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Volume 727: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2011


My Lords, the Statement is as follows.

“We constantly review our military options to ensure we can continue to enforce UNSCR 1973 and prevent Gaddafi from attacking the Libyan people. As the Foreign Secretary has said, it is now,

‘necessary to intensify the military, economic and diplomatic pressure on the Gaddafi regime’.

Attack helicopters are one tool for doing that. The use of attack helicopters is one of a range of capability options under consideration. However, we have made no decision yet on whether to use our attack helicopters in Libya”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating as a Statement an Urgent Question that was allowed in the other place. We have always been clear that we support the enforcement of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 in order to protect Libyan civilians and implement a no-fly zone. We have also said that we support the Government’s actions and that we scrutinise their actions. I note that the Minister has referred in the Statement to the Foreign Secretary’s comment that it is now,

“necessary to intensify the military, economic and diplomatic pressure on the Gaddafi regime”.

However, the Minister went on to say that, while the use of attack helicopters was one of a range of capability options under consideration, no decision has been made yet on whether to use our attack helicopters in Libya. The Minister in the other place also said that once they have, Ministers will come back to inform the House.

Certainly, an inference might be drawn from the phrase “once we have” that the decision is more about when rather than if. But if the words simply refer to once we have made a decision, is the Minister saying that if the decision is not to use our attack helicopters in Libya he will also be coming back to tell the House? When does the Minister anticipate coming back to inform the House, bearing in mind that a short recess is imminent? Is no decision likely before the date that this House resumes after the Recess?

I should like to refer to the reports in the newspapers this morning. The Guardian, which may not be the Government’s favourite newspaper, said, without any ifs or buts that Britain and France are to deploy attack helicopters against Libya and said that the French Foreign Minister had confirmed that his country had dispatched a dozen helicopters. Indeed, the dispatch of 12 French helicopters to Libya on 17 May was reported in yesterday’s Le Figaro newspaper.

The Sun, which certainly is one of the Government’s favourite papers, said that the Government would announce the deployment of Apache attack helicopters today. The Daily Telegraph, which sometimes seems to be better briefed on the Government’s thinking and intentions than some Cabinet Ministers, said that British attack helicopters would be in action in Libya within days and would fly in from a Royal Navy warship. It said that the operation will take the allies closer to a full ground operation. The report went on:

“Whitehall officials said that, by the weekend, the Apaches will begin flying missions from HMS Ocean … Their use was authorised by David Cameron at a meeting of the National Security Council”.

Those newspaper reports bear the hallmark of concerted briefing since they all say much the same thing. Will the Minister tell the House who was responsible for those briefings? I hope that he will not tell us that such briefings have not taken place. Will the Minister also say why briefings of this kind, which are not far removed from a running commentary on our imminent military intentions, are given to newspapers before anything is said in Parliament? Is that not another example of the way in which the Government are seeking to marginalise Parliament’s role of being able to question, to challenge and to call the Executive to account?

Will the Minister say whether a meeting of the National Security Council has recently taken place and if decisions on the use or otherwise of helicopters were made, as confidently asserted on the front page of the Daily Telegraph today? The French Defence Minister was quoted yesterday as saying:

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

In view of the statement by the French that they have dispatched a dozen helicopters, and in the light of the Government’s Statement that we have made no decision yet on whether to use our attack helicopters in Libya, how well is the close military co-operation between ourselves and the French in relation to Libya and in other areas of activity going?

On the face of it, an announcement by the French that they have made a decision to dispatch helicopters at a time when we are still considering a range of capability options and have made no decision yet on whether to use our attack helicopters, does not suggest that the co-operation is quite as close as it might be. It could be inferred that there is not always unanimity over the advantages of acting in concert either on what to do, when to do it or how to do it, or over the appropriate timing of announcements. Is this a matter that Ministers intend to pursue with their French counterparts?

Does the Minister accept the view that the deployment of helicopters by the French, and possibly by ourselves, represents an escalation of the conflict? While helicopters will add to firepower and give precision targeting, they are more vulnerable to ground fire than high-altitude fighter jets and thus, if we deploy them, will potentially put British personnel in greater danger. If we do deploy the helicopters, would it be the Government’s intention that the British personnel involved will also receive the operational allowance that their colleagues in Afghanistan do?

The Minister referred to the Foreign Secretary’s comment on the necessity for intensifying military pressure on the Gaddafi regime. If the Government are still considering a range of capability options, what are the objectives that are not being achieved now in pursuit of UNSCR 1973 that the Government seek to achieve through the use of one or more options now under consideration, including possibly the deployment of attack helicopters?

The Government need to be clear about how their ultimate objectives in Libya will be realised without the conflict becoming something other than that which was stated at the outset. When the Government do the right thing, we will always support them. So far they have, and so they continue to have the support of these Benches. But the events of the past 24 hours have raised a number of concerns about how matters are being handled rather than the decisions being made or considered. I hope that the Minister will now be able to address those concerns.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reconfirmation of the Opposition’s support for the Government’s position on the United Nations mandate. We cannot keep up a running commentary on every tactical change that we make. Our operational timetable is to support UNSCR 1973 and it is not driven by the parliamentary timetable. We have debated this important issue many times in your Lordships’ House and the Ministry of Defence has provided background briefings to many noble Lords. My intention is to continue to keep noble Lords aware of developments through both briefings and formal statements. I stress that no decision to use Apaches has yet been taken but I can confirm that three Apaches are on HMS “Ocean” in the Mediterranean, taking part in exercise Cougar and would be available should we decide that we need their formidable capability.

The noble Lord mentioned various articles in the newspaper. All I can say is that he should not believe everything he reads in the papers. I am not aware of any briefings to the newspapers that have taken place. We are not ready to make this decision. I can confirm that a meeting of the National Security Council has taken place, but no decision on the operational use of the Apaches has been taken. The noble Lord asked about relations with France. I can confirm that they are very good on operational terms; the French may have made a decision, but we are not yet ready to make a decision on the deployment of our Apaches.

The noble Lord asked if this was a significant escalation of the conflict. While I stress again that we have made no decision on the use of the Apaches, we do regularly update and review our military options and tactics to ensure that we can continue to enforce UNSCR 1973. The deployment of the Apaches does not translate to an escalation of the campaign.

The noble Lord asked about the possible risks to the Apaches. These are flown by very well trained pilots; in Afghanistan they face daily threats from hand-held grenades and machine gun fire, so I have complete confidence in their ability to deal with similar threats in Libya. Looking around the House, I see some noble Lords who have seen the work of the Apaches out in Afghanistan. They can of course take advantage of the terrain—the lie of the land—that fast jets cannot, and they can lurk while remaining hidden and then engage their target with their missiles.

The noble Lord asked what the Government’s objectives were. NATO air strikes have been successful in reducing Gaddafi’s ability to attack his people, but he continues to target civilians in clear contravention of UN Security Council resolutions and international law. We have moved on significantly in the last two weeks: the regime has had to pull back from Misrata, Gaddafi is in hiding, and there were further defections and desertions. The coalition is resolute and time is not on Gaddafi’s side. We must keep up the pressure on him, and Apache is one of the very highly capable weapons that we have to do this.

Finally, the noble Lord asked me whether we would extend the operational alliance. This is a matter we are looking at very seriously; as I say again, we have not made any decision on Apaches, but if we did, that would obviously be a matter we would look at carefully.

My Lords, I remind the House of the benefits of short questions, because I suspect we have several very experienced noble Lords who would like to get in on this Statement.

My Lords, no one would criticise this Minister for failing to keep colleagues informed of what is going on in Libya. The decision about the Apaches is clearly taken above his pay grade; no criticisms attaches to him for our not being told about that. However, I do have some other questions to which we need some answers.

First, it seems sad that, once again, we are being led by the French. I do not think that is doing our standing in the world any good at all. In addition to the list of questions that my noble friend put so succinctly to the Minister, I would like to know when we are going to have an explanation of that brazen breach of the no-fly zone by some of Gaddafi’s helicopters a few days ago. On whose watch did that happen? Who is responsible for it and why have we not had an explanation? Finally, will the Minister tell us how many working helicopters are available to Mr Gaddafi at this time?

My Lords, taking the noble Lord’s last question first, I do not think Gaddafi is in a position to use any helicopters at the moment. The no-fly zone would ensure that no helicopters were able to be operational. The noble Lord asked me the other day about the helicopter that was supposed to have taken off. I am not aware that this categorically took place, but I will look into the matter, report back to him and put a copy of my letter in the Library. It is a very important question and I am not able to answer it at the moment, but I will get back to him as soon as possible.

Finally, we are not being led by the French: no decision has yet been taken. We want to put the pressure on Gaddafi, and if a decision were taken to use Apaches, it would be for that reason—not because we were being led by the French.

My Lords, I certainly echo the tribute paid to the Minister for the efforts he has made to keep this House briefed on the situation in Libya. However, does he recognise that it is extremely difficult—in spite of the excellent briefing—to get an accurate picture of what is really happening on the ground and the way this event is moving? Against that background, I found that the noble Lord who spoke for the Opposition made an interesting point. Presumably, the decision to send Apaches did not originate with a decision of the National Security Council; it must have originated in a request from the NATO commander on the ground. I imagine that is where it originally came from, and not the other way around. Will my noble friend comment on that?

Also, are we to have a situation in which, if one French Apache or attack helicopter gets involved, then there has to be a British one as well, and then we have to have a parallel approach in this? My understanding was that individual nations would contribute to this effort the resources they thought most appropriate and had most available. If there is to be a limited attack helicopter effort, it is probably much more sensible if it is done by one country than by trying to do a bit from one and a bit from the other.

As far as the last point is concerned, my noble friend makes a very good point. I thank him for his kind words about trying to keep the House involved: I do my best to keep all noble Lords involved and I am open to any suggestions about how I can continue to do that. If anyone feels that I should be doing more, I would be grateful to hear about that. As for my noble friend’s question about who requested the Apaches, I am afraid that I am not in a position to answer that.

My Lords, military intervention in Libya was mentioned as being led by the French, but in fact, military intervention in Libya began on 19 March, with actions by the French air force. British submarines then fired over 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Two months further on, the use of Apache helicopters is being considered. Will the Minister say whether this is a move from desert warfare to urban warfare, and will he also comment on the use of Apache helicopters in Libya putting a further strain on UK efforts in Afghanistan? Will he also comment on the intensification of military pressure in Libya affecting the procurement policies of the Ministry of Defence?

My Lords, as I keep on saying, we have not made any decision on Apaches; however, if we were to authorise use of Apaches in Libya, it would have no effect on our operation in Afghanistan. I can reassure my noble friend on that point. As for his question on the French, I make no apology for working very closely with the French. They are our closest allies in Europe and they bring a lot to bear. Having said that, we also—for the benefit of noble Lords sitting opposite—work very closely with our American allies.

My Lords, is it not the case that, as the Minister has just said—and here is a point of emphasis with my noble friend Lord Gilbert—ever since Somalia we have been going down the line of closer and closer co-operation with the French at every level? As for the idea that there is a proposal that it must be one of ours and one of theirs, I would like to hear whether that was conceived or not. However, we must not get paranoid about operations of a slightly asymmetrical nature one way or another with the French. It is to be welcomed.

My Lords, once again, I say that no decision has been made on the use of Apaches—I cannot go on repeating that. That, I think, answers the question on “one of ours and one of theirs”. We are working very closely with the French and will continue to do so.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. He mentioned that the Foreign Secretary was anxious that further military, economic and other pressure should be kept on Gaddafi. Does that mean that there are other members of the NATO group working with us who also want to add to the military pressure? If so, what contribution are they likely to make? As far as the helicopters are concerned, I presume that some form of risk assessment will be, or has been, made. Perhaps the Minister would like to talk about what risk is envisaged if the helicopters are to be used in Libya.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord for his questions. We do not comment on the military contributions of other nations to the campaign. However, we are grateful for them. He asked me about risk assessments. Before we take any operational decision, we make a full risk assessment to understand the environment in which we require our personnel and equipment to operate. We will look particularly at the regime’s capability, not least its surface-to-air missiles.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a board member of UNICEF UK. If we are to have helicopters and ships in greater number in the area, have any further instructions been issued on what to do with boat-loads of refugees who are fleeing the situation? I am sure that, like me, the Minister does not want to see any more of the disasters that were seen previously.

My Lords, as I understand it, there is an international stabilisation response team in Benghazi looking at this issue. Of course, the United Kingdom will continue to provide medical and emergency food supplies.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. It is clearly quite right that we should review options all the time. It is also worth bearing in mind that we need to get rid of Gaddafi, which needs to be factored into everything that is done. We also need to be very wary. Three helicopters are not enough, if we ever use them. I am afraid that we are misleading people if we lead them to believe that they are not at greater risk than if the fast jets were there. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, is absolutely right that a proper risk assessment needs to be made. The Minister said that no decision had been made, but it is a slightly strange circumstance that we are in.

My question relates to something about which, as the Minister knows, I feel very strongly. The best aircraft that we had for close air support, having been designed for that purpose, was the GR9. Many of them are sitting in a hangar and the pilots are still current up to the end of June. This is the last-chance saloon for being able to use those aircraft. It is not good enough to say that there is no money, as it is all from contingency funds. A huge amount of contingency money is being spent by the Treasury on getting the GR4 “fleet within a fleet” up to the right level and getting the Typhoon available to deliver a bomb, yet here we have an aircraft designed for the purpose and better than the Apache at it because it is less vulnerable. Will the Government take this opportunity to look again at this matter and perhaps change their decision? If the conflict becomes long and drawn-out, we will need them there to be able to put the right pressure on.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for acknowledging that we are right to review the options and reaffirming the need to get rid of Gaddafi. There is always a risk in using attack helicopters—although, as I have said, we have not made any decision on them. I am afraid that I must disappoint the noble Lord by saying that we have no plans to look again at the use of the Harriers.

The Minister keeps many of us informed, for which I am grateful. He will know from discussions on Afghanistan that there is a difference between using the Apache there and using it in some of the urban areas in Libya. Are reports correct that one of the reasons that the French and British are looking at the possibility of deploying it is that Gaddafi’s army has discarded uniforms and is using civilian trucks and clothes? Is that the reason for the close attack?

We have a squadron of UAVs, or drones as they are popularly known. Are we considering using them in Libya, or they committed totally to Afghanistan?

My Lords, I well remember my visit last year to Afghanistan with the noble Lord. We managed to see quite a lot of our different weapons out there. The noble Lord asked me about Gaddafi’s forces shedding their uniforms. They are doing that. They are also using civilian vehicles and hiding armour in buildings, including hospitals and schools. If we were ever to use the Apaches, they might target mortar batteries, light military vehicles and individuals including snipers and commanders.

To what extent are foreign mercenaries a threat to civilians in Libya? Is this a significant consideration?

My Lords, I cannot really answer that question. Gaddafi’s mercenaries from different parts of Africa are obviously a threat to our allied forces. We deal with them as we do the regime’s soldiers.

Will the Minister restate for the House the very firm political undertaking given by his ministerial colleagues at the beginning of this intervention that the ultimate solution must be genuinely Libyan and is for the Libyan people to reach? Will he also confirm that our role is limited to protecting people who are in danger and under attack? Will he therefore assure us that, while it may be necessary to do everything possible, including, if need be, using helicopters, to achieve that objective of protection, there is no danger not only of military creep but of political creep? Are we absolutely certain that the aims of this mission are the same on the part of the French and the UK Governments?

My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord’s last question is yes: they are exactly the same. We want a genuinely Libyan solution. This is about upholding UNSCR 1973 and its remit to take all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas. That is what the French want and that is what we want.

My Lords, in the context of the press comment alluded to, and referring back to a previous Anglo-French alliance, does my noble friend recall the episode in The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman leading up to taxis of the Marne, where the French chief of staff was having dinner in the Champs-Elysées with a friend and they heard the couple at the next table say one to another, “The situation is so serious that the chief of staff is leaving for the front tomorrow”? As the chief of staff’s friend smiled and raised an eyebrow, the chief of staff said, “That, my friend, is how history is written”.

My Lords, I am afraid to say that my noble friend is better read than I am, but I shall have a word with him afterwards and find out the source of his comments.

My Lords, the Minister has been very clear that the action that we are taking is in pursuit of UNSCR 1973. That resolution did not say that seeing the back of Gaddafi was a principal point, although I have a great deal of sympathy with those who think that it is a means of delivering on UNSCR 1973. But it is not specific and we have to be careful about how we talk around that issue in the coming days.

Does the Minister accept that what my noble friend Lord Rosser said about the briefings on the Apaches sounding very authoritative? I am prepared to accept what the Minister has said to us here in Parliament—that no decision has been taken. The French, too, have been giving very authoritative briefings, which sound as if they are very well rooted. Again, I believe the Minister because he has given us excellent briefings and he commands the confidence of all sides of the House in what he is saying.

We are about to have a short break. Will the Minister assure us that, if the situation changes, there will be an authoritative Ministerial Statement making clear what is happening to British forces and to the deployment of our assets and that it will not be done through press briefings, which are unattributed?

My Lords, taking the last question first, as far as the Statement is concerned, that is a little above my pay grade. I would very much welcome a Statement and I would imagine that that would be the policy of my department. I cannot see why not.

I can confirm that we are not targeting Gaddafi, but if he happens to be in a command post at a bad time, he may get killed. That is a risk he takes. I accept the noble Baroness’s point about the briefings appearing authoritative, but I say to the House again that we will not take any decision on the deployment of Apaches until we are ready. The noble and gallant Lord asked about risk assessments. They must be done and done properly. I am sure that the House would support the Government on that.

Sitting suspended.