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Armed Forces: Future Size

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2013

Question for Short Debate

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of recent international developments particularly in the Middle East, whether they will review their plans for the future size, configuration and equipping of the Armed Forces.

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity for the House to discuss defence issues, given the ongoing sacrifice that our soldiers, sailors and Air Force personnel are being asked to make on behalf of this country. Sadly, another example of that sacrifice has been drawn to our attention today.

Leaving aside the question of how or whether we should be fighting in recent theatres of operation, the reality is that we have had large numbers of troops deployed overseas for many years, enduring great hardship and significant losses. Before the Recess, I asked the Minister for details of those who had suffered life-changing injuries as a result of their deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the record, I will repeat the Minister’s Answer:

“My Lords, for reporting purposes serious UK operational casualties are usually categorised as having either serious or very serious wounds and injuries. Between 2003 and 2009, 222 UK casualties in Iraq were included in these categories, while the number for Afghanistan between 2001 and November this year was 591”.—[Official Report, 19/12/12; col. 1543.]

These are sobering figures and do not even include those who may suffer mental health issues in later years as a result of their experiences.

I labour this point because, due to the vast improvements in battlefield medicine, wounded soldiers are surviving injuries that they would not have done in earlier conflicts. It follows that upon returning to the UK with severe injuries, they will require perhaps 60 years of care, and I wonder if the NHS, which will have to bear this burden, is fully prepared and resourced for the challenge.

One keeps hearing examples of the problems returning soldiers and their families have in adapting to civilian life, especially if injuries have occurred while in service. The number of former soldiers who end up in the justice system should alert us to the difficulties they face. The long-term welfare of our Armed Forces must remain a top priority and I hope the Minister can give the House an assurance that there will be no skimping when it comes to assisting with both welfare issues and professional services aimed at helping and equipping former soldiers for the world of work.

Upon taking office in May 2010, the coalition Government undertook a review of the Armed Forces, with the emphasis on ensuring, among other matters, that the sums for procurement add up and that, in future, programmes and equipment would be affordable and delivered on time. For a new Government, with an apparent multibillion pound overage in its spending commitments, this was an obvious thing to do. Furthermore, the threats faced by the United Kingdom are always changing and any responsible Government are required to test our military configuration and equipment against the threat levels we face.

Considerable controversy followed the 2010 strategic defence and security review. This is not surprising, but perhaps the most hurtful and humiliating development was the realisation that we currently—and for some years to come—have no seaborne fixed-wing air capability. For an island nation to have such a limited option to project its power from aircraft carriers leaves us effectively out of business in many possible conflict scenarios. It is hard to see how we could defend ourselves without significant help from others.

Only months after the review was published we were plunged into the Libyan conflict. I believe that the Government did the right thing by intervening with our allies to protect the people of that country from almost certain mass murder by the Gaddafi regime, but our inability to fly missions from aircraft carriers added to the cost and the risk to our Armed Forces. Air crews, who did a magnificent job, had to fly long distances to land bases in Italy, which even a few years ago may not have been available to us.

We know that the previous Government commissioned two large aircraft carriers, which are under construction, but more embarrassment was to follow when we learned that there were no aircraft to fly from them. Our choice of a replacement for the Harrier went from one design to another and then back again. It reminds me of sending a football team on to the pitch without the benefit of a goalkeeper.

Given that the UK still has a large military spend compared to many of our competitors it is hard to fathom why we find ourselves in this powerless position. We did not get here simply from 2010 but were clearly going to founder because of decisions taken, or not taken, long before then. As protection of the nation is a top priority for any Government, ending up in this mess represents a fundamental failure of the state to provide adequate protection for its citizens.

Our present political model leaves us open, as a nation, to short-term and bad decision-making. We all recall that the decision to save a paltry sum in the South Atlantic in 1982 cost this country dearly, in both personnel and treasure, by signalling to the Argentine military junta that we were not serious about protecting the Falklands. What message are we sending out now when we are incapable of providing adequate seaborne airpower?

Earlier I referred to the situation we found ourselves in during the Arab spring in Libya. This “spring” will soon be two years old, and a major civil war is raging in Syria, with all the usual suspects in the region involved by proxy. Iran will defend Assad to the last, even if the Russians and Chinese see that he is finished. Iran will stop at nothing if it sees its main ally in the region about to fail. The Strait of Hormuz is still under threat. None of us here can tell how things in the Middle East will play out.

Last week, Danish, German and American troops were deployed to Turkey to set up Patriot batteries to protect the Turks against Scuds and other missiles that we know Assad possesses. Lebanon and Jordan are once again being destabilised by the mass movement of refugees, and internal disputes have reignited in both these countries. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government continue to keep the Middle East situation under constant review and will adjust and reconfigure our forces as required to meet the emerging threat posed by the instability in this region?

One of the principal reasons given for the second war in Iraq was the alleged presence of large volumes of weapons of mass destruction, hidden by Saddam Hussein for future use. Despite many searches, little evidence was produced that such weapons existed in Iraq. Since then, however, weapons of mass destruction have been used by terrorists in Iraq. Nerve gas booby-trap bombs have been deployed on a number of occasions and other chemicals have been combined with explosives to maximise casualties, including in al-Qaeda attacks in east Africa. Can the Minister confirm that coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have encountered nerve agents and other chemical weapons which were in the possession of terrorists? Can he assure the House that our own Armed Forces are adequately equipped and trained to deal with attacks involving such agents and chemicals in this country, as well as in other theatres of operation?

One of the biggest defence-related debates, even within the coalition Government, is the future of our independent nuclear deterrent. The current delivery system is moving towards the end of its operational life; in view of our current financial position, people will be asking if there is a less expensive alternative, given that the threats the UK faces are more likely to come from unconventional enemies. Can the Minister set out government policy in this matter and the extent to which decisions have been taken for a replacement for the Trident system?

As a result of the 2010 review, the three services were all subject to personnel reductions. I accept that numbers are not the whole story; nevertheless, there appears to be a pattern developing of more tasks having to be performed against a background of falling numbers. We had two long-term overseas deployments taking place at the same time as Operation Banner was happening here in the UK. Is the Minister satisfied that the Armed Forces are not being overstretched and, as a result, seeing their flexibility severely depleted? Furthermore, given recent and unjustified violence from both loyalist and IRA sources in Northern Ireland, will the Minister assure the House that, should it be required by the chief constable of Northern Ireland, military support will be available to him? Sadly, over the weekend, a threat was made by IRA elements to any Irish citizen serving in the British Army. I ask the Minister, therefore, to bear that in mind in his response.

When we debated the Armed Forces Bill in 2011, a number of amendments arose from our deliberations. A commitment was given then that the Secretary of State for Defence would report annually to Parliament on the progress being made throughout the UK in implementing the covenant under certain headings. Can the Minister say when such a Statement is likely to be made so that we will have the opportunity to question him on developments? Following on from that, can the Minister confirm whether Armed Forces advocates have been appointed from all parts of the United Kingdom?

I said at the outset that we owe a massive debt of gratitude to our Armed Forces for the work that we ask them to do. They do not unilaterally go to wage war or defend our interests around the world: we send them. It is therefore our responsibility to ensure that when things go wrong and service personnel are killed or injured, those left behind or needing long-term care are adequately provided for. We continue to hear cases of hardship. During the debate on the Bill in 2011 it was suggested that we should have something like the US Veterans Administration in this country. In response, the Government said that they preferred the current model.

I care little about which model we follow; what matters is that the help is provided. It annoys a lot of people to hear tales of ex-service personnel being refused this or that help from a country that can find endless supplies of money to cater for the needs of Abu Qatada and his ilk. I trust therefore that even in these times of economic difficulty we will continue to pay close attention to the defence needs of this country. If we fail to do so, history teaches us that we always end up paying a high price as a nation.

My Lords, first, from these Benches I offer condolences to the family of the British soldier shot dead by a rogue member of the Afghan national army. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Empey, for putting this debate down—it was a pleasant surprise when I read about it in Bangkok.

The title of the debate mentions the potential problems in the Middle East. Of course, that is only one potential area of conflict and there are others. Did we expect a war in the Falklands or in the Balkans? Did we expect conflict in Iraq or Afghanistan? Can we keep out of conflict in Syria, where horrendous killings are taking place, or Israel/Palestine, whose almost intractable problems seem to be getting worse, or Egypt, Lebanon or Tunisia? The list of potential trouble spots is endless, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, indicated. Where will the next conflict or conflicts be?

With an Army of a mere 82,000 personnel, what will be feasible when any conflict takes place? Could my noble friend the Minister, who does such a great job in the Ministry of Defence, indicate how many generals will be left in this Army of 82,000? How does the number of generals in the Army now and when it is so reduced compare to the number of generals in other armies in France or the United States, relative to the number of personnel in those armed forces?

The title of the debate includes the word “configuration”. An important point from my perspective has always been the configuration of procurement in the Ministry of Defence. The questions really are: what equipment do we have, what equipment do we need and do we know what we need? The question that perhaps no one wants to ask is: what do we not know that we need? What Navy and RAF do we have and do we need? I am pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord West, in his place. I will leave all naval and aviation problems to him. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, mentioned two aircraft carriers being built. What planes will be able to fly from those carriers? The noble Lord made the analogy to a football team and said it was like sending a team on without a goalkeeper. I disagree: it is like sending a team on without a team. All you would have is the football stadium or the aircraft carriers and nothing to fly from them at the moment.

Then the questions are: what vehicles do we have and how do we use them in the conflicts that take place? We have armoured vehicles and we send them to an area that is sandy so we paint them a sandy colour. Then, if we have a conflict in an Arctic region we take the same vehicles and paint them white. But they are not necessarily—in fact they certainly are not—the proper equipment for our forces. The armed personnel will lose lives because of the inadequacy of that equipment. Would my noble friend accept that defence reviews and procurement move far more slowly than the fast-changing events around the world, particularly in the Middle East and north Africa? How can the Government ensure that the United Kingdom is able to react in a timely way to these defence and security challenges? Then of course there is the financial aspect and the unexpected need for finance. When conflicts take place, will finance be available from some pot somewhere to pay for it? Will the equipment needed be available at short notice?

Could the Minister say what assessment has been made of new types of warfare such as the Iron Dome defence infrastructure protecting civilians in Israel, which has meant that the rockets sent against Israel do not land in any areas of population? They are in fact developing a system that is Iron Dome-plus and Iron Dome-plus-plus to deal with medium and long-range missiles. That is something that I hope would be in our national security strategy.

The Government’s second annual report on the national security strategy and defence review last November highlighted increased instability in the Middle East as one of the major developments since the national security strategy in 2010. How will the Government update the national security strategy to reflect this change? Is the idea of just having a review and then, after a given period, another review and another review the way to go about it? Surely we should be thinking of the review as ongoing and seamless; one should be reviewing it all the time and not just at given times. Does the Minister accept that the developments in the Middle East and north Africa since the publication of the national security strategy have seen major changes in our defence and security picture that were not anticipated when the strategy was first presented. What action will the Government take as a result?

The Times today talks about extensive Army redundancies and the effect of the ability to control the future shape of the Army. The great worry is that the redundancies will include people with needed trades and that they will leave gaps in the performance of certain functions. I wonder how that will be coped with.

Perhaps the Minister will relate that to the use of the Reserve Forces. A lot is mentioned in the reviews as to the building up of the Reserve Forces, but I have my doubts as to whether people with the relevant skills will always be available, and whether they will be able to take the time off from their main employment to go and serve their country. There is a quote in the Times that perhaps doing defence on the cheap is leaving key roles empty. It really is a problem of whether the Army with 82,000 people is going to be fit for purpose.

As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, we owe a considerable and continued debt to our Armed Forces. We are lucky to have the Minister here who I know does an incredible job in the Ministry of Defence. Nothing that I am saying is meant to be critical of that. A lot of these problems are inherent in what has been happening not just during the present Administration but during previous Administrations. There is great scope for looking in a fresh light at what conflicts are likely to happen, what stocks of equipment we have, what we will need, what we could need and whether there are new items of defence and attack available in the world that we should be looking at to bring our forces completely up to date.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Empey, for raising this debate. It is very pertinent. I apologise for not having put my name on the list of speakers. I was more focused on my Christmas festivities than on knowing what the business of the House was, but I felt it was very important to speak.

I will speak very briefly on the aircraft carriers—otherwise people might think that I am a one-trick pony on that. The Government have begun to get their mind around that and understand the importance of them. They are something that we should be really proud of, rather in the sense that we were proud of the Olympic work, employing some 20,000 people across the UK, building these amazing ships. The Government have made it quite clear—certainly the Secretary of State did in a conference I was at—that they intend running both of them. Yes, there have been a lot of problems. Yes, there have been issues about what aircraft they will have; we now know what aircraft they will have. I am glad that the Government are getting to grips with that.

However, I believe that our nation is standing into danger. Since I joined the Royal Navy 48 years ago, our military has suffered a steady attrition in size and resources. That has happened year on year in all my 48 years in the Navy. The 2010 strategic defence and security review is, I believe, the straw that has almost broken the camel’s back, but a further £1.3 billion has been taken from the defence budget.

Our military is not now capable of what the people of our nation expect of it. If Ministers think that it is, I fear that they are deluded. The international developments in the Middle East—the Arab spring was referred to as the basis of this debate—are just one example of what a chaotic, unpredictable and dangerous world we are in. At the time of the 2010 SDSR, a number of us—some of whom are in the Chamber tonight—pointed out that the cost-driven exercise took no account of strategic shock. The events in Libya and Syria have proved the point. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, asked: where will the next one be? We have no idea what the next crisis might be. That is why we need capable Armed Forces. As an aside, Libya was a minor operation, but we could not have done it without the United States. I would strongly advise that we do not get involved militarily in Syria.

I come back to defence spending, because that is what I want to focus on. It is complacent and, I believe, shows a lack of understanding, to parrot the fact that our defence spending is the fourth highest in the world, as if that answers criticism that it is too small. First, figures can be very misleading, as many nations, as I know from my time as chief of defence intelligence, hide what we see as defence spending in lots of other areas, so it is sometimes difficult to know what they are actually spending.

Even if we are in the top six, so we should be. We are the fifth or sixth richest country in the world; we are a permanent member of the Security Council. Unlike many nations, we have a responsibility for 14 dependencies world wide. The Government recently reiterated our responsibility for defence of those dependencies. We run global shipping from London, the sinews that hold the global trading village together and are a huge earner for this nation. We are the largest European investor in South Asia, South-East Asia, Australasia and key parts of the Pacific Rim. Global stability is crucial to our investments and our nation’s wealth and security.

I share in the congratulations to the Minister, because he has been very good about briefing us in this House on defence issues, but he will, because he must as a Minister, no doubt talk about balancing the defence budget. Yes, the MoD equipment programme was overheated—there is no doubt about that—but talking about a balanced budget is sophistry. Future Force 2020, the headmark for the SDSR—

I apologise for interrupting, but the noble Lord will be aware that speakers in the gap have a limit of four minutes.

I am aware of that.

Future Force 2020, the headmark for the SDSR, required a 1% increase in defence spending year on year from 2015-16. The Treasury has allowed only a 1% increase in the procurement budget. Therefore, the programme is underfunded; and therefore it is not balanced. The cuts so far have led to an underspend of £1.3 million, and they are being taken from money that has been voted by Parliament for defence. If, as David Cameron has argued, defence is the highest priority, we must increase defence spending, even if it means cutting other departments’ budgets. Certainly, involvement in any more foreign adventures without that commitment could be catastrophic. I repeat: our nation is standing into danger unless we increase defence spending as a matter of urgency.

My Lords, it is late. Perhaps because of that, the interest shown in this debate in terms of the number of speakers is limited. Nevertheless, the issue raised is one of real interest and importance. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Empey, for giving us the opportunity to have this debate.

Relationships between countries and continents, strengths of countries and continents and their levels of influence change over time. For example, it will not be long before the size of the Chinese economy will exceed that of the United States. China’s military capability is also expanding fast and, with it, the confidence in wielding influence and greater political dominance that that brings. The United States, for its part, has made clear that it will be devoting more of its attention and resources, not least military ones, to the Far East and China, which will become its new strategic priority, and fewer to Europe. The United States ambassador to NATO has recently been quoted as saying that the NATO allies need to find the money to spend on military equipment to maintain the organisation’s strength. The US itself accounts for 75% of NATO’s budget and spends 4% of its GDP on defence. The ambassador asserted that the campaign in Libya had exposed what he described as “worrisome trends” in Europe’s ability to act without US help, that some European stockpiles had run out and had to be replenished by the United States, and that there were a,

“number of other critical capabilities that the US provided in spades”.

The future direction for the Middle East, in which we have considerable interests, is far from clear. Significant change, which was not predicted, has taken place in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. We have seen the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as an international phenomenon and the Gulf States, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, becoming more active players in events. The Sunni/Shia sectarian animosity in the Middle East continues to be a telling factor. Syria is in a state of turmoil and that is having repercussions in the Lebanon and Jordan. It remains to be seen in which direction Syria goes once President Assad has left the scene, and in particular the impact that this has on the Iranian Government and stability in the region, since the Iranians back the current Syrian regime.

Presidential elections are due in Iran in June and the current president will have to step down after two consecutive terms in office. Iran continues to face pressure over its nuclear intentions and its economy is in trouble. Israel also has elections later this month, though a significant change in government direction does not appear to be likely. The peace process between Israel and Palestine appears at present to be going nowhere, and there continues to be speculation on whether the Israeli military will strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.

On top of this the growing strength of al-Qaeda in parts of Africa, the rise of new powers in Asia Pacific, weak states outnumbering stable states by two to one, and new threats in cyberspace, which have been the reality in the Middle East in recent months, are all matters to be taken into account in assessing future developments and priorities. Even though we may not have predicted at least some significant events that have taken place, forecasting what is going to happen in the future is likely to become more, not less, difficult. Today, energy security, climate change, demographic shifts, and the spread of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials are threats, alongside state-on-state warfare, or contorted religiously inspired terrorism.

The global economic downturn that we face means that we and the majority of our allies are making spending cuts, with unavoidable consequences for capability and global reach. In the UK the situation has not been helped by the fact that decisions taken by the Government have not yet stimulated domestic growth and austerity is set to be extended. Budgetary restraint is unavoidable, however undesirable. If we are to realise our intentions and ambitions for our forces they will have to be affordable, and the profile of the defence budget will be an expression of our priorities.

Carrier strike and improved ISTAR are vital. Strategic warning capabilities and intelligence will be crucial in providing early indicators of threats and potential crises. Two state-of-the-art fighter fleets, advanced unmanned vehicles supporting all three services and strategic air lift are also key components. That our Armed Forces personnel will continue to be our most important asset and skills must also be a strategic capability. We need highly trained service personnel able to use higher technology platforms and exploiting to the full the opportunities new technology presents, reservists using niche civilian skills in military contexts, not least in the field of cyberspace and cyber security, and a high-skilled, broad-based defence industry. Remote surveillance, manoeuvrability in cyberspace, better communications and acting at distance with accuracy are all necessary features for our future forces.

Alongside this must also be a greater focus on international alliance-building. Shared threats and financial challenges demand that we pool resources and expertise. The UK/France accord may lay the ground for multiple discrete bilateral or regional arrangements between nations. NATO, though, is the primary military grouping through which action will be taken, and Europe’s focus should be on greater deployability and burden-sharing within the alliance.

It is vital that European nations work together towards meeting military objectives. European NATO nations are making deep cuts to defence budgets in isolation of each other and the consequence could be cross-alliance shortfalls or duplication, which would certainly not be the best use of available resources overall.

We also need to consider the opinion of the British people when considering our defence posture in protecting and furthering British interests and ideas. The public are wary of interventionism, following recent conflicts and the financial crisis. We have to make the case for strong, proactive defence postures, with our goal being prevention before intervention, and early intervention before conflict.

Diplomacy can be more effective than the painful cure of military action, albeit that a key function of our Armed Forces is to deter and be a credible threat to those who wish us and our allies harm. Whether in tackling climate change, investing in civil society and governance or diplomatic engagement, the spectrum of soft-power capabilities at the UK’s disposal to defend our interests and promote our ideas in the world should be capitalised on.

Defence is becoming more intricate and complex while the world is becoming more interdependent, and we need a policy response as broad as the threats that we face. We must aim to have flexible forces with whole-spectrum capabilities, able to respond rapidly whether through preventive measures, reactive disaster relief or multilateral interventions, and we must ensure that our intentions and ambitions for our forces are affordable and can be financed, with the needs of the front line being matched to those of the bottom line.

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Empey, for introducing this timely debate. It is clear that on all sides of the House we share respect for the determination, professionalism and bravery of our Armed Forces.

The noble Lord is correct that the welfare needs of our service personnel are, and will remain, a key priority—a duty that we extend to our veterans as well. The Armed Forces have long-standing structures in place to support service families, including welfare officers, trained social workers and other specialists. Under the Armed Forces covenant, the Government have made good progress on improving the care that we provide—for example, by doubling council tax relief to £600 per six-month deployment and ensuring that Armed Forces compensation scheme payments are excluded from means-tested social benefits.

There is much that we are doing with regard to veterans. The Armed Forces mental health strategy enables the co-ordination of policy, and focuses efforts and resources where they are most needed. We have also ensured that veterans will be given priority treatment on the NHS for all service-related conditions.

We work hard to ensure that our service personnel transition smoothly back to civilian employment. All personnel are entitled to assistance through this process. The single services, in partnership with Right Management, work with service leaders to deliver a range of practical assistance, including training and assistance with recruitment. My noble friend Lord Ashcroft, the Prime Minister’s special representative for veterans’ transition, will be reviewing current processes, and we look forward to his recommendations.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, made reference to the annual report on the Armed Forces covenant, which was notified to Parliament last month by means of a Written Ministerial Statement. I warmly welcome the interest in this House in the Armed Forces covenant, and would welcome the chance to debate it should the opportunity arise.

The noble Lord also asked whether Armed Forces advocates had been appointed from all parts of the United Kingdom. I can confirm that there are now Armed Forces advocates in the devolved authorities of Wales and Scotland. Both Wales and Scotland have produced their own commitment papers on how they will implement the covenant, as well as contributing to the Secretary of State’s statutory report. An Armed Forces advocate has not been appointed by the Northern Ireland Executive, as their strict equalities legislation means that implementation of the covenant is more complicated.

Additionally, many local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland have appointed local Armed Forces advocates or champions as part of their commitment to the community covenant, working with local communities to improve access to services and support for serving and ex-service men and women and their families. Relevant UK government departments also have Armed Forces advocates, all of whom are represented on the Covenant Reference Group and are responsible for making sure that their departmental policies uphold the principles of the covenant.

As the noble Lord explained, we live in an uncertain world. As such, we need to ensure we have the capabilities to adapt and address a very broad range of challenges. The NSS and the SDSR made a number of strategic choices: to support the deficit reduction programme; to seek to maintain the UK’s international profile; and to honour our operational commitments in Afghanistan. They remain at the heart of this Government’s approach to foreign, defence and national resilience policies. The NSS also acknowledged the uncertainty of the future strategic environment, and the SDSR responded by prioritising those capabilities across government that will allow us to adapt to changes as they happen.

The noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord West, and my noble friend Lord Palmer all mentioned carrier strike. We will have planes. We will have the B variant of the Joint Strike Fighter—the STOVL variant—which, as the noble Lord, Lord West, knows flew very successfully off the USS “Wasp” in November 2011.

In the SDSR the Government confirmed our belief that it is correct for the United Kingdom to retain, in the long-term, a carrier-strike capability. In the short term, however, there are few circumstances we can envisage where the ability to deploy air power from the sea will be essential. That is why we reluctantly took the decision to retire the Harriers and Invincible-class carriers before the new carriers become operational. We did not take this decision lightly, but did so mindful of the current strategic context in which we live. The decision on the second carrier will be one for the next SDSR after the general election.

The Middle East remains a significant source of instability. One immediate risk, as noble Lords said—

Just on a point of clarity, the Secretary of State said that it was an aspiration of this Government that they would run two carriers although the final decision had not been made. Is that the correct decision?

My Lords, I am not sure what the Secretary of State said but I can confirm that this is definitely a decision for the SDSR. It is my personal aspiration that we have a second carrier operating.

As the noble Lord said, an immediate risk is the collapse of the Syrian regime. We will continue to support our allies in the region and would like to see a diplomatic solution but we cannot afford to remove options from the table at this stage. Our current posture in the region supports UK interest in international efforts by securing globally important economical arteries, including the Strait of Hormuz, ensuring the well-being of regional partners and contributing to regional security.

The UK currently has one frigate, one destroyer, four mine hunters and two Royal Fleet Auxiliary support vessels deployed to the Gulf conducting maritime security operations. I can assure the House that the Government continue to keep the Middle East under constant review. We will adapt as required to meet any emerging threats wherever they may arise.

While responding—and being prepared to respond—in the Middle East, we have continued to make significant progress in Afghanistan. We have built the capability of the Afghan national security forces so that they can prevent Afghan territory from ever again being used as a safe haven by international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. We have helped to underpin a more stable Government and have overseen elections. We have demonstrated the Armed Forces’ ability to act elsewhere, such as in the seas off Somalia, where we are working alongside navies from around the world to control the spread of piracy.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, asked about nerve agents and chemical weapons. Happily, I can confirm that insurgents in Afghanistan have not used nerve agents or other chemical weapons against coalition forces. There have been a few cases in Iraq where improvised devices containing industrial chemicals and small quantities of chemical agent were detonated, but these did not result in any coalition fatalities. I can also assure the House that our Armed Forces are adequately equipped and trained to operate in an environment where these threats exist, both overseas and in the UK.

The noble Lord asked me to outline the Government’s policy on the replacement of the Trident system. It remains as set out in the SDSR. We will maintain a continuous submarine-based deterrent and will begin the work of replacing the existing submarines. Work on the assessment phase of the replacement submarine programme has been under way since May 2011. The final decision as to whether to proceed with the Main Gate investment decision for the replacement programme will take place in 2016, after the next election.

I can reassure my noble friend that the Armed Forces are not subject to overstretch. As we recover and recuperate from Afghanistan, our flexibility will be greatly enhanced. The SDSR set out plans to transform defence so that we emerge with a more coherent capability in the future, under what is known as Future Force 2020. This required tough decisions to scale back the overall size of the Armed Forces and reduce some capabilities less critical to today’s requirements. The SDSR gave us the full structure of Future Force 2020 which, by the next decade, will enable us to deliver our adaptable strategic posture. It is based on our assessment of the forces required to meet our standing commitments, while conducting three overlapping operations: a simple, non-enduring intervention; a complex non-enduring intervention; and an enduring stabilisation operation.

The top defence priority remains success in Afghanistan. As we move towards Future Force 2020, the ability of our Armed Forces to respond to additional contingent tasking is kept under constant review by the Ministry of Defence. It is from this realistic capacity that additional commitments are delivered.

In response to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, relating to the violence in Northern Ireland, first, I am sure that the House will join me in condemning the violent demonstrations that we have witnessed recently. We should recognise the outstanding efforts of the PSNI and the bravery demonstrated by police officers in maintaining law and order. I call on all political parties in Northern Ireland to engage in dialogue to resolve disputes peacefully. The violence witnessed does not represent the true face of Northern Ireland’s business and community sectors and wider society. Although military operations in Northern Ireland ceased in 2007, our Armed Forces continue to play an important role supporting the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I assure the noble Lord that this will continue.

My noble friend Lord Palmer asked how many generals we will have in an Army of 82,000 and in France. I cannot today give my noble friend a specific answer on the number of generals, but I assure him that, proportionally, there will be a greater decrease in major generals and above compared to brigadier and below.

My noble friend also asked about Iron Dome. The UK currently has no plans to develop or acquire national ballistic missile defence capability. However, each SDSR provides an opportunity to review this position against projected threats. Iron Dome is not a ballistic missile defence system, but is designed to provide relatively short-range protection against rockets and artillery shells. Its role is comparable to the maritime close-in weapons systems deployed by the UK in Operation Telic to protect UK forces in Basra.

I will respond to my noble friend on the issue of generals and the other questions that he asked.