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UK Armed Forces in Middle East

Volume 837: debated on Wednesday 1 May 2024

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 29 April.

“The Prime Minister and Government Ministers have regularly provided updates in Parliament on the recent role of the Armed Forces in the Middle East through Written and Oral Statements, in addition to responding to Written Questions. As has been said previously, publicising operational activity to Parliament in advance could undermine the effectiveness of operations and risk the lives of Armed Forces personnel involved.

The UK has provided assistance to our allies and partners in the region. The Ministry of Defence has provided support to facilitate the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s response to the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza, and we continue to work with the FCDO. Our Armed Forces personnel have played a critical role in working to establish more routes for vital humanitarian aid to reach the people of Gaza and in the delivery of support, in co-ordination with the US and our international allies and partners. To date, the UK has conducted nine airdrops as part of the Jordanian-led mission, dropping more than 85 tonnes of vital humanitarian aid of pre-packaged halal meals, water, flour, baby milk formula and rice to Gaza.

UK military planners have been embedded with the US operational team to jointly develop the safest and most effective maritime humanitarian aid route. RFA ‘Cardigan Bay’ is sailing from Cyprus to support the US pier initiative to enable the delivery of significantly more life-saving aid into Gaza. The UK Hydrographic Office has also shared analysis of the Gazan shore with US planners to support the initiative. The RAF also sent additional aircraft to the region to protect our allies and support de-escalation, culminating in the UK Armed Forces shooting down a number of Iranian attack drones. The House will understand that for operational security reasons, I cannot comment on the specifics of that activity.

As stated by the Prime Minister on 15 April:

‘Our aim is to support stability and security because that is right for the region, and because although the middle east is thousands of miles away, it has a direct effect on our security and prosperity at home, so we are working urgently with our allies to de-escalate the situation and prevent further bloodshed’.—[Official Report, Commons, 15/4/24; col. 23.]

We are directing all our diplomatic efforts to that end. I will not comment on media leaks and speculation, but I can assure the House that the Government are taking all measures to support our allies and partners in the region. We are pressing for a sustainable ceasefire that will enable the release of hostages and provide the people of Gaza with the essential assistance and humanitarian aid that they need”.

My Lords, I remind the House of my entry in the register of interests, specifically my association with the Royal Navy.

Our service personnel are currently deployed in multiple theatres across the Middle East, reinforcing regional stability, protecting freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, fulfilling our ongoing commitments under Op Shader and of course assisting vital humanitarian efforts in Gaza. As ever, we are grateful for their service, their dedication and the sacrifices that they make daily to protect British national interests.

I ask the Minister to update your Lordships’ House on the new role of the RFA “Cardigan Bay” in helping to build the temporary pier on the Gaza Strip. How long is this deployment and what specific role will the UK play in the pier’s construction? As always, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary is on the front line supporting UK operations. My right honourable friend John Healey asked in the other place about the RFA, but the Minister there was seemingly unable to assist, so can the noble Earl confirm that the RFA is protected from his new Civil Service cuts? Can he provide an update on the current state of the industrial dispute with the RFA, given its important role?

My Lords, there were about six different questions there. First, I confirm that the UK Armed Forces operate under a number of international coalitions in the Middle East and have done so for some time. They include the Jordanian-led international effort for humanitarian aid into Gaza, the RAF drops, the support that we are giving in building the pier, the global coalition against Daesh, Operation Shader and Operation Prosperity Guardian. We do all that to protect life, uphold the rules-based international order and secure UK interests against malign forces in the region. “Cardigan Bay” is providing living support for the American soldiers and sailors who are building the bridge. It lies off Gaza now in international waters, and will be there for as long as it takes.

My Lords, can the noble Earl tell the House, first, whether the Government would give a parliamentary vote if there were to be boots on the ground? Secondly, what conversations have His Majesty’s Government had with the Israeli Government about looking for appropriate ways of getting aid into Gaza and ensuring that those delivering that aid are protected, be they UNRWA or other charitable organisations?

My Lords, I cannot remember the first question, but on the question of talking with the Israeli Government, we continue to press them on international aid to open up as many opportunities as we can to get a considerable amount of aid in. That includes via Ashdod, Erez and this new floating pontoon. It is extremely important to get as much aid in as we possibly can.

My Lords, can my noble friend update us on the situation regarding the malign influence of Iran, which has of course recently attacked Israel? It has certainly armed Hamas in the past, whatever its situation now, and is almost certainly controlling Hezbollah. Can he please update us on that?

My Lords, the diplomatic situation with Iran is that we are using every possible effort to quieten down what could have become an extremely dangerous situation. So far, that diplomacy does seem to be working.

My Lords, would the Minister and the Opposition Front Bench recognise that neither of them referred, in their replies, to the role of the sovereign base areas in Cyprus? Does he not agree that the bases we have there have played an extremely positive role in recent times, and indeed in more previous times than that? Would he offer some thanks to those who are manning those bases?

My Lords, I certainly will and would. We are part of international coalitions and there is a certain level of sensitivity around precisely which states are involved in what. But I can assure the House, in all respects, that the level of support from various areas could not be higher.

My Lords, away from the valuable operations of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force in the region, it is easy to overlook the regular tempo of land exercises with our allies there, which not only build strategic capabilities over time but act as a deterrent to our foes in the region. Despite the large increase in pending announced last week, there remain in-year saving challenges. These exercises, being uncommitted spend, are the first things to be cut. I simply ask my noble friend to look carefully at ensuring that, away from operations, these exercises continue.

My noble friend makes an extremely good point. The prioritisation of all the activities that we are engaged in through the UK Armed Forces is extremely important. To be ready to war-fight and win is absolutely paramount; to train to achieve that is critical.

My Lords, the “Cardigan Bay” is of course one of our crucial Royal Fleet Auxiliaries. I refer to my noble friend’s question about the work that is going on about conditions of service. There is a very real risk of an impact on our Royal Fleet Auxiliaries because of this debate—and fight—going on about pay, conditions of service and the like. Can the Minister possibly tell us where we have got to in these negotiations? Is this going to impact not only there but on our amphibious group out in the Pacific and so on? These ships are so important.

My Lords, I entirely agree about the importance of these ships—what better example than “Cardigan Bay”, which is providing an absolutely vital role in supporting our allies to build this bridge? I will write to the noble Lord with specific detail; I think that is the best thing to do.

My Lords, I refer to my registered interests in the Royal Navy. I encourage the Minister to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of HMS “Diamond”, particularly its recent contribution to continued freedom of the high seas in the Red Sea.

My Lords, I could not pay greater tribute to our forces out there, whether on “Diamond”, “Lancaster” or “Cardigan Bay”. They are all providing absolutely critical support to an extremely important initiative.

My Lords, we should applaud the role of the RAF, with the recent contribution it made in the interception of Iranian drones launched against Israel. I ask my noble friend the Minister: was that under Operation Shader? If so, is the role of Shader now being expanded?

I thank my noble friend for that question. It was indeed under Operation Shader, which has been in place since 2014. In fact, I answered a question about this the other day. The RAF has flown nearly 9,000 missions under Operation Shader and released more than 4,000 precision weapons, which gives noble Lords an idea of the scale and importance of ensuring that Daesh in Iraq and Syria is ultimately destroyed. There is no intention to increase the scope of that operation, but back in April it was the appropriate asset to use for that particular sortie.

My Lords, I would like to take up the point in the question asked by the noble Baroness opposite and hopefully have further information. I had concerns about some of the news that came out at the weekend that, in the project taking place in Gaza, we could end up looking at deploying British troops to be involved in the delivery of lorries on to the land. I would have great concerns about British troops being put into that position. We would not want to look as though we are condoning any of the Hamas actions that took place on 7 October; humanitarian aid is another issue. Could my noble friend give us reassurance that British troops will not be deployed inappropriately in this matter?

My Lords, I can give an absolute assurance that that report was pure speculation. That is exactly where the situation remains.