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Armed Forces: Overstretch

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their reaction to the views, recently reported by the media, of senior serving officers about the overstretch of the Armed Forces as a result of involvement in current military operations.

My Lords, the vital expertise of military personnel is fundamental in the decisions made by the Government in operational matters. There are a number of fora at which Ministers and military chiefs routinely discuss operational issues, and the three service chiefs will retain the right of open access to the Defence Secretary and to the Prime Minister. At all levels of the MoD, service personnel and policy staff interact on a daily basis.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister and the Government are satisfied with the professional military advice of the chiefs of staff on current and future operations? While there can be every expectation that operations over in Libya will continue as long as is necessary, is it not inevitable that shortages of manpower, equipment and finance mean that other commitments may be adversely impacted?

My Lords, I can give the noble and gallant Lord the confirmation that he has asked for. I cannot praise the chiefs enough. They are showing very strong leadership at a difficult time and when we are fighting two wars. As regards the noble and gallant Lord’s second question, as recent events have demonstrated, we are still capable of making a major contribution to NATO operations. In Libya we are the third largest contributor after the United States and France, while maintaining our efforts in Afghanistan and meeting our other standing commitments.

My Lords, in the Statement yesterday on the structure and management of the Ministry of Defence, the Government said that service chiefs would run their individual service and also be accountable for their budgets and delivering strategy. Under the new regime, with greater accountability by service chiefs, are the Government saying that service chiefs will not be allowed to speak out on concerns about the overstretch of the Armed Forces if they believe the resources they have been given do not enable them to implement the strategy commitments they have been told to deliver?

My Lords, as I said, the chiefs have the right, whenever they want, to talk to the Secretary of State for Defence and to the Prime Minister—that is the proper way to do it.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that with regard to Libya, whatever resources are necessary to see the matter through to a successful conclusion will continue to be made available?

My Lords, I can confirm that. The Treasury has agreed to meet these costs from the reserves and, as the Chief of the Defence Staff has said, we can sustain this operation as long as we choose. On that I am absolutely clear.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that it is a very widely held view in the Armed Forces and elsewhere—and I know him to be a thoughtful Minister on this—that we cannot go on with the assumption that there is no need to review the White Paper on defence? Frankly, both foreign policy and defence issues have changed so much in recent times that not to revisit it would be a disservice to our Armed Forces.

My Lords, the SDSR was based on a thorough, realistic assessment of the threats we face now and could face in the future. It ensures that we can continue to conduct operations today while preparing our future force. Our rapid and highly effective contribution to the NATO mission to protect the Libyan people is testament to the flexibility and professionalism of our Armed Forces and proof that the UK has the capability to project power and influence at very short notice.

My Lords, following the question that has just been asked, would the Minister accept that Britain’s ability to resource recent and additional deployments—deployments that would not have been possible a few months later—draws into question the very plans that have been discussed? Is there not now a very good reason why they ought to be reviewed again in light of the increasingly unstable international position?

My Lords, the Government will continue to provide sufficient resources to achieve operational success in Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere. We are quite clear that we can manage what we are being asked to do in Afghanistan and Libya at the present time.

My Lords, last week we welcomed back 16 Air Assault Brigade after its third tour in Afghanistan. One of its officers told me that our kit in theatre is now the envy of US forces—specifically the lightweight helmet, body armour, small rucksack and even boots. Given that each day the MoD unfortunately seems to be getting a kicking on procurement issues, will my noble friend take back to Main Building a good news story, for once?

I am very grateful to my noble friend and I entirely agree with him. I know that he was able to inspect with me the latest equipment and clothing issued to troops, including the advances in personal protection, that were on display in Portcullis House earlier this year. This is a good news story, and there is no doubt that these advances, such as those that my noble friend mentioned, are helping to save many lives in theatre.