Skip to main content

Military Vehicles: Repair

Volume 832: debated on Monday 4 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what recent assessment they have made of decisions to mark military vehicles as “beyond any economic repair” rather than provide them to NATO allies.

My Lords, the Ministry of Defence considers all available options when disposing of military vehicles which are no longer required. Vehicles which are assessed as being beyond economic repair are unlikely to be attractive acquisitions for our NATO allies.

My Lords, between 2010 and 2014, the MoD destroyed 43 Challenger 2 tanks, regarded at the time as being beyond any economic repair. These destroyed tanks, however, could have gone to Ukraine or other NATO allies. This new information has highlighted the government policy with respect to stockpiling, storing or mothballing old equipment. Can the Minister tell us what the current government policy on old equipment actually is? Is any review taking place to ensure that such a policy helps guard against future unknowns and emerging threats in an increasingly challenging strategic environment?

I can confirm that there are three main options available to the MoD when disposal is being contemplated: Government-to-Government sale, a commercial sale disposal or—because of reasons of being beyond economic repair or security issues—scrapping the equipment. I reassure the noble Lord that there is both an extensive structure for assessment of what is beyond economic repair and a very robust governance, headed by the DESA, to ensure that appropriate decisions are taken. There is an obligation to be fair to the taxpayer and to ensure a decent return if that is possible. Of course we always take into account what our operational and future needs will be.

My Lords, I remind your Lordships’ House of my interest as the Government’s defence exports advocate. The gifting of military vehicles is the easy bit. The really difficult bit is the maintenance of those vehicles, which are often very technical pieces of equipment. Spare parts are often scarce and, crucially, without very experienced technicians you simply cannot maintain them. Probably the most depressing visit of my ministerial career was to an African country—which I will not name—to see a literal graveyard of donated British military vehicles because they simply could not maintain them. If we are to look at this, can we also look at how we can supply our allies with technical expertise and ensure that spare parts are available—which are probably not anyway?

My noble friend makes an important point. To reassure him, these factors are taken into consideration before a gift is made. For example, we consider in what state we would reasonably give equipment to allies, because we have to take into account the availability of spares, the time to bring vehicles up to standard and the implicit costs of that. We are always realistic. Indeed, my noble friend will be aware that we have made a number of donations of vehicles to Ukraine. These have proved to be very helpful.

My Lords, given the continuing challenge of getting the Ajax programme on track and the verdict of the Defence Select Committee that defence procurement is “broken”, these decisions are particularly concerning. Is it not the case that many of the scrapped Challenger tanks will have been some of our least used vehicles? My recollection is that they were returned from Germany in working order and were in storage for 15 years—since I was the Secretary of State. Can the Minister comment on this and explain how we can ensure that such short-sighted decisions cannot be repeated?

On Ajax, as the noble Lord is aware, a corner has been turned, thankfully, and good progress is being made. On the Challenger tanks, the noble Lord will be aware of the upgrading taking place now to create CR3—Challenger 3—tanks from innovated and improved CR2 tanks. But the noble Lord might be interested to know that money has also been given to the Army to ensure that, in addition, a cohort of CR2 tanks is upgraded so that they are available to operate with Warrior until the full transition to CR3 has taken place. As the previous Secretary of State for Defence made clear, we will consider whether the lessons of Ukraine suggest that we need a larger tank fleet. That is under consideration.

My Lords, the Defence Command Paper says that we need to minimise the time when our “assets are unavailable”. Looking at the two issues together—the retirement of Challenger tanks and the difficulties with Ajax—are His Majesty’s Government sure that we are actually minimising the time when assets are unavailable? Should we be concerned about gaps?

This is an important issue—I would not suggest otherwise—but it is also a situation where we constantly factor into any decision-making what will be the likely transition period and requirements to maintain operational effectiveness, to ensure that there is no hiatus, gap or lacuna. The evidence suggests that that is effectively achieved. But it is worth pointing out to the noble Baroness, who raises an important point, that we were clear in the Command Paper refresh that, in procurement, we also look at exportability. There is proven success in that already, in relation to Type 26 and Type 31 frigates.

My Lords, the Minister will recall that, in the International Relations and Defence Committee report and the debate that followed in your Lordships’ House, widespread concern was expressed from all sides of the House, not so much about gifting but about the replenishment of things that have been given by the United Kingdom, especially to Ukraine. Can she tell us whether replenishment is now taking place at a suitable and necessary rate? What have we done to increase our own capacity for manufacturing such armaments?

Yes, I can reassure the noble Lord that the MoD is fully engaged with industry, allies and partners, because all are facing the same challenges with supply chains. Having said that, that engagement is to ensure the continuation of supply to Ukraine and that all equipment and munitions granted from UK stocks are replaced as quickly as possible. We constantly assess the requirement to replace the equipment and munitions that we grant, and work on replenishing equipment continues. It is perhaps inappropriate to provide details at this stage, but work is there.

My Lords, the Question refers to “NATO allies”. On gifting and replenishing, to what extent are we co-ordinating our efforts with NATO allies to have maximum impact?

Extensive work has been done, and the noble Baroness will be aware of two things: the International Fund for Ukraine—a successful demonstration of the co-operation among allies to which she referred—and the Ukraine defence contact group. At its meeting in Brussels on 15 June, the defence ministries of Denmark, the Netherlands, the UK and the USA announced a major new fund that will deliver hundreds of vital air defence missiles.

Will my noble friend comment on the interoperability of our equipment and munitions with those of other NATO countries? Historically, there have been concerns that we have been doing our own thing, as it were, and minimising the effect that we can have working together. Is my noble friend happy about the level of interoperability, and do we need to do more?

Interoperability is vital, particularly in an age when we see our MoD capability increasingly being used in alliance and perhaps less frequently on our own sovereign account. My noble friend is absolutely right: interoperability is vital. That is at the forefront among our allies, and we try to ensure that, with the equipment, we have that degree of engagement.

My Lords, the outgoing Defence Secretary—who I think had done quite a good job, I have to say—actually said that the Government for some years had been treating defence spending as discretionary spend and that there had been considerable hollowing out. Indeed, he has mentioned hollowing out a number of times. What areas in terms of stores, supplies and back-up have been hollowed out? Where is this hollowing out occurring that he has referred to so many times? As the Secretary of State, he must have been clearly aware of it.

I shall mildly rebuke the noble Lord, as I think that the former Secretary of State for Defence did a very good job, not quite a good job. The issue to which he refers is one that has transcended different Governments. He will know very well from his time as a Minister that hollowing out has tended to refer, in difficult economic times, to trying to see where savings might be made. My right honourable friend the previous Secretary of State did refer to hollowing out, but I think he was referring more to a strategic look at capability. That has been addressed, absolutely, not least in the Defence Command Paper of 2021, and the refresh that was recently published. There is now a very acute awareness of a need for a strategic plan for procurement and equipment, not to mention a very robust plan to accompany procurement, to ensure that defects, to which your Lordships have frequently referred, are being mitigated.