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Middle East: UK Military Deployments

Volume 834: debated on Wednesday 6 December 2023

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 5 December.

“Since Hamas’s horrendous attack on Israel on 7 October, we have increased our military presence in the region. This is to support contingency planning, monitor the evolving situation, and be ready to react and respond. As the right honourable gentleman will know, I deployed a Royal Navy task group to the eastern Mediterranean, including RFA ‘Lyme Bay’ and RFA ‘Argus’, three Merlin helicopters and a company of Royal Marines as a contingency measure. HMS ‘Diamond’ is sailing through the Red Sea to provide maritime security. HMS ‘Lancaster’ is already in the Middle East.

This morning, I provided a Written Ministerial Statement notifying the House that unarmed military surveillance flights will begin in support of hostage rescue. The UK Government have been working with partners across the region to secure the release of hostages, including British nationals who have been kidnapped. I will move heaven and earth to bring our hostages home. The UK Ministry of Defence will conduct surveillance flights over the eastern Mediterranean, including operating in airspace over Israel and Gaza. The surveillance aircraft will be unmanned. They do not have a combat role and will be tasked solely to locate hostages. Only information relating to hostage rescue will be passed to the relevant authorities responsible for those rescues.

The MoD is working on land, air and maritime routes to deliver urgently needed humanitarian aid. Four RAF flights carrying over 74 tonnes of aid have landed in Egypt. I am considering whether RFA ‘Argus’ and RFA ‘Lyme Bay’ can support medical and humanitarian aid provision, given that their original purpose was potentially to take non-combatants out of the area. The MoD routinely deploys significant numbers of military personnel in the wider middle east for operations such as counter-Daesh, training, maritime security and other reasons. There is currently a force laid down across the region of nearly 2,500 military personnel.

Later this week, the Chief of the Defence Staff and I are visiting sovereign base areas, the Republic of Cyprus, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel. I will, of course, report back to the House after that visit. Our objectives include to demonstrate and reaffirm the UK’s continued support for Israel, while continuing to press for adherence to international humanitarian law; to emphasise the importance the UK places on humanitarian aid reaching Gaza; to facilitate a deeper understanding of Israel’s planned next steps in Gaza now that the current pause has ended, and activity along the northern border; and to reaffirm the United Kingdom’s continued belief in a two-state solution and support for a viable and sovereign Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel.”

My Lords, I start by wishing the noble Earl, Lord Minto, well in his important position; we all wish him well on that.

We welcomed last week’s pause in fighting. Efforts continue to get much-needed aid into Gaza. We supported and welcomed the initial deployment of UK forces on 13 October; we recognise the important role that the UK plays in strengthening regional stability in the Middle East. We learned earlier this week that unarmed military surveillance will begin support for hostage rescue. How will the Government ensure that these UK surveillance flights support hostage rescue and not any military operation? In terms of UK military personnel and assets deployed to the region, what steps are we taking to ensure that they can fulfil their designated role and also be adequately protected?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his welcome. His Majesty’s Government’s objectives in the short term are: first, to secure the release of the British hostages, which my right honourable friend in the other place said he

“will move heaven and earth”—[Official Report, Commons, 5/12/23; col. 211.]

to do; secondly, to show solidarity with Israel in defending itself against the terrorist organisation Hamas; and, thirdly, to call for humanitarian pauses exclusively to deliver emergency aid. Those are the three primary things.

The surveillance flights that have started are manned and unarmed. They are there specifically to assist in locating, identifying and removing hostages, particularly British ones. On the question of ensuring that the assets being deployed are protective, clearly, force protection is absolutely paramount in any form of military operation but, beyond that, we cannot go into any specific depth for clearly understood reasons.

My Lords, I think I welcomed the Minister to his place when he opened the King’s Speech debate, but I welcome him again. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked about the protection of our forces but my question is about the sustainability of deployment. It is absolutely right that we have sent a Royal Navy task force and that HMS “Diamond” is on its way—it is good to see that it is currently seaworthy —but what assessment have His Majesty’s Government made about the length of potential deployments, given that forces are already quite constrained? Do we have adequate resources and troop mobilisation, and have we thought about the question of morale?

The noble Baroness makes a very good point: morale is obviously paramount. Part of ensuring the morale of His Majesty’s forces is ensuring that there are sufficient forces not only to fulfil the task but to provide force protection. In this case, it is not as though any forces have been taken away from any other theatre; the noble Baroness is absolutely right that the ships that have been dispatched have come from another location. HMS “Lancaster” is already in the Gulf; HMS “Diamond” is on the way to join it; HMS “Duncan” is already operating as part of a NATO maritime task group in the Mediterranean; and the RFA “Lyme Bay” and RFA “Argus” are standing off, ready to assist wherever possible. Certainly, there are sufficient forces, and nothing has been withdrawn from anywhere else.

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness because I can perhaps help her with an answer. I declare my interest as director reserves in the British Army. HMS “Lancaster”, which I had the privilege to visit two weeks ago in Bahrain, is permanently deployed to the Gulf. It is a new model, whereby we deploy the ship for three years and rotate the crew, meaning that she can be on station for a prolonged period of time, while HMS “Diamond” is simply surged. However, that puts considerable strain on the crew because you need to double-crew HMS “Lancaster”; they have four months on and four months off. Will my noble friend the Minister look at this model for other vessels in the Royal Navy because it results in their being on station for much longer, or is it the case, as I suspect, that we simply do not have sufficient vessels to do this for a second vessel? Does it put too much strain on the naval personnel who are required to do that double-manning?

My Lords, the Minister, being a good Scot, will perhaps know the Scottish Gaelic welcome, “One hundred thousand welcomes”. I am happy to join in repeating the welcome to him. He has already referred to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, which is part of the deployment. A little further on in the Statement, the Secretary of State said:

“Four RAF flights carrying over 74 tonnes of aid have landed in Egypt. I am considering whether RFA Argus and RFA Lyme Bay can support medical and humanitarian aid provision”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/12/23; col. 211.]

Has that decision been taken? If not, does not the deterioration we see on a daily basis in relation to medical and humanitarian aid suggest that, if it is to be taken, it ought to be taken fairly quickly?

The noble Lord makes a good point. I am sure he knows that my right honourable friend is out in that part of the world at the moment; that is part of the conversations that are going on. The whole question of humanitarian aid is obviously uppermost in people’s minds. We have already supplied more than 70 tonnes of humanitarian aid, I think, but the difficulty is getting it into Gaza, of course. The Rafah entrance point is under severe congestion and there are stockpiles of aid ready to go in. One reason why conversations are going on at the moment is to see whether any other route can be negotiated with the Israel Defence Forces and the Israeli Government to get aid into Gaza; every avenue is being looked at.

My Lords, the key test in granting export licences is criterion 2C of the Strategic Export Licensing Criteria, which focuses on whether

“there is a clear risk that the items might be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law”.

Can my noble friend the Minister tell the House whether criterion 2C has been considered in granting arms exports to Israel?

My Lords, on the supply of military equipment to Israel, I can assure the House that no offensive military equipment has been delivered since 7 October. We do not have an enormously large export business with the Israelis in that respect anyway; it is between £40 million and £45 million. We have provided medical equipment at their request. In relation to ensuring adherence to international humanitarian law, we continue to push at the highest level for Israel to comply with international humanitarian law. We would engage with Israel if we observed any activity to the contrary.

My Lords, as we still have time, can I ask another question? When the UQ was held in the Commons, the Secretary of State said that 74 tonnes had been delivered to Egypt, I think; of course, as my noble friend has just said, that is not much good if it is not getting to Gaza. Has any of those 74 tonnes got to Gaza yet? If not, what action are we taking to ensure that they do?

As my noble friend will know, there is a great stockpile of humanitarian aid ready to go in across a whole range of things, such as wound care packs, water filters, solar panels, lights, equipment, fork-lifts, conveyor belts and lighting towers. All sorts of things are ready to go in but the challenge is getting them approved and checked. I cannot give an absolute assurance as to how much has got in; I will find out and write when I can.