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Sudan Conflict

Volume 732: debated on Monday 15 May 2023

6. What steps his Department has taken to support the Government’s response to the conflict in Sudan. (904890)

21. What steps his Department has taken to support the Government’s response to the conflict in Sudan. (904905)

Defence was pivotal in the success of the wider Government effort to evacuate British passport holders and other eligible persons from Sudan. A range of UK military assets and capabilities were deployed in our response, resulting in the evacuation of more than 2,400 people—the longest and largest evacuation of any western nation from Sudan.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. A constituent of mine was holed up in a Khartoum corridor with a French family for days, unable to receive email or WhatsApp instructions from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office due to the power outages. My office was having to relay updates to his distressed family. Mercifully, he was airlifted out by the French armée de l’air. I recognise the complex and challenging nature of the evacuation, but what can His Majesty’s Government do to help improve awareness of and communications with stranded British citizens in potentially unstable states to enable our armed forces to mount efficient and effective airlifts in the future?

My hon. and learned Friend raises an important point, but not an easy issue to solve. In Sudan, we were seeing less than single digit percentage coverage of or access to the internet at any one time, in the middle of effectively a civil war, as it was then. For Defence, it is an easier thing to solve, as we bring our own communications with us. When 16 Air Assault Brigade deployed, we managed to bring a limited amount of capability so that we could try to communicate with British citizens. For the main part, the Foreign Office has primacy in this area. We will always stand by to help it with that advice, but I also advise that travellers look at advice before they travel. Indeed, we have to find a way through that challenge in a communications-denied space, but it is not straightforward or easy.

I have been seeing some of the amazing work that the Royal Air Force does through my membership of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the RAF on the work it did in Sudan, evacuating more than 2,500 people from over 24 countries under very dangerous circumstances? Will he also inform the House which other stakeholders made that a success, so that we can recognise their work and thank them as well?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the RAF. To fly into an airfield with unsure conditions, often in the dark and without much of an advance recce is some achievement. If you remember, Mr Speaker, we also saw the RAF do that in the large evacuation of Kabul. Alongside the RAF, a specialist unit from 16 Air Assault Brigade flew in and helped to fix the runway, which, of course, was not used to the level of demand placed on it; only Britain had that ability. That allowed a better relationship with the Sudanese armed forces and enabled the longer-term evacuation to continue. That is an example of the breadth of experience our armed forces carry.

Three of the four Atlas aircraft used in the evacuation of British nationals from Sudan are reported to have developed faults, two thirds of the incoming fleet are listed as unavailable and there remains no clarity that the fleet can perform the niche functions that our Special Air Service and Special Boat Service need. Has the Secretary of State not made a mistake in pressing ahead with ditching the Hercules fleet in their favour?

I have heard these tired arguments that what we need to do is keep the Herc and get rid of the A400. The A400 outperforms the Herc in most areas. It has a longer ranger and a bigger capacity, and it can land in the same area; in fact, it can land in a shorter distance. In the massive evacuation of Kabul, one A400 had a fault for six hours and managed to continue on its course. The A400 is performing. The migration to special forces and other capabilities is on track, with jumps having been done from it and other parts. The simple reality is that the A400 outperforms the Hercules, and its availability was extremely successful. The Hercules accounts for only 10% of the fleet, and the overall fleet for lift is now the biggest it has been for 50 years.

I join the Secretary of State in congratulating our armed forces on their role in Sudan, as in Afghanistan. However, there is a problem: in Afghanistan and Sudan—but also during covid, when lots of our citizens were stranded around the world—while the Ministry of Defence was up for early action, the Foreign Office was not. Can we have a stronger role for the MOD in the machinery of government, so that we get the can-do attitude of the MOD, rather than the can’t-do attitude of the Foreign Office?

I can do, by helping the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the resilience of the whole of government is supported by the MOD. There are definitely lessons to be learned, and I will ensure that they are taken away and shared across Government.