghanistan. Perhaps I may quote one paragraph, which the noble Lord, Lord King, has already mentioned. Paragraph 21 reads:
“The MOD suffered a sustained period of deep organisational trauma between 1998 and 2006, beginning with the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. Financial pressures and cuts drove a cascade of multifarious organisational changes, which led to a dilution of the airworthiness regime and culture within the MOD, and distraction from safety and airworthiness issues as the top priority. There was a shift in culture and priorities in the MOD towards ‘business’ and financial targets, at the expense of functional values such as safety and airworthiness”.
Although Mr Haddon-Cave’s remarks are focused on airworthiness, the lesson to be drawn is clear. Prior to the Nimrod accident in 2006, there was a massive restructuring of single-service logistic support into the DLO and, almost without waiting to see how that would turn out, the DLO was thrown together with the DPA to form DE&S. To all that upheaval was added an unrealisable savings target of 20 per cent.
I hope that Ministers pause for thought about further organisational turbulence until a new SDR is agreed and the subsequent tsunami of cuts and changes has erupted. Mr Ainsworth in his Statement referred to an ongoing wider acquisition reform strategy. It seems that the tumbrels of change are rolling down the corridors of the MoD at an ever faster pace. I hope that Ministers will heed the advice of the Chiefs of Staff on these organisational changes.
My Lords, as UK president of the Council of Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Associations in the United Kingdom, I start by paying tribute to those in the TA who have served both in Iraq and Afghanistan, some having made the ultimate sacrifice. Our reservists amount to, in certain circumstances, up to 10 per cent of the total forces. I agree totally with what my noble friend Lord King said earlier and I associate myself entirely with his remarks.
I want to make a brief contribution on something that concerns me and the TA, which is what we call combat stress—that is, the effect of soldiers serving but not necessarily being wounded under mentally stressful conditions. I am sure that the House and those who have visited Afghanistan recently will understand that some of the horrific and horrendous circumstances experienced by our very young soldiers aged 17 and 18 will have a profound effect on the rest of their lives.
The effects of the stress and horror of seeing your comrades being killed or injured are homelessness, far too many former soldiers, both regulars and reservists, being in prison, and suicide. This is not a new problem. After they came back from the trenches of the First World War, many hundreds of thousands of men—many of our grandfathers, including mine—did not speak about the war for decades as they were so traumatised. However, they were courageous enough to carry on their lives and look after their families.
Your Lordships will be horrified to learn that the number of suicides among soldiers who fought in the Falklands now exceeds the number of those who gave their lives: 270 as against 250 combat deaths. That is a tragic figure. I understand that between 2003 and 2007 more than 4,000 regulars and reservists who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan were treated for mental illness by the Ministry of Defence. However, the MoD typically ends full responsibility when servicemen leave the service and return to civilian life, the responsibility being handed over to the National Health Service. Reservists, however, are not quite in the same position because, when they come back from six or nine months’ service abroad, they do not have the support of their fellow soldiers—the companionship of the unit with which they have fought—or the family services support offered by the MoD. Therefore, they are in a sense forgotten. I do not mean that their sacrifice or effort is forgotten but that sometimes they personally are forgotten by the military.
I conclude with five suggestions. I am not asking the Minister to respond in detail but, if he will write to me, I shall certainly circulate his letter to those affected. First, I think that the nation is somewhat in denial about the horrors and sacrifices being made, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those sacrifices are somehow parked on the back pages of our newspapers. However, I pay tribute to the Prime Minister and other Ministers, who regularly take the trouble to report not only to the other House but to your Lordships on those who have made this sacrifice. None the less, the nation is in denial about the human tragedy that is occurring, particularly among our troops.
Secondly, although the NHS has done a lot to help to deal with mental illness, I do not think that general practitioners generally recognise the symptoms enough. We need more encouragement and training for them.
Thirdly, the Ministry of Defence should consider spending more money on treatment centres around the country for those still in service. As your Lordships may know, there are six pilot clinics around the country, but we probably need three or four times that number.
Fourthly, our reservists need equal treatment with our regulars. They should be treated in exactly the same fashion, with their symptoms being treated and, where possible, treatment provided.
Finally, I pay tribute to the excellent work done by charities—particularly Combat Stress, the Warrior Programme and Veterans Aid—but we need to co-ordinate our activities a little better. When one thinks of the tremendous success of Help for Heroes, I believe that we can get our act together to help those who have suffered and are likely to suffer, because Afghanistan brings a great inheritance of mental illness for many years to come. We will shortly pay tribute on Remembrance Day to the dead; let us not forget the living dead.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Freeman has already said much of what I should like to say far better than I will, but I shall say it all the same.
Other noble Lords have spoken of the strategic and tactical military and diplomatic implications of the war in Afghanistan and of the wars in Iraq and the Balkans. They have not gone away any more than the threat from Iran and from an unstable Russia, which can only be countered by a strong NATO. In terms of defence, the EU is irrelevant, although it costs us money which can ill be spared from the defence budget. I want to review the human and social cost of the commitments that this Government have made without being prepared to pay for them. I believe it is utterly wrong that we should continue to pledge support for the operation of DfID, which far exceeds the Armed Forces budget. In so doing, we fail in our duty to the men and women, both soldiers and families, who serve our country.
The Government are to have a defence review in due course. Let us hope that next time we shall not repeat the mistake of committing our Armed Forces to a scale of war for which little or no provision has been made. In the case of Afghanistan, the recent murder of mentors must surely put an end to plans to remain there for many years. Let us give them aid but not the flower of our youth.
It seems to have become the norm for the covenant between the nation and the Armed Forces to be broken. Over the years, since a Tory Government allowed the Treasury to require the sale of the married quarters estate, many families, year after year, have lived in squalid and often unhealthy quarters. Every year the MoD intends to do something about it next year, because the money set aside has had to be diverted. The defence estate now intends to improve 4,000 quarters that are in the worst condition. The well-being of their families matters to soldiers, and the failure to observe the harmony requirement can only lead to broken homes—to children growing up without their father or mother. This is a major cause of potential broken marriages and social breakdown.
The Government, in Command Paper 7424, have written of the nation’s commitment and of cross-government support for the Armed Forces, their families and veterans. It purports to meet some of the crucial concerns, such as the great disparity between civil and military compensation and the absence of provision for the adaptation of homes for men and women who have lost three limbs. We are told that there is to be a review of compensation for military injuries. What will it actually do for one of the most severe disabilities—post-traumatic stress disorder? The experience of the Gulf War veterans over many years has been one of persistent delay, prevarication and difficulty, in contrast to the experience of US Gulf War veterans. The MoD has, in the Command Paper, recognised that the health needs of veterans can rarely be met, as my noble friend Lord Freeman said, by sending them to the NHS where they are unlikely to receive the care that they need from psychiatrists who are wholly unfamiliar with their traumatic military experience. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that active work is now being done to set up pilot schemes to improve veteran access to the mental health services that they need. At present there is all too little provision.
I am in touch with a small new charity—Talking2Minds—which is trying to set up some small local clinics to provide veterans, many of whom feel very isolated, with some combat stress therapy, but that should be a national responsibility and I hope that it will be. The Government claimed in 2008 to be providing cross-government support to our Armed Forces, their families and veterans, and to have appointed an Armed Forces advocate in each ministry—I wonder who it was in the Treasury—and in the devolved Administrations. An external reference group has been set up in the Cabinet Office to monitor all this and government departments have to ensure that policy is not made, nor legislation enacted, without taking account of the impact on the service community, whether UK or overseas-based. Who monitors this? Has it condoned the reported power of the Treasury and of the MoD, acting under budget restrictions, to make decisions solely based on cost-cutting which apparently take no account of threats to safety? Both the Nimrod and the modified Sea Kings were known to be unsafe. Vital decisions on air-worthiness, it is said, were made not on the basis of safety but to cut costs, and apparently that was compounded by extensive failure to keep safety under review. If there is money for the Olympics, surely there should be enough to meet the needs of the services.
The people of England are slow to wrath but they are becoming angry. How long will they tolerate a system which may send men and women to their deaths if remedying life-threatening faults will cost more money than the Treasury—not the country—is prepared to sanction? The Government’s solution is to set up committees, but I hope that they can do better than that.
My Lords, I declare two interests. I am a non-executive director of a defence company and an adviser and colonel of two regiments currently serving in Afghanistan. I want to comment on what the Minister said. I had the privilege of being chief of defence staff when the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, was Secretary of State. I believe that in 1998 the Strategic Defence Review was very successful and well put together. Although the Cabinet signed up to it, almost from the moment that Cabinet meeting ended, the proposal started to be unpicked by the Treasury. It was very unsympathetic to defence and, although it was prepared when times were good to give a lot of money to other ministries, the Ministry of Defence continued to come off very badly in comparison.
Like other noble Lords, I am full of admiration for the bravery, resilience and outstanding qualities of our service men and women in Afghanistan, and what they have achieved, but I do not think that any of us can pretend that matters are going well in that country. Afghanistan illustrates all too clearly that the military can only do so much. Progress depends on political goals being achieved, diplomats, aid and the determination of the Afghan people and the Afghan Government themselves. To start with, expectations were too high and we now need new initiatives, both military and political. We should not pursue policies which have not worked, as the noble Lord, Lord King, said, and we need to seek regional agreement not just with Pakistan, but with India, Russia and Iran, all of whom have an interest in a satisfactory solution—in some ways, a much greater interest in a satisfactory solution than we do.
The Government could do several things which would greatly assist those in the front line and who find the Government’s commitment to their needs less than it should be. First—and I make no apology for going on about this—is the vexed question of the clear need for more helicopters. Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor said that the front line can have what it asks for. Commanders need helicopters in addition to logistics, transport and administration to save lives, to outwit and unsettle the enemy, and to disrupt its activities. We have been in Afghanistan for eight years and still the numbers are inadequate. It is unsatisfactory for the Ministry of Defence and Ministers always to say that things are better. They are always quoting percentage increases and the number of flying hours that have been increased. That all sounds very good until you realise what a low state it was in at the beginning. I have no doubt whatever that, with additional helicopters, some of the lives that have been lost would have been saved.
My second point concerns the 500 soldiers asked for by commanders on the ground. They are available and waiting but, because of what appears to be dithering in London, are becoming unsettled. These 500 men should not be linked to the 40,000 soldiers and a possible United States surge. These 500 men would give our commanders additional security for our service men and women, flexibility and balance which they desperately need and lack now. The three conditions laid down by the Prime Minister for their movement reveal a complete lack of understanding of what these men are for. I wonder who on earth has been briefing him about the need for helicopters.
The recent decision on the Territorial Army, which was thankfully reversed by the Prime Minister, sent the most terrible message to the TA, which has done so much in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was an extraordinary decision by the Ministry of Defence. We now hear that regular manpower is likely to be cut. I would like the Minister to say whether that is so. If it is cut, it will send a very damaging message to a heroic, hard-pressed and stretched Army—already too small. The Army, and many people in our country, will not understand how such a decision could be made at such a time. Military services and people in the front line are questioning whether the Government are really committed to making progress in Afghanistan and what is happening about the co-ordination between the Foreign Office, DfID and the Ministry of Defence. I am curious to know who is meant to be co-ordinating this. It does not seem very clear to me.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, mentioned the article in the Guardian by my good friend and colleague Dr Kim Howells, in which he called for a public debate on our mission in Afghanistan. I agree with Kim Howells that we should have an informed debate, but, as a member of his committee, I come to entirely the opposite conclusion from Kim. I will explain why.
It is important to remember that our presence in Afghanistan is as part, and only part, of a NATO force with participation by more than 40 countries led by the United States and a mandate agreed by the United Nations. I say to the noble Lords, Lord Lee and Lord King, that that is why it is very different from the mission in the Falklands, where we were very much on our own so the commitment by the United Kingdom had to be absolute. The United Nations rightly considered that a really dangerous threat was posed by the Taliban’s protection for terrorist cells in Afghanistan and that military action needed to be taken against the Taliban as the best way to counter that threat. That is a very different scenario from Iraq, where opponents claimed—in my view, quite wrongly—that our intervention was illegal. That has not stopped the usual suspects, and we all know who they are, in the Stop the War campaign from transferring the opposition to the war in Iraq to the war in Afghanistan, as if it was exactly the same. In some Pavlovian manner, they have moved on. More thoughtful commentators have recognised the difference, which has meant much more widespread support for our action in Afghanistan—although that, as we have seen from our debate today, is now under some threat.
The noble Lord, Lord King, will know this from his experience as the chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. From the information that I have received as a member of that committee, obviously in confidence, I know that our action in Afghanistan is vital to deal with the terrorist threat. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, that that in no way negates or excludes the work that we need to do in development and trade. I agree with her on that, but it is all complementary. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, just said, that needs to be co-ordinated, but it is being co-ordinated within the Government.
As my noble friend said, al-Qaeda training camps and cells are operational in the lawless areas of both Pakistan and Afghanistan. From there, the terrorists have planned and launched attacks that have slaughtered thousands of innocent people on the streets of London, of New York, of Dar es Salaam, of Madrid and of other cities around the world. Let us not forget that. Sometimes, some people forget about all those thousands of deaths. More innocent people will die unless those terror cells are closed. That needs action in both Pakistan—I say to the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, that that is happening now—and Afghanistan where, as I said, the UN has responsibility. Our action as part of the UN force is now being undermined by the growing criticism, much of which I think is based on irresponsible and ill informed coverage in sections of the media that love sensational stories. Of course, the death of every serviceman and woman in Afghanistan is tragic, and we share the families’ grief, but all those in our forces are volunteers, who go in knowing that they face such dangers in the course of their duties, and do so bravely. Every report that I have seen is that they know why they are there and they know what they need to be doing, even if some people here do not. Those on the front line are doing a good job, of which they and we should be proud, of defeating the Taliban and training the Afghan police and armed forces so that they can take over at an appropriate time.
Much has been said here today about helicopters. I keep hearing that. Some people should check their facts before speaking. I say that with all humility. Between November 2006 and 2009, the Government increased helicopter numbers in Afghanistan by more than 60 per cent, and the helicopter hours available to commanders by 84 per cent. [Laughter.] I do not know why people laugh. Helicopter hours will have been increased by 130 per cent. There has been the conversion of eight Chinook mark 3 helicopters, the redeployment of our Merlin fleet from Iraq, the acquisition of six Merlin helicopters from Denmark and the upgrading of our Lynx light helicopters with powerful new engines to allow them to operate in Afghanistan all year round.
Of course more needs to be done, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, said. We will never have absolutely enough, but there ought to be at least some recognition of what is being done. I remember the tenure of office of the noble Lord, King, in the House of Commons as Secretary of State for Defence. I was there as an opposition Member. In the years of the Labour Government, expenditure on defence rose by £1 billion a year, compared with the last five years under the Tories, when it was cut by half a billion pounds a year. That is the reality. As they say in Scotland,
“facts are chiels that winna ding”.
Those are irrefutable facts. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lee, that defence expenditure is now, at just under 2.5 per cent of GDP, more than 10 per cent higher in real terms than in 1997. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, and others must recognise that there are pressures from the health service and education. Those of us who want money to be spent on defence must argue our case effectively.
In conclusion, we need to support the effort in Afghanistan and ensure that it is not undermined. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Freeman—I am sorry that he is no longer in his place—about the people who are suffering silently and invisibly, the people with psychological traumas. I have visited Combat Stress at Hollybush House in my former constituency near Ayr and seen the work that is being done there. As a former member of the Territorial Army, I see those who have volunteered as territorials, and who are also suffering. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, about that. I disagree with his complete support for the noble Lord, Lord King. If, heaven forbid, we were to see the return of a Conservative Government, with all the cuts threatened by the leader of the Conservatives, David Cameron, there would be a lot more screaming and squealing about cuts in the defence budget and many other budgets. This is just one more area that would be jeopardised by the return of a Conservative Government.
My Lords, I start by declaring interests. I work for two defence contractors, one an American one, and I also work for a helicopter operator that works in and out of Kabul.
I suspect that our defence forces have never been in quite such dire straits as they are at the moment, with overstretch and enormous problems in the procurement budget. I start with the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. Like all previous defence reviews, it decided that we should envisage threats that involved all three forces, and has since been regarded as a bit of a coup by the Royal Navy, in that the concept of projected force meant that we had to have aircraft carriers and, with them, the Joint Strike Fighter and Type 45 destroyers to defend them, in addition to our existing commitment to the Eurofighter and a large shopping list of other procurement projects. That was a very expensive defence review—at its initial printing, it was extremely expensive. I do not accept the Minister’s claim that post-9/11 everything changed and became much more expensive. It was expensive in 1998. If it subsequently became much more expensive after 9/11, why did we not have another defence review?
As we have already been told by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, it was thought adequate that if we got that through the Cabinet, somehow the money would be forthcoming. On Monday, a number of us attended a dinner of the UK Defence Forum, which was addressed by two members of the procurement executive from Australia. They said that the Australians have been working for the past 10 years on a budget that now rolls forward 10 years and tells them how much money is available for Australian defence.
It is quite extraordinary that when the 1998 Strategic Defence Review was produced, it was not costed and agreed that the money would be forthcoming from the Treasury before it was published. We have just been through a period of extraordinary prosperity in terms of the benign decade when money was clearly available. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, said, during that time, it was possible for the health budget to go up from just over £30 billion to over £100 billion, but that did not apply to defence. There was the usual rhetoric from the Treasury that there was terrible waste and enormous potential for savings. The Minister also referred to defence inflation running at 10 per cent. I think we would all agree that that is a reasonable figure for the rate at which defence inflation runs. Why then was it not funded by the Treasury? It is not a new eventuality. Defence inflation has been running at 10 per cent for some time.
Another provision of the 1998 Strategic Defence Review was the commitment that we could provide one continuing medium-sized operation at a time. That was Afghanistan, which we went into in 2003. In 2005, we went into Iraq, and that was a second continuing medium-sized conflict, which totally changed the concept of the original Strategic Defence Review and meant that we needed a significant increase in defence expenditure. The money was there at that time, but the political will was not. I am told that twice the then Chief of the Defence Staff, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, went to see the Prime Minister, as was his right. As the Chief of the Defence Staff, he had made himself extremely useful to the Prime Minister, and he might have thought that Tony Blair owed him a favour in return. However, each time the noble and gallant Lord made his plea for a significant increase in the defence budget, he was told, “Charles, you know that I cannot interfere with Treasury matters, you must go and talk to Gordon Brown”. I liken this slightly to a woman walking into a police station to complain of rape being told to go and talk to her rapist. I am also told that the second time that happened, the noble and gallant Lord got back to his office in the Ministry of Defence and was informed that it had had a message from the Treasury stating that he had to be reminded that his pension was discretionary. I sincerely hope that this story is true because it has all the hallmarks of one of Gordon Brown’s attack dogs: vicious, intimidating and wholly inaccurate. There is no way that his pension could have been cut, except under the most exceptional circumstances.
The 1998 Strategic Defence Review was a series of extremely bad calls. Nobody comes out of it well, least of all the Government. Let us now learn. As we face the forthcoming Strategic Defence Review, let us take a page out of the book of the Australians and see what funds are available.
I would like to ask the Minister about the contingency fund no longer paying the £3 billion cost of Afghanistan. I gather that it comes back into the defence budget, which effectively means a cut in the funds already available. Can he tell us precisely how that is going to happen? We will end up with smaller defence forces than we have today. Nobody thinks that we are going to see the increases that we failed to get in the past. However, let us ensure that when we have smaller forces, they are properly equipped and can do their jobs properly. We owe our Armed Forces nothing less.
My Lords, almost all informed commentators know that the political strategy in Afghanistan is failing. I believe that we have to think quite out of the box if we are to get a long-term solution to Afghanistan. Let us first admit that a western-style democracy is not under starter's orders in Afghanistan. To try to unify and democratise a country that is totally fragmented historically, socially, politically and economically, with the Taliban capturing, sometimes by force, the hearts and minds of a growing proportion of the population is like trying to grow melons in the desert without irrigation. We need to face the fact that for many countries electoral democracy is not essential for stability and prosperity. China is an obvious example. What the political solution for Afghanistan should be is perhaps not for this debate, but let us recognise that a military solution is a road to nowhere.
I had the privilege of visiting Helmand as part of a parliamentary delegation in July during Operation Panther's Claw. The organisation, administration and facilities at Camp Bastion and Kandahar airfield were superb. Our troops in theatre are being extremely well looked after. The quality of the trauma treatment at Bastion hospital is probably the finest in the world. The morale and motivation of Army and Royal Air Force personnel we met were inspiring and deeply moving, but there were equipment inadequacies; some of them, such as helicopters, are difficult to deal with, but for others there can be no excuse. I shall give just one example: some of the radio sets of the British infantry—the unit we visited was the Black Watch—still have rigid aerials that can easily bend and often break in action in urban fighting. The radio can then fail. A radio is a weapon. When I later raised the point with a senior officer in Helmand, he said, with exasperation, that they had been trying to get the problem fixed for months. I suppose that we should not be surprised that the Ministry of Defence wasted billions of pounds and years of precious time trying to introduce the new Bowman radio system when it cannot even get a flexible aerial for use on one of the toughest battlefields in the world. I hope that the Minister will get the answer to this point by the end of the debate. It should have been “action this day”.
One does not have to visit Afghanistan to recognise the military problems. The setting up of forward operating bases achieves little except casualties. The troops have to be airlifted into the FOBs and cannot effectively control the surrounding land. They get shot at or bombed when they go out on a four-hour patrol and although they can visit neighbouring villages, the Taliban imposes a curfew at night so that it can replace IEDs near the FOBs, so the troops cannot give confidence to the locals to stand up to the Taliban and end up defending no one but themselves. It is not surprising that the provision of any meaningful aid for restructuring is impossible, at least in Helmand, under such conditions.
The Afghan troops are proving a broken reed or worse. First, they hate serving in Helmand. The Foreign Secretary told the Commons on 16 July that although NATO had trained 90,000 Afghan army personnel, there were only 4,000 based in Helmand and only 450 were available to support us in Panther's Claw, an operation in which some 15,000 coalition forces were engaged. Secondly, Afghan troops are of doubtful loyalty. I recently heard of a young British Army officer who found an Afghan soldier attached to his platoon in an FOB using a mobile phone to organise a Taliban attack on that FOB.
A serious risk is to the coalition supply lines. Nearly everything comes into Bastion and Kandahar by air, largely using civilian contractors from various countries. If the hostility between Iran and the Taliban were to be reduced, I fear there would be a real risk of effective surface-to-air missiles being supplied to the Taliban. Where would the whole operation be then? Remember that when the Americans supplied the mujaheddin with SAMs it was the beginning of the end for the Russian military operation.
The lack of reality in the Government’s thinking is underlined in Gordon Brown's introduction to the White Paper UK Policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan: The Way Forward which starts:
“The four great challenges of our time—the global financial crisis, climate change, global poverty and global security—are alike in requiring an appreciation of their scale”.
His problem is that he appreciates little and controls less. He stares into space and sees a mirage: himself leading the world in every direction. In fact, our Prime Minister is controlled by events, and all he does is to respond to every populist pressure whether reflected by the domestic media or proposed by some other Government. On defence, there has been neither strategy, vision, resources nor, least of all, political leadership.
Mr Brown has been Prime Minister for only two and a half years, yet he is already on his third Defence Secretary. Try as I have I cannot find anything in Mr Ainsworth’s experience, talent, political weight or performance to justify him holding one of the most crucial Cabinet posts for Britain today. How lucky the Government are to have five former Chiefs of the Defence Staff, representing all three services, taking part in this debate. I am delighted to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, who is one of the first-class Ministers that this Government have had. It would be nice if the Defence Secretary would come along and listen to this debate. I have one message for the chiefs of staff today. They must insist that the Government, Labour or Tory, do not commit our forces with inadequate resources in men or equipment for the task. It is they, the chiefs of staff, who are professionally qualified to make that judgment. They must make it, privately if possible, but publicly if necessary.
Nor do I have much confidence in the Civil Service leadership at the Ministry of Defence. Let us not forget that the Permanent Secretary since 2005, Sir Bill Jeffrey, distinguished himself as director-general of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the Home Office between September 2002 and April 2005, the very period when Dr John Reid famously denounced it as “not fit for purpose”. But perhaps most worrying is the Prime Minister's repeated claim that by fighting in Afghanistan we are preventing terrorism coming to the streets of Britain. That is not just nonsense, it is very dangerous nonsense.
I conclude with two points. First, what we are doing in Afghanistan may well be enhancing the threat to the security of Britain. Secondly, the best place to defend our homeland security from terrorism is at home rather than on a foreign field. Sadly, we are still not doing all we could on the home front. The real threat to Britain comes from domestic jihadists inspired from many points around the world, but who are usually trained not in Afghanistan but in Pakistan.
My Lords, the House and the country are united in their admiration and gratitude to all personnel in the Armed Forces and their families for their courage, loyalty and stamina, especially in operations in Afghanistan. They always exceed our expectations and their determination and bravery are an example to us all. I should like to say a few words about future defence policy and capability. We have fine leaders in our Armed Forces from the lowest to the very highest ranks. From all ranks individuals show outstanding leadership. Our plans and future defence policy require leadership from politicians. It is only to be hoped that politicians can start to emulate the distinguished example shown by our Armed Forces. I believe that many in this House acknowledge that it is the first duty of any Government to defend the country. It is for politicians to lead and for politicians of all parties to explain and win the case with the public for the priority that defence expenditure must have.
I take the view that the proportion of the country's wealth spent on defence should not shrink at all, even in these parlous economic circumstances. Defence is the one area of expenditure that should be completely protected from any cuts. There are compelling reasons why defence expenditure should increase, not only because of our major commitment in Afghanistan but also because of the considerable threat from numerous unstable regimes around the world. We need efficiency in defence expenditure, but we must not cut back.
I should like to say a few words about the nuclear deterrent. I welcomed the decision to order four Trident replacement submarines with the appropriate ballistic missile weapons systems. In the past, I have welcomed sensible, balanced reductions in warheads. I accept the premise that prevention is crucial in defence matters and the nuclear deterrent has been successful since 1945. I also accept the premise that it would be a massive mistake to leave our politicians and diplomats without a credible, constant and robust defence capability. We all want diplomatic solutions but it is a matter of the greatest regret that some countries do not respect diplomacy alone. We live in an era where more unstable regimes are acquiring nuclear weapons.
I favour a four-boat Trident replacement as planned. Four boats are needed—one at sea, one in long refit, one working up for deployment and one in minor refit. The boats have been constructed in Barrow-in-Furness, long refits carried out in Plymouth and the boats, as the House knows, are based at Faslane. How does any Prime Minister or Government respond if there are only three submarines and one is not at sea? For the deterrent to be credible, it must be continuous. There has been talk of going for a cheaper cruise missile solution. It is highly unlikely that this solution will save money. An enormous amount of time and money will have to be spent planning it. Cruise missiles are not strategic weaponry. They have a range of about one-third of that of the Trident and the cruise missile itself is vulnerable. How many platforms will be required? Will they be surface, submarine or a mix? Trident and its replacement have and will have a full strategic range of some many thousands of miles. It is a weapon system that is exceptionally discreet and almost invulnerable to countermeasures.
On cost, my noble friend Lord Lee reminded the House of the high cost to France of maintaining a nuclear deterrent compared to the cost of Trident in this country. We have the expertise, the personnel and the capability. This should not be lost until we reach a time, which we will all welcome, when the world rids itself of nuclear weapons.
As many have said before in defence debates in this House, it is imperative to give the fullest support to our troops engaged on active service. However, they must not lose the vital skills that they possess in their other fields of expertise and operations. Invariably, the unplanned for and unexpected happen. Who would have anticipated the Falklands invasion? As the Minister, who I am delighted to see back in office, has said, who would have anticipated 9/11 and the consequences of that dreadful attack? Who would have expected the problems in Sierra Leone and, for that matter, of us engaging in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Our expeditionary capability is essential. We, with the United States, are leaders in this field. It is imperative that we retain and renew a carrier strike capability with amphibious ships and specialist forces, which are all equipped with the appropriate command capabilities. This work requires considerable expertise, skill and experience of combined operations. Our country has worldwide interests and responsibilities and much of our economy and livelihoods depend on the free movement of maritime trade. Our prosperity and freedoms depend right across the world on the security that we, with our allies, can maintain through strong defence forces. Prevention is key, but we need the capability to intervene with military strength in operations that will run the gamut from all-out combat to humanitarian operations. It is essential for us to maintain the flexibility and versatility to conduct combined operations. Again, these are skills that, once lost, will never be regained.
In the past I have called, as have many other noble Lords in speeches in this House, for more helicopters in theatre in Afghanistan. Will the Minister let us know the current state of affairs and what is planned? Furthermore, I have called for more teeth arms. The Army should be able to raise and recruit sufficient personnel for another infantry brigade with support arms, and the Royal Marines should be able to raise and recruit another commando unit. It is essential to have sufficient fighting troops to do the many jobs that our Armed Forces are tasked for. We need these people in our teeth arms and I hope that the Minister will have something to say on this matter as well.
Finally, I pay tribute to the wonderful dedicated and courageous work of all personnel in the Armed Forces and their families who serve our country so gallantly.
My Lords, I had the privilege of visiting Afghanistan as part of a parliamentary delegation just 12 months ago. We went to Camp Bastion and Kandahar, but we could not go to the sharp end, the forward operating bases, because of a lack of helicopter lift capacity which I shall return to in a minute. It was a privilege because one could see at first hand the professionalism, cheerfulness and dedication of the men and women of our Armed Forces. One felt alternately humbled and proud of what they were doing on our behalf. In my few minutes, I should like to address some of the issues that arose during that trip; to ask the Minister what progress has been made towards improving or resolving them over the past 12 months; and to draw to his attention some of the implications for the upcoming defence review.
The first issue is the achievability of our objective, which the Government say is to provide security for the Afghan people so that, in a stable environment, they can begin to run their own affairs. A first flight over Helmand province shows the scale of the challenge: villages cling to hilltops and larger settlements string out along the valley floors. To provide security to such an area is immensely difficult, and no doubt as our forces pull back to the forward operating bases at night, the Taliban emerges and wreaks the most terrible vengeance on those who have shown any disposition to collaborate with us. The brutal truth is that there are not enough boots on the ground. We had between 25,000 and 30,000 troops in Northern Ireland, and even there we hung on to the security situation by the skin of our teeth. Helmand is altogether a different matter, and the 500 more men to be added to the 10,000 we have will make precious little difference, and there are no more troops to be had, given the present size of our Army. So the Government have to think carefully about the basic objective they have set for our Armed Forces.
Secondly, I address the question of helicopter lift capacity, and here I associate myself with the remarks of my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater, and I want to address the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock. While we were there we were told that six Chinooks were available, but when you inquired more closely, there were not six available because two were permanently tasked to Special Forces use, so there were four. One of those four was tasked, quite properly, to casualty evacuation, and another was on permanent rotational maintenance because of the hostile environment in which they have to operate; so that left two to provide heavy lift capacity for the British Army. It means that more visits have to go by road with a consequent increase in the vulnerability of our soldiers.
It is not just a shortage of machines, but also a shortage of pilots to fly them. The pilot recruitment and retention process has clearly gone off the rails. Perhaps the Minister can give us the up-to-date position not only on the number of machines but on recruits and on plans for recruiting ex-RAF pilots who had gone to fly helicopters in the North Sea by offering them bonuses to re-enlist.
Thirdly, I should like to address the issue of the misuse of specialist arms of our forces. The Minister made a carefully phrased point by referring to the “adverse effect on frequency of tours”. The fact is that we are asking specialist engineers and communications personnel to undertake far more frequent tours than is provided for under the military compact. The Minister needs to address the point at which the balance will be redressed and people will have the time between tours that was originally allowed for. But there is a wider issue. We met the paratroopers who had taken the turbine into the Kajaki dam. One of the troopers said to me, “I have not jumped for 13 months”; that is, August 2007. Is it the Government’s policy to use paratroopers permanently in a standard infantry role? Have they had the opportunity to carry out their paratroop training since our visit last year? If they are to be used as standard infantry, there are implications for morale among those people who join up with a specialist arm in mind.
Fourthly, I associate myself with the remarks of my noble friends Lord Freeman and Lady Park about long-term mental health issues for ex-servicemen. Modern explosives have hugely increased concussive power and there are concerns that even where personnel emerge undamaged physically from an IED, there is long-term mental damage. I am sure that the Minister will have seen the research from the US Army about the impact some 10 to 12 years on of exposure to these blasts. Can he tell the House what research the Government are doing in the UK, what the outcomes are so far, and what the MoD proposes to do about it?
Members of the Armed Forces in Afghanistan face their daily challenges with humour, albeit often of a rather black and even macabre kind. Several quoted Kipling to me, who of course wrote extensively about Afghanistan 100 or more years ago. I therefore close with a quotation from Kipling that is relevant to our debate today. Kipling lost his only son at the battle of Loos in 1915, and he wrote a poem entitled “My Boy Jack”, a few lines of which read as follows:
“‘Have you news of my boy Jack?’
Not this tide.
‘When d’you think that he’ll come back?’
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
‘Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?’
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind—
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide”.
The wind and the tide are blowing strongly in Afghanistan. Our Armed Forces are not shaming us; they are doing all that could possibly be asked of them. The question we have to ask ourselves, the Government have to ask themselves, and the Minister has to ask himself, is this: are we shaming them?
My Lords, one of the days in my life that I will never forget is 12 October, the day we returned from our summer vacation this year. The time-clock was stopped as we listened to the 34 names being read out of those who had lost their lives while we had been away enjoying ourselves. Many of us fought back tears when we realised the extent of our appalling loss. Noble Lords may wonder why I have put my name down to speak today. It is certainly not because I have any expertise in this area, but perhaps as the mother of a former reservist, I may be allowed to spend a few minutes drawing attention to the anguish that is faced by mothers and all family members who wave goodbye to fit young people in the knowledge that they may not see them again, or if they do, that they may not return to a future that is certain.
Reservists go with the blessing and support of their employers. The most severely injured may never be able to return to their regular jobs, so it is up to us to ensure that, having served their country in this courageous manner, they are treated with dignity and compassion. The TA forms nearly 10 per cent of our armed strength in Afghanistan and as such deserves to be treated with huge respect, not just tossed about in the cynical way that this Government have reacted to a call to cut costs. The TA should not be fodder to be used at the whim of the Government. As I understand it, weekly and monthly weekend training is to be restored for all—not because the Government saw the error of their ways, but because the outside pressure was so great that they had to acquiesce. However, there is still an outstanding problem that has not been resolved over the funding of cadet adult training instructors and the Army University Officer Training Corps, despite the fact that air force and naval recruits continue to receive funding as before. This matter has been an ongoing problem, and I would be grateful if the Minister could tell the House what the current situation is. After all, reservists are exposed to the same dangers as those faced by our armed services, so it is hugely important that those who follow have the opportunity to receive training while at university and college.
I have the greatest respect for all those who serve in the Armed Forces and I am deeply conscious of the dangers that each of them faces on our behalf. I am shocked that so many people are paying the ultimate price and, alarmingly, that many more—although, sadly, we know not how many—suffer the most appalling injuries. In the past these injuries would have meant that these young people would have died in action, but due to the extraordinary advances in medicine, they now survive and are returned with great care and compassion to this country, but with such severely disabling injuries that it is sometimes too painful for us to contemplate. Here I must refer to those involved in the medical care at Selly Oak Hospital. They must find it very distressing and exhausting seeing and caring for our brave heroes who arrive with dreadful disablement, and who continue to arrive with much more frequency than I think most of us realise.
I am immensely proud of all those who have served our country. Particularly at this time of remembrance, we should take note and stop and reflect as it is brought home to us the huge contribution that our troops are making. Today I make special reference to the reservists, who go to the most dangerous areas and play their part alongside their regular colleagues. My son spent many years in the TA and rose to become the commanding officer of his squadron, and now, I am proud to say, he is honorary colonel. During his time there was little call for the TA to be involved in overseas operations, but naturally he is concerned for his TA members who are fighting in Afghanistan.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister that we be kept informed of the number of our brave heroes who are or will be long-term disabled. We should know these figures so that we are aware of them and so that we can share our anguish with the families, who must always receive our generous and unreserved support.
My Lords, I join many others in their appreciation of the sacrifice of members of the Armed Forces recently in Afghanistan, in particular the soldiers murdered while helping to train the new police force. I note that we have also now lost more service personnel this year than in any other year since the Falklands 27 years ago. The difference between the two conflicts is that in the Falklands there was a defined aim and an ability to achieve it in a realistic timeframe, as has been so well expressed by the noble Lord, Lord King. Sadly, in Afghanistan, while there is a defined aim, the closing stages have not yet been reached.
The Afghanistan situation, coming so soon after the last overseas use of our Armed Forces in Iraq, has created severe pressures not only on the Ministry of Defence but, particularly, on the families of servicemen, with far too frequent returns to theatre and the dangers and stresses encountered, often caused by a shortage of troops. This has also resulted in a hugely increased workload on the supporting agencies and charities, such as Combat Stress, which work so hard to help restore often damaged minds to health.
Without doubt, many of the issues encountered in our defence forces today can be traced to the policy of cost-cutting embarked upon at the last review and which did not allow for future requirement as it developed. As a result, we have seen tragic and unnecessary losses, with systems failures in the Nimrod, shortage of equipment delivery to the front line, principally in helicopters but also in vehicles, and, finally, disillusioned personnel, from generals downwards, resulting both in resignations and the previously unseen reports in the press by senior commanders.
Where I feel a mistake has been made in recent times is the failure on the part of the Government and the Treasury to move with the situation and correctly assess the balance of need for equipment against the requirements that they have set for the Armed Forces. We have extremely professional, able and enthusiastic volunteer members of our Armed Forces but we expect them to produce results with equipment such as Nimrod without the money to complete a safe refurbishment, or a helicopter fleet that does not have sufficient parts to operate with a complete complement of equipment without regularly cannibalising parts from other aircraft. Even our elite airborne forces will be expected to qualify for their trade using aircraft they will not even use for the operational role because we are unable to supply sufficient aircraft to guarantee training and operational role fulfilment at the same time. However, it is encouraging that the urgent operational requirements now appear to be being met.
The Ministry of Defence has been forced to budget-cut, which has brought the Armed Forces into a state similar to a supermarket, with the shelves packed with only enough stores for the “just in time” delivery and often the emphasis too much on cost-cutting. I appreciate that some items are too expensive to keep in store. Sadly, where the supermarket is winning is through its ability to restock the shelves when the goods are taken off, while the Armed Forces often have to wait at the expense of training. A decision needs to be made as to whether the Armed Forces are a business or an essential part of government and foreign policy.
The Minister acknowledged that the last Strategic Defence Review did not anticipate 9/11 and I welcome his announcement of the coming Green Paper. I would advance this as a priority for whichever Government are on the Ministers’ Bench next year. There is often too much emphasis on welfare, education and health—all very important subjects—with defence relegated to the second row in the list of priority. The Government have to accept that if they wish the Armed Forces to achieve goals set for the defence forces on their behalf, then defence spending will have to be increased considerably and not reduced to provide for other departments of a more politically beneficial kind. I hope the Minister will be able to review his decision not to select Option 1, which he mentioned in his opening remarks. Defence may not be a good vote winner, but then neither are casualties when the cause is poor management.
The human element of our forces extends from family life to the years after retirement from service. We have heard evidence of the appalling condition of some married accommodation and soldiers’ accommodation and this must be taken back under a responsible management scheme. Families are of great importance to the welfare of those sent overseas at the wish of the Government and deserve to be given good and well maintained property to live in.
The recent proposals to alter the British Forces Post Office did not appear to acknowledge the link that was provided to service personnel overseas without a United Kingdom postal address. I welcome the reversal of the decision to axe the 12 overseas addresses and I hope that the Minister will be able to give assurance that, whatever changes may be made, the level of service will not in any way diminish and service personnel will still retain the benefits of a British postal system although living away from home.
I endorse the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Freeman. One of the few benefits of the recent conflicts has been to bring to the attention of the medical community the psychological effects on the Armed Forces of the less pleasant aspects of their job. This has allowed ailments such as PTSD to be addressed far faster than ever before. The charity Combat Stress has discovered that, after a service person left the security of the services, until recently it took up to 14 years for the suffering to come to the attention of the medical profession. This was mainly because it required the sufferer to acknowledge that he or she had a problem that required help, either with PTSD, depression or the misuse of drink and drugs to provide a barrier. It is now acknowledged that help as soon as possible after the event will have a greater benefit than nature left to take its course, and many of the problems are being identified in up to 18 months. Frequently this allows the problem to be addressed within the service and identified and controlled under the new TRiM system, which is encouraging people to talk to each other about their experiences at the time of the conflict.
I appreciate that it is difficult for the Ministry of Defence to retain control over the longer-term veterans, and I understand that the ministry would like veterans to be looked after through the NHS. I ask the Minister to take a leaf from the Scottish Government’s book, where the NHS in Scotland receives funding from the Scottish Government specifically for the treatment of veterans. I further ask the Minister to take note of the points that I and other noble Lords have made on funding and on the welfare of service personnel, to endeavour to achieve more in discussions with the Treasury and to keep Option 1 on the table.
My Lords, when the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, spoke, she said that everyone would mention Afghanistan. I was going to prove her wrong and not mention Afghanistan, but suddenly I have been moved to mention it, because it is reported that the Prime Minister is going to make a speech today and, in that speech, he is going to say that we may not win. Is it possible to understand or think of any more irresponsible remark to be made by any Minister of the Crown? Can the Minister imagine Churchill saying in 1940, “We may not win”? Can he imagine Mrs Thatcher saying about the Falklands, “We may not win”? It is unforgiveable to say something like that. We are asking soldiers, sailors and airmen to risk their lives and then telling them they may not win. That is all I am going to say on Afghanistan except, incidentally, that the Prime Minister bothers to ring up contestants on the “The X Factor” but does not talk to soldiers coming back. That is disgraceful as well.
I am very pleased to follow the noble Earl, Lord Stair, because I happen to know of his family’s previous experience with the Army. His great-great-great-grandfather was asked to pacify some parts of the Highlands, and he was given what later became the Scots Greys, the first royal regiment of Scotland. They were not sent to pacify the Highlands; they spent about two years building him one of the best gardens on the west coast of Scotland. That was a thoroughly useful use of defence expenditure.
To turn from a mildly flippant intervention to a much more serious one, I was absolutely delighted when my noble friend Lord Freeman said exactly what I was going to say. There is nothing new about combat stress. I suspect that, had one gone around the stoa in Athens in 485 BC, there would have been people who were homeless and in distress who were veterans of the Battle of Marathon. My noble friend Lord Freeman rightly talked of those who could not speak about the First or Second World Wars. The Duke of Wellington always had a guinea in his pocket for any Peninsular War veteran whom he saw. My father started his war service in Egypt in 1941 aged 28 and ended it in 1944 when he was captured at the Battle of Villers-Bocage. He was in a slit trench when things had gone totally pear-shaped. There were four of them in the slit trench; one person on either side of him was killed and two people were unharmed. He had 13 tanks blown up underneath him between 1941, at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh, and the Battle of Villers-Bocage, when he was captured. I do not think that he ever went to bed sober. He died extremely young, at the age of 57. Sometimes I worry and ask myself whether I began to understand him, and the answer is no, I did not. It is only since he died that I have come to realise that he must have been tortured by what he saw. I think that is very common among veterans of all wars.
I was going to talk about stress, prison, suicide and homelessness. However, I shall start on a good note. I learnt this morning from a charity called Crisis, which keeps these figures, that the number of homeless ex-servicemen living on the street has fallen very remarkably due to efforts made by the Government and charities, so well done Government and well done charities on that. What is much less happy is the gap—the noble Earl, Lord Stair, mentioned this—between leaving the Army and asking for help. To a certain extent this is obvious, in that the people who tend to go into the Army tend to be macho and think it wrong to ask for help, so things bottle up and get worse and worse. Consequently, a higher percentage of them end up in prison than is the case among other sectors of the population. A very large number of them get involved in terrible family troubles, drunkenness and drugs.
The other day I was told about a particularly heroic soldier who had had adrenaline flying and who had been immensely gallant and very brave. He was invited into the sergeants’ mess, they all got wildly drunk—I concede that has happened before now in sergeants’ messes—and he ended up by thumping somebody, breaking their jaw and being charged with grievous bodily harm. I know that soldiers get an adrenaline rush out of action and that that can lead to psychological difficulties. An article in the Guardian talked about a man from Cheshire who was involved in domestic violence, and another man from Kent. It is all there.
Difficulties arise when servicemen leave the services as they sometimes come into contact with law enforcement agencies or do not even ask for help. I am told that the great difficulty is that these are the sort of people who do not ask for help. Somehow the Government must try to do something about this. There is no easy answer, but, as a civilised country, we cannot allow this sort of stuff to go on any more than it does. It would be wrong to do so. I beg the Government to try to do more. They have shown that they can do something about homelessness, but they must do more to tackle combat stress, psychological stress, criminality and the drug and alcohol abuse suffered by some ex-servicemen.
My Lords, in today’s debate one conscript follows another, as it were, in that I think my noble friend Lord Onslow and myself were both 24-month men in Her Majesty’s Forces. I see that he agrees with me. I follow my noble friend in pushing the terrifying problems in Afghanistan—virtually every speaker has mentioned those—a bit further down the order in which I shall make my remarks. I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, for his enormous help to your Lordships when we went to say thank you to former members of the Army. We made a notable and very successful visit to the Royal Hospital Chelsea. I also thank my noble friend Lord Freeman as we made another very successful visit to the National Army Museum to see how unbelievably well the British Army has performed over the years.
My noble friend Lord King is, alas, temporarily absent from his place. No doubt your Lordships will know that I had the honour to serve with my noble friend in Northern Ireland. I do not recall any problems there—certainly not due to my noble friend—with a shortage of helicopters to carry out the essential mission. I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that my noble friend knows what he is on about when he is questioning the use of helicopters, and his remarks about the slight shortage of them.
The noble Earl, Lord Stair, and others have spoken about the Falklands. I remember the first debates in 1982. It was simply unbelievable. It came quite out of the blue that the United Kingdom was at war with a country 8,000 miles away. I recall it was absolutely essential that the Royal Navy was at the forefront of this country’s efforts in the Falklands. That is why I am delighted that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, will speak later.
Your Lordships’ defence group made two enormously successful visits during the year. The first visit was to BAE at Barrow to see the new Astute submarine. It left me, and many of your Lordships who went with us, absolutely astounded at the successful work. There may have been delays but the submarine is certainly coming on and it will be enormously successful.
Secondly, we made a visit in July this year to what I hope will be the linchpin—I may be right or I may be criticised for saying this—of the Royal Navy’s force; not carriers but a Type 45 destroyer. Three or four members of your Lordships’ group were able to go down alongside in Portsmouth to pay an enormously successful visit to HMS “Daring” and her extraordinarily competent captain, Captain Paddy McAlpine, who I am delighted is a Fermanagh man. He and I discussed all sorts of aspects of my previous career. He, his ship and the ship’s crew are a credit to the Royal Navy. They will obviate any risk of the completely unexpected that may affect your Lordships' House, the country and the defence forces at some time—perhaps not in my lifetime, perhaps in my dotage. Certainly, two aspects of what we saw were outstanding.
Your Lordships also visited 16 Air Assault Brigade at Colchester. Two of the group were able to see many aspects of the force and the equipment that it was using. As a typical Scottish accountant, I was looking at the small print and spent a hair-raising morning hearing about the accommodation. The stories that I heard made me very upset and worried. I mentioned them to the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, who is temporarily away; I shall certainly give the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, something in writing, but it will come later than today. On the other hand, we also saw at Colchester accommodation for young, single soldiers that was quite unbelievable—straight into the 21st century and everything they could want. There were some gaps, which might need a little effort, but I think that the noble Lord’s organisational skills will lead on to them.
I said that my contribution would be very light on Afghanistan, but I conclude by saying that our thoughts and good wishes go to every single one of the service men and women in Afghanistan and to their families and relatives here. It takes me back 25 years to my short time in Northern Ireland, when, every time the radio came on, there was news of a casualty, and 10,000, 12,000, hearts stopped. Was it affecting our family? Pray God, no. Our soldiers in Afghanistan face this risk every single day. That is why it is a privilege to take part in the debate in your Lordships' House today on defence and the need to support each and every one of our forces in Afghanistan.
My Lords, the Minister may have wanted a debate on the future defence policy of this nation, but I hope that he is taking away a message that what is worrying the country much more is the conduct of the operation in Afghanistan.
I have huge admiration for the bravery and fortitude of the men and women of our Armed Forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere. However, I am equally disappointed by the number of our NATO allies which have imposed significant caveats on what their Armed Forces can do in Afghanistan. This sends a terrible message to their allies and has huge implications not only for the future relationship with the United States but the future of NATO as a whole.
As I said, I pay great tribute to the courage and sacrifice of our Armed Forces in what is probably the most dangerous, challenging and hostile operational deployment that they have had for many years. I worry, first, about the lack of political direction and leadership, not just in the UK.
I heard General McChrystal speak at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. I found his intellectual assessment of the challenges in Afghanistan realistic, but also very daunting. He certainly did not underestimate the challenges that lie ahead, but the delay in responding to General McChrystal’s request by the President of the United States and by our own Government is sending a very bad message about the direction of the campaign in Afghanistan. We need clear direction, not hesitant leadership. The Armed Forces in particular must have confidence in their political direction. They need to know that they have the nation’s support, that they are fighting in a just cause and that they are not risking their lives for nothing. If the Government have reservations about the plan outlined by General McChrystal, we need to know what they are, but a deadly silence is not enough.
I would like to see greater emphasis not only on the commitment of other nations but also on improving the “hearts and minds” campaign, which is as important as the military campaign. It is also enormously important for our Armed Forces to believe that, in fighting in a campaign that is so difficult, they have the strong support and respect of the nation. That support is not only about words, it is about hard cash providing the capabilities that they need. They need to believe that their lives will not lightly be thrown away. In saying that, I realise that the President of the United States and this country’s leaders need to address the challenges of Afghanistan’s corrupt political leadership and how NATO is going to develop, as I have just said, a better co-ordinated hearts-and-minds campaign. We need to win the psychological war, not just the military war.
The Prime Minister, unfortunately, has some baggage as far as the Armed Forces are concerned, because they have felt that he has never really been on their side and that they have not had his support. I do not need to tell your Lordships that leadership is as much about emotion as about logic.
One cannot of course separate Afghanistan from Pakistan, a country of huge strategic importance, armed with nuclear weapons and having to carry out some very demanding military operations against extremists in its own territory. We need to be very wary about putting too much pressure on Pakistan, because of the impact on the loyalty of their Armed Forces and of the tension that it could create with India.
As I have said, the Minister may be surprised that we have heard so little about a new Strategic Defence Review. I just hope that those who are involved in it understand that carrying out a review when the Armed Forces think that they are at war and involved in dangerous and complex operations could send a negative message. It could widen the communication gap which I believe is developing between the Armed Forces at the sharp end and the Government. The priority must be to agree a strategy for the way ahead in Afghanistan.
In that connection, I would like to know where the Conservative Party stands on Afghanistan and on the future size and shape of our Armed Forces. If the Conservative Party wins the next election, it will inherit a defence quagmire: insufficient equipment, Afghanistan, sharply rising casualties, equipment delays and increasing equipment costs, and the need for greater investment in defence at a time when the defence budget is being reduced year on year in real terms. The new Government will have to make some hard decisions and choices. They will not be able to hide behind delaying the in-service date of certain equipment, which in turn leads to increased costs and mortgages a significant proportion of the future equipment programme. For example, I am told that the decision to delay for two years the £4 billion aircraft programme wanted for the carriers has added £1 billion to the bill. To quote a recent RUSI journal,
“time is really money and so it is Alice in Wonderland to try and save money by delaying equipment programmes”.
The Government have a real challenge in handling Afghanistan, which is the most complex, difficult and dangerous operation for all three of the British Armed Forces. The way ahead is by no means clear but, at the same time, we need to be clear on what our defence priorities are.
My Lords, I begin by saying that members of the Armed Forces have to carry out the commands of their political masters but concurrently act within the constraints that politicians put on them. The fact that they are undertaking two medium-sized conflicts on a peacetime budget of about 2.5 per cent of GDP is a testament to their abilities. In view of the time limit on speeches today, I wish to address three constraints, which include proposed cutbacks in training for the Territorial Army, the Government's culture of disregard for the safety of ageing equipment, and the ongoing lack of adequate kit for servicemen in Afghanistan.
Some 20,000 Armed Forces reservists, the majority from the TA, have been deployed on active service since 2002, with 14 sadly losing their lives. The contribution that they make to the United Kingdom's ability to conduct overseas operations is invaluable and it is what made the decision, which has now been reversed, to cut the training budget for the TA so unfair. If we are to expect young men and women to risk their lives in combat zones, we have a fundamental moral and tactical duty to ensure they are fully prepared. The cancelling of all routine training would have been disastrous for morale, for the recruitment of soldiers and for the overall preparedness of the TA. We need to remind ourselves that the Cotton review, which was accepted by the Government, said that training was,
“pivotal to the Proposition. The delivery of training should be overhauled to make it more relevant, consistent and correctly resourced”.
The routine TA training is the vital groundwork that allows skills, comradeship and tactical awareness to be built up, which can then be honed during pre-deployment training. Without this, we would expect units to go into action on the back of just one month's intensive training. We would otherwise be sending troops around the globe without all the strings to their bow. Will the Minister therefore confirm that the TA budget will be ring-fenced to ensure that sneaky savings cannot be made out of an easy target? Will the Minister undertake to produce a wholescale review into the role of our Reserve Forces and their training, so that their numbers are fully deployed and our Armed Forces properly augmented?
Preparedness is crucial in any theatre of military conflict. That is what makes the Haddon-Cave report into the Nimrod crash so telling. The MoD failed in its principal paternal duty to ensure the maximum well-being of service personnel. The loss of the plane was preventable; early-warning signals were repeatedly ignored. The report states that it was,
“a lamentable job from start to finish. It was riddled with errors. It missed the key dangers. Its production is a story of incompetence, complacency, and cynicism”.
This shows that we need urgent cultural change in the MoD. There will always be risks in a contact zone, but loss of life should never occur due to internal safety failures.
How will such safety projects be conducted in future? Will there be a Minister with responsibility for operational safety to ensure that projects are met to specification, that guarantees made by safety contractors are met and that independent audits of work undertaken occur? Afghanistan demonstrates how overstretched we are. The principal issue is one of underinvestment in suitable kit, which has been described by one commander as:
“Cavalier at best, criminal at worst”.
The shortage of helicopters, emanating from the budget cut of 2004, is significantly endangering the safety of soldiers. Two Chinook helicopters have been destroyed recently. What plans are there for their immediate replacement and for maintaining adequate helicopter transport capacity in Afghanistan? On the ground, the Vector vehicle has been deemed unsuitable for patrols. Indeed, this summer a British serviceman was killed riding in a Vector. When will the Vectors be fully phased out of Afghanistan, as promised, and the replacement Mastiff and Ridgeback armoured vehicles finally delivered and in full operational use? The increase in funding of £700 million for replacing the Snatch vehicle with Vixens and Warthog armoured vehicles is to be welcomed, although I have ongoing concerns about the long lead-in time for them becoming operational.
Only 44 per cent of the TriStar fleet responsible for getting the troops from the UK to Afghanistan is considered fit for purpose, adversely affecting troop logistics, transport conditions and leave time. What are the Government doing to ensure we have adequate transport capacity between the UK and Afghanistan? Once in Afghanistan, there is a need for flexible troop transport planes, yet we are seriously short of Hercules and C-17s. What options have the Government considered for buying or leasing more troop transport aircraft? When will a decision be finally made on the viability of the delayed replacement A400M project? Such increases in investment must be matched by our NATO allies. Will the Minister assure me that the increase in troop numbers by 500 will be matched with equivalent increases from across NATO?
I have only touched on three pertinent issues among many today, but these constraints are beginning to have a seriously detrimental effect on the operational capacity of our Armed Forces. The constraints I have outlined are not responsible and not sensible. I urge the Government to examine these issues. I look forward to receiving the Minister’s reply to the points I have raised.
My Lords, helicopters have been a recurring theme throughout this morning, and I apologise for them being also my principal subject. However, I would like to come at it from a rather different point of view to that put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock. I would not dispute his comments concerning the growth of the availability of the fleets, but I would take great issue with the extent to which, at present, MoD action has inhibited or curtailed the continuing operational availability of sufficient numbers of those fleets for our purposes.
My points are therefore couched in terms of questions to the Minister, and I start with the Chinooks. Will the noble Lord please give us further and better particulars about what is now happening with the mark 3 fleet? There is reportedly a programme of MoD reversion, which I suspect is a euphemism for withdrawal or suspension of the fleet, for a period of engineering. However, the nature of that engineering is strange; it is described as reverse engineering. Now, in the days when I was with the Ford Motor Company, reverse engineering was taken to describe the opposite of product enhancement. It was, effectively, a back step, and that is what we understand might be happening with the mark 3s, which are now being reverted to analogue control technology compared to the highly desirable digital technology that ought to have been their proper right.
There are several reasons why that might be happening at present. One might be that there is a surplus of analogue-trained pilots as opposed to digital-trained pilots; that would be a good reason. A very bad reason would be if the cost of the change to digital was so extreme, and if Boeing would not do some deal on it, that we could not now afford it. We would be stepping back on technological capability to meet a cost factor there.
It would be even worse if the other story in circulation is true; that as soon as the present mark 3 upgrade programme is complete, the entire Chinook fleet will be withdrawn in order to allow its conversion to digital. In that case, why are we wasting the time and money in losing operational capability at this time for a temporary move, before we incur the huge cost of conversion to digital in the near future? May we please understand more of the background to that, and under the present programme will we have the Chinooks back in availability by the end of this year, which was the original programme?
In the case of the Puma fleet, which is equally vital, could the Minister please confirm that the present contract placing the upgrading of that fleet with businesses in Romania and France was put out without tender for competitive pricing? If it was, is there any truth in the rumour that that was because there was virtually nowhere else that the upgrading programme could go, other than to those factories in France and Romania? Was it because there had been a failure by the MoD to secure access to the intellectual property required for the engine upgrades, because the manufacturer would not allow us the necessary jigs to maintain those engines?
A recurring theme runs through that and the question of the Chinooks, of whether the MoD has a blind spot in acquiring the necessary intellectual property to do that sort of renovation. Is it fully participating in what ought to be the advantages flowing from the ITAR code of practice—the International Trade in Arms Regulation code—established by the USA, which ought to be ensuring access to all the intellectual property that we need? If not, that seems to be becoming an extremely expensive omission.
Work on the Pumas is rumoured to be going on at a cost of some £400 million. Would it not have been very attractive, in our present recessionary condition, if that work could have been retained in the UK? Going back to the earlier comment of my noble friend Lord King, would having done so not have enabled us to arrange for 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week work on this contract, which would have overcome the present fears that we will have a late delivery of the fleet into service?
A similar point to that on intellectual property arises on the question of the Lynx. It would be helpful to have the Minister’s update on where the Lynx is. That was said to be a question of intellectual property on electronics. It would be good if the MoD could understand that intellectual property applies to mechanical engineering and not just to advanced electronics.
As I have a minute to go, I will use it to talk about the Type 45; I endorse entirely what my noble friend Lord Lyell said about that. The Type 45s are essential as defence for the carriers. We currently have some confusion as to whether the carriers are to be split as one aircraft carrier and one amphibious attack vessel. Either way, they will be flat-tops. Noble Lords will be aware of the huge vulnerability of flat-tops. America lost 16 of 23 in the Second World War in the Pacific, and it was on the winning side. Japan lost 11 out of 12; it would have lost the 12th if it had had enough aircraft to go to sea to make it worth while. We lost five out of 10, which does not sound too bad until you work out that they did far fewer average nautical miles per ship.
We can only provide defence for our new flat-top carriers with absolutely massive, competent technological defence. The Type 45 is undoubtedly that vessel, but we need many more. If there is any attempt to curtail the two-carrier fleet, we must still have the maximum number of 45s for the protection of what we have. It is a great vessel, probably the best vessel ever delivered to any navy anywhere in the world. We need the maximum number.
My Lords, I must declare a number of honorary responsibilities with regard to the focus of my remarks in today's debate, which will be on Her Majesty’s forces’ recently concluded five years of service in the federal Republic of Iraq.
I chair the AMAR International Charitable Foundation, which has delivered help and education to over 1 million Iraqi people in the past 12 months. I hold the post of special adviser to the Prime Minister of Iraq and to the Iraqi Government on public health and development of the Iraqi population. I am the World Health Organisation’s special envoy for health as a tool for peace and development for the eastern Mediterranean region, which includes Iraq. I am the patron of NOAH, a British charity that seeks to provide world-class oncology to the children of Baghdad. I am chairman of the IBBC, the Iraq Britain Business Council. Last week, I led a 30-strong delegation of IBBC founder members to Baghdad as guests of the Iraqi Government. I recently relinquished my position as president of the European Parliament delegation for relations with Iraq. I am hopeful of forming an APPG, composed of Members of both Houses, for business development in Iraq and the region, which will be matched by a sister group in the Iraqi Council of Representatives.
In these various capacities, I travel widely in Iraq and have worked consistently since 1991 on the ground with the Iraqi people at all levels of society. I have consequently witnessed since April 2003 the truly outstanding work of the British military throughout the country, both in their partnership with other multinational forces, most especially the US military, and independently.
In his introductory remarks, the Minister stated correctly that:
“As a nation, we want to be a force for good in the world”.
I can confirm that the services of the British military, throughout the entirety of their deployment, have fulfilled that high goal. Indeed, this is not my observation alone; it is the profound view of the Iraqi people today, and of their Government and elected representatives. Doubtless history, aided by the various investigations that have been launched, will clarify and secure for posterity the varying effectiveness and suitability of the decisions that the Government and both Houses participated in throughout the period in question. Indeed, Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues are performing the newest forensic analysis as we speak.
Most of the post-liberation actions undertaken by non-military personnel were unwisely chosen, inadequately planned and incompetently carried out. We must improve our performance as a nation substantially in this context. As Secretary Gates of the US Pentagon said recently,
“the Armed Forces can only clear the space and hold it … for a limited duration”.
It is for the Governments, institutions and civil society of democratic nations to fill the space that the Armed Forces clear at such cost to themselves and the local populations. We should be fully capable of filling this space with democracy, justice and the rule of law, health, education and training, and business and industrial development which leads to full employment. Our ultimate goal, after an armed or unarmed intervention in a fragile state should be to leave behind a peaceful and productive nation that can contribute permanently to global stability and international growth. I believe that the lessons of Iraq will show that we, in common with other democracies, have much to learn before we can be confident that we can fulfil that role.
In contrast, I suggest that the British military and FCO involvement in Iraq has left a wonderful legacy that will assist growth and development in Iraq for a long time to come. Iraq is a nation that, at its best, can outperform its neighbours, lead the region and lift our own achievements to the highest standards. The UK has a historic tie to and bond with the Iraqi people. Such ties must continue and be strengthened in the United Kingdom, and are increasing daily in Iraq.
The ordinary people of Iraq are highly appreciative of the work of the UK forces. They say that all the achievements, such as the constitution and the free local and national elections, are due to the multinational forces. Let us recall that, as they told me, it is the very first time that the Iraqi people have enjoyed genuine freedom. To own a mobile phone and satellite television, and to travel outside their previous prison, may look like nothing to people who are used to living in a free society, but it is everything for those who have tasted living under one of the worst dictatorships in recent history. The multinational forces, most particularly the British, have not intervened in ordinary life. They have not clashed with ordinary people. Indeed, they have done the reverse; they have provided the safety and security with which ordinary people can start to enjoy the freedoms that the intervention provided.
The key quality of the British soldiers, as the Iraqi people have seen, is that they regarded themselves as a presence in the land of the Iraqi people, rather than a force of occupation. The local populations, as I saw, were seen as human beings with rights which were respected. I witnessed the British soldier becoming friends with the people, helping and supporting them, acting in a spirit that was charitable, humanitarian and open-minded. It was clear that the Iraqi people might not be his fellow countrymen, but that they were the same as him and, as such, to be respected and helped.
On Sunday evening in Baghdad, Dr Ali al-Dabbagh, the spokesman of the Prime Minister, welcomed the first Iraqi-British Business Council trade mission to the Prime Minister’s office. In his speech of welcome he gave heartfelt thanks to the fallen British soldiers who had fought and died for the freedom of Iraq. He stated that their sacrifice had enabled the Iraqi people to overthrow the previous regime and to enjoy democracy, liberty and the other freedoms denied to them for so long. He said:
“For that, we, the Iraqi people will be forever grateful to the British soldiers who gave their lives for Iraq. Our thoughts and prayers will always be with their families”.
That door has now closed, and military intervention gives way to a more normal life in the free and generally peaceful environment that the military have created. The door of business co-operation has swung open, and it is for us to pursue the new goals.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a non-executive director of VT Group and Atkins plc. I am also colonel commandant of the SBS.
Our Armed Forces are going through a torrid time, from being assailed by the hardships of Afghanistan—where we should remember that Royal Navy and Royal Air Force people are also playing a part, albeit with the Army taking the brunt—and by the low value in financial terms that this Government put on their worth. It is to their enormous credit that our service men and women continue to deliver with the utmost professionalism all that is demanded of them, wherever they are deployed at home or abroad. Afghanistan has had much mention, and I am sure that there will be more to come. I offer further observations about our defence policy and strategy, particularly with regard to resourcing and the view taken of defence by our Government.
I start from the premise that, as has been mentioned many times in this House previously, the 1998 Strategic Defence Review was never properly funded, and I recall that a couple of years ago in this place we lamented the budgetary meltdown taking place in defence at that time. This was not given any acknowledgement by Ministers, but we know today how right that concern was and that we have descended even further into the morass. In particular, the deprivation of money to conduct day-to-day business is eroding morale and troops’ fighting effectiveness. The debacle of the Territorial Army funding muddle last week is a case in point. It is no good Ministers trotting out their mantra that under this Government the defence budget has increased year on year. The fact is that the defence budget has diminished year on year as a percentage of GDP, although we are at war. It has fallen even further behind when measured against inflation in defence equipment and support, which has been running at some 8 per cent higher than so-called defence budget increases—as the Minister said in his opening comments.
By the way, as numbers in our Armed Forces decrease and life becomes increasingly cheerless for our service men and women—particularly those in the UK returning from, or preparing to go on, operations—the number of Defence Ministers has increased from four to six, with no doubt an extra bevy of civil servants, special advisers and support staff. This is a ratio that I do not get, but it would be nice if the Minister would comment on what sort of concomitant rise in productivity this had delivered—or maybe the increase has been to confuse and obscure the numbers of Secretaries of State whom there have been in the past four years. That is surely a reflection that the Government have not recognised and do not recognise that we are at war.
We have a defence finance train crash which has long been predicted and has been exacerbated by Ministers’ reluctance or inability to take hard and programmed decisions. That simply adds more negative to the bottom line. It is too much to hope that the present Government will provide the necessary cash to allow their aspirations to be realised properly or honourably. Alternatively, it is too much to hope that they will cut their cloth—not least by not evading the issues by commissioning a defence review Green Paper rather than gripping the problem now. As for the Minister’s third option of doing better with what we have—he covered the other two in his opening comments—we shall see.
The Minister tried to reassure the House that the review will analyse our national interests and will be strategic. Equally, can we be reassured that we can lift our eyes above Afghanistan? Of course it is absolutely our main effort at the moment, but it is not our only effort, either now or in the future. We would be unwise to assume that our total focus will be on that campaign, or something similar, in, say, 10 years’ time—in spite of some commentators averring that that will be the case. The past three decades are littered with examples of our catastrophic failure to predict the next strategic challenge. Where is our thinking taking us on the vulnerability of our country to the interruption of maritime trade, on which we have almost total dependence; or on the need to provide presence and prevention on a global scale where only maritime forces can deliver? I hope that we will see some beef behind the comments of the Secretary of State for Defence, made in a speech in September:
“Free trade has the capacity to limit the chances of international confrontation over access to resources, particularly energy … As an island nation with an economic dependence on trade, it is right that our Armed Forces act to protect international trade routes, for instance against piracy”.
It is convenient for Ministers and people at large to adopt “sea blindness” because maritime threats are not as in your face as land ones. However, if our maritime capability—especially in the form of the workhorses of our fleet, the destroyers and frigates—continues to be cut back, we will not be able to restore this capacity quickly when we find our lifelines, not for the first time in our history, being seriously threatened.
Whatever the outcome of the strategic review, when it comes to implementation we need clarity of vision, direction, command and control and accountability from Whitehall. Will the Minister comment on how this can ever be achieved with the Byzantine complexity of the committee spaghetti that passes for organisation in government circles? We all realise that myriad committees have arisen because it is far easier to create a committee than to take a decision. However, it is not healthy, and the sclerosis and turgidity that have developed are not conducive to the coherent and urgent work that is needed to provide for the defence and security of our country; nor, importantly and topically, to the provision of the agility that we require to deal with the pace of today’s operations.
The Government can take little satisfaction from the way in which they have handled defence over the past decade. The lack of commitment has been evident and has brought defence to the parlous state in which it is today. From one end of the spectrum, where cadet forces have been denied training because of a retraction of funding; to the TA having its pre-deployment training cut by half even after the “reinstatement” of the TA budget—I heard about this directly from someone to whom it happened last week—to the incoherence of the equipment programme, the endless reprofiling of which conceals the bankruptcy of the department and enables politicians to avoid taking unpalatable decisions because of the potential fallout, which adds cost upon cost; to the lack of a strategic vision to plan for the future—all these and many more deficiencies have brought defence to a sorry state.
Great things are expected of our sailors, soldiers and airmen, and great things are done by them; but it is wrong and immoral for the Government to have traded on their loyalty and indomitable can-do spirit to achieve this. They can take no pride in their stewardship of defence.
My Lords, as a former commanding officer of a Territorial Army regiment, and a member of its executive council, I will focus on the recently announced and then reversed TA training cuts, which were mentioned by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, and other noble Lords.
TA soldiers have recently seen more active service than most regular servicemen during the Cold War. They have had the added pressure of removal from their civilian employment for up to a year at a time—often, as my noble friend Lady Seccombe said, with destabilising personal consequences. I ask noble Lords to consider the feelings that rebounded around TA centres across the country when the recent cuts were announced. No briefing of any sort had been given to senior officers to enable them to manage the inevitable outcry. The feelings were of anger, frustration, betrayal and deep disappointment. I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Sheikh for his words on this today. More damaging in the long term is the fact that, even now, there is a complete lack of guidance on what funding will be available beyond April next year. In view of the serious damage to confidence, which has by no means been repaired by the reversal of the latest cuts, a confirmation on that point from the Minister, for whom I have the highest admiration, is urgently needed.
It does not seem to be widely understood but, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, said, those £20 million of cuts, which have since been reversed, came on top of TA cuts of £23 million, announced in the summer, which have not been reversed. Those cuts had already resulted in training being reduced to a weekend every other month instead of the necessary weekend every month. I understand that the cuts that have been reversed arose because the Regular Army, for which I have unbounded admiration, ran out of funding, having recruited more regular recruits than expected. Yet everyone knew that we were going into a recession and that, therefore, recruiting would increase. This should have been seen a year ago and budgeted for then, so what were the Government doing?
On 19 October, Bob Ainsworth said in another place:
“Nobody in the TA will lose out on the training that is necessary for deployments to Afghanistan”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/10/09; col. 656.]
The Government were suggesting that, in stopping TA training, they could still arrange that those TA soldiers to be deployed would get the necessary training with the regular units that they would accompany to Afghanistan. That suggestion is completely disingenuous. Someone to be mobilised in mid-January would receive no more TA training for nearly three months. This gap would be so much longer for those selected for mobilisation in July 2010. The reality is that pre-deployment training with a regular unit vitally assumes that there has been continuous ongoing training prior to mobilisation, so that only trained TA soldiers with a high degree of readiness enter upon it. You cannot just put on a uniform, pick up your rifle and expect to start pre-deployment training, because you will be training alongside fully trained regular soldiers.
It might be argued that a TA soldier can get himself fit, but he would not have access to a modern TA gym, the competitive benefits of doing it alongside his comrades or the advice of the physical training instructors that he ought to expect. As for shooting, a skill that the Government might be surprised to hear is somewhat important in war, it is inconceivable that one could expect him not to have handled a weapon recently, let alone done some fairly challenging shooting to ensure that his skills were absolutely at the top level before he joined his regular unit. The exact same must of course be said of first aid and the myriad other vital military skills. These things simply cannot be dropped for several months before being picked up again shortly before deployment into one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Cutting TA training is a breach of the Government’s duty of care to their TA soldiers. This is a time bomb that is now ticking. Of course it will affect operations; to pretend otherwise is complete folly. Furthermore, the TA is not just an amorphous group of people who appear when needed on their own as if by osmosis. It is an organisation; it needs management, leadership, training and administration. New TA soldiers need to be recruited and senior TA soldiers are needed to train them. The TA does not just stop when it stops training, yet that was what the cuts demanded.
Putting this damage right will cost so much more than the saving, at the very moment when the TA is as good as it has been since the Second World War. There seems to be a complete lack of perspective in the Government. It is worth considering the paltriness of a saving of £23 million in the wake of the release of Bernard Gray’s report—the Minister and others have mentioned it—which says that the Government are wasting hundreds of millions of pounds a year in defence procurement. The TA cuts were a drop in the bucket.
If as a country we are convinced of the philosophy of the citizen soldier forming an integral part of our fighting force, as has been shown to be so successful, then we must never again see its funding raided to stop a short-term gap in Regular Forces funding. We must ensure that this sorry episode is not repeated and, like my noble friend Lord Sheikh, I look to the Minister for urgent assurance on this.
There has been much talk in recent years of the military covenant—something that I think is extremely important. The nub of my contribution today is that the TA covenant has not just been broken, it has been smashed. So I am speaking for the whole of the Territorial Army when I say of the Government: we have fought their wars, we have taken our share of casualties, we have done everything they asked of us; we have not challenged the wisdom of their actions or questioned their morals or judgment, we have not overspent our budgets, yet they thank us like this. They do not know what leadership is.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to participate in this important debate. I declare an interest as a former honorary colonel of a Territorial Army squadron and a branch president of SSAFA. In addition, I am currently taking part in the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme with the Royal Air Force. What I shall say today is by no means a personal criticism of the Minister, for I know that he is held in high regard by the military.
I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to all those service men and women who have lost their lives or been injured in Afghanistan, and to their families.
It is a fact that, for every fatality in this war in Afghanistan, there are very many more seriously injured service men and women. We seem to hear very little of them in the press, and at this point I should like to mention the wonderful work done by the Armed Forces charities and, in particular, SSAFA Forces Help, with which I am delighted to be associated. That charity is a flexible and multifaceted organisation, dealing on a daily basis with the needs of members of both the Armed Forces and those who have left the services.
Among the many things that it has achieved recently is to have been able to respond quickly to the requirement of the Armed Forces to buy, refurbish and run two homes from home, at Selly Oak near Birmingham and at Headley Court, for the use of the families of those who have been seriously wounded and injured in the current conflict. SSAFA Norton House at Headley Court opened in February 2008, while Norton House at Selly Oak opened a year later. Since then, more than 650 people have been accommodated in one or other of the houses. These houses are free of charge to both the users and the Armed Forces.
Each house costs SSAFA Forces Help £150,000 a year to run, and this is an additional cost to all the routine daily work which is the bread and butter of this association; namely, handling in the region of 200 cases a day for those in need and continuing, as it has done for very many years, to provide health and social work services for our troops abroad. I am sure that your Lordships will commend the work done by this excellent organisation, together with that of the other services charities. Would the Minister care to comment on what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to better advertise, both to GPs and the veterans themselves, the help that is available to veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder?
Moving on to the TA, noble Lords may recall that a number of years ago we had a debate in this House, mirrored in the other place, on the then Government’s proposals for the future of the Armed Forces under the title of Options for Change. A part of that initiative was the proposal to merge the Staffordshire and Cheshire regiments—a merger which has now, many years later, taken place but which was fought vigorously at the time. In that debate, I and other noble Lords pointed out to the then Minister, my noble friend Lord Arran—he became a little aerated but I am delighted to say that we remain pretty good pals—that they were taking the risk of causing our Armed Forces to be seriously overstretched in the future.
The plain fact of the matter now is that that scenario has come into being, and with a vengeance. Indeed, today with a reducing military, the British Armed Forces are participating in 15 NATO, EU, UN and OSCE missions. We have 41,000 troops in 32 countries and overseas territories. Surely the facts speak for themselves: our Armed Forces are seriously overcommitted. What plans do the Government have to alleviate this situation? Indeed, more than 18,000 reservists have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. In April of this year, 2,000 reservists were serving on operations in those two countries. I am therefore delighted that the Government have performed a U-turn on their proposals to cut the TA budget drastically. But it beggars belief that they could even have contemplated such a move in the first place.
On 28 October, the Secretary of State said in the other place:
“The Territorial Army and the UK reserve forces make a vital contribution to keeping our country safe—to defending our citizens, territory, interests and national security. They also make a vital contribution to the fabric of our society as a whole. They represent important values: a strong volunteer ethos, a commitment to service, giving back to society and the values of community”.
That is sterling stuff. The right honourable Gentleman went on to say:
“The TA has become an integral arm of the regular Army, supporting the operational commitments of regular forces …14 members of the TA have died on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and more have been wounded, 31 returning with potentially life-changing injuries. Their sacrifice must not and will not be forgotten”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/10/09; col. 353-54.]
This was from the man who proposed to cut their funding drastically. It was sheer madness. It was only as a result of a major hue and cry that he changed his mind, and even that change of mind was piecemeal in its formulation—reacting to public opinion, yet again, when they realised that they had got it seriously wrong. We are constantly told by the Government that they are doing everything in their power to provide the best equipment and on time, but the current conflicts are very real, substantial and dangerous.
The MoD’s current procurement programme, and the way in which it is run, is shambolic. Some of the equipment is unfit for purpose; some, like the Osprey body armour and most of the personal kit, is, on the other hand, excellent. Most of it takes far too long to procure, and all the time we are told that the MoD is desperately short of funding. We are talking about the lives and well-being of our service men and women, and I should have thought that they deserve the very best of support when they are loyally placing themselves at huge risk, and often paying the ultimate price, for the benefit of their country and their Government.
When the Government find themselves able to pour numerous billions of taxpayers’ pounds into banks which very nearly failed due to the practices and failures of their managements, why on earth cannot they find the money to adequately fund our Armed Forces who are engaged in the defence of the realm and others, striving to provide a better future for ourselves and our children? Is it not high time that the Government began to take the advice of the chiefs of staff—the real professionals—when it comes to deployment numbers and other matters of a military nature?
In view of the recent losses of life in Afghanistan, it is probably inevitable that we spend a lot of time on Afghanistan, although the debate is wider than that. I want to make two comments about that at this stage, because there is a case for a more in-depth debate about Pakistan. First, I think that people ought to revisit the comments made by the Minister about the nature and complexity of the threat that we face. He spelt them out very clearly and they need to be heard. That brings me to my second point. It is a fatal mistake for Members of this House of any political party or of none to score political points on such issues. We all have stories about what soldiers, sailors and airmen have said to us, but I have simply one, which is, “Why do you have those point-scoring games when we are fighting here?”. We should remember that.
I am aware of how easy it is to score points in this debate. I say that in particular to members of the Conservative Party who believe that they will—indeed, they may—form the next Government. If so, they will inherit not only Afghanistan, but the complexity, as my noble friend pointed out, of an insurgency combined with a terrorist organisation, both of which seek to get weapons of mass destruction. We should consider the complications that we had in dealing with terrorist groups in Northern Ireland and put that into the context of what we are doing now, which has only been mentioned by a couple of people today, of trying to deliver a strategy and fight this war with 40 other nations. It is as though we were trying to solve the Northern Ireland problem with 40 other nations involved. Do not underestimate that.
I say to those on the Front Bench of the Conservative Party that they should be very careful about that, because they will need the support of opposition political parties, and they will need the media in support, if they are in government, and it will be a lot easier to get it if they remember what I am saying. If noble Lords want an example of what a good speech you can make to demonstrate that you can deal with the problems without getting into point-scoring, they should read the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Freeman. He drew attention to an area of immense importance, something that affects the morale of our Armed Forces. He did so in a constructive, thoughtful and sensitive way, and he suggested some solutions. It was a great speech, and I commend it to the House.
I want to talk about something slightly different but very important underpinning the issue. It is about how we can inform, educate and persuade the public of the importance of what we are doing. It is all too easy to say that we need greater political leadership or a few great speeches, saying why we are at war, or whatever. If that was going to work, it would have worked in the 40 other countries as well. They have exactly the same problem convincing their electorate, their people, as we have in this country. Do not kid yourself that this problem can be addressed in such a simple way. There is disaffection with conventional political messages and political leadership speeches. Be very careful: that is the answer.
I come to the core of what I wanted to say. I nearly did not make this speech today, but I knew that Afghanistan would be debated and I now want to make it even more. The point is about how we find new ways to educate, inform and persuade people. I have already talked about the internet, and I now do not want to go back to that, although it is key. I made that speech here on another occasion.
I have learnt an awful lot from what I have been doing for the past few years—here I declare an interest—as the chairman of the Mary Seacole memorial statute appeal. She was the Caribbean nurse who, in the 1850s, went to the Crimea and nursed British troops. I would never have said this 10 or 15 years ago, because I am not a great arts person, frankly, but what has struck me is the enormous support and understanding that that has produced. One lady said to me how important that was for her in bringing alive a history that she knew was there of the contribution made by people from what was then the Empire to Britain, and how we have forgotten it at our peril. I am struck when I go to meetings how many people say that. It is a way of getting through to people that I could never have done as a party politician—I must say, nor could anyone else here today. It worked because it was a different type of message.
I refer back to what the Minister said. These complex conflicts will go on. There will not be nice, neat wars with a start date and a finish date, there will be complex ongoing situations. Here, we need to remember our history, because this is not the first time that we have done things like this. As I have said before in this House, look at the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. Britain set out under successive Governments to stop that trade by military, political and economic means. People underestimate what was achieved. If you ask people how many troops we lost in the campaign to stop the transatlantic slave trade, they do not have a clue.
In fact, 16,000 Royal Navy personnel and marines lost their lives, 200,000 slaves were released and heaven knows how many hundreds of thousands were prevented from going into slavery. That is something of which we should be uniquely proud. When I talk about that now, I find a great response. Although I am not sure how we take that forward, the Commonwealth could be immensely important. We need some recognition of what was achieved in that so-called illegal war, when the papers in Britain were saying, “Bring our boys home. Don’t let this war go on. We are not achieving anything. We are making matters worse”—because when we chased slave ships, they threw the slaves overboard. “You are making it worse”, they said, “bring them home”, but we saw it through. The losses and sacrifices have never been recognised; perhaps it is time that we did.
With the Commonwealth, I think there is a case for us doing a memorial—I have learnt this from the Mary Seacole thing—in somewhere like Ghana where it would link with the fight for freedom by the slaves themselves. It would say, “This is your statue of liberty. This is how it was done”. It was done by troops from Britain fighting the very sort of conflict we are fighting today, which has a moral imperative as well as a political and economic imperative. All those things are there. They are never easy or quick and are often brutal. The anti-slave-trade battle was particularly brutal.
Therefore, I say to the House that we should be a little cautious about trying to score political points. We should start thinking laterally about the way in which we can take the argument forward and win the hearts and minds of people not just in this country, but in the 40 other countries that are with us in the coalition in order to persuade people that what we are doing is right.
“If ye break the faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields”.
That is my starting text. Many noble Lords may not be aware of the history of the poppy. That poem was written by a Canadian doctor John McCrae in 1915 and taken up by a bright young girl, Moina Michael, in the United States a little later. She went out and bought a silk poppy. She was training people in the YMCA in the States. She was given $10 when she finished, and she went out and bought poppies. A year or two later, a Frenchwoman at a conference there took the poppy thing back to Paris; it did not arrive here until 1920.
I always wanted to know how many deaths we have had since the Battle of Hastings. I tried over recent days. I was thinking that it was somehow symbolic of the poppy situation in Afghanistan. How many poppies were there per hectare there, or how many people had died? We know that 1.7 million people from the Commonwealth and this country were killed in the First and Second World Wars. We know that we lost 7,000 at the Battle of Waterloo. We know that we have fought perhaps 110 battles since the Battle of Hastings, with much loss of life and wounding. However, we now turn to a situation where defence suddenly becomes war, and war brings with it death, disability, distress and an element of sadness that runs throughout life. I have to make promises from time to time. I have a beloved wife Gabrielle, who weeps buckets almost every day and says, “You must do something about this. What are you going to do?” and of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, says, “Bring our boys home”.
It is difficult to say why we are there or what we should do. This is, of course, not the first Afghan war, which was a disaster for us, nor the second Afghan war, nor the third Afghan war, which lasted but a month in 1919—I think it was May to June; this is the fourth Afghan war. When will we ever learn? Noble Lords may remember that evocative song of the 1960s, “Where have all the flowers gone?”. The flowers were picked by the girls who had married the soldiers, the soldiers went to war and where had all the soldiers gone? Gone to graveyards, every one.
I am a great believer in doing things post things, so I imagine myself like the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, an excellent journalist. There was I, out on mission, to report back to my editor daily by telegram. I put together the things that I would say that may demonstrate much better than my own words—although these are my own words because I was a journalist—the sort of things that we have confronted and will confront. My report is basically 100 years old, with the help of the Times newspaper of 1903, and goes like this; I will try and do it in stentorian tones.
“In the Gulf, a British warship was sent to patrol to keep peace following the quarrel between the ruler of Kuwait and Bin Rashid who had proclaimed himself King of Arabia. In Iran, Major Showers captured the fort of Mobiz and broke up a terrorist band under Muhammed Ali who was killed. In Baluchistan, Major MacMahon took a force to sort out the Perso/Afghan border dispute. In Afghanistan, the new ruler, Habibullah, released 8,000 prisoners on the occasion of his coronation and then tried to introduce compulsory military service by raising regiments of Afridis. In the north-west frontier, General Egerton took four columns of 700 men into Mashud territory to combat terrorist raids and thefts of arms by Afridis. In Somaliland, the Mad Mullah, Abdullah Mohamed, resumed his raids on the British protectorate and Colonel Swaine and his native levies restored stability with heavy losses of men and camels. In the Balkans, riots between Croats and Serbians led to martial law in the Croatian capital, Agram. In Nigeria, in Kano, diplomatic efforts failed and the Emir assembled 1,000 mounted men and fortified the city. Colonel Moreland, with 1,200 men of the West Africa frontier force, restored order and there were no problems in Lagos or Sierra Leone. In South Africa, Kitchener confirmed the end of the Boer war and a peacekeeping contingent of Commonwealth troops left Australia for the Cape. In the Caribbean, major eruptions of volcanoes in Martinique and St Vincent required humanitarian support. In South America, revolutions in Venezuela and Colombia continued and British trading vessels were seized. Lord Lansdowne, with German support, blockaded the coast and seized Venezuelan warships. Customary political unrest continued in Uruguay. There was speculation that the bank rate might fall from 3.5 per cent to 3 per cent”.
We have done that sort of thing throughout history and we will do it again and again. We must be prepared for it and we need a rapid reaction force. For that, we need equipment and transport, but we have a problem, which is sometimes called money. We always have the historic problem of the Ministry of Defence, as it is now, and it has been a problem throughout history. These problems will always be there. So what do we do now about a shortage of money? The defence budget is £36 billion, about 20 per cent of which goes to the Navy. In the latest Government document, they have shown comparative budgets, including £79 million for education and so much for this and so much for that. But they leave out my favourite—how I hate them at the moment. They are the animals called NDPBs. Non-departmental public bodies are referred to sometimes as quangos. I do not know how many people they employ, but they have a budget of £43 billion, which is more than the defence budget. I have asked 21 Questions in your Lordships' House. The last time, the response was that it is not known how much the budget is. It is very simple: let us take 50 per cent of the NDPB budget and we have solved our defence problem.
My Lords, I count myself among those who have serious misgivings about the success of our last two defence reviews. I would contend that the first of these in the early 1990s failed because it made some changes which were not properly thought through—housing and medical are but two of them—and that of the later 1990s never was resourced properly. The outcome has been that, ever since, commitments and resources have been out of balance, to the serious detriment of our Armed Forces and the embarrassment of our Government. Surely, whichever party is in power, we need to get this right next time.
Unlike the chairmen of any business, the chiefs of staff are required to sustain the British Armed Forces’ capabilities to be successful on operations in support of government policy. Paramount in their being able to do that must exist a strong relationship between the political and the military—between our Ministers and our generals. It has to be healthy and effective on both sides. If it is not, I believe that the next defence review will be flawed and that our men and women fighting in strange parts of the world will be left in doubt as to the level of support that they can expect from the Government. I hope fervently that the events we have seen over the past nine months or so in this respect mean that the relationship between our military and our politicians has not resulted in irretrievable breakdown.
The quickest route to irrelevance for our Armed Forces will be via a failure to recognise the vital correlation between what they are for and how they are designed. They must be fit for a clearly understood purpose. In deciding what they are for, as always there will be the temptation to focus on the softer end of military capabilities because, by and large, they are less expensive. Indeed, we have heard suggestions of that today. This would be folly because we cannot see 10 years hence and you cannot hope to keep the peace if those who threaten you doubt your ability to wage war. They will simply laugh in your face. So if we end up with Armed Forces that cannot be used in many circumstances, they will simply wither on the vine.
There is also the risk that decisions about what they are for will give too much weight to the counsel of those who have disapproved of our experiences and our engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq. If there is no political will for our military forces to be used, they will not go on operations. If they do not go on operations, they will gain no experience, and without experience they cannot hope to provide us with the sort of success that our governments have traditionally looked for. Again, they will wither on the vine.
Of course, our Armed Forces must continue to embrace sensible change. We have heard already that the strategic environment has changed quite dramatically, and that the threats we face as a nation have changed beyond all recognition since the end of the Cold War. The way we deal with them has changed as well, not least because of the role we play in the military, and there is no reason to suppose that that rate of change will lessen in any way. The Armed Forces, on the other hand, are institutions which are rooted deeply in experience and tradition, strong values and standards, but the reality is that if you look back over the past decade or so, they have had to undergo changes so dramatic that many a commercial enterprise would have been brought to its knees by them. I have no doubt that the armed services will respond to whatever changes they are asked to undertake.
There is, too, a fundamental importance in the “balance” between the marriage of ideas, technology and people. We have seen an explosion of ideas and technology over the past 10 or so years, and their application across the spectrum of warfare has been beneficial in many ways. But while there may come a time when technology will transform the world, we are certainly not there yet. The one constant in that equation is people. We must not allow our Armed Forces to become mechanistic; they must retain that spark of originality and unpredictability that is available only in the human form, and we want them to be capable of success, something that robots certainly cannot do for them at the moment. Indeed, it is the men and women of our Armed Forces who remain key to everything we decide in the defence review. We see on a daily basis their dedication, determination and courage in the face of uncertainty, separation from family and extreme danger, and we see it in Technicolor. They come through with flying colours time and time again. But the price of sustaining such remarkable people is significant and should not be underestimated. They must be properly trained and equipped. Above all, we must look after them fittingly when they sacrifice their health and, in some cases, their lives at the altar of what this country asks them to do.
We also need enough of them. We have heard the word “overstretch”, but it fails to illuminate properly the complex relationship between commitment, capability and resources because it distils it into a simple percentage. However unsatisfactory the measurement, it is widely known to be a corrosive dynamic. A policy of the “bare minimum” simply does not work on the battlefield, so we must get the numbers right. As we have seen so clearly over the past few years, underinvestment in defence is as physically and politically painful, and as potentially catastrophic, as underinvestment in health, education or any other public service. The Armed Forces’ domestic profile has been raised in recent years, drawing out that sleepy but bottomless affinity that the British soldier has with the British people, who I believe would be happier to spend money on soldiers, sailors and airmen—but not their bureaucracies—than is commonly thought.
Whatever else may come out of the defence review, we must ensure that the value of these people to our nation is recognised and rewarded, and we must alter the collective political conscience by allowing defence to have fair claim on the national purse. If we do not, then I fear that this defence review will fail us as well.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for introducing the debate. I declare an interest as I am a serving TA officer, although nowadays I am not training very much. Nevertheless, the recent cuts have cost me half a day’s training.
All noble Lords must have been disappointed when the Prime Minister was careless enough to lose the services of the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, to motor racing. He was the first Defence Minister that I detected industry taking the slightest notice of; it would say, “What Lord Drayson wants to do is—”. That says volumes about the Minister and the country is lucky to have him in post.
In previous debates I urged withdrawal from Iraq in order to concentrate on Afghanistan; I am pleased that this has happened. However, the MoD is resourced for one enduring medium-scale operation and one small-scale operation. Medium scale is a brigade of 3,000 to 5,000 men and women. However, we have deployed just over 9,000 personnel, so they are operating at 100 per cent overstretch. The good news is that the requirement for headquarters and associated staff is reduced. As a result, there is less opportunity for TA officers to deploy, but that is a positive indicator.
The situation in defence is dire. In the MoD the overriding priority is Afghanistan with the possible exception of the deterrent; everything else is being taken as a risk. In his excellent opening speech, the Minister touched upon some of the potential threats that we face. A real threat could arise from a scrabble for natural resources—the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, has covered this far better than I can—but, in theory, we cannot undertake a large-scale deliberate intervention, an LSDI, for at least a decade, maybe 15 years. We are degrading the physical and conceptual components of fighting power necessary for LSDI. Training is at particular risk, especially with officers, at all levels.
Fighting a counterinsurgency campaign from fixed operating bases is different from manoeuvring an armoured brigade around an area of operations. Both are very difficult, of course. The Government are taking the high risk of cutting the capability of manoeuvre forces for high-intensity warfare. Heavy armoured units are being given low priority for training resources. In addition, the lead airborne taskforce was disbanded in late 2007; a battalion-size para drop has not been conducted since 2007; the lead amphibious battle group has been stood down due to the heavy commitments of 3 Commando Brigade; and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, touched on the need for naval power. He is absolutely right. The Minister reminded us that we have not conducted a medium-scale exercise since Exercise Saif Sareea in 2001. Our ability now to deploy overseas at more than battle group level in a benign environment is extremely limited; if we tried to do it, we would probably become unstuck.
There is a great deal of evidence of a lack of determination on the part of the Government. For instance, for many years the RAF has been required to operate the flying scrapheaps known as Tristar and VC-10 aircraft for strategic air trooping, for getting our troops to and from the United Kingdom to theatre. Surely the Nimrod disaster demonstrates the difficulties and danger of using obsolete aircraft that our technical people do not fully understand. Can the Minister, or any other noble Lord, name any airline in the northern hemisphere which is still operating Tristar or VC10 aircraft for moving passengers?
I hope that the Minister will not use the red herring of the defensive aid suite as it would only take six months to fit it at Marshall Aerospace. FSTA will not come into operation for several years. Can the Minister say when the initial operating capability and full operating capability of FSTA will be in place for these aircraft, and can he remind us how long the procurement process took? Replacing these obsolete aircraft with modern, reliable ones would confer several advantages: first, the morale of troops would be improved because they would feel that the Government cared; secondly, operational efficiency would be improved; and, thirdly, it would demonstrate that the Government were serious about Afghanistan. The Minister must surely have asked for a cost-benefit analysis of using, say, A330s temporarily. Perhaps he could put a copy of that in the Library.
Many noble Lords have referred to the cuts in TA training and few did a better job in that regard than my noble friend Lord De Mauley. Many noble Lords, including the Minister, consider that the TA support to current operations has not been, and will not be, adversely affected, but what about the insurance against unexpected operations? We must not stop paying our insurance premiums. The TA soldiers who were mobilised for operations in Iraq in 2003 received minimal pre-deployment training. The reason for that was very good; there was simply not the time. But a big job is always a come-as-you-are party; there is no time for significant amounts of training. The recent cuts were very unwise but also symptomatic of the fact that the MoD has been bled dry. My noble friend Lord Astor of Hever posed a very telling supplementary question this week when he asked: “Crucially, what message does this send to the Taliban?”
No doubt the Minister will remind your Lordships that previous Conservative Governments reduced the size of the TA. I think that the TA had a strength of about 85,000 in 1984. However, immediately after the end of the Cold War, I do not recall the Labour Party strongly opposing these reductions. Even more telling is the fact that it made further reductions itself. For instance, under the SDR, the numbers were reduced but also the capability in that TA battalions were no longer designed to be deployable; they were purely training organisations.
The cuts to the TA were made necessary because there was a £176 million hole in the Land Command top-level budget. This was not necessarily Land’s fault as there were exchange rate variations for costs in Germany; rising fuel costs and an unexpected increase in manning. I also understand that the cuts to the ACF and the CCF are still in place. That point was made by my noble friend Lady Seccombe. Am I correct? But in any case, in times of social stress, should we not increase expenditure on the ACF as it is a brilliant youth service?
My Lords, this debate is one of those where a summing-up is either a joy because you have so much to go for, or a complete nightmare because there is so much to talk about. I pay the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, yet another career-damaging compliment when I say that he started with a worryingly fair and even-handed speech. Indeed, it was reassuring and relaxing to hear something that did not have too much electioneering in it. Of course, his noble friend Lord Foulkes was on hand to correct the balance.
This is a difficult subject and we have to make some very unpleasant choices. Two themes have emerged from today’s speeches: we must be ready for the unexpected and we must deal with the matter at hand. Those two themes have run through this debate. Which is the most important? It is up to us to give anybody who aspires to sit on the Treasury bench that leadership because the military cannot and should not be allowed to take this decision. We have to decide what we expect our military to do and give them the right equipment. It is fair to say that we are in desperate need of a defence review, because the situation we have got into was not foreseen or planned for and we have been operating from crisis to crisis. The Gray report, which stands in the background—preparing for this debate was the first time that I had read it in any depth—suggests that the procurement process can best be described as a bugger’s muddle. Projects are allowed to carry on and take money despite the fact that they are not working and are unlikely to deliver. I hope that this will give power to the Minister’s elbow when he deals with the problem, as well as to anybody else who fulfils his role in the future. Without tackling this kind of waste, we will never properly make sure that our troops have adequate equipment to do the jobs we ask of them.
What are the jobs we ask of them? If we are to have a review, we must make a judgment on what our target is. If we are going to have to surrender some forms of capacity to enable us to do other things better—that is the “Afghanistan first” argument, I feel—we should embrace it quickly and say it quickly, because there is nothing worse than being caught between the two stools. If we are going to say, for instance, that our nuclear deterrent will be downgraded or possibly even removed to allow better resources for the job in hand, we should do it quickly. We should make sure that the resources are given to those service men and women who are conducting the conflict. We should also make sure that our allies and those with whom we are working in concert, which includes the Afghans and the present president, know exactly what is acceptable in terms of their behaviour in the light of that conflict.
We need also to ask what the price will be of pulling out and failing in Afghanistan. Let us be absolutely clear: it may well be the total destabilisation of a huge part of Asia and a possible change of leadership in Pakistan, drawing India into an ever more heated conflict with its neighbour. Are we prepared to take that risk? Are we prepared to risk the consequences for our streets of having that conflict playing out?
Let us be very clear about our decisions. If we are not prepared to spend more money—and in the current environment, I do not think that anybody is suggesting a huge increase in defence expenditure—can we have the overall capacity to respond properly to every conceivable event? The answer is that we probably cannot. Does that mean that somebody is going to be annoyed and upset because something will be taken from them? Yes, it does. We must embrace this properly. The Gray report’s reference to various chiefs of staff fighting over not only who has which piece of the pie but what is in it is very worrying. Gilbert and Sullivan-like images came to mind of gorgeously uniformed people complaining, “I want my particular little project” and browbeating Ministers. I am sure that it is not like that—at least, I hope that it is not—but that is the image that started to come to me. Unless we are prepared to say to people, “You will take the back seat at the next review”, and make sure they understand that, this confusion will carry on.
We do not have to limit ourselves to one review. We should have frequent reviews, reflecting the fact that the world changes. We have the capacity to change our military strategy over X number of years. If it is necessary to buy in the technology and support to do it, so be it. If we are dealing with the world as it is, and not the way we have planned for it, which is half the problem with the military at the moment, we will have to look frequently at the situation and have the leadership to tell those in our military structures—and other politicians, who have nailed their colours to various masts—that, “The world has changed, that is no longer relevant, we are moving on”. That will mean that other people will be upset frequently.
As I promised that I would not take up all the time allowed for the wind-up, as my noble friend used it, I come to one last area that has been mentioned. When I first started speaking on defence matters a few years ago, one of the first meetings that I went to was at the Royal British Legion to discuss its idea about the covenant for servicemen. It has been frequently pointed out in this debate that, traditionally, we have not looked after our servicemen well. Indeed, some people still seem to have the attitude that the Duke of Wellington did after some looting, when he referred to his troops as the “scum of the earth, enlisted for drink”. We have had an appalling history of discarding people from our Armed Forces without properly preparing them. We should look at the historically very high numbers of people who end up being homeless and in prison at the end of even quite long military service. That problem is greatly compounded by the stress of combat—which is something that we understand now. We must work this into the package for our service personnel. If we are asking people to risk their lives and we are going to pay them, we should at least make sure that they have a chance of spending their pensions when they leave.
My Lords, I start by sending my condolences, and those of my party, to the families and friends of Warrant Officer Chant, Sergeant Telford and Guardsman Major of the Grenadier Guards, as well as Corporals Boote and Webster-Smith of the RMP. I also pay my respects to the soldier from the 3rd Battalion, The Rifles, who tragically died yesterday.
Along with other noble Lords, I pay tribute to the outstanding men and women serving in our Armed Forces, particularly those in Afghanistan. I should also like to say something of our close allies, embedded with us out in Afghanistan—those from the UAE, the Danes and the Estonians—who have fought alongside us. Despite what is said about some of our NATO allies, they have really got stuck in and have taken some serious casualties. I was privileged to go to Afghanistan, with the noble Lords, Lord Soley and Lord Dubs, earlier this year, and there is no doubt our troops are enormously grateful for their contribution.
This is a really important debate, which takes place at the end of an awful week for British forces in Afghanistan, and the departure, one hopes only temporarily, of the 600 UN staff from Kabul. Understandably, the speeches of most noble Lords and most noble and gallant Lords have been focused on Afghanistan. My noble friend, in an excellent opening speech, pointed out that the situation there is very grave and that the Government need to do much more at this critical time. My noble friend Lord Sterling asked where the political will was to win and where the leadership was. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, said that we needed clear direction and not hesitant leadership. The Government need to set realistic objectives and have a coherent narrative about why we are there. Why have they on two occasions appeared to agree to lower troop increases than initially requested? Have the three conditions that the Prime Minister set before sending the 500 more troops been met? The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, pointed out the vacuum that these 500 soldiers and their families are in while the Government dither.
My noble friend Lord King mentioned General Graeme Lamb. We are fortunate to have such a bright, thinking British soldier embedded in General McChrystal’s headquarters.
The Minister touched on the Strategic Defence Review in his opening speech. We welcome the Green Paper; the SDR debate needs to be conducted properly. We should start off by asking, “What are the UK’s foreign policy interests?”, and then start thinking about capabilities. He mentioned three options that we have; to spend more, do less or do better with what we have. In the light of that, I would be grateful if the Minister could say a little more on what the Government expect from SDR. Given the critical state of finances, what update can he give on the implementation of the policy changes recommended by the Gray report?
My noble friends Lord Freeman, Lord Onslow and Lady Park all spoke passionately about the long-term effects on soldiers who have witnessed mentally stressful experiences, and the human and social cost. I shall echo the question from my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury: what are the Government doing to better advertise the help available to veterans and to GPs? Also, has the decompression programme in Cyprus, where troops go before returning to this country, been successful in cutting down on the immediate acts of aggression that my noble friend Lord Onslow mentioned?
Many noble Lords mentioned the TA, and I declare an interest as the honorary colonel of a TA regiment. My noble friend Lord King was rightly appalled that we are not getting the full commitment of reserves at a time when we are at war. The original announcement of cuts well and truly breached the military covenant. Indeed, my noble friend Lord De Mauley, a former CO of a TA regiment, said that it had not just been broken but smashed. My noble friend Lord Sheikh pointed out that if it had gone ahead, it would have been disastrous for TA morale. That was a worrying sign that the Government are prepared to do away with the “one army” concept that has worked so well during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is now commonplace for regular battle groups to deploy on operations with formed sub-units provided by the TA. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and I spoke to a number of reserves when we were in Afghanistan. All that is apart from the many specialists such as surgeons and nurses who deploy as individual augmentees. My noble friend Lord Marlesford, in an excellent speech, mentioned the trauma treatment at Bastion Hospital, where a lot of those people are based, and which certainly impressed me enormously when I visited it.
Can the Government reassure the House that they will, in future, consider the TA and reservists as an essential part of the order of battle, as they have shown themselves to be, not just an optional extra? I very much look forward to the Minister answering the question from my noble friend Lady Seccombe about university OTCs and cadet training instructors. Does he agree that these cuts are all the more disappointing when set against public announcements by the Prime Minister, by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and by other members of the Cabinet of plans to expand the cadets to increase opportunities for children of all backgrounds?
A number of noble Lords were concerned about helicopter shortages. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, said that there is a clear need for more helicopters, and I must point out to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that I agree with my noble friend Lord Hodgson. I have been told by service men and women of all ranks, over and over again, that there has been and is a need for more helicopters, and I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Soley, that I am not in the business of point-scoring. I am always careful in the questions I ask, and always mindful of the interests of our Armed Forces. However, the shortage of helicopters is a fact. We cannot disguise it. That fact needs to be addressed.
I know that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, enjoys baiting the Opposition, but he is a lonely man on this issue. He asked us to check our facts.
Well, my Lords, the HCDC report on helicopter capability in July this year showed that the UK Armed Forces helicopter fleet will lose 105 aircraft by 2020. The present force of 467 will be reduced to 365, a drop of 22 per cent. The MoD does not seem to understand the link between numbers and capability. When Britain’s Armed Forces are likely to engage in operations for the foreseeable future, is this the best response?
My noble friend Lord James raised some very worrying questions about the Chinooks, the Lynx and the Puma upgrade. I look forward to the Minister’s response to those.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, and the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, pointed out the importance for this country of the free movement of maritime trade and a strong Royal Navy. In the light of that, can the Minister reassure the House that the “Queen Elizabeth”-class carriers will enter service as planned? The “Queen Elizabeth” is due in service in 2015 and the “Prince of Wales” in 2018. The present class of carriers are due out of service by 2016. How certain can the Minister be about this timetable? Are the Government satisfied with the progress of the Joint Strike Fighter?
The existing class of carriers have all undergone refits. HMS “Illustrious” is due out of service in 2016 as the last of the class of ships serving. She underwent a refit in 2005. Will the Minister clarify when “Illustrious” will next undergo a refit, or are we to assume that she will leave service in 2016 without having had a refit for 10 years? If this is the case, what effect will it have on her operational readiness?
The Navy has suffered from a shortage of personnel in some specialist areas, leading to ships going to sea with “gapped” posts remaining unfilled. Given the requirement to crew these two ships, will the Minister assure the House that the personnel budget for the Navy will not be reduced?
I was sorry to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Lee, said about the Trident replacement—we agree on many things—but was delighted to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, said. By 2024, two of the four Vanguard-class submarines will have gone out of service, and the first of the future submarines will need to be in service. The current critical path of the future deterrent programme is, therefore, the delivery of the submarine platform in time to meet this deadline, although this plan also assumes the successful delivery of a five-year life-extension programme for the Vanguard-class submarines. When does the Government’s National Security Committee expect to report back to the Prime Minister regarding his intention to reduce the future Vanguard submarine fleet from four to three?
Will the Minister bring the House up to date on the progress, or lack thereof, on the FRES Scout to replace the 1970s-era CVR(T)?
We have all asked the Minister many questions today. If he cannot respond to them all today, I am sure that he will do so by letter. However, bearing in mind the critical situation in Afghanistan, and the serious problems that have been raised over procurement today, I would be grateful if he could say a bit more, in his wind-up, about the Government’s thinking on the SDR.
My Lords, we have heard many thoughtful and wise contributions in the House today. I truly expected nothing less, given the expertise on defence that there is in the House. I will be taking noble Lords’ ideas and recommendations back with me to the Ministry of Defence, and I will ensure that the MoD reflects carefully on them. I will read Hansard and ensure that all noble Lords’ questions are answered fully if I do not answer them today.
The support that our Armed Forces receive in this House is abundantly clear today. The respect and esteem in which they are held is also clear. In summing up this debate, I reprise my opening position. The national security strategy provides the wider strategic policy and the context in the short to medium term. However, defence capabilities take far longer to build. As my noble friend Lord Soley said, these matters are complex and long-term. If we make judgments based only on a short-term view, we are bound to make changes that would not only be wrong but difficult to reverse further down the line. That is why I set out our current thinking on what strategic challenges this country is likely to face over the next 30 years.
However, I accept, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, and others have said, that the conduct of the operations in Afghanistan is uppermost in the public’s mind. That is rightly so. Our people are putting their lives on the line. These are men and women who are committed to the fight. A number of noble Lords—the noble Lords, Lord King and Lord Lee, among them—have made the point that we are at war. We are. Afghanistan must be our top priority and it is.
The post-Strategic Defence Review funding of defence has been raised by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, and others. At the heart of this debate is the question of balancing ends and means. I have noted that several noble Lords have called for an increase in the defence budget. It is important for the public to know what the Conservative and Liberal Democrat policies on the defence budget are as we go into the general election. I think the noble Lord, Lord Lee, asked about the reserve and the funding of operations. The noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, also asked specific questions. I can confirm that for this financial year the MoD has made a claim of £3.5 billion total DEL for Afghanistan and of approximately £1 billion for Iraq. This will bring the total provided by the reserve from 2001 to the end of 2008-09 to £18 billion.
I said in opening that our conclusion from the strategic review is that Afghanistan gives us a hard insight into the nature of the future operations that our Armed Forces will have to contend with. It is also important that our society understands counterinsurgency operations to the same extent as it understands conventional warfare. Only by achieving that understanding will we get the full support of the general public for what our Armed Forces have to do. As my noble friends Lord Foulkes and Lord Soley, and the noble Baronesses, Lady D’Souza and Lady Falkner, have said, these operations are vital to our national security. Three-quarters of the most serious terror plots against the UK have roots in the border and mountain areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
We have a clear and focused objective: to prevent al-Qaeda launching attacks on our streets and threatening legitimate Governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan. To do that, we need to build the capability of the forces in Afghanistan and the capacity to deal with terrorism and extremism among the people themselves. The Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan threatens that capacity and the Afghan Government alone are not strong enough to maintain its security.
A peaceful and stable Afghanistan would be a strategic failure for al-Qaeda. Conversely, failure in Afghanistan would be a boost for terrorists and violent extremists in every part of the world. The bottom line is that success in Afghanistan is achievable, by which I mean Afghans themselves holding on to ground won from the insurgency and achieving lasting stability.
No matter the difficulties involved in building the capacity of the Afghan security forces—and this week’s atrocity has brutally highlighted the risks involved—we cannot be diverted. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, described what were incorrect pre-reports of what the Prime Minister said in his speech this morning. If the House will allow me, I shall repeat what he actually said:
“It is well known that President Obama is considering his response to General McChrystal’s report. It is clear that he sees that the response must come from the international coalition as a whole. For as we consider the nature of the threat we face, it is not just the US that is being tested in Afghanistan, nor is it just Britain; it is the whole international community. We entered together, more than forty nations, eight years ago. We must persist together; in our different ways we must all contribute. In the end, we will succeed or fail together, and we will succeed”.
Having been on the receiving end of a leak earlier this week, I know exactly what the noble Earl means, but it is important that the general public and this House are aware of exactly what the Prime Minister said.
I turn to the impact of funding on safety. A number of noble Lords, including the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, raised the issue of the Nimrod failure and the report by Charles Haddon-Cave. It was also mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh. I echo the comments last week of the Secretary of State for Defence when he expressed our deep regret for our failings and our apologies to all the families who have lost loved ones. We must ensure the safety of our personnel and we will address the very serious issues raised by Haddon-Cave. He remarked that in pursuing financial savings, the MoD and the RAF allowed their focus on safety to suffer. We have accepted this criticism with regard to the loss of Nimrod XV230. As I have said, the task for the MoD is to achieve more with less. However, this cannot be pursued at the expense of safety. We will do everything in our power to guard against anything such as this happening again.
The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, and others set out very effectively their deep concerns on the Territorial Army. I assure him that we are maintaining normal training of the Territorial Army. I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Astor, that we see the reservists as an essential part of our Armed Forces. Following assurances from the Treasury, I am able to say that additional ring-fenced money—which the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, asked about—will be made available. We have, therefore, been able to restore the normal TA training regime. This is happening as quickly as possible. The noble Lords, Lord De Mauley and Lord Burnett, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, raised the question of whether or not it was an issue of the Regular Army causing the impact on the reservists. I can confirm that the intake to the Regular Army over the past year has increased by 8.7 per cent and outflow has reduced by 17.6 per cent.
A number of noble Lords picked up specific points about operational equipment—in particular, helicopters. The noble Lord, Lord James of Blackheath, asked a number of questions about the Chinook mark 3. When the mark 3 helicopters were procured by the Conservative Government—that is how long ago the decision was taken—they were procured with an extremely advanced, experimental flight-control system that never worked. When I was Minister for Defence Procurement, I decided to stop the project to get the Chinooks to work, and instead reinstall the conventional flight-control system that was proven, in order to get the aircraft into action as quickly as possible.
We are also increasing the overall size of our deployed battlefield helicopter fleet through the redeployment of Merlins—as a number of noble Lords mentioned—and the upgrading of Lynx helicopters with new engines. I understand the concerns over the provision of helicopters. I encourage noble Lords to read what the Chief of the Defence Staff said recently about helicopter provision. By the spring of next year, we will have more than doubled the number of battlefield helicopters—an increase of 130 per cent.
My Lords, on the subject of helicopters, I asked the Minister one question. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, made this point. We all know that the number of helicopters has been increased, but provision is still at a very low level compared to that which the United States would consider necessary in the circumstances. I asked the Minister about an offer that had been made of a substantial number of helicopters from commercial sources, which could have been suitably equipped for military purposes and perhaps flown by ex-RAF pilots. Will the Minister write to noble Lords to explain on what grounds the offers were rejected?
My Lords, I will certainly write to noble Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord King, requests. I will make a further short point. It is important to recognise that the United States military has a different view of the method of operations using helicopters. It has a concept of air cavalry that is not shared by our military. That is why there is a significant difference between the provision of helicopters in the American armed forces and in ours. However, as a number of military personnel, including the Chief of the Defence Staff, said, you can never have enough helicopters. We should recognise that everything that can be done is being done to increase the provision of helicopters in theatre, taking into account the challenges of the environment. I will be happy to write to noble Lords and to put a copy of the letter in the Library of the House, explaining the detail of those decisions.
My Lords, after eight years we are still talking about the same thing. Why can it not be done more quickly? As the noble Lord, Lord King, said, there is a way forward. It will cost money. The Minister says that the United States army uses helicopters in a different way. We would like to be much more flexible in our use of helicopters. We would like to be able to surprise the enemy, get behind them and disrupt them, rather than using helicopters only for administration as we do. This is what commanders are crying out to do. I do not accept all the talk of percentage increases that is spouted, because we started at such a low level. A helicopter is a vital machine on a modern battlefield and we must recognise that.
My Lords, I understand the point that the noble and gallant Lord makes. However, I did not quote a figure relating to helicopter hours. It is important for the House to recognise the progress that has been made; but at the same time, it is not right for a Minister at this Dispatch Box to comment on decisions about types of military operations. Ministers take decisions based on military advice. With hindsight, the decision of the military back in 2004 to recommend a significant cut in the helicopter budget has clearly had a major impact in relation to our inability to increase helicopter numbers as fast as we should like.
I think that my noble friend is alluding to the point that several military commanders—this includes the Chief of the Defence Staff—while saying that we can never have enough helicopters, have also said that helicopters are not a panacea. I go back to the central point of my opening speech. It is very important that, in having an open and well informed debate on the complexity of issues that underpin defence today, we present the facts to the general public and insist that the media, when reporting these matters, fully describe that complexity. It is not the case that just increasing the number of helicopters would fix this problem. Increasing the number of helicopters would help this problem, but it needs to be done together with a number of other measures. I will write to the noble Lord on the specific point about the commercial supply alternative as soon as I can.
I turn to the welfare of former servicemen.
I am coming on to answer the noble Lord’s point.
The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, the noble Lords, Lord Freeman and Lord Astor, and the noble Baroness, Lady Park, have all raised serious concerns relating to combat stress and, in particular, suicide of former members of our Armed Forces. I can confirm that the Ministry of Defence has commissioned a study by Manchester University into the subject. From 1996 to 2005, over 230,000 individuals left the forces; 224 have since died by suicide, which is 224 too many. However, the researchers found that, while overall rates were not significantly different from those in the general population, there is a particular problem among young men, especially those who are unmarried and who served for only a short time. The present study was unable to provide an explanation for this, but I can assure the House that all service leavers are entitled to a resettlement package to ease their transition from service life. We are doing further work to look into this matter.
The noble Lord, Lord King, asked about the role of Saudi Arabia. The future of Afghanistan depends on the entire international community, including Afghanistan’s partners, engaging in delivering progress within this theatre. Saudi Arabia’s support for Afghanistan is one key component of that and we welcome its engagement.
The noble Lord, Lord Lee, asked about the numbers of frigates and destroyers. The combined force of our destroyer and frigate fleet today on operations is 23.
The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, asked about aerials. We have developed flexible mountings to address the problem that he identified on his visit. The prototypes are currently being evaluated.
The noble Lord, Lord Burnett, spoke about the importance of maintaining the numbers of teeth arms while we are under such operational pressure. As the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, knows, I saw for myself during a recent visit to Royal Marines Poole the tremendously impressive effectiveness and capability of our Royal Marines, but during that visit I also saw some worrying evidence of the poor quality of married living quarters—a matter that I am looking into.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, asked a specific question relating to pilots. I can confirm that the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy are recruiting and training sufficient personnel to maintain the level of helicopter pilots for the Chinook fleet as required by the helicopter pilots’ school.
The noble Lord, Lord Lee, asked a specific question relating to the Cutlass project. This is a robotic project for defusing large improvised explosive devices. The project has completed initial trialling and further acceptance trials will take place over the next six to nine months.
The right reverend Prelate and a number of other noble Lords raised the question of the future deterrent from the point of view both of disarmament and of maintaining our military capability. We are committed to maintaining the future deterrent and to multilateral disarmament in terms of a reduction in the number of warheads. In 2005—I remember; I was the Minister responsible for defence equipment at the time—we looked in detail at either extending the life of the Vanguard boats or considering the use of Astute class submarines and cruise missiles. Neither of those options is technically feasible. It is a matter not of cost but of technology.
The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, asked about cadets. We recognise the true importance of cadets as a force for good in society and are working with the devolved Administrations to increase the opportunities for state school pupils to participate in our cadet programme. We see this as a very important activity, and it is one in which we are continuing to invest.
The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, asked about paratroop training. He is right to identify this issue. C130 aircraft are currently heavily committed to operations, which has resulted in an impact on paratroop training. We are investigating alternative means of providing the training required but we accept the concern that he raised.
The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, asked about the timing of the introduction to service of the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft. The plans remain in place for those aircraft to come into service in 2016.
The noble Lord, Lord Lee, asked me to name one company which was working flat out. Universal Engineering in Weymouth, which builds the chassis for the Jackal vehicle, is working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is an example of the commitment that we are seeing from large parts of our defence industry in support of our defence procurement programme. I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Astor, that we foresee no change to the timing of the in-service date for both carriers. I shall write to him about the refit of HMS “Illustrious”.
In conclusion, our Armed Forces are respected around the world, and deservedly so. However, if we want to remain in the premier league of defence, which we do, we owe it to our brave men and women in service to have a serious, hard-nosed debate about defence in the coming months, both in this House and across the country. I think we have all recognised in this excellent debate that there are some tough decisions ahead: tough decisions on Britain’s role in the world and on the capacity that our Armed Forces will need in terms of men and material to defend our national interests at home and abroad. There will also be tough decisions on how we resource and procure equipment.
We therefore need a national consensus on defence policy. I sincerely hope that the Green Paper will stimulate a public debate about Britain’s role in the world and about the shape of the forces required to fulfil our commitments. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, welcomed the Green Paper. We have an opportunity to develop this consensus over the next six months, and we owe it to our Armed Forces to realise that opportunity.
There has been no mention yet about the losses in Iraq. Can I at least invite the Minister to pass on to our Armed Forces, in the best way that he can at this critical time, the strong message that I have delivered today on behalf of the Iraqi Government? I am amazed that he has not mentioned this and has not responded.
House adjourned at 2.52 pm.